Poetic Wisdom from the Ninth-Century

Across the medieval world we can find various writings aimed at giving advice and wisdom. Here is some poetic wisdom from the ninth-century Middle East.

Abū Muhammad Abd-Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba al-Dīnawarī al-Marwazī, better known simply as Ibn Qutaybah (828–889) was a judge and scholar living in Baghdad. Towards the end of his career he penned The Excellence of the Arabs, which was a defence of his people from the idea that they were somehow less educated than Persians and other neighbouring civilizations. He wanted to show that Arabs contributed to various sciences and arts, especially in poetry. In one of his sections, entitled Wisdom Poetry, ibn Qutaybah offers dozens of selected portions of Arabic poetry that he thought offered valuable advice. Some of the poets he names, while others remain anonymous. Here are our ten favourite pieces:


Abu Dhu’ayb said:

Never regret a trail you blazed,
the one who strikes a path firsts enjoys its fruit.

A poet said:

To your own way only be true,
feigning will cede to the real you.

Abu Musa Shahawat said:

The only fault we can see 
for people to find in you is that you are mortal.
You’re the best of all things – if only you could live forever – 
though permanence is not for mankind.

A poet said:

Those who most deserve to share your happiness
are those who comfort you in adversity.


A poet said:

Words pierce where the needle cannot.

A poet said;

A tongue ruled by passion sets
a lion loose into your house.

Kuthayyir said:

Those who do not turn a blind eye to their friends,
overlooking some faults, will die full of scorn.
Those who pursue their companion’s every slip,
will find flaws, and find themselves ever companionless.

Ka’b ibn Zubayr said:

Without confronting dread, desires are not achieved.
A foot set in place by God cannot be moved.
Shun fury, eschew sin,
lest you harm the wise, or succumb to the uncouth.

Imru’ al-Qays said:

None boast against you like a vaunting weakling
and there’s nothing worse than losing to a loser.


Zuhayr said:

You’re shielded from obscenity, but 
between you and goodness, there’s no barrier.

You can read more poetry and literary musings in Ibn Qutaybah’s The Excellence of the Arabs, edited and translated by James E. Montgomery, Peter Webb and Sarah Brown Savant (New York University Press, 2017)

See also: Ten Old Norse Proverbs: Wisdom from the Hávamál

See also: Wise Sayings from Medieval Ireland

Top Image: View of Baghdad in Travels in Asia and Africa, etc., by Abraham Parsons (1808)


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