The Wisdom Of Ibn Al-Muzarra

The writer and scholar Yamut Ibn Al-Muzarra’ (يموت ابن المزرع) was a native of Basra, Iraq.  In the words of his biographer Ibn Khallikan, he was known as “an accomplished literary scholar, and well-versed in history.”  His name (Yamut) was a source of some consternation for him as a young man, for it is the third-person active form of the Arabic verb “to die” (مات).  He apparently never fulfilled his obligation of visiting the sick in hospitals, for fear that his name would bring misfortune upon patients confined to bed.  “The name,” he said, “which l received from my father has been a great annoyance to me.  So when I go to visit the sick and am asked my name, I answer, ‘The son of Al-Muzarra,’ and suppress my real name.”

We do not know the precise date of his birth; but he moved to Baghdad in A.D. 913, and was at that time “an old man.”  He was highly regarded by his peers.  A poet who was a contemporary of his composed the following lines in his praise:

You keep us in life, and he whom you do not wish to live, dies.

You are the twin brother of my soul; nay, you are the nourishment of my soul’s existence.

You are a dwelling place for wisdom; may our dwelling-places be never without your presence.  [IV.387]

Al-Muzarra liked to use parables and stories as teaching tools.  He would often relate the following anecdote about the famed caliph Harun Al-Rashid.  One day a prisoner in chains (a relative named Abd Al-Malik) was brought before the caliph, who proceeded to taunt him gently on the misery of his current circumstances.  The prisoner responded, “O Commander of the Faithful, shall I speak to you in the single, or in the double?” By this he meant, “should I speak to you in plain speech (single), or rhyming prose (double),” a question that gives us an idea of the unmatched verbal proficiency of the learned Arabs of that era.  Al-Rashid told him to speak in “double,” that is, in rhyming prose.  At this the prisoner said to the caliph, “Commander of the Faithful!  Respect God in what he has entrusted to you.  Carefully guard the flock over which you have been appointed to be the shepherd.  But know, by God, it was by me that the hard roads were made easier for you, and that every soul was unified in the hopes and fears that they placed in you.  I was like someone whom a poet once described in this way:

Often did I widen a narrow pass by eloquence and by reasoning.

Were an elephant to stand forth with his rider and attempt to reach

A station such as mine, he would retire humiliated.

This is what the prisoner said to the caliph, according to Al-Muzarra.  At this point, some vizier (a court official) who was present said to the prisoner, “Abd Al-Malik!  I have been told that you are a man with a malicious personality.”  The prisoner Abd Al-Malik then turned to this person and said, “May God properly guide the vizier!  If malice consists in always remembering the good and evil that has been done to me, then I swear that I never abandon such memories!”  The caliph overheard this exchange, and remarked to another official, “Take note of this wise response.  I have never yet heard a more eloquent statement in favor of malice.”  And without doubt we can agree with him.

Another instructional tale told by Ibn Al-Muzarra was the following.  The caliph Al-Motasim once desired to procure a servant girl who was in the employ of a well-known poet.  Her name was Nashwa.  Al-Motasim was very much smitten by her, and had offered the poet seven thousands dinars if he would release her to him.  But the poet would not consent to this condition, as he himself valued her highly.  But when the poet died, the girl was purchased for the caliph out of the inheritance, and the price at that time had fallen to seven hundred dinars.  So when Nashwa arrived at the residence of the caliph, he affected victorious airs with her, believing that he had done well for himself.

He told her, “What do you think of that?  I gave you no thought for a while, and your price fell from seven thousand to seven hundred dinars.”  Nashwa replied, “Of course, if the caliph waits for the sale of an estate before he can satisfy his passions, his strength must be on a very low level.  If that case, even seventy dinars would be high price for me, never mind seven hundred!”  When these words fell on the caliph’s ears, he was humiliated, and could do nothing but leave the room in shame.  Yet another anecdote that was used by Al-Muzarra was this one.  He would say that he once saw in Syria a tombstone upon which these words were inscribed:

Let no one be deluded by the world.  I was the son of a person who sent forth the wind wherever he pleased, and retained it when he pleased.

But directly opposite this tombstone, says Al-Muzarra, was another gravestone that had the following words written on it:

The miserable scoundrel next to me has told a lie.  Let no one suppose that the person spoken of there is Solomon, the son of David.  That man was the son of a blacksmith who used to gather wind into a skin, and blow it at lighted coals!

Al-Muzarra would say, with a laugh, that “This was the only time I ever saw two tombstones insulting each other.”  I think the purpose of relating this anecdote was to show that some people are so petty, and so venal, that not even death can interrupt their small-mindedness.  And this fact is assuredly true.  Here I am obliged to say that the original translator of this quotation in Ibn Khallikan, McGuckin de Slane, points out that the actual insult in the first line on the tombstone is an exceedingly vulgar one, unprintable in English in the nineteenth century.  In the original text, the first line on the tombstone is not, “The miserable scoundrel next to me has told a lie,” but “That man is a liar; he’s in the habit of licking his mother’s vagina.”

De Slane is careful to conceal this offense to the ears behind the veil of Latin, as nineteenth-century writers commonly did in these situations:  Mentitus est ille homo, clitoridem matris suae sugere consuetus.  We should note that this type of brutally crude insult was not uncommon among the medieval Arabs when contests of honor were at stake.  But this is true of all societies, even today; and so may we marvel at the inspired flexibility of languages that can express the most refined, delicate sentiments in poetry, science, and philosophy, and at the same time, the most noxious speech of the gutter.

Al-Muzarra had a son named Abu Nadia Muhalhil lbn Yamut who would eventually become a noted poet in his own right.  The historian Al-Masudi, in his famous historical work مروج الذهب و معادن الجوهر (Meadows of Gold and Mines of Jewels) relates that the son flourished around 944 A.D.  He says that Al-Muzarra wrote the following verses as an expression of love for his son.  They are nearly unsurpassed in tenderness, resonance, and worldly wisdom:

Muhalhil, you adorned for me the web of life while stubborn fortune turned her face against me.

I struggled with mankind in every way, till high and low submitted to me humbly.

The most painful feeling which my heart encloses is to see a virtuous man ill-treated by malignant fortune.

It is for me grief quite sufficient to see men of an old and noble descent

Reduced to ruin, whilst thrones are occupied by the sons of slaves.

Those eyes which were yielding to sleep, I kept open, fearing

That you might be ruined when I was no more.

But, through the grace of God, the Protector, I shall find consolation in you, whether I live or die.

Travel over the earth; search it throughout for knowledge, and may no dire calamity cut short your career!

If a man of learning withholds from you what he knows,

Humble yourself before him, and let your rule be to keep silent.

Say that your father freely bestowed his knowledge, and if people ask

Who was your father, say that he is dead [a pun on the father’s name, Yamut]

May your foes and adversaries acknowledge that you possess learning

Such as no calumniator can disprove.  [IV.390]

In the years before his death, Ibn Al-Muzarra lived in Egypt; but he moved again to Syria, and is reported to have died in Damascus in 916 A.D.  His son Muhalhil moved to Baghdad and continued his father’s literary traditions.  The inroads of time may soften the edges of the architect’s stone, the crags of the mountains, and the sharp, jutting corals of the shore; but they can never dull the luminescence of poetic verses passionately delivered.

Read more in Digest, the complete collection of essays, which contains a specific section on the wisdom of the Near East: