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Common wisdom: Luqman the Wise in a collection of Coptic Orthodox homilies.

In the summer of 2004 I was invited by the organizers of the conference "The Life and Times of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite" (1) to investigate collections of Arabic homilies attributed to this great monastic leader, for many years (c. 385-465) (2) the spiritual head of the White Monastery federation at Atripe, across the Nile from the ancient city of Akhmim (= Shmin, Panopolis).

The first collection to which I turned my attention consisted in nine homilies for the seven Sundays of Lent, concluding with Palm Sunday, (3) preserved in a seventeenth-century manuscript that had once been in the library of the White Monastery, now preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris as ms. arabe 4761. (4) It quickly became clear to me that the homilies preserved in this manuscript were not translations from Coptic originals, as one would expect were the attribution to St. Shenoute (5) correct, but original Arabic-language compositions. I was not particularly surprised by this result, but I was surprised to discover that the homilies were not merely exercises in biblical exegesis (although biblical quotations and allusions abound) or in the use of the "language of Zion" (that is, specifically churchly discourse). Rather, the preacher, a Coptic Christian probably active sometime between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, also drew from a store of edifying tales and wisdom literature that was shared by Christians and Muslims.

In this essay I highlight one element of the "common wisdom" that makes an appearance in these homilies: the wisdom tradition associated with Luqman the Wise. I offer this as a modest tribute to my friend and teacher Harold Vogelaar, who, throughout his career, has sought out Christian-Muslim "common wisdom" and has fashioned his life and ministry according to it.

Luqman the Wise in Christian homilies

Luqman the Wise makes two appearances in these homilies. The first is in a homily appointed to be read after the Gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent. (6) Throughout, the preacher commends the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and good works--and stresses the need to repent in this life before death, since death closes the door on the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. The problem, however, is that human beings are heedless and negligent. They require the ministry of scholars ("guides to God"), ascetics ("the way to God"), merchants ("God's faithful on his earth") and kings ("shepherds of the religion of God"). Unfortunately, the preacher explains, many hardships and misfortunes have come upon the people because these leaders have neglected their responsibilities: scholars have abandoned their pupils, ascetics have desired the world, merchants have not been good stewards, and kings have oppressed their subjects and have not feared God! (7) The preacher comments:
How can these unseemly matters be, and how can we be negligent about
things pleasing to God our Creator, and about mentioning him constantly
in prayer?

Luqman the Wise says:
"O my son, don't let the rooster be better
 than you!
For it, when the night is half spent, beats
 its wings and cries out to God in praise."

So if a lowly bird that has no value praises God, how can it be that a
noble human being, whom God has set above all the creatures, does not
praise God and ascribe him holiness at all times? (8)


This reference to Luqman the Wise is followed by other quotations from better-known authorities: St. John Chrysostom, Solomon the Wise, and Our Lord [Jesus Christ].

Another quotation from Luqman the Wise is found in the following homily, for the Third Sunday of Lent. (9) Surprisingly, this homily is not centered on a biblical passage or on the life of a Christian saint but rather on a story about Alexander the Great. We read that this great conqueror once discovered a country ruled by a woman. Taken aback by (what the reader is to understand as) this surprising state of affairs, Alexander made inquiries and learned that there was a male heir to the throne but that he had refused the kingdom and gone off to live by himself among the tombs. Alexander sought him out and attempted to persuade him to return to his city, be crowned as king, and serve as Alexander's loyal vassal. The hermit prince agreed, but on the condition that Alexander grant him four things: youth without aging, eternal happiness without grief, bodily health without illness, and life without death. Alexander, astonished at this request, replied that these four are impossible for human beings, to which the hermit prince responded that it was then better for him to attend to the demands of God rather than to the affairs of kingship in this passing world. Alexander, stricken by he prince's words and conscious of his own thoroughgoing enmeshment in worldly affairs, departed in sorrow and with a request for prayers. (10)

In his response to the hermit prince's surprising request, Alexander quoted or alluded to scripture in order to prove the inevitability of suffering, as affirmed in Psalm 34:19 ("Many are the afflictions of the righteous") and illustrated by the careers of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the reality of illness, such as that of Job; and humanity's mortality in Adam ("You are dust, and to dust you shall return," Gen 3:19). Alexander concluded his speech about the inescapability of suffering and death with a quotation that does not come from the Bible:
Also, Luqman the Wise says:
 "God has humbled the people of the world
 with two traits: death and poverty.
 Were it not for death, no stubborn tyrant
 would submit.
 Were it not for poverty, no free people
 would serve slaves." (11)


In both instances in which Luqman appears in these Christian homilies, he is quoted as a figure of authority. His maxims take their place alongside verses from the Bible and a saying from Chrysostom. And so we ask: Who is this Luqman, and how did he become an authority for an Egyptian Christian preacher and his audience?

The development of the Luqman tradition

For most contemporary readers of these homilies, Luqman the Wise is best known as the sage for whom the thirty-first surah of the Qur'an is named. (12) There he is mentioned (v. 12) as one to whom God gave al-hikmah: wisdom, or even a Book of Maxims. (13) Several of his sayings are then presented in the form of admonitions to his son (introduced with the words "O my son," in vv. 13, 16, and 17), which is reminiscent of chapters 1-7 of the biblical book of Proverbs as well as other Near Eastern wisdom collections, for example, the aphorisms of Ahiqar the Wise. (14) Of the six verses of the surah that have the form of Luqman's admonitions, the first four (vv. 12-13, 16-17) enjoin right piety: gratitude to and exclusive worship of the One God, prayer, "bidding to honor and forbidding dishonor," and patience; these are of a piece with prophetic teaching throughout the Qur'an. The next two admonitions (vv. 18-19), however, are strongly reminiscent of ancient wisdom traditions. In the rendering of Abdel Haleem:
Do not turn your nose up at people,
 nor walk about the place arrogantly,
 for God does not love arrogant or
 boastful people.
Go at a moderate pace
 and lower your voice,
 for the ugliest of all voices is the
 braying of asses. (15)


There is no mention of Luqman in the Qur'an outside of the thirty-first surah, but his mention there was sufficient to make him the great sage of Islamic tradition, one who could be safely admired by Muslims: his wisdom was given by God and sanctioned by the Qur'an and therefore not in any way in competition with the revelation vouchsafed to Muhammad. As a result, Luqman was of great interest to later scholars and became a magnet for wisdom literature of all kinds. In a first stage of development, (16) a major written collection of Luqman material came into existence; the convert to Islam from Judaism and transmitter of pre-Islamic materials Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. c. 730) is the critical figure here. He is said to have read ten thousand babs--chapters? headings?--of Luqman's hikmah. (17)

In a second stage coinciding with the great age of translation into Arabic, Christians as well as Muslims played a role in shaping the expanding Luqman corpus. One of the greatest of the translators, the renowned "Nestorian" Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq, included Luqman material in his Nawadir al-falasifah (The Rarities of the Philosophers); furthermore, it was probably through Christians that Arabic versions of Aesop's fables were made and attributed to the new "ecumenical" Luqman. (18) This second period culminates, however, with a collection by a Muslim scholar with strong ties to the Fatimid court in Cairo: Mukhtar al-hikam wa-mahasin al-kalim (The Choicest Maxims and Most Beautiful Words) of Abu 1-Wafa' al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik, composed in 1048-1049. (19) While al-Mubashshir's work includes wisdom material from many sources, the section on Luqman is sizeable; it occupies seventeen pages in 'Abd al-Rahman Badawi's edition of 1958. (20)

Al-Mubashshir's Mukhtar al-hikam is a work of extraordinary importance in the history of books and their transmission. It was translated into Spanish (as Bocados de oro) before 1257, and translations were printed in France, England, and Spain before 1500. (21) However, extracts from al-Mubashshir's work were being copied by Egyptian Christians at least as early as the fifteenth century, as we know from the manuscripts Paris, B.N. ar. 49 and 309. (22) Other manuscripts bear witness to the material's continuing interest to Egyptian Christians (23) as well as to the use of Luqman material among the Melkite Christians of Syria. (24)

Luqman among Christians and Muslims

The Luqman materials in Paris, B.N. ar. 309 (15th c.) were published, with a French translation, by Leroy in 1909, providing us with a convenient collection of Luqman sayings as they may have been known to a late medieval Coptic Orthodox preacher. (25) The first section, The History of Luqman the Wise (Akhbar Luqman al-hakim), (26) presents several reports about his origins. While these differ in detail, they tend to make him of African origin and a slave (as was Aesop!) and a contemporary of King David.
It is said that one day King David summoned [Luqman] and told him that
he would be made qadi, to exercise judicial authority among the people.
He, however, refused. So [the king] said: "What is your problem with
this, that you be a wise man truthfully pronouncing judgment among the
people?" [Luqman] said: "I do not wish to be exalted in this world, or
strong and powerful, but tormented and debased in the world to come!
Whoever sells the hereafter for the sake of this world will lose them
both!"

[The narrator of this report] said: God (glory be to him!) was pleased
with this speech, and sent him an angel to help him in [the acquisition
of] wisdom; and he became the wisest of the people of earth. David used
to spread the news of his wisdom and say to him: "Congratulations, O
Luqman! You have been granted your full share of sagacity."

David's vocation (27) had been offered Luqman, but he refused to accept
it. (28)


The report echoes the majority opinion among Muslim scholars that Luqman was not a prophet (as was David) but a man on whom exceptional wisdom had been bestowed. (29) It also establishes the asceticism that is at the heart of Luqman's wisdom. The saying "Whoever sells the hereafter for the sake of this world will lose them both" could well summarize the point of view of the hermit prince who refused Alexander's offer of kingship.

After a few more "historical" anecdotes about Luqman, the text of this manuscript turns to The Rules of Conduct of Luqman the Wise, a long set of admonitions to his son, each beginning "O my son." Among them is the saying about the rooster, with wording almost identical to that found in the homily for the Second Sunday of Lent. (30) This set of admonitions is followed in the manuscript by The Testament of Luqman to his Son before His Death, and here we find the saying about death and poverty, with wording nearly identical to that found in the homily for the Third Sunday of Lent. (31) It is not far-fetched to think that the preacher of the "Shenoutian" homilies in Paris, B.N. ar. 4761 was familiar with a work such as that preserved in Paris, B.N. ar. 309.

Muslims, too, were familiar with Luqman material of the sort preserved in Paris, B.N. ar. 309, and edifying maxims of Luqman may be found in a wide range of sources. I illustrate with three instances of the saying about the rooster.

1. The lexicon Thimar al-qulub (Fruit of the Hearts) by 'Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad al-Tha'alibi (961-1038) devotes an entry to "the wisdom of Luqman," (32) identified as an Abyssinian slave of an Israelite at the time of King David. Al-Tha'alibi gives a sampling of Luqman's "most beautiful exhortations to his son," beginning with:
O my son, sell this world for the sake of the
 hereafter,
 and you will gain them both! (33)
O my son, beware of an evil companion, for
 he is like a sword:
 its appearance is beautiful, but its trace is
 ugly!
O my son, don't let the ant be more clever
 than you,
 for it gathers during the summer [in
 preparation] for the winter!
O my son, don't let the rooster be
 more clever than you,
 for it cries out before daybreak while you
 are sleeping!... (34)


Al-Tha'alibi's sampling of Luqman sayings is just that, a sampling, and so it is difficult to interpret the saying about the rooster. Should it be taken with the saying about the ant and interpreted simply as an exhortation to early rising and hard work? Or should it be taken with the exhortation to "sell this world for the sake of the hereafter," in which case it could be interpreted as an exhortation to wake from spiritual slumber and to devote oneself to ascetic endeavor?

2. There is no question about the force of the saying about the rooster in a classic of the Islamic spiritual tradition, Ayyuha l-walad (Letter to a Disciple) by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111). The saying appears in the same form as in Thimar alqulub, but in the context of an exhortation to keep vigil by night and to pray:
[Sufyan al-Thawri] said:

In the first part of the night, a Caller from beneath the Throne calls
 out:
 "Let the worshippers arise!"
 And they arise and pray as God wills.
At midnight, the Caller calls out:
 "Let the pious arise!"
 And they arise and pray until the latter part of the night.
And at the latter part of the night, the Caller calls out:
 "Let those who seek forgiveness arise!"
 And they arise and seek forgiveness.
And when dawn breaks, the Caller calls out:
 "Let the heedless arise!"
 And they arise from their beds as the dead shall be raised from
 their graves.

O my child ...

It is narrated in The Counsels of Luqman the Wise to His Son that he
 said:

 O my son, don't let the rooster be more
 clever than you,
 for it cries out before daybreak while
 you are sleeping!

The one who said this in verse did well:

 In the dark of night a dove called out
 from a branch, after midnight--while I
 was sleeping.
 By the House of God, I am a liar! Were I
 truly a Lover,
 doves would not have outdone me in
 weeping.
 I claim to be in love, fervently longing
 for my Lord--but I weep not, while the
 beasts are weeping. (35)


3. A more recent example comes from the supercommentary of Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Sawi (d. 1825/6) on the well-known Tafsir al-Jalalayn. (36) In his comment on Sur at Luqman, al-Sawi reproduces a number of sayings attributed to Luqman, beginning as follows:
O my son, take the fear of the Lord as
 commerce,
 and gain will come to you without
 merchandise!
O my son, attend funerals,
 but do not attend weddings;
 for funerals will remind you of the
 hereafter,
 while weddings will arouse your desire for
 this world!
O my son, do not be weaker than this rooster
 who cries out before daybreak while you
 are sleeping in your bed!
O my son, do not put off repentance,
 for truly death comes suddenly!... (37)


Although we once again simply have a sampling of the sayings of Luqman, those reproduced here have a consistent message: Live this life in watchfulness, repentance, and the fear of the Lord, in preparation for judgment and the world to come. With the saying "Do not put off repentance, for truly death comes suddenly" we have returned to the major theme of the Lenten homilies.

Whether in the Christian or the Islamic texts sampled here, Luqman's saying about the rooster is used to exhort believers to prayer and to rouse them from heedlessness and negligence. Reading the Christian and the Islamic texts together, we become aware of realms of common wisdom and common piety shared by Christians and Muslims in the medieval Middle East. Luqman the Wise was a teacher for them all.

Mark N. Swanson

Luther Seminary

Saint Paul, Minnesota

1. The conference was sponsored by the Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society and held at the University of California at Los Angeles, August 13-14, 2004, and its proceedings published in Coptica 4 (2005). I am grateful to the society's president, Hany Takla, for the invitation to participate and for providing me with copies of the relevant manuscripts.

2. All dates in this paper are given in the Common Era.

3. The manuscript gives two homilies for each of the first two Sundays of Lent, for a total of nine homilies.

4. For details of the manuscript and its contents, see my contribution to the conference: Mark N. Swanson, "St. Shenoute in Seventeenth-Century Dress: Arabic Christian Preaching in Paris, B.N. ar. 4761," Coptica 4 (2005): 27-42.

5. The saint's name takes various forms: "Shenoute" is transliterated from Sahidic Coptic, while "Shenouda" reproduces the Arabic pronunciation.

6. Paris, B.N. ar. 4761, ff. 20v-28v.

7. Ibid., ff. 20v-23r.

8. Ibid., f. 23rv.

9. Ibid., ff. 29r-36v. Edition and French translation: Victor Ghica, "Sermon arabe pour le troisieme dimanche du Careme, attribue a Chenoute (ms. Par. ar. 4761)," Annales Islamologiques 35 (2001): 143-61. A partial English translation may be found in Ashraf Hanna, "St. Shenouda's Writings," St. Shenouda Coptic Newsletter 1, no. 4 (July 1995): 4-6.

10. Ghica was unable to locate this story among the many recensions of the Alexander Romance and related materials (Ghica, "Sermon," 147-50). However, the story does bear some resemblance to the stories about Alexander's visit to the Brahmins or gymnosophistoi--the "naked philosophers"--of India, and their King Dandamis. In contemporary English translations, see Richard Stoneman, The Greek Alexander Romance (London: Penguin, 1991), 131-33 [from the [beta]-recension]; idem, Legends of Alexander the Great (London and Vermont: Everyman, 1994), 34-56 [Palladius, On the Life of the Brahmans]). For background to the Alexander Romance in Arabic Christian literature, see Samir Khalil, "Les versions arabes chretiennes du Roman d'Alexandre," in La diffusione dell'eredita classica nell'eta tardoantica e medievale. Il'Romanzo di Alessandro" e altri scritti. Atti del Seminario internationale di studio (Roma--Napoli, 25-27 settembre 1997), ed. R. B. Finazzi and A. Valvo (Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 1998), 227-47.

11. Paris, B.N. ar. 4761, f. 34v; Ghica, "Sermon," 156, no. 79-80.

12. Helpful encyclopedia articles on Luqman include B. Heller and N. A. Stillman, "Lukman," Encyclopedia of Islam (new ed.), V:811-13; A. H. M. Zahniser, "Luqman," in Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2001-2006), III:242-43; and Dmitri Gutas, "Luqman: a Legendary Hero," in Encyclopaedia of the Holy Qur'an, 5 vols., ed. N. K. Singh and A. R. Agwan (Delhi: Global Vision Publishing House, 2000), III:724-27.

13. Gutas makes an argument for hikmah being understood here as a book of maxims in "Classical Arabic Wisdom Literature: Nature and Scope," Journal of the American Oriental Society 101 (1981): 49-86, at 50-51. He summarizes the evidence for the existence of written wisdom collections in pre- and early Islamic times at pp. 55-57.

14. Ahiqar was said to be the wise counselor of the Assyrian kings Sennarcherib and Esar-haddon (7th c. B.C.E.). An Arabic recension of his life and teaching was published with a French translation in L. Leroy, "Histoire d'Haikar le sage," Revue de l'Orient Chretien 13 (1908): 367-88; 14 (1909): 50-70, 143-54.

15. The Qur'an: A New Translation, trans. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World's Classics (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 262. Rendel Harris once pointed out a parallel to v. 19 in the aphorisms of Ahiqar the Wise: see Leroy, "Histoire," 13 (1908): 371 (no. 8); English trans. in Gutas, "Luqman: a Legendary Hero," 725.

16. According to Gutas, who very helpfully summarizes the history of the Luqman tradition in "Classical Arabic Wisdom Literature," 57-58, which is the principal source for this entire paragraph.

17. Ibid., reproducing the report from Ibn Qutaybah's Kitab al-Ma'arif.

18. A collection of forty-one fables of Lukman, copied by a Coptic Orthodox scribe in 1299, is found in Paris, B.N. ar. 175. This collection was published with a French translation in 1850: J. Derenbourg, Fables de Loqman le Sage (Berlin and London: A. Asher & Co., 1850).

19. For biographical information on al-Mubashshir, see Franz Rosenthal, "Al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik: Prolegomena to an Abortive Edition," Oriens 13-14 (1961): 136-38.

20. So Gutas, "Classical Arabic Wisdom Literature," 58; I have not seen the edition, which was published in Madrid.

21. Ibid., 133-34, 149-55.

22. See Gerard Troupeau, Catalogue des manuscrits arabes, vol. 1 (Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale, 1972): 34-35, 270-71. Gutas mentions the possibility that the manuscripts in the Bibliotheque Nationale could represent extracts from one of al-Mubash-shir's sources rather than from Mukhtar al-hikam itself; "Arabic Wisdom Literature," 58. The matter awaits investigation.

23. E.g. Paris, B.N. 310 (17th c.) and 4898 (18th c.); Cairo, Coptic Museum supp. Hist. 6 [new register no. 515] (1739); Cairo, Coptic Patriarchate Bibl. 58 [Simaika 120] (1788).

24. E.g., Paris, B.N. 28 (1539), and Vatican City, B.A.V. ar. 286 (17th c.).

25. L. Leroy, "Vie, preceptes et testament de Lokman (texte arabe, traduction francaise)," Revue de l'Orient Chretien 14 (1909): 225-55.

26. Paris, B.N. ar. 309, ff. 38v-41r; Leroy, "Vie, preceptes et testament de Lokman," 226-28 (Arabic text), 241-43 (French trans.).

27. Lit. "the matter which David was in."

28. Paris, B.N. ar. 309, f. 40r; Leroy, "Vie, preceptes et testament de Lokman," 227 (Arabic text); 242 (French trans.).

29. Modern discussions of this point may be found in 'Abd Allah Kannun al-Hasani, Luqman al-hakim (Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1969), 22-24; or Muhammad Khayr Ramadan Yusuf, Luqman al-hakim wa-hikamuhu (Damascus: Dar al-Mushaf, 1984), 106-9. Both allow for uncertainty on this point, and the discussion in the latter volume concludes: wa-llahu a'lam, "God is the greater knower!"

30. Leroy, "Vie, Preceptes et testament de Lokman," 230, lines 1-3 (Arabic text); 244 (French trans.).

31. Ibid., 238, lines 2-4 (Arabic text); 252 (French trans.).

32. Abu Mansur 'Abd al-Malik Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Tha'alibi, Thimar al-qulub fi l-mudaf wa-l-mansub, ed. Ibrahim Salih (Damascus: Dar al-Basha'ir, 1994), I: 228-30.

33. We note that this is a precise complement to the saying found in Paris, B.N. ar. 309: "Whoever sells the hereafter for the sake of this world will lose them both!"

34. Ibid., 230. I was alerted to the presence of this material in Thimar al-qulub by 'Abd Allah Kannun al-Hasani, Luqman al-hakim, pp. 74-75.

35. Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, Ayyuha l-walad, ed. 'Abd Allah Ahmad Abu Zaynah (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1975), 43-46. I look forward to seeing the new bilingual edition: al-Ghazali, Letter to a Disciple = Ayyuha l-walad, trans. Tobias Mayer (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2005).

36. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Sawi, Hashiyat al-Sawi 'ala Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 4 parts (Mumbai: Molvi Mohammad bin Gulamrasul Surtis Sons, 1981). Again, I was directed to this reference by 'Abd Allah Kannun al-Hasani, Luqman al-hakim, 70-73.

37. Hashiyat al-Sawi III:239.
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