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Arabian Wisdom


He that sins against me wrongs his own soul.
Monica Gold. Dove. Section
Monica Gold. Dove

This work forms part of the Orient Library's Wisdom of the East Series.

John Wortabet, MD (1827-1908), is the translator of these essentials. With his background as a translator to the Arabic, and the author of an Arabic-English and English-Arabic dictionary, it was easy for him to find abundant material for the work Arabian Wisdom. His translator approach was to present a generally literal translation, sometimes free, but true to the original. What he did was for the general reader alone, he informs.

Sayings of Estimates

Drawn from the experiences and study of human life are wise sayings and proverbs of ancient and modern times. The sayings, reduced by wise men to, short, pithy sentences in some striking form, are largely easy to remember, and some convey sound estimates. These maxims of life can be read with pleasure and profit by both young and old. They can be ambassadors of good-will and understanding. Wortabet informs that the Arabic language is particularly rich in literature for thought and instruction, and its proverbs are often appropriately introduced in conversation, letters, and books, and add much force to what is said or written. Many bring a smile or laughter to both speaker and hearer. [11-13]

A few of these selected sayings are modified a bit. The changes are shown either by the use of brackets in the saying or an additional note at the end of it. In some cases an ellipsis reveals an omission too.


Arabian Wisdom

Repentance, and God's Forgiving Mercy

Who is true to his repentance should be truthful too [Mod].

Clemency, Forbearance, and Gentleness

Gentleness is one of the noblest traits in a man's character.

One of the surest evidences of gentleness is tenderness to fools.

Gentleness . . . he who is always forbearing and patient may be trodden down by fools.

Honour a vile man, and you disgrace the code of honour.


A wise man was once asked whether he knew of any good which is not coveted, and he said: "Yes, humility."

True Nobility

True nobility lies in high character and refined manners.

A noble man is he who aims at noble ends - not he who glories in an ancestry mouldering in the dust.

A base man is base though he walks on pearls, a dog is a dog though he wear a collar of gold.

Self-Respect, and the Sense of Shame

I shall not kiss a hand which deserves to be cut off.


A good character is a great boon.

Kind words are the bonds of love.

No man is entitled to consideration unless he has a good nature.

If you hear that a man has changed his character do not believe it.


God's creatures are the objects of His care.

Be merciful to him who is beneath you, and have mercy from Him who is above you [Mod].

Inopportune kindness borders on injustice. [Mod]


Be grateful to him who has done you good, and do good to him who is grateful to you.

Gratitude takes three forms - a feeling in the heart, an expression in words, and a giving in return.

Among worthless things on earth is a good deed to one who is ungrateful [Abr].


If a man do you a favour recompense him, and if you are unable to do so, pray for him.

What you put into the pot you will take out in the ladle.

He who plays with a cat must bear its scratches.

Flaunting Kindness

When you do a kindness hide it, and when a kindness is done to you proclaim it.


Above a learned man there is one more learned. [Koran]

Stars are the beauty of the heavens, and learned men are the ornament of a people.

If learning does not give wealth it will give esteem.

Forgetfulness is the bane of knowledge.

It is difficult for a man to know himself.

The owner of the house knows best what is in it.

Speculative Studies

I sought in the great sea of theoretical learning a bottom on which to stand - and found nothing but one wave dashing me against another.

Thoughts, Doubts

The thoughts of the wise are more trustworthy than the convictions of fools.

Do not confuse opinions with certainties.

If you are doubtful of a thing let it alone.

Remove doubts by enquiry.

A thing that is heard is not like a thing that is seen.

Do not believe all that you hear.

It is not wise to be sure of a thing only because you think so.

If a man think well of you, make his thought true.

A poet says: "It was my habit to think well of others until experience taught me otherwise."

Most men think well of themselves, and this [could be] self-delusion.

Wisdom, Prudence, Experience

A wise man sees with his heart what a fool does not see with his eyes.

A wise man is not he who considers how he may get out of an evil, but he who sees that he does not fall into it.

If you desire a thing, consider its end.

Long experience is an addition to mind.

Consideration may take the place of experience.

A wise man is he who has been taught by experience.

Ignorance, Folly

Folly is [not] an incurable disease.

The best way to treat a fool is to shun him.

The fool is an enemy to himself.


If you consult a wise man, his wisdom becomes yours.

Consult a man of experience, for he gives you what has cost him much, and for which you give nothing.

Speaking, Writing, Books

Man is hidden behind his tongue.

A man's talk shows what kind of mind he has.

If you value a book you will read it through.

A [good] book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

Books are the food of minds.

Poets, love-stricken, ramble up and down in every valley.

Silence, Guarded Speech

Silence [may be] more eloquent than words.

Silence is a wise thing, but they who observe it are few.

When the mind becomes large speech becomes little.

Faulty men are most loquacious in matters which do not concern them. [Mod]

Man is saved from much evil if he guard his tongue.

It [can be] better to regret a thing which you did not say than a thing which you did say.

A word may cause much trouble.


Be truthful! [Koran]

Righteousness leads to heaven.

Veracity brings peace to the heart.

A man can be perfect only when he speaks the truth and acts according to the truth.

By truth man is saved from evil.

An ignorant man who is true is better than a clever man who is false.

Truthfulness to Promises

A man who keeps not his word has no religion.

A true man's word is like an oath.

Be truthful in what you say, faithful to your promise, and careful of what is entrusted to you.

A true man keeps his promise.

The promise of a true man is a greater obligation than a debt.

Truthfulness to Secrets

It is unwise to confide a secret to two tongues and four ears.


A wise man neither deceives nor is deceived.

Self-deception is one of the forms of folly.

Exertion, Perseverance, Success

You must be ready to confront difficulties if you would realise your hopes.

Not every one one who is indifferent shall be denied.

A wise man is not easily turned away.

The most wonderful thing in the world is the success of a fool.


Take advantage of the light of day before the night sets in.

Good judgment means a seizure of opportunities.

Put your bread into the oven while it is hot.


Little with economy [can be] better than much with waste.

Take a middle course between stinginess and extravagance, parsimony and prodigality.

Charity - one to yourself, the other to your needy fellow man.


Patience is one of the gifts of heaven.


A bright face and bright eyes [may speak of] a greater boon than a rich inheritance.

Hope for good from one who has a beautiful face.


What an easy thing is a battle to one who looks on at a distance!


Passion and blindness are inseparable mates.

When you are angry be silent.

It is not a trait of noble character to be hasty in revenge.

Hatred, Malice

He who has many enemies, let him expect a downfall.


A lordly man is always an object of admiration or of envy.

Keep your affairs to yourself, for every favoured man is an object of envy.


Rashness has well been called the Mother of Regrets.

Haste is [at times] the resort of the weak.


Weakness and sloth lead to ruin.

Complaint, Blame

A good man sees his own faults [pretty well].

Open blame [tends to be] better than secret malice.


It is better to have a thousand enemies out of the house than one in it.

Filial Duty

Be dutiful to your father, and your son shall be dutiful to you.

Friends, Companions

If you would keep a friend, do not lend him money nor borrow from him.

Friendship may come down by inheritance from ancestors, and so may hatred.

Freedom from evil companions makes cheerful.

He who associates with a suspected person will himself be suspected.

Salutation, Visiting

Go a mile to see a sick man, and go three miles to call on a friend.

Too much familiarity is a cause of coolness among friends.

Do not associate much with men.

Love of Country and Home

It is a sign of sound judegment when the heart craves for country and home.

If it were not for love of country, unhappy lands would be desolate.


If water stagnates long it becomes foul.

During a journey a man's character is weighed and revealed.


A long healthy life is a great gift to man.

Youth and Old Age

When a young man says he is hungry, believe him.


This life is a sleep, the life to come is a wakening.


What is Righteousness?

From Instructions of Ali Ibn-abi Talib, the first Khalif to his son:
      "My son, speak the truth, whether you be calm or angry; be economical, whether you be poor or rich; be just to friend and foe. My son, he who takes to evil ways will be despised; he who associates with the base will be subject to constant suspicion [Abstract]."

Some Men who might deserve to be slapped in the Face

He who gives orders in a house not his own; he who speaks to one who does not listen to him; he who intrudes on the conversation of others; and he who expects love from his enemies.

Truthfulness to Pledge

The terms of surrender at the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin, in 1187, were that the Crusaders should retire with their goods from that city to one of the garrisoned ports which were held by the Franks, on the payment of ten pieces of gold for each man.

As they were filing out of the city, and handing in their ransom-money, Saladin and his generals looked on, watching the proceedings. The patriarch's turn came, and he was followed by a number of mules laden with much treasure.

Saladin made no sign, but his generals said: "Sire, the conditions of surrender were for private property, not for such treasures of money, which we urgently need for carrying on the war."

To this appeal he replied: "No, I have pledged my word, and for the ten pieces of gold agreed upon he shall be free."

More than seven hundred years after these tragic events, William II., the Emperor of Germany, a descendant of the Crusading Princes, and a Knight of the Brandenburg branch of the order of St. John, came to Damascus in 1898; and one of the first things he did there was to visit the tomb of Saladin, and lay on it a wreath of flowers. It was a well-deserved tribute to the memory of a truly great man of chivalry and truthfulness.

A Thankful Old Man

Two old men, who had been friends in early youth, met after many years. A cordial greeting ensued, and then one of them asked the other: "How old are you now?"

He said: "Thank God, I am in good health."

"Are you well-off in worldly goods?"

"Thank God, I am in debt to no man."

"Have you any special trouble of mind?"

"Thank God, I have no young children."

"Have you any enemies?

"Thank God, I have no near relations."

A Grave View

Many a grave embraces friend and foe,
And grins in scorn at this most sorry show;
- Abu'l-Ala, the poet-philosopher.

Miscellaneous Proverbs

Confide not in a friend until you have tried him, and fight no enemy until you have sufficient power.

Reserve the white coin for the black day.

If you are ignorant, inquire;
if you stray, return;
if you do wrong, repent;
and if you are angry, restrain yourself.


Arabian proverbs and wisdom, Literature  

Burckhardt, John Lewis, tr. Arabic Proverbs; or the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Illustrated from Their Proverbial Sayings Current at Cairo. 2nd ed. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1875.

Wortabet, Joh, MD. Arabian Wisdom: Selections and Translations from the Arabic. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1913. (The Wisdom of the East Series, Edited by L. Cranmer-Byng and Dr S. A. Kapadia). Online:

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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