Historical Tales and Anecdotes of the Time of the Early Khalifahs/Translator's Preface


I ENTREAT gentlemen who may hereafter attend my lectures, to bear in mind this last saying. If they wish to understand History, they must first try to understand men and women. For History is the history of men and women, and of nothing else; and he who knows men and women thoroughly will best understand the past work of the world, and be best able to carry on its work now. ... If, therefore, any of you should ask me how to study history I should answer — "Take, by all means, biographies; wheresoever possible, autobiographies; and study them. Fill your mind with live human figures; men of like passions with yourselves; see how each lived and worked in the time and place in which God put him. Believe me, that when you have thus made a friend of the dead, and brought him to life again, and let him teach you to see with his eyes and feel with his heart, you will begin to understand more of his generation and his circumstances than all the mere history-books of the period would teach you."

Thus spoke Dr. Kingsley, when, as Professor of Modern History, he delivered his inaugural lecture before the University of Cambridge. His advice is sound, but good advice is seldom the worse for wear. And in the present day, when, for the most part, every one, whether educated or uneducated, is content to adopt the thoughts of anonymous writers, how can it be possible to " see with the eyes " and " feel with the hearts " of those old-world giants of thought and research } In European history, moreover, the vast change which has taken place even during the last few centuries, not only in the physical and religious distribution of power amongst nations, but in customs and habits of thought, and even language itself, raises a barrier against the assimilation of the modern with the ancient mind. In Oriental history, however, particularly the history of the Arabs, this barrier need not stand in the way of an earnest student. Language, habits, mode of life, amongst the Arabs of the desert are little changed from what history represents them to have been more than twelve centuries ago. This fact may possibly create an interest in a record of those times.

When, at the instance of my kind friend Mr. Frederick Ayrton, of Cairo, I undertook the translation of the following tales and anecdotes, it was with no idea of appending historical notes. But when, in connection with the translation, I studied the history of the times to which these tales refer, I felt that in submitting them to the public, it would be advisable to add such explanatory notes as might possibly induce some of my readers themselves to engage in researches into the history of that interesting period.

I have rarely given my authority for the notes, because they are for the most part condensed from various authors. But I subjoin a list of the principal works whence they have been drawn : —

  • Annales Muslemici - - - Hafniae, 1789-94.
  • Badger, Imams and Seyyids of *Omdn (Hakluyt Society) London, 1871.
  • Burton, Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah London, 1857.
  • Caussin de Perceval, Histoire des Arabes - Paris, 1847.
  • D'Herbelot, BiblioMque Orientals - - Paris, 1697.
  • Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire London, 1797.
  • Ibn-Khallikan, Biographical Dictionary (translated by Baron Mac Guckin de Slane) Paris, 1871.
  • Modern Egyptians - - - - London, 1846.
  • Modern Universal History - - - - London, 1780-84.
  • Playfair, A History of Arabia Felix or Yemen (printed for Government) - - - Bombay, 1859.
  • Sale, The Koran ------ London, 1812.
  • Geschichte der Kkalifen - - - Mannheim, 1846.

The Reverend George Percy Badger, to whom I am indebted for much valuable help, informed me that some of the tales in the following volume had been already translated and offered to the English public in the notes to an edition of Mr. Lane's " Thousand and One Nights " (commonly called The Arabian Nights). I was unaware of this at the time of translating the tales, and since referring to Mr. Lane's volumes, have found that the rule which applies to most of the Eastern tales with which I am acquainted holds good in this instance, viz., that though the foundation of the story may be the same, yet that the details have been varied. This may be partly caused by the fact of so many Oriental tales and anecdotes having been handed down orally for several centuries. And it may be due in part to the flexibility (if I may use such a term) of the Arabic language, which admits of considerable latitude in translation, while the sense in every case is, according to the view taken of the subject as a whole by the translator, substantially correct. This remark applies also to the original works, and to the interpretation put upon words by natives of the country reading them in their mother-tongue. I have therefore retained the stories and anecdotes as originally translated by myself.

In spelling proper names and places, I have followed the plan adopted by Mr. Badger in his "Imams and Seyyids of 'Oman," and I cannot do better than quote his words upon this subject: —

"As a recognized transliteration of the Arabic into Roman characters is still a desideratum, I have eschewed any attempt at etymological exactness in that respect, and have simply endeavoured to convey the correct sound of the original as nearly as possible, without resorting to expedients unfamiliar to the general reader. I give to the consonants the same power as in English ; to the vowels the same sound generally as in Italian ; a as mfar; e as in beg; i as in pit ; o as in store ; u as in lunar. The diphthongs ai and ei, like the ie 'in pie and the ei in vein respectively. The vocal sound o{ ow in how I express hy au ; when doubled in the same word, by awWy as in Tawwdm,

"The Arabic suffix, when used to denote an ordinary or gentilic adjective, I have represented by j, which somewhat in the same way constitutes the formative of many of our English adjectives, e.g.y windy from wind^ stormy from storm^ etc. This terminal y should be pronounced with a ringing Italian i sound.

"The acute accent (') over a vowel denotes the syllable to be accentuated : attention to this expe- dient will prevent such mispronunciations as Maskat instead of Mdskat. The circumflex (") over a vowel prolongs it: t is equivalent to ee^ A to oo. The apostrophe before a vowel is intended to express the guttural ^ain ; before a consonant, the ellipsis of a preceding vowel."

I trust that with the foregoing explanation readers will have no difficulty in giving to every word its correct pronunciation, and that the object attained by following the above rules will compensate those not acquainted with the original langus^e for the un- familiar appearance of the words.

I must say a few words respecting the verses which appear in the following pages. I do not possess, alas ! "the gift of linking measured words " into rhyme, and am, moreover, by no means sure that English rhyme would convey so good an idea of the rhythm and flow of Arabic verse as does the measured prose in which I have rendered it. With the concurrendor therefore of better judges than myself, I have left the verses in their rhymeless form, striving only in the poetry, as in the prose, to give not merely the general sense of the original, but the very words and idioms used therein.

It is not for me to point out what I may deem the merits of the various stories. But it may not be considered out of place if, recalling the truth of the old saying, " History repeats itself," I draw attention to the tales of " The Young Man who was deemed Mad," p. 158 et seq.f and "The Three Educated Young Men," p. 168 et seq. The former might well form the groundwork of as thrilling a romance as any modern writer has produced ; while in the latter, the remarks made upon the subject of education by the tyrant el-Hajjdj might have been uttered to-day by our foremost advocates of universal instruction.

I wish to offer my grateful thanks, not only to my friends Mr. Ayrton and Mr. Badger, but also to Dr. Rost, librarian to the India Office, and to Mr. Eggeling, librarian to the Royal Asiatic Society, through whose courtesy I have been enabled to refer to books the want of which I much regretted while abroad.

In conclusion, I would express my sincere hope that those who read the following pages may enjoy in their perusal some portion of the pleasure I have experienced in their translation. And I beg that if any charm be found in these tales, it may be ascribed to the fascination of the Arabic language ; and that all defects may be attributed, not to want of will, but to want of power in the Translator.

March, 1873.