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A Treasury of Virtues – Sayings of the Caliph ‘Ali

‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 40 H/661 AD) was one of the most important figures in early Islamic history. The cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, he would become the fourth Caliph in the year 656. However, his reign was marked with internal division among the Muslim community, and in the year 661 he was assassinated by a former follower.

In the following centuries the sayings and sermons attributed to ‘Ali were collected by various Islamic scholars. A Treasury of Virtues is one of the largest collections, created in the 11th century by the Fatimid judge al-Qudaʿi. Hundreds of sayings are included here, which deal with a wide range of topics. Here are a few selected portions:

Three Days

The world consists of three days: the day that has passed, taking all that was in it, never to return; the day you are in now, which you must take advantage of; and the day which offers no security since you could die in it. Yesterday is wise and today is a friend about to take leave. As for tomorrow, all you can do is hope. If yesterday is beyond you, its wisdom nevertheless remains with you. If today has given you comfort by its arrival, it was long absent from you and will soon leave, so take provisions from it and bid it a fond farewell.

Why knowledge is better than wealth

Knowledge is better than wealth: Knowledge protects you, whereas you have to protect wealth. Wealth decreases with spending, whereas knowledge increases with it. Knowledge is a faith to be followed. It helps you practice obedience to your lord in your lifetime, and leaves a beautiful legacy of remembrance after your death; whereas the benefits of wealth cease with its ceasing. And knowledge rules, while wealth is ruled over. Those who hoard wealth are dead even as they live, whereas the learned remain as long as the world remains – their persons may be lost, but their teachings live on in people’s hearts.

Distances

‘Ali was asked: What is the distance between the sky and the earth? An answered prayer, he replied. – What is the distance between east and west? The sun’s day-long trek.

The Heart

‘Ali said: The most wondrous part of the the human being is the heart. It has the elements of wisdom, and others that are quite the opposite. If the heart is life by hope, ambition debases it; if ambition boils over, greed destroys it; and if disappointment takes hold, regret kills it. If aggravated, its rage runs rampant; and if made happy, it forgets to be circumspect. If fear takes hold, caution preoccupies it; and if safety is secured, heedlessness strips it away. If it gains property, the wealth makes it a tyrant; and if poverty touches it, it panics. If hunger emaciates it, weakness ensconces it; and if satiety is excessive, the surfeit oppresses it. Every deficiency harms, and every excess injures it.

Whosoever

Whosoever talks too much blathers. Whosoever thinks perceives. Whosoever yearns too long forgets why. Whosoever gets what he wants becomes arrogant. Whosoever jokes too much is not taken seriously. Whosoever does something often becomes known for it. Whosoever commits adultery invites adultery. Whosoever is harsh is cruel. Whosoever leaves the middle road deviates. Whosoever unsheathes the sword of treachery is slain by it. Whosoever digs a well risks falling into it. Whosoever scorns religion is crushed. Whosoever asks good questions learns; whosoever learns performs good deeds; and whosoever performs good deeds is saved.

Wise Sayings

I would be mortified before God if there were a transgression greater than my forgiveness, a fit of anger greater than my forbearance, a shame that my robe could not conceal, or a need that my generosity could not fill.

When you conceal something in your heart, it becomes manifest in the slips of your tongue and the lines of your face.

The race

‘Ali said: The world has turned away and declared its farewell. The hereafter is approaching and has almost arrived. Today is the day of training and tomorrow is the race.

Rejecting worldliness

‘Ali said: Blessed are the people who reject worldliness, who place their desires in the hereafter. They take God’s earth as bed, its dust as bedding, its water as perfume, the book as garment, and prayer as robe. They sever all bonds with the world as the Messiah, the sone of Mary did.

Garden of Eden

‘Ali said: By God, a group of people will enter the Garden of Eden first on the day of resurrection. These people did not pray or fast more than others, nor perform the hajj or ‘urmah pilgrimage to Mecca more often than others. The honor is due to the worth of their minds.

Who is a real leader?

Whosoever is feckless about his own property, cares not about his own glory, refrains from cursing back when insulted, and is resolute in his clan’s affairs. That is a real leader.

Prescriptions and Proscriptions

How you wish to be treated should be the measure of how you treat others.

Beware of making excuses for a sin you could have refrained from committing. Your best apology is not to sin.

Do not be ungrateful to someone who does you a favor – that is the lowest form of ingratitude.

Live in this world as though on a journey.

You can read a full edition of this work in A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of Ali, with the One Hundred Proverbs, attributed to al-Jahiz, edited and Translated by Tahera Qutbuddin and published in 2013 by New York University Press. Tahera Qutbuddin is the Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago. To learn more about this book, please read her interview with the Library of Arabic Literature.

Top Image: The Investiture of Ali, at Ghadir Khumm (MS Arab 161, fol. 162r, 1307/8 Ilkhanid manuscript illustration)

See also:

Advice from a Norse God: Wisdom from the Hávamál

Wise Sayings from Medieval Ireland – The Maxims of King Aldfrith of Northumbria

20 Great Quotes about History

Famous Last Words from the Middle Ages



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