The birthdate of the philologist and grammarian Yacub Ibn Al-Sikkit (ابو يوسف يعقوب ابن السكيت) is not known with certainty, but 800 A.D. is a reliable estimate. His father enjoyed notoriety and prestige in court circles, and may have conferred on his son some access to the corridors of power. The sobriquet “Al-Sikkit” was given to him because of his taciturnity, for the Arabic verb sakata (سكت) means “to be silent.” However, as the reader will soon discover, he was evidently not silent enough.
Al-Sikkit resided in Baghdad for most of his adult life, where he was employed as a tutor to the son of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil. His most famous work was an exhaustive philological and grammatical treatise called The Correction of Language (اصلاح المنطق); his biographer Ibn Khallikan calls it “an instructive and useful work, containing a great quantity of philological information, and there does not exist, as far as we know, a treatise of the same size and on the same subject.” One of Al-Sakkit’s sayings was the following:
Ibn Al-Sammak used to say: He who knows mankind humors them [i.e., people]; he who has not that knowledge thwarts [i.e., fights with] them, and the main point, in humoring mankind, is to abstain from thwarting them. [IV.293]
What he meant by this, of course, is that it is usually not wise to engage in pointless disputes with others. Al-Sikkit, however, seems to have been unable to apply his valid advice to himself. He was warned by his friends not to take on the job of tutoring the caliph’s sons, apparently knowing that the philologer had a problem controlling his tongue. One anecdote relates that the caliph was with his two sons one day, and saw Al-Sikkit walking by. He asked the scholar, “Tell me, Yacub, who do you like more, my own sons, or the sons of Ali, Al-Hasan and Al-Husain?” Al-Sikkit recklessly answered by praising the sons of Ali, and remaining silent on the character of the caliph’s sons. The caliph then ordered his Turkish guards to seize the hapless tutor, throw him down, and “tread on his belly.” This incident allegedly occurred in A.D. 858 or 859, and caused Al-Sikkit’s death several days later; but conflicting stories are also given on how he met his death, so we cannot be certain of its veracity. He has left us much sage advice; one of his best sayings was this:
I desire things which I cannot possibly obtain as long I remain in apprehension of what destiny may bring about. Travelling as a merchant in search of riches is not travelling and fatigue; it is your remaining in a state of misery that is really traveling [i.e., fatiguing].
Other notable quotations of his are the following bits of worldly wisdom:
A man may be punished for a slip of the tongue, but is never chastised for the slipping of his feet. A slip of the tongue may cost him his head, but a slip of the foot is cured by repose.
There are persons who love you ostensibly with a love not to be diminished; and yet, if you ask them for ten farthings [i.e., a bit of help], they would refer their dear friend to the bounty of the all-knowing God.
His poetry was said to have been elegant and intense. The following beautiful lines are attributed to him:
When the heart is ﬁlled with despair, and the widest bosom is too narrow
To hold the grief which invades it, when afflictions have lodged therein
And taken up their dwelling, when you ﬁnd no means of escaping from
Misery and perceive that all the address of the most experienced is useless,
Assistance will come to you, whilst you are in despair, as a favor from the
Bountiful being who hears the prayers of the wretched.
When misfortune has reached its height, deliverance is at hand.
As we have noted above, there are different accounts given of how Al-Sikkit met his demise. All of them, however, turn on the fact that he incurred the angry disfavor of the caliph Al-Mutawakkil. In one account, the caliph is said to have been insulting the characters of Al-Hasan and Al-Husain, who are revered in Shia Islam. Al-Sikkit is supposed to have responded angrily, “Kanbar, Ali’s slave, was a better man than you and your sons.” The enraged caliph then, we are told, ordered the philologist’s tongue to be plucked out. According to Ibn Khallikan, this event took place when Al-Sikkit was fifty-eight years old. In another rendition of this story, the caliph had ordered Al-Sikkit to perform a certain task, which he had refused to do; the caliph then ordered him to be flogged, and the scholar died several days later from complications. As Ibn Khallikan says, “Only God knows which story is true!” What is certain is that Al-Sikkit, despite his abilities, was either unable or unwilling to apply his own sound advice, and hold his tongue in the presence of the powerful.
Take a look at the new audiobook of my translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders:
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