Let the Days Pass As They Will

Poetry has long been companion to the human spirit, attempting to record the ineffable breezes, the delicate memories, the raging fires that sometimes come over the human heart, to capture the wings that perhcance flutter within the chest. Translating poetry is more challenging than translating prose, as there will inevitably be a trade-off between faithful literal translation, and looser but more aesthetically pleasing rendering. Below is my translation of famous Arabic poem by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi`i (d. 204H / 897CE). In addition to being the eponym of one of the major Sunni legal schools, and the architect of some innovative legal techniques, al-Shafi`i was renowned for his flawless command of the Arabic language.

The poem is on the theme of wisdom, containing Shafi`i’s general advice for life. My translation is in tetrametric couplets, and in observing these constraints of rhyme and rhythm, the fidelity of the translation has of course been compromised (only slightly, I would like to think!)

O let the days do as they please!
And be content when fate decrees.
Do not regret what this day’s cast,
For this world’s pains for sure won’t last.
So be a man ‘gainst horrors strong,
Be kind and loyal, all life long.
If in folk’s eyes your faults abound,
And you would like that they be gowned:
Then shelter seek beneath kind acts,
For kindness well all blame retracts.
To foes never reveal weakness
For gloating foes do bring distress.
From misers seek not bounteousness
In fire is but thirst’s hopelessness
Your calmness won’t reduce income,
Nor fretfulness increase the sum.
Not grief nor happiness shall last,
Nor poverty, nor riches vast.
If in your heart you’re satisfied
Then you do own the whole world wide.
A man on whom his fate alights
No depths shall save, nor any heights.
God’s glorious earth is wide, but know,
That destiny makes it narrow.
So, face each day on even keel.
There is no balm from death can heal.

-Suheil Laher

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Some of the metaphors in my opening paragraph are built on words written in Arabic by Egyptian journalist, literate, jurist and educationist Shaikh Ali Tantawi (d. 1990)

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The Sub-Disciplines of Arabic

If you think about it, there is a lot involved in language (any language). The renowned Andalusian historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (d. 808 H / 1406 CE) enumerated four major areas in the study of the Arabic language:

  1. Lexicology اللغة
  2. Grammar النحو
  3. Rhetoric الببان
  4. Literature الأدب

Of course, each of these has numerous sub-disciplines and areas. How many sub-disciplines are there in all? Several writers gave twelve as a number for sub-disciplines, with some composing lines of poetry summarizing them for easy memorization, e.g. Egyptian educationist and writer Ahmad al-Hashimi (d. 1943 CE) wrote:

نحو وصرف عروض ثم قافية ** وبعدها لغة قرض وإنشـــــــــاء 
خط بيان معان مع محاضــــرة ** والاشتقاق لها الآداب أسماء 

However, it is possible to identify other disciplines beyond these twelve. Below, I present a fourteen-fold taxonomy, arranged these under a modified version Ibn Khaldun’s higher-level categories: I have added one category (‘Media,’ which deals with the sounds and script of the language), and collapsed Lexicology and Grammar into a single category ‘Words.’ For some disciplines, I list prominent sub-disciplines. In future blog posts, I might explain some of disciplines that are less familiar (name-wise or content-wise) to many people.

Media

  1. Sounds: Phonology
    • Phonology `ilm al-aṣwāt
    • Phonetics (including Qur’anic Phonetics `ilm al-tajwīd)
  1. Script: Orthography (`ilm al-rasm / al-khaṭṭ)

Words

  1. Origin, Coinage (`ilm al-waḍ`)
  2. Meaning
    • Lexicology (matn al-lughah)
    • Triconsonantal Semantic Patterns `ilm al-ishtiqāq
  1. Internal Structure of Words: Morphology (`ilm al-ṣarf)
  2. Terminal Variations on Words: Syntax (`ilm al-naḥw)
  • Rules of Syntax qawa`id al-naḥw
  • Meta-Grammar `ilal al-naḥw / uṣul al-naḥw

Rhetoric

  1. Linguistic Pragmatics (`ilm al-ma`anī)
  2. Imagery, Figurative Expression (`ilm al-bayān)
  3. Rhetorical Embellishments (`ilm al-badī`)

Literature

  • Poetry

  1. Prosody, Metrics (`ilm al-`arūḍ)
  2. Rhymes (`ilm al-qawāfī)
  3. Writing Poetry (qarḍ al-shi`r)
  • Prose

  1. Composition (al-inshā’)
  2. Public Speaking (al-khaṭābah / al-muādara)

 

– Suheil Laher

Ubuntu (Hellos and Goodbyes, Part 2 of 2)

    • Disclaimer 1 (for IT folks): No, this article is not about Linux-based operating systems.
    • Disclaimer 2 (for non-language geeks): You may find this article a bit heavier than normal. If so, feel free to scroll down to the last paragraph which sums it all up.

    Swedish poet Hjalmar Gullberg (d. 1961) opined that the ancient custom of strangers meeting, only to exchange brief words about the road, and then parting again, eases the pain of a farewell, and that this should be the way we interact with people. Sweden was a trailblazer in the early spread of telephone technology, and regardless of whether Gullberg’s poem had this specifically in mind, the telephone may indeed have had a tangible impact on the way people interact. Professor Alan Koenigsberg has remarked that, “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced.” Today, a century and a half later, this has only increased, with people commonly accepting electronic “friend requests” from individuals they have never met. Nevertheless, it has been argued that technology is making us more alone, and has the potential to harm the way we think and focus. I will not delve into these debates, but will comment briefly on a couple of aspects of the interplay between language and the human condition.

    Languages as Different Ways of Seeing the World

    In my previous blog post, we saw that “Hello” in English is simply a hailing word, whereas In Arabic, rather than a simple hailing, other expressions (that carry the sense of welcome) were the norm. Therefore, the common translations of “Hello,” into Arabic are functional, rather than literal translations. It is enrichingly revealing to realize that different languages express themselves differently in the same situations (as we got some sense for in the discussion about various hellos and goodbyes). But languages are not just different ways of expressing the same ideas; they often involve different ways of looking at the world, and this is one of the ways in which learning languages broadens your horizons. The Italian Marxist political thinker Gramsci (d. 1937) advocated the teaching of Latin (which had long been a dead language by his time), because he realized that learning a language develops a person’s critical consciousness, and provides “a profound ‘synthetic’ phislosophical experience.” Of course, one does not have to share Gramsci’s political views in order to agree with his observations on the enriching potential of learning a new language.

    Language and Humanness

    We might also wonder whether the way we say something impacts our broader and deeper human experience. If I were to judge from the difference between English and Arabic hellos, I might have initially have guessed the impact to be minimal, given that most speakers of Arabic and English today are probably not conscious of the underlying and original meanings of the greetings they are using. But perhaps there is reason to pause and reconsider.

    Both social norms and language are dynamic, and there might sometimes be links between the ways in which each changes. For example, the use of traditional polite expressions seems to be on the decline in English, with many people nowadays either omitting them or replacing them with new expressions (e.g. Responding to a “Thank you!” with “You got it!” instead of “You’re welcome.”) Whether or not this necessarily implies that people are less polite nowadays has been debated, but some psychologists have demonstrated that expressions of gratitude have a positive effect on our emotional states (and by the same token, hurtful words can not only cause emotional trauma, but even structural changes to the brain). Similarly, it has been suggested that the customary Shona greetings foster and cultivate the attitude of ubuntu (humanity, or “a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”) One could perhaps suggest the same about many greetings and farewells in various others languages, for these often contain some inquiry about, or wish for, the other person’s well-being. We might even venture that people are aware, on some level, of the ubuntu / humanitas sentiments of their greetings. After all, if you are really angry with someone, chances are you will dispense with these “niceties” when you speak to them.

    The concept of ubuntu is very similar to the Latin humanitas, which refers to the full development of “humanness” (including human virtues). The English word “humanities” derives from the Latin term “humanitas,” which refers to the full development of “humanness” (including human virtues). The Arabic word adab أدب refers to both literature and etiquette. Language is a fundamental part of the human condition, and the study of language obviously falls under the domain of the “humanities.” For Italian thinker Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457), language in fact represented the synthesis of all human thought. And much earlier, a pre-Islamic Arabian poet remarked,

    The lad’s tongue is half of him, and [the other] half his heart,

    So naught remains thereafter save the [mere] form of flesh and blood.”

    In any case, since I started this post with comments on how technology has changed our communication, it is appropriate to end on the same note, but with a couple of practical take-away points that suggest themselves to me:

    1. Language is integral to the human condition, and all human languages have the potential to be used positively or negatively. When communicating in the virtual world, in particular, let us not forget the etiquette and netiquette that reflect our ubuntu, our humanitas. Its a lot easier to not be nice when the other person is not physically in front of you.
    2. Recall from my previous post that the ways in which the “world” is described are illuminating, covering meanings of immediacy, nearness, human history, and distinct spheres. The virtual world is a new sphere of our existence, but if we lose touch with the “immediacy” of our tangible surroundings and direct interactions, then “the age of man” runs the risk of losing its humanitas and spiralling ever further “down”.

    Feel free to agree with me, correct me, or dismiss this as the random ravings of a listless linguaphile.

    – Suheil Laher