Ali Ibn Al-Athir (علي عز الدین بن الاثیر الجزري) was an Arabic historian, poet, and scholar who served for a time under Saladin. Born in 1160 in the city of Jazeera Ibn Omar (the modern Turkish town of Cizre), he received his education there and in Mosul, Iraq. From an early age, he showed an uncanny aptitude for literary work, composing verses and prose with fluent ease; he was soon able to master the essentials of grammar, philology, rhetoric, and law.Continue reading
The great antiquity and depth of Indian civilization had been known to Europe and the Middle East for many centuries; yet the precise contours of Indian advances in mathematics, literature, and philosophy were hidden behind the veils of preconception and confusion. We know that the caliph Harun Al-Rashid, in Baghdad in the 9th century A.D., commissioned translations of some prominent works of Indian literature, but such knowledge remained in the hands of scholars and was not widely diffused. Things began to change gradually with the advancement in geographic, scientific, and commercial knowledge in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Every man who goes about his business must be attuned to the realities of his surroundings. He should not close his eyes to what lies within his field of vision; and he must not delude himself by rationalizing the treacherous intentions of others. The prudent man will not see plots and conspiracies everywhere, for this is the mentality of a craven fool; but he will still maintain a healthy alertness and awareness of his environment. Such a policy might have saved the life of the camel in the tale that follows, as we will see.
The poet Nasrallah Ibn Abdallah Al-Qalaqis (نصر اللّه بن عبد اللّه القاضي الأعزّ ابن قلاقس) was born near Alexandria, Egypt in 1137. He was a master of language and a composer of many exquisite verses, and was also an intrepid traveler. The name by which he is generally known (Ibn Qalaqis) is derived from the Arabic word for colocasia, a plant cultivated in his day for its medicinal qualities. His biographer tells us (with a twinkle in his eye) that “He had so little beard that his face was quite bare and, for that reason, verses were composed against him, which I abstain from mentioning on account of their indelicacy.” One wishes that these lampoons might have been preserved, if only to see how little insults have changed over the centuries.
The poet Mihyar Al Daylami (?–1037) came from that region of Persia which bordered the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. He wrote in Arabic, and his works were so copious that his biographer says they filled four volumes. He was originally a Zoroastrian, but converted to Islam around the year 1003 under the influence of one of his professors.
In his allegorical work Kalila and Dimna, writer Ibn Muqaffa describes the journey to wisdom of one of his characters, a man named Barzouyeh. Barzouyeh was the man sent by the king of Persia to India for the purpose of acquiring the precious text of Kalila and Dimna, which was reputed to contain a treasure-trove of worldly wisdom. Ibn Muqaffa spends a good deal of time discussing Barzouyeh’s education and path to worldly wisdom; and it will be instructive for us to relate it here.
One of the first and greatest classics of Arabic prose is the Book of Kalila and Dimna. It is a collection of fables told with an allegorical purpose, but it is presented with such wisdom, poetic eloquence, and engaging humor as to make it one of the treasures of world literature. Its pedigree verifies its merit. The stories it contains were originally derived from a Sanskrit classic called the Panchatantra, but a Persian scholar and translator named Ibn Muqaffa’ (ابن المقفع), writing around 740 A.D., reworked the stories into something that was entirely original.