10 Medieval Poems Offering Timeless Wisdom

Throughout the medieval world, various writings aimed to impart advice and wisdom. Here is some poetic wisdom from the ninth-century Middle East.

Who Was Ibn Qutaybah?

Abū Muhammad Abd-Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba al-Dīnawarī al-Marwazī, better known as Ibn Qutaybah (828–889), was a notable judge and scholar in Baghdad. Towards the end of his career, he authored The Excellence of the Arabs. His aim was to counter claims that Arabs were less educated than Persians and other neighbouring civilizations. Ibn Qutaybah highlighted Arab contributions to various sciences and arts, particularly poetry.


Wisdom Poetry

In a section titled Wisdom Poetry, Ibn Qutaybah curated a collection of Arabic poems that he believed offered valuable advice. Some poets are named, while others remain anonymous. Here are our ten favourite poems:

1) Go first

Abu Dhu’ayb said:

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


2) Your friends

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.

3) Be true to yourself

A poet said:

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

4) Best of all things

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.

5) Who should share your happiness

A poet said:

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

6) Words can hurt

A poet said:

Words pierce where the needle cannot.

7) Watch what you say

A poet said;

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

8) Avoid sin

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.


9) Don’t lose to a loser

Imru’ al-Qays said:

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

10) You can find goodness

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)

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Top Image: Bodleian Library MS. Marsh 458 fol. 40b