Wise Words from the 9th century

Looking for advice about how to live your life? The Middle Ages had no shortage of writings about this, and this includes the The Jewels of Speech and the Pearls of Wisdom.

This work is a collection of sayings and advice by ʿAlī b. ʿUbayda al-Rayḥānī (d. c.219/834), who was a writer and court official to the Abbasid caliph Maʾmūn. Many of the sayings come from ancient Greek and Persian writings, and often deal about the importance of learning, being generous and making good friends. Al-Rayḥānī explains some of the reasons for why he collections like this are good:


Mankind is not void of forgetfulness, in particular when hard pressed by earning a livelihood and continual afflictions on family and children. To these are added the recurring biting events, whether of festive celebrations or grievous surprises, or of anger and rage – the two emotions that blind the insight and conceal every merit – , and man’s persistence in ruinous habits. Because of these factors, people are in need of spiritual testaments and in want of warnings so as to convalesce from the barrenness of negligence to the knowledge of what they do not know, and to return from the path of forgetfulness to what they knew but forgot.

The Jewels of Speech and the Pearls of Wisdom has over two thousand pieces of wisdom. Here are our twenty favourites:

Treat the weak justly as you would like the strong to treat you.

Spend your wealth on your friend, your joy and greetings on your acquaintances, your gift and good company on the public, and your justice on your enemy, but be sparing with your religion and honor with everybody.


Whenever you notice someone’s fault, just recall yours and you will find enough to keep you busy from his, and you will find his defects even insignificant in comparison with yours. How abominable it is to find faults with people, and how more abominable it is to find faults with them that you yourself have!

He is not a perfect who confers favors to a good person but not a bad.

Three are in a meeting but not present in it: The one who has to go to the bathroom, the one who is sick, and the one who has worries in his mind. So try to remove such grounds before you attend a scientific meeting, so that you will return from it with profit.


A wound inflicted by the tongue is more harmful than a wound inflicted by the hand.

If a person gets used to being alone, feels rich by being content, watches over his own faults and while engaging in improving them, he becomes too busy to look for the faults of others, then he has been given the best of this and the next world.

Lust has no limits, that is why they say it has no end.

Embark upon teaching children before becoming too busy.

Wishes are fulfilled by taking risks.

Take for your livelihood the best possible way, and raise your ambition as high as you can, for a man’s rank corresponds to his ambition.


The luckiest person in affairs is the one who, when he is in doubt with respect to two cases and does not know which is the right one, looks at it the most frightening and terrifying of the two in consequences and avoids it.

Envy is the worst companion.

Learn much, memorize little.

If you feel sorrow for the diminishing of your wealth, then cry over the diminishing of your life.

Characteristics specific to the ignorant are: baseless anger, useless speech, inexpedient donation, carelessness in keeping secrets, lack of discernment in differentiating friend from foe, and trusting everybody.

To be criticized for knowledge is better than to be criticized for ignorance.

The signs of wretchedness are three: to be provided with knowledge, but to fail action; to be provided with action, but to fail sincerity; to be provided with the association of the pious, but fail to respect them.


He who praises you for qualities you lack will certainly blame your for faults you lack.

Admonish yourself first, and if you learn a lesson, then admonish the people, otherwise, hold back.

Al-Rayḥānī also offers four traits, which he says he learned over time, which he tries to live by:

First: I do not treat haughtily anyone from whom I learn, when he knows something better than I do.

Second: I do not show enmity towards any science or any religion, and learn from each whatever I can learn, when its correctness and benefits become evident to me.

Third: I am persistent in this at all times, never becoming weary of it, and if some importunate need shall disrupt me from it, I shall return to it as soon as the cause of the disruption comes to an end.

Fourth: I covet science for the sake of science, and not for any other advantage that may be gained by it.

You can read the full translation of The Jewels of Speech and the Pearls of Wisdom and other writings by al-Rayḥānī in Persian Wisdom in Arabic Garb, a two volume work by Mohsen Zakeri. Click here to read more about it from its publisher, Brill, or buy it on

See also: Poetic Wisdom from the Ninth-Century

Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Arabe 5847 fol. 58v



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