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The Diwan of Abu'l-Ala, by Henry Baerlein, [1909], at

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On the Name Abu’l-Ala

Arab names have always been a stumbling-block, and centuries ago there was a treatise written which was called "The Tearing of the Veil from before Names and Patronymics." Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Jarit al-Misri is a fair example of the nomenclature; here we have the patronymic (Abu Bakr—father of Bakr), the personal name (Ahmad), the surname (ibn Jarit—son of Jarit), and the ethnic name (al-Misri—native of Egypt). In addition, they made use of fancy names if they were poets (such as Ssorrdorr, the sack of pearls, who died in the year 1072), names connoting kindred, habitation (such as Ahmad al-Maidani, the great collector of proverbs, who lived near the Maidan, the race-course of Naisapur), faith or trade or personal defects (such as a caliph who was called the father of flies, since on account of his offensive breath no fly would rest upon his lip), and finally they gave each other names of honour (such as sword of the empire, helper of the empire, etc.). Then the

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caliph gave, as a distinction, double titles and, when these became too common, triple titles. ("In this way," says al-Biruni, "the matter is opposed to sense and clumsy to the last degree, so that a man who says the titles is fatigued when he has scarcely started and he runs the risk of being late for prayer.")…The patronymic was, of all of these, the most in favour. At first it was assumed when the eldest son was born; when Bakr came into the world his father took the name of Abu Bakr, and acquired a new importance. This was not by any means peculiar to the Arabs: "O Queen," says Das, a king of Indian folk-song, "O Queen, the name of childless has departed from me." When the Arab had no son, he used an honorific patronymic (such as Abu’l-Ala, father of excellence, or Abu’l-Feda, father of redemption). At times this manufactured patronymic was a thing of mockery, more or less gentle (such as a companion of the Prophet who was fond of cats, and was entitled "father of the cat"). The prevalence among the Arabs of the patronymic is immediately noticed, (a camel is the father of Job; a strongly built person is the father of the locust; a licentious person is the father of night; and there are multitudes of such formations)…With regard to surnames, it was not the custom always for them to denote that so-and-so was the son of his father’s family. "Who is your father?" says an Arab

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to the mule, and he replies, "The horse is my maternal uncle." So there are some people who, for shame, prefer that we should think of them as members of their mother’s family…

The following additional quatrains may be quoted:

Unasking have we come,—too late, too soon
   Unasking from this plot of earth are sent.
But we, the sons of noble discontent,
Use half our lives in asking for the moon.

("We all sorely complain," says Seneca, "of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.")

So then your hand has guarded me! Be blessed,
   And, if you like such reading, read, I pray,
   Through Moses’ book, or credit them who say
That old Isaiah’s hand is far the best.

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Some day, some day the potter shall return
   Into the dust. O potter, will you make
   An earth which I would not refuse to take,
Or such unpleasant earth as you would spurn?

Then out of that—men swear with godly skill—
   Perchance another potter may devise
   Another pot, a piece of merchandise
Which they can love and break, if so they will.

And from a resting-place you may be hurled
   And from a score of countries may be thrust—
   Poor brother, you the freeman of the dust,
Like any slave are flung about the world.






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