Shawqi on Education and Parliament

Early 20th-century Egyptian poet Shawqi comments on the responsibilities of government and populace vis-a-vis education.


King Fouad I opens Egyptian Parliament

BACKGROUND: The Egyptian Revolution, soon after World War I, led to the Egypt’s independence from Britain in 1922, and a parliamentary representative system, that allowed for balancing of powers, was adopted by the 1923 Constitution. Independent Egypt’s new parliament opened on 15 March 1924, a day Shawqi refers to in the poem as “the Great Saturday.” It was a euphoric day, with widespread celebration, and Shawqi recited his poem in a gathering that took place on the cusp of this momentous event. Shawqi congratulates his countrymen, telling them the fruits of their struggle for liberty and democracy are now in reach. They should thank all those who made this possible : those still living, as well as those who gave their lives for the new liberty. Parliament has a responsibility to help further education, while the populace has a duty to elect only qualified (and hence educated) people to parliament. At the same time, the teachers must continue to serve sincerely and selflessly (as “Unknown Soldiers”) if the newly-found liberty is to produce meaningful results.

Below is my liberal, literary translation (in pentametric blank verse) of lines 50-59 of Shawqi’s poem.

If Egypt should appraise its past, it will
Find no day that can match Great Saturday:
The gallery of parliament shall cast
A welcome shade upon the happy vale!
When education calls to them for help,
We hope they won't be stingy to their land!
O tell the youth: this day your sowing's blessed!
The fruits hang low, suspended for to pluck!
Greet every martyr who has died and left,
And on their gravestones go and place a wreath!
Your gratitude abundantly bestow
Upon those who still live, and those who died.
The constitution won't reach its spirit 
Until as Unknown Soldiers you all toil.
I urge you, while the martyrs' blood's still fresh, 
Elect no ignorants to parliament!
For of the seats it one day shall be asked:
Did they bear heavywights, or mere dead weights?
From actors insufficiently apprised,
Incompetent performance will result.

– Suheil Laher


“Cairo – a panorama from the citadel,” William Henry Jackson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,
“Roi Fouad,” loki11 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,


Roses and Arabic Collective Generic Nouns


After apologizing for the pun above, let me present four quick points about a special type of noun in Arabic (plus a fifth for language geeks).

1. The collective generic noun (اسم الجِنس الجَمعيّ) is a noun that looks like a singular (and grammatically is singular), but is plural in meaning, referring generically to a collective (of things or of people)

  • For example, وَرد (‘ward‘) refers generically to ‘roses,’ شَجَر (‘shajar‘) refers generically to ‘trees.’
  • And عَرَب (‘`arab”) refers generically to ‘Arabs,’ عَجَم (‘`ajam) refers generically to ‘non-Arabs.’

2. To produce the singular noun from a collective generic noun for things, simply add ة (“-ah” to the end).

  • So, وَردة (‘wardah‘) refers to “a rose.” (‘The rose’ would be الوَردة : ‘al-wardah’)

3. To produce the singular noun from a collective generic noun for people, simply add ّي (“-iyy” to the end).

  • So, عَرَبيّ (‘`arabiyy) refers to “an Arab.” (‘The Arab’ would be العَرَبيّ : ‘al-`arabiyy‘)

4. As we said, the collective generic noun is grammatically singular, so you might wonder if it can be pluralized. Yes, it can (and in fact in Arabic, even words that are already plural can sometimes be pluralized further to produce a ‘super-plural’ جَمْع الجَمْعِ ).

  • So, the collective generic noun وَرد can be pluralized to وُرود (which would strictly mean ‘types or species of roses.’)


5. For geeks only : William Lane, author of the famous Arabic Lexicon, mentions that the collective generic is also called a ‘lexicological plural.’

– Suheil Laher





Patience when Life seems Cruel: Poem by Abiwardi

mask-32857_960_720Life often presents us with developments that seem unfair. This post presents an English translation of two lines of poetry by Arab Muslim belletrist Abu Muzaffar al-Abiwardi (d. 507H / 1113 CE), in which he refers to an unwelcome development in his own life, and his valiant response of patience. The poet personifies his life, presenting it as someone who is appearing in disguise and it therefore unrecognizable. (“This is not how I would have forseen my life!”) Since the poem does not provide details of the circumstances that motivated its writing, we can only speculate. Abiwardi may have been referring to the political intrigues that took place against him and that led to his having to leave Baghdad. Or, the poem may pertain to some other personal tragedy, or an emotional or ambitional tribulation or frustration. Patience is of course a central Islamic value, and Abiwardi’s appeal to patience in the face of unchangeable circumstances is likely inspired by Quranic statements such as, “Verily, God is with those who are patient.” (Quran, 2:153).

I present below my literary translation, in rhymed iambic tetrameter English verse (and if you didn’t realize that iambic tetrameter is always supposed to be rhymed, then you might want to read this). The original Arabic is presented after the English.

My life one night appeared to me
In garb I could scarce recognize
He knew not I have dignity
When life's vicissitudes arise

So, as he spent the night 
Showing me how cruel he is
I showed him with delight:
Patience and how cool it is!

تَنكَّرَ لي دَهْري ولمْ يَدْرِ أنَّني ** أعِزُّ وأحداثُ الزمانِ تَهُونُ
فَبَاتَ يُرِيني الخَطْبُ كيف اعْتِداؤُه ** وبِتُّ أُرِيهِ الصبْرَ كيفَ يَكونُ

Whatever trials you are going through, please hang in there! And of course don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it.

– Suheil Laher



Puzzle pieces: Conger Design,

Scream mask: Clker-Free-Vector-Images-3736,

Abu Muzaffar al-Abiwardi : Biography

Abu Muzaffar Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Abiwardi was a prominent grammarian and leading poet of his generation, as well as a belletrist and expert genealogist, a 16th generation descendant of the Qurayshite aristocrat Abu Sufyan. In addition to his scholarship, Abiwardi also had a reputation for honesty and piety. His Arabic teachers include the renowned “father of Arabic rhetoric” `Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (d. 471 H / 1078 CE). Abiwardi was widely read, and was almost a permanent fixture of the Nizamiyya library in Baghdad. He is said to have had a photographic memory, and to have been exceptionally intelligent. He wrote extensively in various literary, historical and religious disciplines. He also had political ambitions that failed. Due to political intrigues against him, he left Baghdad and returned to Hamadhan. He died in Asbahan in 507 H / 1113 CE.

[Summarized from Dhahabi’s Siyar A`lam al-Nubala’]

Generosity and Miserliness, Poem

hand-683909_960_720A poem censuring miserliness and lauding generosity, by Ishaq al-Mawsili (a renowned scholar of the 9th century CE / 3rd century Hijri), in English translation. The poem is one that Ishaq recited early in his career in the royal court. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi included the poem, along with the accompanying story, in his Kitab al-Bukhala’ (a book containing anecdotes and sayings in censure of miserliness).

The poem also found recognition in the famous 6th century Hijri (/ 12th century CE) anthology al-Hamasa al-Basriyya. Here is my non-literal translation in hexametric blank verse. The Arabic text of both poem and story, taken from Khatib’s Kitab al-Bukhala, follows at the end.

She oft would tell me to be stingy, 'Stop!' I said
'There's no way I'll adopt the trait that you enjoin!
For I have seen unselfish men are loved by all,
And never have I seen the miser loved at all.
And I have seen that stinginess disfigures man,
So generous I'll be, lest 'miser' I be called.
Shall I not tell you when a fellow's at his best?
If when he gets something, to others he donates.
My giving's that of those who give abundantly,
Although as you may know, dear wife, my wealth is scarce.
Yet how can I fear poverty, or be deprived,
While our liegelord is such a man of kindnesses?'

The closing line (two lines in the English translation above) are of course a hint for the king to bestow a monetary gift on the poet, and indeed Harun al-Rashid was sufficiently impressed to command that the poet be given 100,000 dirhams (silver coins). When Rashid praised the poem, Ishaq remarked, ‘O Commander of the Believers! Your words are more beautiful than my poetry!’ whereupon Rashid bestowed an additional 100,000 dirhams on him.

– Suheil Laher



كتاب البخلاء , للخطيب البغدادي

(حديث مقطوع) أخبرنا الحسن بْن علي الجوهري ، حَدَّثَنَا أبو عمر مُحَمَّد بْن العباس بْن مُحَمَّد بْن زكريا بْن حيويه الخزاز ، حَدَّثَنَا أبو بكر مُحَمَّد بْن القاسم الأنباري ، حَدَّثَنَا أَحْمَد بْن يحيى النحوي ، حَدَّثَنَا حماد بْن إسحاق بْن إبراهيم الموصلي ، حدثني أبي ، قَالَ أبو بكر : وحدثني أبي ، حَدَّثَنَا أبو عكرمة الضبي عامر بْن عمران ، حَدَّثَنَا إسحاق بْن إبراهيم الموصلي ، واللفظ في الروايتين مختلط ، قَالَ : دخلت على هارون الرشيد ، فقال لي : يا أبا إسحاق ، أنشدني شيئا من شعرك . فأنشدته ، من الطويل : ”

وآمرة بالبخل قلت لها اقصري ** فذلك شيء ما إليه سبيل

أرى الناس خلان الجواد ولا أرى ** بخيلا له في العالمين خليل

وإني رأيت البخل يزري بأهلهْ ** فأكرمت نفسي أن يقال بخيل

من خير حالات الفتى لو علمته ** إذا نال شيئا أن يكون ينيل

عطائي عطاء المكثرين تكرما ** ومالي كما قد تعلمين قليل

وكيف أخاف الفقر أو أحرم الغنى ** ورأي أمير المؤمنين جميل

فقال الرشيد : لا ، كيف إن شاء اللَّه تعالى ، يا فضل ، أعطه مئة ألف درهم . ثم قَالَ : لله در أبيات تأتينا بها يا إسحاق ، ما أجود أصولها ، وأحسن فصولها . فقلت : يا أمير المؤمنين ، كلامك أحسن من شعري . فقال : يا فضل ، أعطه مئة ألف أخرى ” . فكان ذلك أول مال اعتقدته .

Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Mawsili, Biography

Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Mawsili (d. 235 H / 849 CE), poet, belletrist, grammarian and musician, but also well-grounded in the religious disciplines. Despite his musical renown, Ishaq did not like to be defined by this dimension of his life. For many years, Ishaq would begin his day before dawn imbibing from teachers of hadith (of the caliber of Malik ibn Anas and Sufyan ibn `Uyayna), thereafter proceeding to recite a daily one-thirtieth part of the Quran with Quranic masters such as al-Kisa’i. Following this, he would go to study with prominent poets and musicians, and then teachers of the language (including the renowned Arabic grammarian and philologist al-Asma`i). Finally, in the evenings, he would frequent the court of Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph.

Shawqi: Moral Responsibility of Scholarship

Another piece (lines 11-21) of Shawqi‘s famous Arabic poem on Education and Knowledge. (Other extracts, which I translated in the past, can be found at these links: lines 1-10, 22-31, 37-43 & 46-49 .)

In this part of the poem, Shawqi laments the disappearance of those who were dedicated not only to learning but also to its moral demands, a development that he sees reflected in the sorry state of his country. He identifies two causes for this moral decay of principled scholarship : hedonism, and the desire to appease corrupt rulers. He laments the disappearance of the type of scruples shown by the famous Athenian philosopher Socrates’ willingness to die rather than abandon his ethical stance. Shawqi affirms that there are still people of learning (the knowledge itself has not disappeared), but the scholars of today have lost themselves in the pursuit of this-worldly fancies, and as a result are not fulfilling the role expected of them in society : to be the stalwart guardians of ethics and morals without fearing reprisals of criticism from the masses nor from the rulers. At the end of this extract, Shawqi mentions Jesus as another example of one persecuted for his adherence the truth. For those who might be confused by Shawqi’s saying that Jesus was not crucified, I should point out that Shawqi, being a Muslim, believes in the Quranic declaration that Jesus was not crucified (there are various opinions among Muslim scholars as to what exactly did happen).

The moment that the teacher fell, dear land,
He veiled your eastern sky from every sun.
The guardians of true knowledge are now gone,
Who'd gladly forfeit life or limb for truth.
Today the shackled masses live enslaved
To Self, the individual paramount.
The despot's world has thrown them to the ground,
As heads are cowed when dazzled by the sun.
When Socrates the cup of death was passed,
His lips did greet it with the kiss of love.
He deigned to flee, to live dishon'rably,
Preferring rather death with dignity.
The brave of heart remain still plentiful,
Brave intellects, though, are a rarity.
God who created truth a bitter pill,
Has left no era barren of truth's men.
Yet idle fancies may have slain truth's folk
Oh perish, whims, how plenteous is your toll!
Shall every frank defender of the truth,
Meet malice and reprisal from the crowds?
Had Jesus actually been crucified,
His crucifixion too would serve my point.

– Suheil Laher

PICTURE CREDIT: Reimund Bertrams,

Farewell Imagery

This is a post containing some farewell imagery and poetry. I begin with lines of poetry that are part of a historical anecdote, and then mention two other pieces that pick up on the imagery of those lines. The first two pieces are originally in Arabic, but presented here along with my English translation. The third is my own handiwork in English.

  1. The widely-travelled Muslim hadith-scholar Abu Saʻd al-Samʻānī (d. 562 H / 1167 CE) mentions an anecdote about one of his teachers, ʻAbdullāh ibn Muammad al-Jīlī (d. 560H / 1165 CE, a Shafiʻī jurist who had trained in Baghdad and settled in Anbār). Samʻānī writes that when Jīlī was bidding him farewell, the latter began weeping, and recited the following lines of poetry (translation follows immediately):

ولـمَّا برَزْنا لتوديعهم ** بكَوا لؤلؤاً وبكَينا عقيقا

أدارُوا علينا كُؤوسَ الفِراقِ ** وهَيْهات من سُكرها أن نُفِيقا

تَولَّوا فأتْبعتُهم أدمُعي ** فصاحوا الغريقَ وَصِحتُ الحريقا !

TRANSLATION (rhymed iambic tetrameter, literary translation (non-literal)]

Weeping Teardrop Farewell

When we came forth to bid farewell
Crystals and pearls down our cheeks fell.
The parting draughts were passed around;
Long in their stupor we'll be downed.
They leave, my tears pursue in daze;
"We drown!" they cry, while I'm ablaze.

2. On a poetic tangent, biographer Ibn Khallikān adds the following comment after quoting the above, and before proceeding with the rest of the biographical entry:

Among that which has been written on the same theme are [the following lines of poetry]:

تنفّستِ الغداةُ غداةَ ولَّوا ** وعيرُهم معارِضة الطريقِ

فصاحُوا بالحريق، فظَلتُ أبكي ** فصاحوا بالحريق والغريق

TRANSLATION (iambic pentameter blank verse, literary (non-literal) translation):

The morn did sigh, that morn they turned to leave,
Their caravan, meanwhile, faced to the road.
They cried out, "Fire!", while I remained in tears.
So they exclaimed, "Oh! Fire and drowning both!"


3. And now my own literary tangent to Jīlī’s ‘pearls and crystals’ composition. I wrote the following lines of prose as a farewell to some dear souls. Simultaneously, the weather was beginning to warm, melting away the snow and ice that had remained on the ground throughout our winter sojourn together:

"Oh, no!" they wailed, "the sun is melting away our memories!"
"Hush!" a little voice whispered, "melted memories don't become lost, just sublime. 
And the crystals of your parting tears will remain in the company of the pearls of theirs, 
continuing to reflect and refract the sunshine to produce spectacular, scintillating spectra."

Oh, and of course if you are a student of literature, and not content to simply passively enjoy, please do analyze these pieces, try to figure out the rhetorical devices used (in English and/or Arabic), and feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section. Maybe I will address some of this in a future post(s).

Bon appetit, et au revoir mes amis!

– Suheil Laher


Sunset photo: Myriams-Fotos,

Weeping Teardrop graphic: Chaos07,

Fire, Water, Frigates: Myriams-Fotos,

Ibn Faris’ Poem on Poverty

This short poem, by the famous belletrist and poet Ibn Faris (d. 395 H), describes the poverty and debt the poet once faced in his childhood home Hamadhan. These trying circumstances may have played a part in his eventual relocation to Rey, where he lived the remainder of his life. The poem reminds us of the hardships scholars of the past often faced in the course of acquiring knowledge, and how a student’s struggling for the basic necessities interferes with effective learning. My translation is in pentameteric blank verse.

May fruitful rainfall water Hamadan!
Naught save that I'll say, 'though my innards burn.
Should I not pray sincerely for a town
That caused me to forget all that I knew?
Forget my special talents, all except
My debts: that I've no penny to my name!

Original Arabic Text:

سقى هَمَذانَ الغيثُ لست بقائل ** سوى ذا وفي الأحْشاء نار تَضرّمُ
وما ليَ لا أُصفي الدعاءَ لبلدة ** أفدتُّ بها نسيانَ ما كنتُ أعلمُ
نسيتُ الذي أحسنته غيرَ أنني ** مَدِينٌ وما في جوف بيتي درهمُ

– Translation (c) Suheil Laher

PHOTO CREDIT: Alvand Mountain in Hamadan Province, Iran, photograph by wikipedia user Daneshju, obained under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License from