Kalilah and Dimnah

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Kalilah and Dimnah


A series of fables, derived from during an unspecified time; first translated into Arabic (as Katifah wa-Dimnah) around 750 CE.; published in English in 1569 or 1570,


Upon the commands of his king, a philosopher relates a string of animal fables that feature a scheming pair of jackels

Events in History at the Time of the Fables

The Fables in Focus

For More Information

Like The Arabian Nights, Kalilah and Dimnah boasts a mixed pedigree. Its stories originated in India, gathered by an unknown Brahmin during the third century c.e., then traveled to Persia where they were translated from the Sanskrit to Pahlavi (an old Persian language) during the reign of the Sasanian king, Khusraw Anushirvan (531-579). Nearly 200 years later, the Arab scholar Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa`, a Persian convert to Islam, translated the fables from Pahlavi into Arabic, under the title Kalilah wa-Dimnah. This version enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle East and was itself translated into different languages, including late Syriac, Hebrew, modern Persian, and Turkish. During the thirteenth century Alfonso X of Spain set up a school of translators and chose Kalilah wa Dimnah as one of the Arabic texts to be rendered into Castilian. Scholars place the publication of this version, known as Calila e Digna, around 1251. The translation by Thomas Irving of this Spanish version, published in 1980, is the closest version available in English to the original Arabic. Throughout its various incarnations, Kalilah and Dimnah appealed to readers for its lively depiction of the animal kingdom as analogous to the human world and for its practical morality, originally intended to train princes in wise conduct. Their first translator into Arabic added a twist reflective of some harsh realities of his society.

Events in History at the Time of the Fables

The Umayyad dynasty—an overview

The introduction of Kalilah and Dimnah to the world of Arab letters coincided with a particularly tumultuous period in the Middle East: the fall of the Umayyads in 750 c.e. Religious and political problems had beset this ruling dynasty since its establishment in 661. The prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 had left the Muslim community without a leader; several claimants vied for the position of caliph (Arabic for “successor”), the ruler of Islam within an empire that expanded to include present-day Iran, Iraq, and Syria. After Uthman (r. 644-656), the third caliph to reign since Muhammad’s death, was killed in his home by Egyptian rebels, the caliphate was offered to Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and sonin-law (who had married Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah). His assumption of office did not occur without difficulty, however.

Mu`awiyah, a kinsman of Uthman and the governor of Syria, contested Ali’s right to the caliphate. Ali’s and Mu’awiyah`s forces engaged in several skirmishes, then finally met in a pivotal encounter at Siffin. Knowing themselves outnumbered, Mu`awiyah’s forces, led by General Amr ibn al-As, proposed to settle the matter of Uthman’s death and the question of succession through arbitration instead of battle. Ali consented to the proposal, angering some of his more extreme followers who felt he had bowed to the judgment of men instead of the judgment of God; these dissenters, who became known as Kharijites (seceders), deserted Ali’s cause and harassed him mercilessly for the remainder of his rule. Meanwhile, the arbitrators ruled against Ali, calling for his removal from office; Ali protested the decision and hostilities resumed between his and Mu`awiyah’s forces. Support for Ali’s caliphate waned throughout the provinces and Ali himself was assassinated by a Kharijite rebel in 661. Mu`awiyah’s subsequently became caliph, founding the Umayyad Dynasty, which ruled from Damascus, Syria.

Ali’s assassination was to have far-reaching consequences for the Islamic world, instigating a religious schism that persists to this day. Two opposing factions sprang up: the Shf ites, who had favored Ali, and the Sunnis, who supported Mu`awiyah. Sunnis believed themselves the followers of orthodoxy, while Shf ites considered the Sunni dynasty of the Umayyads to be usurpers, to whom they owed no allegiance. In 680 Ali’s second son, Husayn, refused to pay homage to the caliph Yazid I, Mu`awiyah`s son and successor, and fled to Mecca, where he amassed a band of perhaps 200 Shi‘ to revolt against the Umayyads. Umayyad troops defeated and killed the rebels at Karbala, in Iraq, cutting off Husayn’s head and presenting it to Yazid as a trophy, deepening the animosity the Shi‘ites felt toward the Sunnis.

Although the Umayyad government enjoyed relative stability and continuity during its first six caliphates, succession struggles began to plague the dynasty after Walid I died in 715 and his brother Sulayman seized the caliphate from Walid’s son and heir. Thereafter, when a Umayyad caliph died, bloodshed usually ensued as various relatives claimed the right to succeed him. The relative who prevailed would commonly oust the prior administration and eliminate most of the people who supported it. The frequent interruptions in government, along with family feuds and warring factions, weakened the Umayyad caliphate, contributing to its collapse and overthrow in 750, at the hands of the Abbasids. Ibn al-Muqaffa` lived most of his life under the Umayyads, although it was under the Abbasids that he would meet his downfall.

The Abbasid revolution

Although the Umayyad regime had long had its detractors, a new threat began to emerge during the 720s, in the shape of a rival political faction. Called the Abbasids, because their leaders traced their descent from Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, this coalition included Arabs, Persians, Iraqis, and Shfite Muslims. Despite their internal national and religious differences, Abbasids were united on replacing the Umayyads’ tribal aristocracy with what they saw as a more egalitarian government based more firmly on the principles of Islam.

The Abbasid movement gained momentum over the next two decades, breaking into open rebellion during the 740s; Abu Muslim, in charge of the rebellion’s organizational side, attracted more followers to the cause by emphasizing the Abbasids’ broad-based appeal to various religious and ethnic groups. In 747 the Abbasids raised black banners of revolution and the next year they successfully overthrew the Umayyad governor of Khurasan. In 749 Nahavand in Persia and Kufah in Iraq fell to the Abbasids; the comman-der-in-chief of the conquering army designated Abu al-Abbas, recently named head of the Abbasids, as caliph. Finding themselves outmaneuvered by this ploy, Shfite Muslims, who had hoped to choose a descendant of Ali as caliph, reluctantly pledged their allegiance. The new caliph promised a fresh start, an era of justice and pious living under the guidance of the Prophet’s own family and the principles of Islam.

Not surprisingly, Marwan II, the Umayyad caliph, refused to recognize the Abbasid caliphate. In January 750, when the opposing armies at last met in the Battle of the Zab, Umayyad forces were decisively defeated and Marwan was forced to flee the battlefield. The Abbasid army pursued the former caliph into Egypt and killed him, sending his severed head to Abu al-Abbas, now firmly established as caliph. The Abbasid empire was to last from 750 to 1258 c.e.

One of the first tasks of the Abbasid regime, however, was to eliminate what remained of the Umayyad dynasty. This was undertaken with a ruthlessness bordering on savagery. Agents of the new government were sent all over the Muslim world to find and kill members of the deposed family. And in one notorious instance, Abd Allah ibn Ali, the caliph’s uncle and governor of Syria, invited some 80 Umayyads to a banquet, at which the guests were to proclaim their loyalty to the new regime. Once all were assembled, a pre-arranged signal summoned to the fore a band of executioners, who massacred the Umayyads in cold blood. An unfazed Abd Allah and his high officials are said to have meanwhile partaken of their banquet, undisturbed by the victims’ dying moans. In light of the violence and bloodshed that accompanied the deposition of one regime and the accession of another, the lessons contained in Kalilah and Dimnah —about kingship and the responsibilities of ruling wisely—became increasingly relevant to the Arab world, as Ibn al-Muqaffa’ may have discerned when he first published his translation around 750.

The rise and fall of Ibn al-Muqaffa’

Although Ibn al-Muqaffa’ was not the original author or collector of the Kalilah and Dimnah fables, his role should not be minimized, because his Arabic version—Kalilah wa-Dimnah —became the basis for all subsequent translations. Also, the life of Ibn al-Muqaffa’, no less than his work, reflected the volatile political situation of the eighth-century Islamic Empire.

The son of a tax collector known as al-Muqaffa` (the crippled), Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ was born around 720 in southern Iran and given the name of Ruzbah; it was after converting to Islam that he took the name Abd Allah. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Ibn al~Muqaffa` served the Umayyad governors in the eastern provinces as a secretary and drafter of official correspondence. After the Abbasids came to power, Ibn al-Muqaffa` found employment under the new regime, becoming secretary to Isa ibn Ali, the nephew of Caliph al-Mansur. Scholars estimate that it was around this time that Ibn al-Muqaffa` translated Kalilah and Dimnah —to which he added a chapter of his own composition, dealing with Dimnah’s trial (a reflection perhaps of his concern with government corruption and a related admonition that monarchs must investigate every particular before passing judgement and inflicting punishment). Ibn al-Muqaffa` also produced several original works, including the dl-Adab al-kabir (The Comprehensive Book of Rules of Conduct), which offered advice to princes, and the Risalafi al-sahabah (Treatise on the Caliph’s Entourage), an essay dealing with the political, religious, and social problems of his time.

Ironically, Ibn al-Muqaffa` fell into a trap he warned others to avoid; he ran afoul of the new regime, becoming caught up in political intrigue. After a relative of Caliph al-Mansur rebelled against the government, the caliph’s nephew, patron to Ibn al-Muqaffa` asked him to compose a letter to the caliph requesting pardon for the rebel. The resulting document essentially placed alMansur at the mercy of his uncle’s goodwill. He was required to swear that “if I should injure my uncle Abd Allah ibn Ali, or any of those who accompanied him, in the smallest or greatest way, or cause some harm to befall them secretly or openly, and in any form, shape or manner, directly or indirectly, or through some deception, then I will declare myself disowned and illegitimate. All the community of the Prophet Muhammad will be permitted to cast me off, make war with me and kill me without any punishment” Qahshiyari, p. 109; trans. T. DeYoung). Since the caliph’s uncle would only have to make the accusation that his nephew had ill-treated him for the provisions of the document to come into force, and there was no requirement that he prove the charge, al-Mansur was naturally outraged at the presumption exhibited by Ibn al-Muqaffa\ He is reported to have remarked, upon reading the pardon, and hearing it had been written by Ibn al-Muqaffa\` “Who will save me from this man?” (Jahshiyari, p. 109; trans. T. DeYoung). The governor of Basra, Sufyan ibn Mu’awiyah al-Muhal-labi, who had frequently been the target of Ibn al-Muqaffa`s biting wit, was only too happy to oblige. Ibn al-Muqaffa` was last seen entering the governor’s house in 755 or 756. It was later reported that he had been put to death there by a painful process of slow dismemberment. His untimely end only highlighted the significance of his works, especially those such as Kalilah and Dimnah that condemn tyrannical rulers and corrupt bureaucrats.

The Fables in Focus

Plot summary

In structure, Kalilah and Dimnah resembles episodic works, such as The Arabian Nights (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern literatures and Their Times), although it lacks a single framing narrative. Some versions include an account of how Burzoe, the royal physician to Khusraw Anushirvan, traveled to India and secretly copied the story of Kalilah and Dimnah into the medieval Persian language, Pahlavi, then presented the translation to the king. All versions relate how Dabshalim, the King of India, tells his chief philosopher, Bidpai, to make up a fable for him concerning a specific theme. Bidpai obliges, relating the fable, and other fables that are embedded within the main story. The fables associated with the characters Kalilah and Dimnah, represent the longest part of the narrative.

At the start of Kalilah and Dimnah Dabshalim commands Bidpai to tell him “a fable about two men who love each other, and how a swindling liar comes between them and incites them to be enemies” (Kalilah and Dimnah, p. 1). Bidpai complies, telling of a merchant who exhorted his four spendthrift sons to earn their living by working at a trade. The sons take his lesson to heart and the eldest sets off towards the land of Manud on business, in a cart pulled by two bulls, Shatrabah and Bandabah. The travelers encounter a great patch of mud, in which Shatrabah falls. The man and his servants work to free the bull, who is so fatigued afterwards that he cannot travel farther. Shatrabah’s owner leaves a servant behind to look after the animal but the man becomes so bored that he abandons Shatrabah the next day and rejoins his master, saying that the bull has died.

Meanwhile, Shatrabah wanders off by himself until he finds a lush meadow in which to graze. Growing fat and healthy, the bull frequently roars and bellows to show his content. In that same region, however, a lion reigns as king over many beasts of prey, such as wolves, jackals, leopards, and foxes. One day, the lion hears Shatrabah bellow and becomes frightened by the noise and ceases to hunt.

The lion’s court includes two wily jackals, Kalilah and Dimnah. The latter is especially ambitious and unscrupulous, “on the lookout for the main chance” (Kalilah and Dimnah, p. 4). Learning that the lion now fears to hunt, Dimnah determines to discover the cause and thus improve his own standing at court. On gaining an audience with the lion, the crafty Dimnah soon ingratiates himself with the king. Eventually, the lion confides to Dimnah that he no longer hunts because he fears the source of the powerful bellows coming from the nearby meadows. Dimnah offers to seek out whatever is making the noise, to which the lion consents, even as he fears the jackal might side with this unseen potential enemy against him. Dimnah returns and informs the lion that a bull was making the noise; he proposes that the bull be brought before the court as a humble and obedient servant, to which the lion agrees. Having ingratiated himself to Shatrabah as well, Dimnah tells the bull of the lion’s willingness to receive him at court. Once Dimnah consents to grant him a safeconduct, Shatrabah likewise agrees to meet the lion. After they are introduced, the lion takes a great fancy to the bull, who becomes one of his favorite companions. Envying Shatrabah’s good fortune and feeling himself slighted, Dimnah resolves to drive a wedge between the lion and the bull.

Although Kalilah also dislikes Shatrabah’s influence at court, he cautions Dimnah to undertake the bull’s destruction only if he can do so without harming the lion. Dimnah tells the lion that Shatrabah has been plotting against him with the lion’s army so that the bull may become king instead. Although the lion is initially reluctant to believe these reports, Dimnah’s glib tongue and manipulation of various fables ultimately convince him of Shatrabah’s treachery. In the fable of “The Three Fish,” for example, Dimnah relates how a shrewd fish anticipates danger from two fishermen approaching her pool and swims away to another part of the river, a steady fish feigns death and also escapes capture, while a weakling fish swims back and forth in the pool until she is caught. The credulous lion is thus convinced to make the first move against the bull. Dimnah then visits Shatrabah and plays on his fears and doubts too, telling the bull that the lion intends to eat him. Thus, the two acquire a skewed perception of each other. When the fearful, suspicious lion and bull are brought face to face, a fierce battle ensues. Both combatants are seriously hurt, although the lion triumphs by killing the bull. Horrified by the carnage, Kalilah upbraids Dimnah for his evil nature and vows to quit his company.

Impressed by the first fable, Dabshalim orders Bidpai to relate what happened next and the


According to All ibn at-Shah at-Farisi, one of many Arabic adapters of the version of Kalilah and Dimnah by tbn at-Muqaffa`, King Dabshalim and the court philosopher Bidpai were historical personages, who lived in India during the fourth century b.c.e. The translator relates how Alexander the Great appointed one of his officials to rule India after he conquered it The people of India deposed the new ruler and choose Dabshalim, who was descended from one of their former kings. Initially, Dabshalirn proved cruel and capricious; a philosopher of high caste, Bidpai, attempted to teach him moderation, wisdom, and justice At first, the offended monarch imprisoned the philosopher; then, repenting of his actions, he released Bidpai and began to follow his advice, in time the reformed ruler won the loyalty and devotion of his subjects. Later, DabshaUm asked Bidpai to write a guide for rulers on how to reign wisely and earn the allegiance of their people, Within a year the philosopher produced Bidpai’s Fables, or Kalilah wa-Qimnah, a book of 14 chapters, each containing a moral question and its answer. In the first chapter of Kalilah and Dimnah, for example, Dabshaliro poses a question about “how a swindling liar comes between two men who love each other and incites them to be enemies”; Bidpai replies, “Whenever it happens that a lying swindler comes between two men who love each other, they then break up their friendship and are at odds with each other” and relates the fable illustrating that truth (Kalifah and Dimrtah, p. 1), According to Ibn ai-Muqaffa Bidpai’s Fables came to Iran through the efforts of Burzoe, physician to the Sasanian king Khusraw Anushirvan (531-579), who had been sent to India by his royal master specifically to claim a copy of the book. Ibn al-Muqafltfa’ credits Burzoe with translating the fables from Sanskrit into Pahlavi (c. 570); ibn al-Muqaffa’ himself translated them from Pahlavi into Arabic nearly two centuries later, adding die trial scene.

philosopher resumes the story. Subsequently, the lion recovers his senses and begins to regret killing Shatrabah. He also starts to doubt that the bull conspired against him and decides to investigate the case further. Meanwhile, the leopard—another member of the court—overhears Kalilah and Dimnah arguing over the latter’s plot against Shatrabah and reports what he has heard to the lion’s mother but swears her to secrecy. The next day, finding her son despondent over Shatrabah’s death, the lion’s mother hints that she knows a secret that could shed some light on the subject. Commanded by the lion to tell what she knows, the lion’s mother reveals Dimnah’s treachery without disclosing the source of her knowledge.

The lion has Dimnah arrested, imprisoned, and put on trial. The wily jackal employs his skills of argument and manipulation to confound his accusers, including the lion’s mother:

Judges should not judge according to their opinions or what people at large or in particular think. You know that thinking is not one whit sufficient in the case of truth, even if all of you consider me the perpetrator of this crime. I know better about myself than you do, and my own knowledge is surer since it is quite free from doubt. My case only seems ugly to you since you are like that, for you think I have poked my nose into someone else’s business.

(Kalilah and Dimnah, p. 68)

Even the lion is confused. While Dimnah is in prison, he receives a visit from the grief-stricken Kalilah, who again laments his friend’s evil conspiracy against Shatrabah and his subsequent fall from grace. A wolf, imprisoned in the same jail, overhears the jackals’ conversation, takes note of it, but chooses to keep his own counsel at present. Kalilah returns home so distressed in mind that “his stomach [is] upset and he [dies] before dawn” (Kalilah, and Dimnah, p. 61). The trial of Dimnah resumes and the jackal continues to deny his guilt and to evade the traps set by his judges. The lion’s mother, fearing that Dimnah will escape punishment and manage to stir up other animals against the lion, consults the leopard and at last persuades him to come forward and give evidence against Dimnah. Once he has done so, the jailed wolf also delivers his incriminating testimony. On the strength of both testimonies, the lion has Dimnah put in bonds and placed in solitary confinement until he dies of hunger and thirst. The fable of Dimnah’s trial concludes with the moral “Such is the punishment of covetousness and what happens to envious and lying people” (Kalilah and Dimnah, p. 71).

Although not all fables in the collection are linked to the tale of Kalilah and Dimnah, they do form self-contained narratives of their own. Some are trickster tales, in which the protagonist escapes disaster through his own wits and cleverness, such as “The Monkey and the Tortoise.” In other fables, the trickster outsmarts himself and


The enduring appeal of Katiiah and Dimnah attests to the success of fbn al-Muqaffa` in meeting the goafs he set for it:

“The author of the book had four objectives in mind when he composed the work:

to render it attractive to the young reader by employing birds and animals in the stories

to capture the attention of rulers by the conduct of the animals who are faced with similar dilemmas and circumstances

to provide entertainment to all peoples and to arouse their curiosity, thereby enabling the book to be preserved through the ages

and to provide the philosophers of the future a forum for discussion and speculation,”

(Ibn af Muqaffa` in AS I, p. 6)

is punished for his deceit (“The Pigeon, the Fox, and the Crane”). Most feature animals, while a few involve humans. All, however, are didactic in nature, in keeping with the fables’ original intent of offering guidance to rulers. One fable—“The Ringdove”—offers lessons in friendship and loyalty, while another—“The Cat and the Mouse”—examines how natural enemies can form alliances in a common cause, even if they revert to enmity afterwards. Another long chapter—“Ayladh, Shadram, and Irakhat”—deals with the disastrous effects of hasty action. In the first subsection of the chapter, King Shadram experiences a series of strange dreams and orders Brahman monks to interpret those dreams. Desiring revenge for the king’s killing 12,000 members of their order, the monks falsely advise him that the dreams mean he should kill his queen Irakhat, his son Jawir, and his adviser Ayladh. The latter, however, persuades the king to seek a second interpretation before carrying out this bloody plan, which proves to be more benevolent and honest. Later, the king quarrels with Irakhat and rashly orders her execution, but Ayladh spirits the queen away to safety, waits for the king to repent, as he inevitably does, of his hasty decision, then reunites the royal couple.

A mirror for princes

Even in its earliest incarnations, Kalilah and Dimnah was intended to serve a very specific purpose—namely, to educate princes on the art of ruling wisely and well. Both the Persian and Arabic versions retained the major elements of the Sanskrit original, including the use of animals as the main characters. This had a deep significance in India, where people believed that animals possessed personalities and awareness, and inhabited a world very similar to that of human beings. The belief was preserved in the fables’ various translations: animals exhibited the same passions, quirks, and flaws as humans and stood equally in need of guidance.

In the stories featuring the characters of Kalilah and Dimnah, the lion—represented as the king of beasts—learns a bitter lesson in how to distinguish loyalty from treachery. Duped by the ambitious jackal Dimnah, the lion hastily believes the worst about Shatrabah the bull and slays him, without attempting to discern the truth of the matter. Later, in a chapter written and appended by Arabic translator Ibn al-Muqaffa`, the lion orders an investigation into the bull’s case; this time, having learned his lesson, he listens attentively to various bits of evidence and withholds judgment until he receives sufficient proof of Dimnah’s guilt. Similarly, Dimnah leams the consequences of excessive ambition and of lying to further that ambition when his slanders of Shatrabah are exposed and he himself is sentenced to death for his crimes.

The many translations of Kalilah and Dimnah throughout the ages seem to underscore the time-lessness of the fables and the practical lessons they offer. For Ibn al-Muqaffa` whose eighth-century Arabic translation became the basis for all subsequent translations, Kalilah and Dimnah took on increased significance in light of the political upheaval during the last years of Umayyad rule


The influence of Katilah and Dimnah can be readily traced in the Brer Rabbit tales, the folklore of the American slaves, first published in the United States to popular acclaim in the late nineteenth century, fn both versions of the story, a rabbit rids the neighborhood of a dangerous lion by tricking him into fighting his own reflection in the water:

[The rabbitj took the fion to a deep cistern full of clear water, and said: “This is the lion’s place. I am going away unless you carry me in your arms so I won’t be afraid when I point him out to you!”

The lion picked her up in his arms, and she brought him up to the clear water and said to him: “Here are the lion and the rabbit.

He put the rabbit down and jumped in to kit! the [lion]in the cistern; and the rabbtt escaped.

(Kaiitah and Dimnah, p. 21)

Brer Rabbit creeped forward and looked in the lake. He screamed and jumped back, “He’s in there, Brer Lion! let’s get out of here!

Brer Lion walked up to the lake and peered tm Sure enough, there was a creature looking back at him. Brer lion hollered at him. Creature in the lake didn’t say a word. Brer Lion shook his mane; creature in the lake shook his, Brer lion showed his teeth; creature showed his. Brer Lion got so mad that he jumped into the take head first

(Lester, p. 67)

and the first years of the new Abbasid regime: “Sporting a golden thread of diversion in a ground of edification [Kalilah and Dimnah] was intended to serve in Arabo-Muslim court circles the same purpose as it had served at the Sasanian court, whose values and political wisdom so dominated the secular thinking of Ibn al-Muqaffa` and others of the same secretarial class of the same era” (Ashtiany et al., pp. 12-13).

Sources and literary context

The fables comprising Kalilah and Dimnah appear to have originated in two Sanskrit texts, the Panchatantra and the Mahabharata.The former, a collection of Indian fables compiled around the third century c.e., contained five chapters—specifically, 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6—which were integrated into Kalilah and Dimnah.The latter, the Mahabharata, was an even more ancient Indian epic and three chapters of Kalilah and Dimnah were adapted from it. Arab and Spanish storytellers appear to have contributed still more tales to the cycle over the centuries. When Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ added the entire chapter dealing with Dimnah’s trial and punishment, he infused into that episode a moral tone that is lacking in the earliest versions. In a sense, by doing this he was bringing the work more closely into harmony with the Mediterranean tradition of the fable as found in Aesop (whose own fables were adapted into Arabic and attributed to Luqman, a legendary pre-Islamic sage). Although Aesop may be legendary himself, tradition speaks of him as a marginalized member of society, much like Ibn al-Muqaffa` a sixth-century slave, who was cruelly put to death. Certainly Aesop’s fables can be seen as “a form of covert political criticism” of the dominant social order (Lewis, p. 2).

During the mid-eighth century c.e., Kalilah and Dimnah`s popularity within the medieval Islamic world reflected a shift in Arab thought. As the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates established themselves and the city of Baghdad developed into the Islamic empire’s commercial and cultural center, a more secular literature—combining practical advice with entertainment—took hold as well. Examples of this literature—called adab —included manuals, romances, tales, and fables. As translated by Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa` around 750 c.e., Kalilah and Dimnah is considered to be the first example of adab, a guide offering entertainment and instruction to princes and bureaucrats in the form of fables set in the animal kingdom. As rendered by Ibn al-Muqaffa`, Kalilah and Dimnah also represented a blending of Persian and Arabian cultures, inspiring countless imitators, poets, and artists, and thus enriching the Muslim intellectual world.


As translated by Ibn al-Muqaffa`, Kalilah and Dimnah was immensely popular and widely imitated, giving rise to similar works, such as Ibn Zafar al-Siqilli’s Sulwan al-Muta (1159, Prescription for Pleasure) and Marzuban ibn Rustam’s Marzuban’namah (The Book of Marzuban) in the thirteenth century. Over the centuries, the original prose was reworked several times into Arabic and Persian verse, as well as translated into countless other languages, including Greek, Syriac, Ethiopic, Persian, Hebrew, Spanish, English, French, and German. One translation—in Turkish—became famous in its own right: Ali ibn Salih’s Humayunname was dedicated to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66). Many individual fables were to travel even farther, to Africa and thence to the United States, as tales told by African slaves, some of which were retold as the Brer Rabbit stories.

The impact of his work was no less important in educational circles. The two major architects of the medieval Islamic educational system in the next generation after the death of Ibn al-Muqaffa`were al-Jahiz (c. 776-869) and Ibn Qutaybah (828-889). Both were avid admirers of their predecessor and frequently quoted from Kalilah and Dimnah with great approval. As al-Jahiz says of him, “There was no one as good as he, not a great deal or even a little, and he was a master at arranging stories so that no one could figure out how the person deceived had been deceived, or how another had had his trust confirmed” (al-Jahiz, p. 44; trans. T. DeYoung).

This influence extended into modern times. Kalilah and Dimnah was one of the earliest texts chosen to be typeset and published on the first printing press imported into the Arab world, at Bulaq (near Cairo) Egypt in the 1830s. Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, when modern educational curricula were being developed in various Arabic-speaking countries, it became a staple school text.

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

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Ashtiany, Julia, T. M. Johnstone, J. D. Latham, R.B. Serjeant, and G. Rex Smith. The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Abbasid Belles Lettres. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Atil, Esin, trans. Kalilah wa Dimnah.Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.

Fariq, K. A. A History of Arabic Literature.Vol. 2. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978.

Goldschmidt, Arthur, Jr. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 1988.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples.New York: Times Warner, 1991.

Irving, Thomas Ballantine, trans. Kalilah and Dimnah.Newark, N.J.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1980.

al-Jahiz, Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr. “Risalat almu allimin.” In Vol. 3 of Rasa’il al-Jahiz.Ed. Abdal-Salam Muhammad Harun. Cairo: Matba`at si al-Jahiz, 1979.

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Lester, Julius. The Tales of Uncle Remus.New York: Dial, 1987.

Lewis, Jayne Elizabeth. The English Fable: Aesop and Literary Culture, 1651-1740.Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Iraq: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, 1990.

Rahman, H. U. A Chronology of Islamic History 570-1000 c.e. London: Mansell, 1989.