Wise sayings can soothe life’s hardships by reminding us that past travelers on the road have met with similar trials. Adages are distillations of lived wisdom, condensed for mental retention and seasoned, in many cases, with pathos and humor. We will first consider a saying by Ibrahim Ibn Al Abbas Al Suli, a poet who “belonged to a highly respected Turkish family,” according to our trusted biographer Ibn Khallikan, whose earnest pages have brightened many a gloomy day.
He is more commonly known as Ibrahim Al Suli; we do not know his birthdate, but he died in A.D. 857. One of his longer poems contains these memorable verses:
A man meets with a disaster he cannot avert,
And from which God alone can deliver him.
But often, when the evil is complete,
With rings and iron meshes strongly riven,
It passes away while he thinks that nothing can dispel it.
[Biog. Dict. I.24. Trans. by M. De Slane]
These lines require some explanation. When Al Suli refers to rings and iron meshes, he means chain mail, which of course was designed to protect the body from projectiles and blows from weapons. For those who may not be familiar with the word, riven is the past participle of the verb rive, which means “to split with force or violence.” Al Suli advises us to protect ourselves as best we can, and ride out the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, if we may employ a famous line. Soon the evils that beset us will pass away, even if we believe at the time that nothing can dispel them.
Men of talent and ability are often subject to such evils, or are more sensitive to their presence. The judge (qadi) Nasih Al Din Al Arrajani, who lived from about 1067 to 1149, was a fecund composer of verses. Ibn Khallikan assures us that the volume of his poetic output was so great that “the collected portion is not one tenth of the part he actually composed.” Here is a profound sample of his wisdom:
Though you be a man of good counsel, ask advice from others
On the day in which evil fortune befalls you.
With the eye, you can distinguish far and near,
But it you cannot see without a mirror.
[Biog. Dict. I.135]
The lesson here is the importance of perspective. In the midst of boiling seas, a man cannot correctly evaluate the waves tossing him about; he needs the assistance of some neutral vantage point. Al Arrajani also said this:
If I knew not what I now know, my ignorance would give me as much happiness as my knowledge gives me grief. Thus the sparrow ranges unconfined and feeds in the gardens, whilst the nightingale is imprisoned for its talent of song.
Another quotation with the same meaning isfrom one Abu Ishak Al Ghazzi, which reads:
My talents, no doubt, have done me harm;
The aloes-wood is burned for its sweet perfume.
Yet adages alone are not enough. As the man of virtue makes his way in the world, he quickly realizes that he is doomed without raw courage and fortitude. On this subject some brilliant verses were composed by the poet Al Rashid Abu Al Husain, who died in Cairo in 1166. He said:
The woes which afflict me are great, but my courage also is great;
And what harm can polishing cause to the cutting steel? [I.e., what harm can the abrasions of hardship do to me]
The vicissitudes of fortune, the changes it brings about
May alter the noble character of others, but cannot alter mine.
Did fire consume the ruby, the ruby then were as a common stone.
Let not the worthless rags which cover me deceive you;
They are the shell which encloses a pearl.
Think not, when the stars are hidden, that their
Smallness prevents them from being seen;
The fault must be laid upon the weakness of your sight.
The man of virtue must also learn the art of patient resignation. Biding one’s time is a necessary art when the currents of fortune are flowing against us. There are things we can change, and things we cannot change; but patient resignation can in time enable one to master an empire. On this subject the Syrian poet Al Buhturi, who lived from about A.D. 821 to 897, said this:
Is not the example of God’s prophet, Joseph, a sufficient consolation for him who, like you, is imprisoned on an unjust and false accusation? He long remained in bondage with patient resignation, and patient resignation made him master of an empire.
But these are serious and ponderous topics, and perhaps it is best to close with a dose of that universal curative, humor. This anecdote is taken from Ibn Khallikan’s biographical sketch of Azhar Ibn Al Samman, a teacher from Basra, Iraq. He lived from A.D. 729 to about 819, and was a friend—if we may use this word—of Abu Jafar Al Mansur, the founder of the renowned Abbasid caliphate, before Al Mansur achieved political office.
When Al Mansur achieved the position of caliph, his friend Al Samman sought an audience to congratulate the caliph on his success. Al Samman arrived at the Al Mansur’s palace and appeared before him. The irritated caliph said, “Sir, what has brought you here?” “I came to congratulate you on your accession to supreme power,” was the reply. The caliph told an attendant to give Al Samman a thousand dinars; he then made it clear that Al Samman had fulfilled his duty of congratulations, and that he need not return.
However, Al Samman felt it necessary to return the following year. Al Mansur saw him again, and asked, “Sir, what has brought you here?” “I heard you were sick, Sire, and came to raise your morale.” The caliph said, “Give this man a thousand dinars, and tell him that he has fulfilled his duty of visiting the afflicted, but tell him not to return, as I am very seldom sick.” Nevertheless, Al Samman returned again the following year.
Now the caliph’s reservoir of patience with this nuisance was nearly exhausted. “Sir, why are you here?” he demanded of Al Samman. “Sire, I heard you make an invocation, and have arrived to find out what it is you desire,” Al Samman responded. The caliph shouted at the impertinent guest: “Know that my invocation has not been heard at all! Every year I have prayed to God for you to keep away from me, and yet you still return!”
We will close with one final quote from the poet Ibrahim Al Suli, whom we mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay. I find it to be an elegant and consoling literary morsel:
The fittest sharer in your joy is he who has been partner in your sorrow. When generous travelers repose in the plain, they think of those who kept them company in the rugged stations left behind.
Let us heed his advice, and seek those fit to share our joys.
Learn about overcoming sorrow and emotional turbulence in the new translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations:
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