History of the Saracens/Sentences of Ali

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History of the Saracens by Ali
Sentences of Ali




If providence hath removed us to a greater distance from the influence of those genial rays which ripen the wits of the eastern nations, it hath made us abundant amends, by indulging us in this conceit, that we are wiser than all the rest of the world besides.

There are some sorts of pleasing madness of which it would be cruelty to cure a man. By bringing him to his senses you make him miserable.

You will ask me, perhaps, what is the meaning of all this? Why, in good truth, the meaning of it is, a just indignation against the impertinence of those who imagine that they know every thing, when in reality they understand nothing.

And, to be more particular, the folly of the westerns, in despising the wisdom of the eastern nations, and looking upon them as brutes and barbarians; whilst we arrogate to ourselves every thing that is wise and polite; and if we chance to light upon a just thought, we applaud ourselves upon the discovery, though it was better understood three thousand years ago.

This happens to us through want of good reading, and a true way of thinking; for the case is this, that little smattering of knowledge which we have is entirely derived from the east. They first communicated it to the Greeks (a vain, conceited people, who never penetrated into the depths of oriental wisdom); from whom the Romans had theirs. And after barbarity had spread itself over the western world, the Arabians, by their conquests, restored it again in Europe. And it is the wildest conceit that can be imagined, for us to suppose that we have greater geniuses, or greater application, than is to be found in those countries. If it be allowed that we have of late made greater advances in the sciences, that is not so much to our present purpose, as the consideration of things of universal necessity, the fear of God, the regulation of our appetites, prudent economy, decency and sobriety of behaviour in all conditions and emergencies of life; in any of which articles (which, after all, are the grand concern), if the westerns have made any, even the least improvement, upon the eastern wisdom, I must confess myself to be very much mistaken.

They have their wisdom by inheritance, derived from their forefathers through numerous generations. They are tenacious of their ancient customs, and retain the precepts of their ancestors; they couch more solid wisdom under one single aphorism, than some European writers would put into a system.

They govern their families with prudence and discretion. We make their polygamy an objection against them; but we must consider that they are not Christians, and therefore continue their way of living after the patriarchal manner. But, to say no more upon that point, how would they abhor and abominate the horrible instances which we have of European lewdness!

How would they smile, to see a man jangling it out with his wife, for thirty or forty years together, which of the two should govern the family! Others, calling riot and excess, impertinence and rage, good fellowship Another, bespeaking a new suit this week, lest he should be the jest of the town and country for being out of fashion the next! And some, encumbering one house with far-fetched and dear-bought superfluities, at such an expense as would provide decent furniture for fifty!

Some persons of understanding have been of opinion, that the wisdom of a nation may be judged of by the sententiousness of their proverbs and sayings in common use among them: in this the Arabs excel all nations. As for their proverbs, strictly so called, in which there is allusion to some history, animal, vegetable, or the like, they cannot be understood without a comment, and do not come under our present consideration. What we here present the reader with, is a little collection of wise sentences, calculated for the direction of a man’s conduct in affairs of the greatest consideration, and are of the same nature as the Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus.

They are called the Sentences of Ali the Son of Abu Taleb. The whole book is, as near as I can guess, not much less in bulk than our New Testament. I shall not add any more concerning Ali in this place, because I have written his life at large.

But I am far from believing that Ali was the author of all these sentences. He might collect them, for aught I know, and add some more of his own; but this I am sure of, that they savour of much greater antiquity than the time in which he lived. He was contemporary with Mohammed, who flourished in the year of our Lord six hundred and twenty-two. Perhaps there are some who will not allow the Arabians to have had so much learning among them at that time, as to be able to undertake such a work. But I shall not enter into that dispute at present.

The book is a venerable piece of antiquity, and it is pity but we had it all translated; which would be difficult to be exactly performed, unless by a person who has had the advantage of travelling into the eastern countries.

To criticise upon it in the proper manner, one ought to have regard not only to precepts of that kind, contained in the Old Testament, but whatsoever else can be found that is Jewish, either in Ecclesiasticus, the Talmud, Sentences of Ben Syra, or any other rabbinical records. Not that I believe that the Arabians derived their knowledge from the Jews, but that they were collateral with them in that respect; and that there are a great many things which they derived from Abraham and Ishmael. The same is to be conceived of the Idumeans, Moabites, and Ammonites; of all which there is no question but there are remains in Arabia, though as yet lying undiscovered.

Which, that I may not seem to suggest without any reason at all, give me leave to offer this for the present; that the contest, before the time of Alexander the Great, lay between the eastern powers and the more western parts of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Ethiopia. The peninsula of Arabia being conterminous, and yet quite out of the way of those numerous armies; it is reasonable to suppose that the distressed inhabitants, through whose country these forces were to pass, retired thither. And it was their custom always, either at the parting with their children, and especially upon their death-beds, to recommend to them some few precepts founded upon their own or their forefathers’ experience, which, afterwards increasing, were collected into volumes by wise and learned men. After the same manner Ecclesiasticus was written, as appears by the preface of it, and this Arabic one of ours, without all question; but how or by whom remains yet undiscovered.

The sentences are full, and to the purpose. They breathe a spirit of devotion, strictness of life, and express the greatest gravity, and a most profound experience in all the affairs of human life. It is not expected that there should be a point in every one of them, nor that we need be surprised at every line, when we knew from the divine books the contents of it before.

All that I say, is, that there is enough, even in this little handful, to vindicate the Arabians from the imputation of that gross ignorance fastened upon them by modern novices.


1. Fear God, and you will have no cause to fear any one else.

2. Resist thyself, and thou shalt have peace.

3. The fear of God purifieth the heart.

4. The best riches are those employed in the service of God.

5. Resignation to the divine will, is the healing of the heart.

6. The disease of the heart is in concupiscence.

7. A man’s behaviour is the index of the man; and his discourse is the index of his understanding.

8. The coin of the miser is as worthless as a pebble.

9. A single offence counts for much, a thousand services for very little.

10. The remembrance of youth is a sigh.

11. The sight of a friend brighteneth the eye.

12. Honour thy father, and thy son will honour thee.

13. The enjoyment and delight of life consisteth in security.

14. The order of a wise man is the highest of orders.

15. Thy lot (or portion of life) is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.

16. The restraining the soul [or self ] from its appetite, is the greatest holy war.

17. Consider well the consequences, and thou shalt escape from all false steps.

18. The favour of God is the greatest of all ends to be obtained.

19. The favour of God is joined to obedience to him.

20. Thy delight in thyself arises from the corruption of thy understanding.

21. Thy delight in the world arises from the badness of thy choice, and the misery of thy labour.

22. He delights in contempt who confideth his grievance to another.

23. The showing mercy to the afflicted bringeth down mercy.

24. He delights in disappointment who depends upon bad men for his subsistence.

25. I delight more in the determination [or opinion] of a Religious,[1] than in the strength of a man.

26. The control of thy appetites will procure thee riches.

27. The control of the appetites cuts off men’s observation.

28. A man’s advice is the proof of his understanding.

29. Every maws portion is as much determined as his latter end.

30. A man’s advice is according to the measure of his experience.

31. A man’s subsistence is according to what he proposeth, i. e. according to his management; because every action of his life tends to something or other which contributes either to the increasing or diminishing him. Not that this can be affirmed of every action considered abstractedly, but as it connects those actions together which necessarily tend to the determining a man’s condition of life.

32. Gentle behaviour and liberality procure the love even of your enemies.

33. A man’s messenger is the interpreter of his meaning; but his letter is of more efficacy than his discourse.

34. The apostles of God, he be praised, are the interpreters of the truth, and the ambassadors between the Creator and the creature.

35. The delight of the servant in himself is inseparable from the displeasure of his master.

36. Consider before thou doest any thing, and thou shalt not be blamed in what thou doest.

37. The glittering ornaments of the world spoil weak understandings.

38. Liberality produces love.

39. The performance of promises causes unity.

40. Abstinence is the pathway of pure religion.

41. Concupiscence is the forerunner of certain destruction.

42. Trust in God is the cause of pure faith.

43. Desire tends to the destruction of the understanding.

44. The love of the present world is the source of misery.

45. Infidelity is the cause of the removal of God’s blessing.

46. Giving way to anger is the cause of destruction.

47. Good education is the cause of a refined disposition.

48. Gentleness of behaviour causes esteem.

49. The power of religion enforces abstinence.

50. Thankfulness engenders increase.

51. For the soul to be employed about what shall not accompany it after death, is the greatest weakness.

52. To depend upon every one without distinction, is weakness of understanding.

53: He is the man of understanding, that overcometh his appetite, and will not sell his world to come for his present world.

54. He is the cunning man that looks more narrowly after himself than other people.

55. It is fear which withholds the soul from sin, and restrains it from transgression.

56. He is a prudent man that restrains his tongue from detraction.

57. He is a believer that purifieth his heart from doubt.

58. Riches are a damage to the owner, except that part of them which he sends before him.

59. The world is the shadow of a cloud, and the dream of sleep.

60. The works of the truly pious are pure, their eyes weeping, and their hearts trembling.

61. The souls of the truly pious are contented, and their appetites dead; their countenances cheerful, and their hearts sorrowful.

62. The believer always remembers God, and is full of thought: he is thankful in prosperity, and patient in adversity.

63. Partnership in possession leadeth to confusion: partnership in counsel leadeth the right way.

64. Knowledge calleth out to practice; and if it answereth, well; if not, it goeth away.

65. The things of this life proceed by divine decree, not by our administration.

66. There are two sorts of patience; the one, by which we bear up in adversity, which is fine and beautiful; but the other that by which we withstand the commission of evil, is better.

67. A man’s entertaining a mean opinion of himself is a demonstration of the gravity of his understanding, and a branch of the abundance of his excellency.

68. A man’s admiring himself is a demonstration of his deficiency, and a branch of the weakness of his understanding.

69. He that firmly believeth in a future state, is, upon his own account, the most melancholy man of all men in the world.

70. He that perishes, is one that busies himself beside himself, and whose to-day is worse than his yesterday.

71. He is thy true friend, that takes care of thee as himself, and prefers thee to his riches, children, and wife.

72. He is a wise man who can govern himself both in his anger; desire, and fear.

73. Weeping out of the fear of God, enlighteneth the heart, and fortifieth against the return of sin.

74. Opportunity is swift of flight, slow of return.

75. To make one good action constantly succeed another is the perfection of goodness.

76. Patience in poverty, with a good reputation, is better than a plentiful maintenance with contempt.

77. A wise enemy is better than a foolish friend.

78. A man’s affliction is the forerunner of his prosperity.

79. Men are more like the time they live in than they are like thee fathers.

80. A man that knoweth the just value of himself doth not perish.

81. The value of every man is the good which he doth.

82. He that knows himself, knows his Lord.

83. A man is hid under his tongue.

84. No praise with pride.

85. Innocence is incompatible with covetousness.

86. There is no rest where there is envy.

87. It concerns thee more to flee from thyself, than from a lion.

88. He that hath no courage, hath no religion.

89. A wise man is never poor.

90. There is no generosity in a liar.

91. He that is fearful, will be secure at his journey’s end.

92. No health with gluttony.

93. No generosity of spirit with a bad education.

94. A man governeth his people by doing them good.

95. The tongue of a wise man lieth behind his heart.

96. The heart of a fool lieth behind his tongue.

97. The complaisance of a fool is like a garden in a dunghill.

98. Impatience is more irksome than patience.

99. He that pursueth that which is not suitable for him, loseth that which is suitable for him.

100. A man that is given to jesting will never fail of hatred nee contempt.

101. Despair is a freeman, hope is a slave.[2]

102. The opinion of a wise man is as an oracle.

103. Enmity is business enough.

104. A covetous man cloth not live.

105. His life is long whose labour is short.

106. The pursuit of good education is better than the pursuit of riches.

107. His grief is long whose hope is short.

108. Happy is he that hath no family.

109. It is better that kings should be unjust, than mean-spirited.

110. The thirst after wealth is greater than the thirst after drink.

111. He cheats you who makes you angry about a trifle.

112. A man’s glory from his virtue is greater than the glory of his pedigree.

113. Your victory over your enemy is your forbearance.

114. The freedom of a man consists in speaking truth.[3]

115. The strength of the heart is from the soundness of the faith.

116. The word of God is the medicine of the heart.

117. Death will rid you of the faults of the world.

118. There is a cure for all enmity but the enmity of the envious man.

119. Being acquainted with bad men is going to, sea.

120. He that holdeth his peace doth not repent.

121. He that gives a listening ear to reproach is one of those that deserve reproach.

122. Your being angry is reproachful before God.

123. The praise of a man is under his tongue.

124. The conversation of young men is destructive of religion.

125. A learned conversation is the garden of paradise.

126. The destruction of a man is the vehemency of his temper.

127. The forgetfulness of death is the rust of the heart.

128. The light of thy heart is in prayer in the darkness of the night.

129. The greyness of thy head is the news[4] of thy own death.

130. Trust in God is the believer’s castle.

131. Holy wars[5] are the pillars of religion, and the highways of the happy: and to those that are engaged in them, the gates of heaven shall be open.

132. Repentance purifieth the heart, and washeth away sin.

133. Mankind is divided into two parts or sorts: the one seeketh, and doth not find; another findeth, and is not contented.

134. The good man liveth, though he be translated to the mansions of the dead.

135. The abstinence from evil is better even than doing good.

136. Knowledge is the ornament of the rich, and the riches of the poor.

137. He that omitteth practice hath not sufficient faith in the reward annexed to it.

138. Clemency in power, is a defence against the vengeance of God.

139. The reverence of God blotteth out a great many sins.

140. Resignation to the providence of Cod makes the greatest afflictions easy.

141. Quarrelling discovereth a man’s folly, but addeth nothing to the truth of his cause.

142. Truth is the conformity of speech to the end for which God ordained it.

143. A lie is perverting language from the end for which God ordained it.

144. Adversity makes no impression upon a brave soul.

145. Trust in God is a castle of defence to him that fleeth to it.

146. Impatience under affliction is worse than the affliction.

147. That man hath a brave soul who abstaineth from things unlawful, and keepeth at a distance from what is criminal.

148. Covetousness is the head of poverty, and the foundation of wickedness.

149. A deceiver’s tongue is sweet, and his heart bitter.

150. Perfection consists in three things; patience in affliction; moderation in our pursuits; and assisting him that asketh.

151. A wise man knoweth a fool, because he hath formerly been ignorant himself; but a foal doth not know a wise matt, because he never was wise himself.

152. The believer is always cautious of his sins: he dreads temptation, and hopes for the mercy of his Lord.

153. Religion is a tree, the root of which is faith; the branch, the fear of God; the flower, modesty;[6] and the fruit, generosity of spirit.

154. Anger is a fire kindled: be that restraineth it, putteth it out; but he that letteth it loose, is the first that is consumed by it.

155. Folly is an incurable disease.

156. They whose friendship is fixed on the Most High, their love remaineth as long as the cause of it: but as for the friends of this present world, their love is broken off as soon as the causes of it cease.

157. A fool doth not know what maketh him look little; neither will he hearken to him that adviseth him.

158. Riches, without God, are the greatest poverty and misery.

159. Liberality and fortitude are noble things; which God, giveth to him whom he loveth and maketh trial of.

160. That man travels the longest journey, that undertakes the search of a sincere friend.

161. He is the greatest of all fools, that doth no good, and would yet be respected; and doth that which is evil, and yet expecteth the reward of the good.

162. The most odious of men to the most high God is he whose thoughts are fixed upon his belly and his lust.

163. The most happy man, as to this life, is he to whom God hath given wherewithal to be content, and a good wife.

164. He is the most just man that doth justice upon himself without any one else to judge him.

165. That man best deserveth a kindness who, when he is put off, beareth it patiently; when he is refused, excuseth it; and when he receiveth it, is thankful.

166. The diligence of the world, is idleness; the honour of it, vileness; the height of it, lowness.

167. He that walketh upon the back of the earth,[7] is going into its belly.

168. A believer should be ashamed, when any action passeth him which his religion doth not oblige him to do.

169. Justice is the balance of God, which he hath set for men; wherefore do not contradict him in his balance, nor oppose him in his dominion.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. In the Arabic it is Assheick, which signifies a professed doctor, that liveth up to the strictness of the law.
  2. So long as a man is in expectation, his thoughts are in suspense, and be is in a slavish condition; but as soon as he gives over his pursuit, he is free and at liberty.
  3. Not that a man is obliged to speak every truth that he knows or believes, but that a habit of speaking truth, as it flows from, so it naturally supports, a generosity and freedom of spirit.
  4. That word which is here translated news, is used in a very particularly emphatic manner, for it signifies the report of any person’s death.
  5. That is, wars undertaken for the support of religion, i. e. Mohammedan
  6. Modesty is not here to be understood in opposition to unchasteness; but as proper deportment.
  7. By the back of the earth, he means the outside; by the belly, the grave.