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Medieval Sourcebook:
Zamakhshari (1070-1143 CE):
The Discoverer of Truth, c. 1130 CE

[Horne Introduction]

Zamakshari (1070-1143 CE) was born and died in Khiva in Turkestan. He was, however, another of the many youths eager for knowledge who took advantage of the wide-spread dominion of the Arab caliphs to travel through the East. He journeyed indeed through such hardships that he lost a leg, frozen in a snowstorm; and he dwelt so long in Mecca, the holy city, that he was called the "Neighbor of God." Through men such as Zamakhshari Islam learned its final form.


Praise to God, who has sent from heaven the Qur'an, in the form of an address of which the words are coherent and arranged in order, and who has sent it in continuous chapters according to the demands of necessity; who has willed that it should begin by expressing the praise due to God, and end by recounting his power and protection; who has included in it two kinds of revelations, the one obscure, the other perfectly clear; who has divided the Qur'an into Suras, and the Suras into verses, and has distinguished the different parts by divisions and conclusions: qualifications which apply only to that which has been created, and produced without a model, and could only be the attributes of things which have had a beginning and recognize an author of whom they are the work. Praise to him who has reserved to himself alone the privilege of priority and eternity, and who has given to everything save himself the characteristic of having been created:

Praise to him who has created the Qur'an, the sense of which is a light to guide the spirit, the demonstrations of which are clear; like an inspiration which blazons forth its proof and authentic title; like a lecture written in the Arabic language, and free from all faults, which is the key to open the treasures of all spiritual and temporal blessings, and which confirms and witnesses the truth of all the Holy Books which have preceded it; like a miracle which, alone among all miracles, has existed during all the passage of the centuries, and a book which, alone among all books, will be repeated in every language and in every place.

By this book, he has shut the mouths of the most nobly born Arabs, in that they are challenged to produce something to be compared with it, he has rendered mute the most eloquent orators in that he has defied them to imitate it. Amongst those who possess the greatest command of the language in all its purity, no one has the enterprise to compose anything which equals it, or even approaches it. No one of those who are distinguished for their eloquence has dared to compete with him in a single chapter equal to the shortest Sura included in the Qur'an. Yet the orators of the land are more numerous than the pebbles of the Batha valley and more plentiful than the grains of sand in the desert of Dahna. The blood of patriotism has not boiled in their veins, and zeal for the honor of their cause has not moved them to the undertaking, although they are known to be naturally inclined to disputes and quarrels, and ready to embrace with ardor and without moderation every opportunity for rivalry and hostility; although when roused to fight for the defense of their reputation, they are quick to face the gravest dangers, and will plunge themselves into every excess to obtain the object of their desires. If any one opposes their title to glory or prevails against them, they oppose him in great numbers; if any one in their hearing boasts of a glorious deed, they respond with a multitude of glorious deeds.

God has employed against them two kinds of weapons, first the written law, then the sword; but they have not challenged him to combat nor attempted to cope with the sword, although the drawn sword is no more than a trifling weapon, fitted only for badinage, if the strength of authentic truth is not joined to the victorious point. Certainly, if they have in no way put up even a semblance of resistance to the truth which has been presented to them, it is simply because they know well that the sea, released from its boundaries, would envelop and overflow any mere well made by human hands; and the sun, by the brightness of its fire, eclipses the light of all the stars.

May the favors of God shine on the most worthy of those who have received revelations, on the friend of God, Abu'l Rasem Mohammed, son of Abd-Allah, son of Abd-Almotalleb, son of Haschem, whose standard is raised amongst the descendants of Lowaiy; who has been fortified by constant protection and assisted by wisdom, whose visage radiates glory, and who shines with all the signs of nobility; on the illustrious Prophet whose name has been inscribed in the Law and the Gospel! May blessings fall also upon his sainted descendants, on those successors to his authority who have with him the ties which are born of marriage!

It is well known that, in the profundities of science and the principles of the arts, there is little difference between the learned of different classes. Those who practice the various arts are equal, or nearly equal. If one professor outdistances another, it is only by a few steps; and if one artist outstrips another, it is only by a short distance. But where one sees a true difference among the classes, where they make every effort to surpass each other, where there is true emulation and rivalry, there one finds real inferiors and superiors, of the sort that there is among those who pursue the same career from incomprehensible distances, distances so great that one alone balances a thousand others. There are, in the sciences as in the arts, the beauties of certain delicate points; there are subtle thoughts which arouse the wisdom of reflective spirits, profound, hidden secrets covered with veils which very few men, even among those of the most distinguished talent, can lift, secrets which can only be discovered and brought to light by those who among men of merit are like the pearl placed in the center of the necklace, and like the stone which is set in the gold of the ring. Ordinary men have not the eyes to create such excellences, and are as though chained to their seats by a servile desire to imitate, and can not even flatter themselves that any one will trim the hair from their foreheads and give them freedom.

Of all the sciences, that which abounds in the most difficulties, which demands the greatest effort in spirit, which offers the largest number of problems capable of fatiguing the strongest intellect, I mean those extraordinary subtleties from which it is difficult to extricate oneself, which are locked as if in vaults, whose thread is cut and difficult to regain---that science is the interpreting of the Qur'an. It is a science for which, as has been said by Djahed in his work entitled, "Composition of the Qur'an," no savants are fitted, and to which they devote their lives without hope of complete success.

I have often noticed that my confreres in religion, men who hold the foremost rank among the disciples of the true faith and law, men exceptionally proficient in the knowledge of the language of the Arabs and in the fundamental dogmas of religion, have been enthusiastic in expressing their satisfaction and admiration every time that, consulted by them for the interpretation of some passage of the Qur'an, I have explained their difficulty and disclosed to them the truth which was hidden from them. They expressed a keen desire for me to write a work treating on the subject in all its phases. At last they joined in begging me to dictate to them a commentary which should unveil all the mysteries of the Holy Book, and help them to understand the different explanations and opinions. I excused myself from doing as they desired, but they continually renewed their pleading; and, to conquer my resistance, they employed the mediation of the chief religious men, and the most learned among those who professed doctrines of justice and unity. I realized that it was obligatory upon me to defer to their desires, so that I came to consider such a work as a personal duty and task; but that which finally brought me to consent was that I saw our age to be in a state of decay, and the men of our time to be degenerating I realized that far from being able to raise themselves to worthy heights in the two sciences of thought and exposition, they were not even capable of attaining to those weaker means which serve as instruments in the interpretation of the Qur'an. I therefore resolved to write this book that it might be for them The Discoverer of Truth.

Golden Necklaces; or, The Maxims of Zamakhshari.

I. When you go to the mosque, walk with reverence; and when you pray, fill your heart with humility. Think of the power of the glorious King, and do not forget what is written concerning the temptations of the devil. Consider before what all-powerful sovereign you kneel, and what deceitful enemy you have to combat. Verily, no one can maintain himself on a firm foundation in this difficult world, except it be the man who is loyal to noble principles and fortified by his profession of faith; the faithful who sighs in fear of chastisement, contrite, repentant, eager in the pursuit of reward, who spurs his horse into the arena of obedience, and disciplines his spirit in the practice of submission.

II. Did I say to you that our country is destined to mourning? That will become true when an unjust sovereign rules. Tyranny is heavier than the horse's hoofs, more destructive than the unchained torrents, more deadly than the poisoned winds of Yemen, more devastating than the plague. Tyranny prevents prayers rising to heaven and prevents the blessings of heaven from falling upon the earth. Flee far from the abode of this menace, even if you are one of the highest nobles of the land, the most illustrious because of your wealth and your children. Fear lest the birds of ruin fatten on the land, and earthquakes or lightnings destroy its inhabitants.

III. Do not pride yourself on the nobility of your birth, for that belongs to your father; join to your hereditary virtues those which you have acquired recently. By this union you will be truly noble. Do not feel elated over the nobility of your father, if you can not draw pride from that which is in yourself; for the glory of ;your ancestors is vain if you have not a personal glory. There is the same difference between the fame of your ancestors and your own fame that there is between your food of yesterday and of to-day; for the feast that has passed can not calm the hunger of to-day, and still less can it provide for the days which follow.


From: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VIII: Medieval Persia, pp. 134-139.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, August 1998
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