Shawqi’s Poem on Knowledge and Education

Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi presented one of his most famous poems at an event at the Higher Teacher’s College club in Cairo. The Arabic poem, 68 lines long, extols knowledge and teachers, and describes the herculean responsibility of teachers to inculcate knowledge as well as values in the next generation. After explaining the spiritual dimension and importance of knowledge, he goes on to lament the disappearance of true dedication to knowledge and truth, which, coupled with excessive individualism and pursuit of lower desires, exacerbated by the effects of colonialism, have crippled his people’s progress. He proceeds to advise teachers to rear the new generations with knowledge and integrity, and the points out the dangers of dishonorable teachers and an ignorant and unprincipled populace.

Below is a translation of the first ten lines of the poem, in pentametric blank verse. Note that conventional Arabic poems typically comprise lines divided into two hemistichs, and my translation uses a separate line of English for each hemistich, and so the ten lines of Arabic have resulted in twenty lines of English. I have opted for a translation that captures the elegance of the original, and is still faithful in meaning even if not always completely literal.

The opening invokes a simile comparing the teacher to a messenger of God (i.e. Prophet). The language he uses here is within the acceptable boundaries of figurative language, and has has not been theologically problematic to Muslim scholars.

– Suheil Laher

Shawqi on Knowledge and Education

Stand for the teacher, give him full respect
The teacher’s rank is close to the prophet.
Can there be any person nobler than
The one who builds and nurtures souls and minds?
Glory to You God, O best instructor,
With the pen You taught the folk of yore.
You brought this mind forth from its darknesses,
And guided it a way of lucid light.
The teacher’s hand a crucible you made,
Its products ingots rusted or burnished.
Moses as a guide You sent with Torah,
So too the Virgin’s son, who taught Injil.
Muhammad’s fluent fount You caused to gush,
So human souls he quenched with scripture’s words.
You taught the Greeks and Egypt, who’ve declined
Displaced by suns that fain would not depart.
Yore’s giants now returned to infancy
In knowledge, learning now at deadened pace.
From eastern realms of earth the suns arose,
How is it now the western lands prevail?

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