A love of verbal expression has long been characteristic of Arab culture. Oral poetry flourished during the Jahiliyya,(1) among both nomadic and sedentary Arabs, and with the birth and rapid proliferation of Islam, Arabic poetry, both sacred and secular, continued its popularity among conquerors and conquered alike. Formulaic expression is an essential component of verbal art among the Arabs (see Monroe, 1972; Sowayan, 1985:110-113), although great emphasis is also placed on verbatim memorization of oral and written literature (see Sowayan, 1985:110-113). This is especially true among Muslim Arabs, for whom memorization of at least portions of the Quran is extremely widespread; it is not uncommon for believers to commit the entire Holy Scripture to memory. Of the numerous formulaic forms in the Arabic language, probably the most pervasive is the proverb. The first portion of this essay discusses the general position of proverbs in Arab culture; the next part surveys briefly the study of Arabic proverbs; finally, the latter pages explore native classification of proverb-like forms, and suggest lines of inquiry for further study.
Proverbs in Arabic Culture
Both classical Arabic and the dialects are rich in proverbial lore. As H. R. P Dickson observed earlier in this century, "The Arab is forever quoting proverbs or sayings of some poet or other, and he seems to enjoy this almost as much as story telling" (1951:336). Abdelkafi writes that "one might claim that [the Arabs] make more use of proverbs than most other nations" (1968: vii). Whether or not such a claim can be supported by objective evidence, the fact remains that the Arabs believe their language to be, as befits the language of Paradise, the most eloquent, subtle and beautiful of all tongues, whose wealth of expressive power cannot be matched. The masterful orator, whether poet, conversationalist, politician or proverb user, garners respect through linguistic skill; the form and delivery of a message are at least as crucial as its content.
Respect for linguistic prowess is a long-standing characteristic of Arab society, institutionalized in the poetic duels of tribal and court poets, both pre- and post-Hijra.(2) Poetry was, in pre-modern Arabia, recognized as a potent weapon for bolstering the reputation of one's own group and diminishing that of a rival; indeed, poetry is still regarded as a powerful tool for social and political commentary. Similarly, Arabs take "vast pride... in being able to invoke proverbs when the need arises" and pay great respect to "any person who is capable of using these sayings correctly" (Barakat, 1980:7). Evaluations of "proper" usage are based on two criteria: sufficient familiarity with proverbs to enable a person spontaneously to evoke an appropriate proverb, and skill in correct application of the proverb to the situation at hand. The respected Arabic proverb user has both an extensive repertoire of readily recalled proverbs and a sense of appropriateness and timing.
Dickson notes in reference to proverb use among Bedouins that "Not only does this practice give spice to conversation, but the person quoting clever sayings, and so forth, knows that he gains in the estimation of his fellows for showing himself a scholar and well read" (1951:336). Dickson's characterization of Bedouins as well-read scholars is somewhat misleading in view of the high level of illiteracy among them, particularly two decades ago when he wrote; nevertheless, learning and wisdom are greatly admired in Arab culture, although they need not necessarily be institutionally derived. Barakat suggests that, coupled with the reverence which Arabs have for their history and traditions, this respect for wisdom helps explain the frequency of proverb use in the culture, for the proverb is the linguistic embodiment of traditional wisdom. Like proverbs in other cultures, Arabic proverbs "bear the stamp of approval from tradition and are thought to express best one's thoughts on many occasions" (Barakat, 1980:11).
H.A.R. Gibb suggests that the widespread use of proverbs in general conversation "in the East as in the West" has been dealt a fatal blow by the influence of "modern: - meaning Western - education, and that "the younger generation are rapidly losing their father's memory of and taste for proverbs" (Gibb, 1938: xxxix). Without accurate contextual data on current use of proverbs in Arab societies it is impossible to make any firm judgments, but Gibb's point is debatable in light of available evidence. To begin with, Gibb rests his assertion on an implicit assumption of decreased illiteracy due to proliferation of formal education in the Arab World. In fact, while the ranks of the educated have increased in recent decades, so have the ranks of the illiterate increased in many places because population grows faster than the educational system.(3) Furthermore, Arabic proverbs are used as a device in modern literature (see Risk, 1981:186). As for conversational contexts, Mahgoub reports that traditional performance of proverbs was still common less than twenty years ago; she found subjects in their twenties quoting proverbs in conversation without knowing they were under observation (1968:2), although she does not indicate the educational level of these subjects. Thus, while it is possible (although far from certain) that conversational use of proverbs by Western-educated young Arabs has decreased, these same individuals remain passive (and possibly active) bearers of proverbs as folkloric items and active bearers of colloquial proverbs as literary devices. In addition, because a large proportion of the overall population remains illiterate, proverbs are both viable and vital in contemporary Arab societies. Finally, there are several speech forms in Arabic which, in native generic terms, differ one from another and have usually been studied separately. They are in many ways similar, however, and bear investigation as related phenomena.
The Study of Arabic Proverbs
Compilation of Arabic proverb lore began toward the start of the Islamic era (the seventh century A.D.), or perhaps even prior to that time. C. Brockelman observes that "Proverbs excited the interest of the learned from the very beginning of Arabic literature; historians and philologists emulated one another in collecting and explaining them" (1913c:408). During the early period of Islamic expansionism, as the rapidly growing empire subsumed many areas and peoples of the East, an active school of Arab philologists sought to preserve the verbal heritage and protect the language from non-Arabic influences by recording what they could of ancient usage, including proverbs and related forms of expression.
In fact, almost all the noted philologists devoted special works to proverbs (Brockelman, 1913c:408). The result was an extensive literature on Classical Arabic proverbs, probably running to hundreds of volumes and containing much vital information on pre-Islamic Arab culture as well as proverb texts (Goldziher, 1966:35; Nicholson, 1953:31). The oldest extant philological treatise on Arabic proverbs is the eighth century Kitab al-Amthal (Book of Proverbs) of Mufaddal Ibn Salamah al-Dabbi. Ibn Salamah, who died sometime in the second century of the Hijra, was a Kufan philologist and an authority on pre-Islamic poetry. His work on proverbs, one of the best known collections of Classical Arabic proverbs, was among his many works on a variety of subjects (Lichtenstadter, 1913:489; Goldziher, 1966:35).
Abu 'Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Harawi, a philologist, jurist and theologian born in Heart in 770 C.E., continued the work of Ibn Salamah. Al-Harawi's book, the Kitab al-Amthal (Book of Proverbs), also called al-Majalla (The Review), was printed in Constantinople as part one of at-Tuhfa al-Bahiya (Goldziher, 1966:35).
Hamza al-Isfahani's 10th century collection survives in manuscript form. This collection deals with proverbs in the afa'lu min verbal form and was used extensively by later writers; it was, for example, "copied word for word by al-Maidani for the corresponding section of his book" (Brockelman 1913c:409).
Building upon the works of Ibn Salamah and al-Harawi was another philologist, Abu Hilal al-Askari, who died around 1005 C.E. Al-Askari's Jamharat al-Amthal (Collection of Proverbs), printed posthumously in Bombay in 1306-07, dealt more comprehensively with the classical proverbs than did the collections of his predecessors (Brockelman, 1913a:489; Goldziher, 1966:35); it was the first attempt to annotate each proverb from the philological and historical point of view, excluding all post-classical material, to which al-Isfahani had allotted considerable space (Brockelman, 1913c:419).
The best known and most comprehensive of the early Arabic proverb studies is the Kitab Majma' al-Amthal (Book of Collected Proverbs) of Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Maydani, another philologist. Al-Maydani, who died October 27, 1124, gathered together material collected by his forerunners and "expanded each section by an appendix on modern proverbs" (Brockelman, 1913c:419). Al-Maydani's Kitab, still extant in several manuscripts and regarded as a standard book on Arabic proverbs, appeared in two volumes, and offers material on "ancient Arabic household words and proverbs, with very important explanatory notes on poetry" (Brockelman, 1913c:409; Goldziher, 1966:35; cf. Brockelman, 1913b:144-145).
Native generic terminology must of course be studied and considered, but folk definitions cannot be expected to fulfill analytical needs any more than scholarly definitions can be considered very useful in a folk system; to expect lay informants to develop logical and exclusive analytical definitions seems a bit ludicrous. In fact, such definitions may defeat the purpose of circularity. To the analyst, it clouds the issue, but the very murkiness and non-exclusiveness of folk terminology combined with the human ability to ignore logical discrepancies provides security, for the circular system is a closed system which answers its own questions. Until clear standards can be established for defining such phenomena as "proverbs," "maxims," "similes," and "wisdom," for analytical purposes the most promising solution to the problem of definition are to establish working definitions based on the purpose at hand.
1 The Jahiliyya means the "Time of Ignorance," that is, the pre-Islamic era in the Arabian Peninsula.
2 The Hijra, "Migration," refers to the Prophet Mahammad's escape from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. The Islamic calendar dates from that time.
3 Literacy rates for the Arab countries in 1984 varied from 12% in North Yemen to 80% in Kuwait. See The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1984 (New york: Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1984). Because of increased population, however, the 300,000 people who comprise the 20% illiterate of Kuwait nearly equal in number the 322,000 total population of that country in 1964. The same principle holds true thrughout the Arab World; in fact, the current illiterate populations of some countries (Bahrain, Iraq, Libya, Mauretania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, South Yemen) exceed the total populations of those countries twenty years ago.
Abdelkafi, Mohamed. 1968. One Hundred Arabic Proverbs from Libya (London: Vernon and Yates).
Barakat, Robert A. 1980. A Contextual Study of Arabic Proverbs (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica). FF Communication No. 226.
Ben Amos, Dan, ed. 1976. Folklore Genres (Austin: University of Texas Press).
Brockelman, C. 1913a. "al-'Askari," The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 1 (Leyden: E. J. Brill): 489. Also, 1913b. "al-Maydani," The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 3 (Leyden: E.J. Brill): 144-145.
___________. 1913c. "Mathal," The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 3 (Leyden: E.J. Brill):407-410.
Buckhardt, John Lewis. 1972. Arabic Proverbs; or, the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 3rd ed. (London: Curzon Press).
Spicing the Conversation:
The development of proverbs and its role in Arab culture
Sheila K. Webster