The Iberian peninsula’s uniqueness derives from the fact that its shores have been washed by successive cultural waves: Roman, Gothic, Arab, and then indigenous Christian. No other region of Europe has acted as a similar crossroad, or has stimulated a comparable fermentation. Each of these civilizational tides altered the terrain as it flowed in, and then receded. We now turn, once again, to the world of medieval Arabic scholarship, and attempt to pry open its chests of mysterious treasures.
The great scholar and jurist Ibn Abd Al-Barr (ابن عبد البر) was born in A.D. 978. Few details of his early life are known; he first surfaces as a teacher in Cordova, Spain (known then as Al-Andalus), where he has acquired an eminent reputation as a jurisprudent. His biographer Ibn Khallikan tells us that one of his notable peers, the doctor Ibn Ahmad Al-Jayani, said of him:
We other students had for [our] professor Ibn Abd al-Barr of Cordova; it was in that city that he made his studies and there also he learned jurisprudence. One of his masters was the Sevillian legist Abu Omar Ahmad Ibn Abd Al-Malik, whose lessons he wrote down in his presence; another of his professors was Ibn Al-Faradi, from whom he obtained a great quantity of traditional and philological information. He was assiduous in the pursuit of knowledge and acquired such eminence in the different branches of science that he surpassed all the learned men who had preceded him in Spain. [IV.400]
Like many men of his era, his literary fecundity was incredible; he composed works in theology, history, and moral philosophy, as well as in law. Among them were a comprehensive list of every person the Prophet had ever met, called the Istiyab (Comprehensive, or الاستعياب في معرفة الاصحاب); a study entitled The Book of Pearls (كتاب الدرار, Kitab al-Durar), which detailed the military expeditions of the early Islamic leaders and generals; and a fascinating work named The Joy of Assemblies and Companion of the Sedentary (بهجة المجالس و انس الجالس, or Bahja al-Majalis wa Ans al-Jalis), a collection of quotations, stories, and moral anecdotes designed for use at social gatherings and conferences. The title of this last work sounds awkward in English translation, but in Arabic it is in rhyming prose, and possesses a poetic beauty that is luminous in the original.
Let us relate a few of the wise quotations and anecdotes found in Ibn Al-Barr’s three-volume Bahja. A man named Aslam Ibn Zaraa was told that, if he fled before the partisans of a rival leader, he would incur the anger of a certain emir. His answer to this was, “I would rather that he should be angry with me, and I living, than that he should be pleased with me, and be dead.” A bedouin was once insulted by another man and said nothing in response. When asked why he did not answer, he said, “I do not know that man’s vices, and am unwilling to reproach him with defects which he may not have.” The quotation below expresses a similar idea, which I am sure the Greek sages of antiquity would have chuckled at:
If, when Amr insulted me, I insulted him, the insulted and the insulter would be both reprehensible. But I spoke well of him and he spoke ill of me. Each of us thus told lies of his adversary.
Another wise quotation along these lines is this one, attributed to the Shi’ite imam Ali Ibn Husayn Zayn Al-Abidin: “A man who extols your good qualities without knowing them, will probably speak ill of you without knowing your defects.” A perceptive moral fable used by Ibn Abd Al-Barr, cloaked in the garb of theology, is the following. Adam was sent out of Paradise and down to earth by God. The angel Gabriel approached Adam and said, “Adam, God sends you three virtues, and you may select one for yourself and leave the other two.” Adam replied, “What are the virtues?” “They are Modesty, Piety, and Intelligence,” answered Gabriel. “Well, then, I choose Intelligence,” said Adam. Upon hearing this, Gabriel ordered the two remaining virtues, Modesty and Piety, to return at once to heaven. But the two virtues refused to leave. Gabriel became angry, telling them, “How can you disobey me? I am ordering you to return.” But Modesty and Piety responded, “Our orders were never to leave Intelligence, wherever it might be found.” And of course Abd Al-Barr is here teaching us something exceedingly wise: that intelligence unaccompanied by modesty and piety is useless, and a source of ruin.
This brilliant quote below, attributed to the Sassanid Persian king Ardashir, is also found in the Bahja:
Beware of being attacked by a noble-hearted man when he is hungry, and by a vile fellow who is sated with food. Be it known that the noble are firmer in mind, and the vile are firmer in body.
Ibn Abd Al-Barr died in Xativa (known in Arabic as Shatiba), Spain in 1071, at the ripe age of 93. Besides his residence in Spain, he had served as a judge in Lisbon and in the district of Santarem in Portugal when Al-Muzaffar, the king of Badajoz (a province in Spain close to Portugal), ruled those two regions. We will here close the description of our subject’s wisdom with our own admonition: we should never be too busy, or too harassed by the pressures of life, for the study of wisdom. No intruder in our lives should be more welcome, no matter the time of day. If we cannot drink too deeply from its well, then even small sips will be sufficient. And in this regard we should be mindful of what the Italian humanist Angelo Poliziano said in the epilogue of his 1489 work, Miscellanies:
Indeed, after I had been weighed down with concerns and other business issues, I often lapped something from philosophy, as dogs do from the Nile. [Postea vero rebus aliis negotiisque prementibus sic ego nonnumquam de philosophia, quasi de Nilo canes, bibi…]
Wisdom never remains static, because life never rests. But it is as true with philosophy as it is with water: small sips taken frequently will refresh and restore like nothing else.
Read more in the comprehensive collection, Digest: