EBN AL-MOQAFFAʿ, ABŪ MOḤAMMAD ʿABD-ALLĀH RŌZBEH b. Dādūya/Dādōē (b. Gōr, the present Fīrūzābād, Fārs, ca. 103/721, d. Baṣra ca. 139/757), chancery secretary (kāteb) and major Arabic prose writer. Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ was of noble Persian stock and bore the name Rōzbeh/Rūzbeh before his comparatively late conversion to Islam from Mani-chaeism. He was the son of an Omayyad tax-collector named Dādūya, named Mobārak on conversion and nicknamed “the cripple-handed” (al-moqaffaʿ), whose disability was said to have resulted from torture for embezzlement (Sourdel, p. 308). While in Baṣra, Dādūya had his son soundly schooled in literary Arabic by two notable mentors, and the young man soon moved in literary circles. By 126/743 Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ was an Omayyad kāteb in Šāpūr, Fārs, where he became embroiled in hostilities between his master, the governor Masīḥ b. Ḥawārī, and the man sent to replace him, Sofyān b. Moʿāwīa Mohallabī. Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ next appeared in Kermān as a man of substance and the kāteb of the last Omayyad governor there. After the fall of the Omayyads, he cultivated the Banū ʿAlī, paternal uncles of the first two ʿAbbasid caliphs, and was in due course employed as kāteb by ʿĪsā b. ʿAlī. He lived mainly in Baṣra, which from 133/751 to 139/757 was governed by ʿĪsā’s brother, Solaymān (Sourdel, pp. 308-11)

Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ seems to have been a fastidious man of refined manners, steeped in the traditional culture of the old Persian nobility, yet ever observant of the values of Arab society. In the purity of his Arabic he outshone members of the Arab ruling class, and in generosity and hospitality he seems to have tried to outdo them. Though witty and entertaining in company of his liking, he could be arrogant and offensive to those for whom he cared little, and he was apt to belittle and ridicule those who displeased him. Among the victims of his derision and aggression was Sofyān b. Moʿāwīa, whose chance for revenge came when Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ offended the caliph al-Manṣūr. ʿAbd-Allāh b. ʿAlī, brother of Solaymān and ʿĪsā, had rebelled against al-Manṣūr, but, when defeated, had been allowed to live unmolested with Solaymān. Once the caliph was in a stronger position, he decided to end this arrangement. When the apprehensive Solaymān requested free pardon (amān) for ʿAbd-Allāh, al-Manṣūr immediately replaced him as governor of Baṣra by Sofyān (Ramażān 139/February 757). On behalf of the Banū ʿAlī, Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ drafted the text of an amān for the caliph to sign. The caliph was furious at what seemed to him to be the presumptuousness of this document, and, deaf to all entreaties from Solaymān and ʿĪsā, allowed the vengeful Sofyān to have Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ put to death, allegedly by torture (Sourdel, pp. 313-18). Perhaps al-Manṣūr saw in Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ the brains behind the Banū ʿAlī’s political ambitions. Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s supposed zandaqa (heresy, apostasy) had little or nothing to do with his downfall. Manichaeism “was not yet as heretical as it became from the reign of al-Mahdī…The need for administrative cadres was…greater than the need for orthodoxy” (van Ess, p. 161).

Works. 1. Translations and adaptations. Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ left behind a sizable body of prose writings, both translations and original works. He is best known today for Kalīla wa Demna, his translation of a Middle Persian collection of animal fables, mostly of Indian origin, involving two jackals, Kalīla and Demna. The Middle Persian original, now lost but thought by de Blois to have been entitled Karīrak ud Damanak (p. 12), was written by one Borzōē/Borzūya, a Persian physician attached to the Sasanian court in the 6th century. Prefaced by a putative autobiography of Borzūya and an account of his voyage to India, the full work was done into Arabic by Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, who introduced it with a prologue of his own and may have been responsible for four added stories. From Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s Arabic rendering of Borzūya’s work are descended not only all later Arabic versions of Kalīla wa Demna, but also one of two Syriac versions (the other one is pre-Islamic and crucial to any attempt to form an idea of the Middle Persian original) and the medieval Greek, Persian (6th/12th century), Hebrew, Latin, and Castilian versions. Though there are many Arabic manuscripts of Kalīla wa Demna, Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s version is not among them, and the oldest dated copy (poorly edited by ʿA.-W. ʿAzzām, Cairo, 1941; repr. 1973) was written almost five centuries after his death. Moreover, they differ so widely in wording and content that “we cannot truly say that what we possess today is Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s translation but rather a variety of Arabic texts derived in one way or another from it” (de Blois, p. 3). That he aimed at an idiomatic rather than a slavishly literal rendering is generally agreed, and all indications are that he achieved clarity of expression by simplicity of diction and plain syntactical structures. As no medieval Arab critic seems to have impugned his style, it was evidently pleasing and well suited to the taste of his Arab readers.

Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s translation of Kalīla wa Demna was not a conscious attempt to start a new literary trend; it was clearly just one of several works of old Sasanian court literature which Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ introduced to an exclusive readership within court circles, its function being to illustrate what should or should not be done by those aiming at political and social success. Kalīla wa Demna, nonetheless, served as a stimulus to the development of Arabic prose literature and inspired imitators, artists, and poets. A prose Persian translation of the Arabic text was available as early as the 10th century, of which a versified version was made by Rūdakī (d. 329/941-42). Both versions are lost except for a few lines of Rūdakī’s poem preserved in other sources. A later prose translation was rendered by Abu’l-Maʿālī Naṣr-Allāh b. Moḥammad Šīrāzī and dedicated to the Ghaznavid Bahrāmšāh (r. 512-52/ ; ed. M. Mīnōvī, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1345 Š./1966).

Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ is thought to have produced an Arabic adaptation of the late Sasanian Xwadāy-nāmag, a chronicle of pre-Islamic Persian kings, princes, and warriors. A mixture of legend, myth, and fact, it served as a quasi-national history inspired by a vision of kingship as a well-ordered autocracy with a sacred duty to rule and to regulate its subjects’ conduct within a rigid class system. Interspersed with maxims characteristic of andarz literature, the narrative also offered practical advice on civil and military matters. Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ is known to have modified certain parts of the original and excluded others, possibly to make it intelligible to his Arab Muslim readers. He is thought to have inserted an account of Mazdak, from which later Perso-Arab historians derived much of their knowledge of the Mazdakite movement. Like its Middle Persian original, Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s Arabic version is not extant. The ʿOyūn al-aḵbār and the Ketāb al-maʿāref of Ebn Qotayba (d. 276/889) may preserve fragments of it; certainly the Sīar al-ʿAjam (Ebn Qotayba, I, pp. 117, 178), quoted by Ebn Qotayba without ascription, renders the Xwadāy-nāmag.

Ebn al-Nadīm (ed. Tajaddod, p. 132, tr. Dodge, p. 260) attributes several other Arabic translations of Middle Persian works to Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, namely Āʾīn-nāma (q.v.), Ketāb al-tāj, and Ketāb Mazdak. Ebn Qotayba is thought to have preserved parts of the Āʾīn-nāma, for in his ʿOyūn a number of passages are quoted, albeit without ascription, with the opening words “I have read in the Āʾīn (or Ketāb al-āʾīn”; I, pp. 8, 62, III, pp. 221, 78, IV, p. 59). The quotations bear on topics such as court manners and customs, military tactics, divination and physiognomy, archery, and polo—subjects typical of various works on Sasanian institutions, protocol, entertainment, general savoir faire, and so on. Also in the ʿOyūn are extracts from a Ketāb al-tāj (I, pp. 5, 11). Ebn al-Nadīm describes this book as a biography of Ḵosrow I Anōšīrvān (q.v.), but Ebn Qotayba’s extracts mostly pertain to Ḵosrow II Parvēz and suggest a “mirror for princes.” The subject of the Ketāb Mazdak was, as its title implies, the leader of the revolutionary religious movement whose activities led to his execution in 531. The work was neither a factual biography nor an account of Mazdak’s tenets but a piece of disparaging historical fiction (Camb. Hist. Iran III, p. 994). A better product of Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s translation activities is the Nāma-ye Tansar, a political work taking its name from its putative author Tansar (Tōsar), the Zoroastrian priestly adviser to the first Sasanian monarch, Ardašīr I (r. 224-40). Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s Arabic version is lost, but Ebn Esfandīār’s Persian rendering of it, made in the early 7th/13th century and embodied in his Tārīḵ-e Ṭabarestān, reveals its content (summary in Boyce, pp. 4f.). Apart from adding “various illustrative verses, some…in elegant Persian,” Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ evidently inserted Koranic and Biblical quotations, presumably as a concession to Muslims. Be that as it may, his Sasanian text is still Iranocentric: “…we are the best of Persians, and there is no quality or trait of excellence or nobility which we hold dearer than the fact that we have ever showed humility and lowliness…in the service of kings, and have chosen obedience and loyalty, devotion and fidelity. Through this quality…we came to be the head and neck of all the climes” (ed. Mīnovī, p. 74, cf. tr. Boyce, p. 52).

2. Original works. Two preceptive works in Arabic are ascribed to Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, al-Adabal-kabīr and al-Adab al-ṣaḡīr, but only the first, now known as Ketāb al-ādāb al-kabīr (Kord ʿAlī, pp. 40-106), can be accepted as his (ʿAbbās, p. 578). The first of its four parts is a very brief rhetorical retrospect on the excellence of the ancients’ legacy—clearly Sasanian—of spiritual and temporal knowledge. The second is a miniature mirror for princes. The addressee, seemingly the caliph’s son, is apostrophized as one in pursuit of the rule of seemly conduct (adab). He is to give strict priority to the mastery of fundamentals, examples of which are given along with illustrations of the ways in which they can be applied. The author then turns to pitfalls before a prince—e.g., the love of flattery and the fault of allowing others to detect it. More positively, he urges the prince to cultivate men of religion and moral perfection as potential aides and intimates, to take advice, even if unpalatable, from those best qualified to give it, to keep abreast of his officials’ conduct, to be sparing with his favors, and so on. Having defined, very much in a Sasanian vein, the bases of kingship, he discusses particular circumstances calling for caution and prudence. After exhortation to seemly conduct and sundry observations on statecraft he ends by stressing the pivotal role in government of power and a seemly public image. The Ādāb’s third part, longer than the second, is a pragmatic guide to survival for a ruler’s intimates and highly, but precariously, placed officers of state. It offers advice in a high moral vein, but it rests on no philosophical, ethico-religious, or spiritual basis: it rests on familiarity with age-old vagaries of oriental despots and their entourages. The fourth and longest part of the Ādāb treats of a man’s relations with colleagues in what we may take to be the secretarial fraternity. The main theme is friendship and the avoidance of enmity. For Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, the ideal is a permanent relationship, sustained by fidelity, loyalty, and devotion, and proof against all corrosive forces. As always, his treatment of the subject is didactic and heavily dependent on aphorisms. He remains pragmatic: A friendship should be formed, not with an inferior, but with a superior, for to make friends of inferiors bespeaks envy, which is reprehensible. To shed a friend is a threat to honor—unlike a divorce. To women and their allure he makes certain disparaging references, but they are only incidental to his main interest—promoting companionship and amity in the circles that concern him. One can detect in the Ādāb as a whole certain ideas known to Sasanian Persia from pre-Islamic translations of Greek works (ʿAbbās, pp. 545 f.). The Ādāb is cast in the parallellistic mode of expression born of the early ḵoṭba and expanded and elaborated in Omayyad hortatory compositions, unembroidered with contrived rhyming of the sort found in later ʿAbbasid prose literature. To point contrasts and enforce parallels, full use is made of devices well known to the ancient schools of rhetoric (Latham, pp. 63f.).

The Resāla fi’l-ṣaḥāba (ed. and tr. Ch. Pellat, Paris, 1976) is a short but remarkably percipient administrative text. In less than 5,000 words, he discusses specific problems facing the new ʿAbbasid regime. The unnamed addressee is identifiable as al-Manṣūr, who may never have seen it. There is no logical arrangement. After an opening eulogy, purposefully complimentary but devoid of extravagant panegyric, he discusses the army, praising the Khorasanis in Iraq but suggesting that, as an ethnically mixed body exposed to heterodox thinking, they should be taught only the tenets of a clear, concise religious code issued by the caliph. Concern for the army’s standing, morale, and future loyalty leads him to suggest reforms, including the removal of fiscal duties from the military, officer recruitment from the ranks based on merit, religious education, inculcation of integrity and loyalty, regular pay linked to inflation, and maintenance of an efficient intelligence service throughout Khorasan and peripheral provinces, regardless of cost. He calls for vigilance and good intelligence in Iraq to counter discontent in Baṣra and Kūfa and pleads for deserving Iraqis to be afforded scope for the exercise of their talents in government service. In view of wide divergences in legal theory and practice, born of local precedents or flawed personal reasoning, he suggests to the caliph a scrutiny and resolution of all conflicts of law by his own command and the imposition of unity by a comprehensive enactment. He recommends cautious clemency for the conquered Syrians, the recruitment from among them of a hand-picked caliphal elite, the lifting of ruinous economic sanctions, and fair distribution of foodstuffs in the Syrian military districts. At long last, he comes to the caliph’s entourage, which, though introduced in glowing terms, can be perceived as far from ideal. In the past, ministers and secretaries—the approach is tactful—brought the entourage into disrepute: men unworthy of access to the caliph became members to the exclusion of, for instance, scions of the great families of early Islam. The caliph should now remedy the situation by taking account of claims to precedence and singling out for preferment men with special talents and distinguished service records, as well as men of religion and virtue and incorruptible and uncorrupting men of noble lineage. Also, the caliph’s kin and princes of his house should be considered. In a section on land-tax (ḵarāj) the author focuses on the arbitrary exploitation of cultivators and recommends taxation governed by known rules and registers. After a few lines on Arabia he closes with a proposal for mass education aimed at achieving uniformity of orthodox belief through a body of paid professional instructors. This would make for stability, and trouble-makers would not go unobserved. The Resāla ends with an expression of pious hopes and prayers for the caliph and his people. Stylistically, the work markedly differs from the Ādāb in certain important respects (Latham, pp. 71f.), the reason for which may be the subject-matter.

Of the various works attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, there are two of which we have only fragments quoted in hostile sources. One, posing a problem of authenticity, may be described as a Manichaean apologia (Latham, pp. 72 ff.). The other is the Moʿārażat al-Qorʾān, which Josef van Ess—inclined to accept the ascription (p. 161)—sees not as anti-Islamic, but rather as an exercise designed to show that in the author’s time something stylistically comparable to the Koran could be composed (p. 160). Other compositions and occasional pieces attributed to Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ are contained in Kord ʿAlī’s Rasāʾel (pp. 107-16, 135-72). Of these the Yatīma ṯānīa —a short, sententious epistle on good and bad rulers and subjects—may be authentic, though the long resāla entitled Yatīmat al-solṭān and the collection of aphorisms labeled Ḥekam certainly are not. A doxology (Taḥmīd, in Kord ʿAlī, pp. 135-44) is almost certainly spurious, though a series of passages and sentences that follow it mayhave come from the lost Yatīma fi’l-rasāʾel.

For various reasons (loss of texts, contamination, etc.) Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ’s literary achievement defies precise evaluation. Yet there is nothing to suggest that Gabrieli exaggerates in writing, “His works, both as translator and original writer, soon became classic in the great ʿAbbasid civilization and, by their form as well as their subject-matter, exerted an influence that cannot be exaggerated on the cultural interests and ideals of the succeeding generations” (Gabrieli in EI ²III, p. 885).


Bibliography: (For cited works not given in detail, see “Short References.”)

All original works written by, or attributed to, Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, apart from fragments of the Moʿārażat al-Qorʾān (on which see van Ess), are contained in Kord ʿAlī, ed., Rasāʾel al-bolaḡāʾ, Cairo, 1365/1946, pp. 1-172.

Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, Kalīla wa Demna, ed. L. Cheikho, Beirut, 1905 (with many later editions); ed. ʿA.-W. ʿAzzām, Cairo, 1941, repr. Algiers, 1973; tr. A. Miquel, Paris, 1957 (on other modern translations into European languages see Brocklemann in EI ² p. 504, and de Blois, p. 4, n. 2).

An important early translation is in J. Alemany Bolufer, ed., La antigua versión castellana del Calila y Dimna colejada con el original árabe de la misma, Madrid, 1915.

E. ʿAbbās, “Naẓra jadīda fī baʿż al-kotob al-mansūba l’Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ,” Revue de l’Académie Arabe de Damas 52, 1977, pp. 538-80.

Ā. Āḏarnūš and ʿA. Zaryāb, “Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ” in DMBE IV, pp. 662-80.

A. F. L. Beeston, Samples of Arabic Prose in its Historical Development, Oxford, 1977, pp. 7-11.

F. de Blois, Burzōy’s Voyage to India and the Origin of the Book of Kalīlah wa Dimnah, London, 1990.

M. Ben Ghazi, Un humaniste du IIe/VIIIe siécle. ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, unpubl. Ph.D. diss., University of Paris, 1957.

C. E. Bosworth, in The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period, ed. A. F. L. Beeston et al., Cambridge, 1983, pp. 487-91.

C. Brockelmann, “Kalīla wa-Dimna” in EI ² IV, pp. 503-06.

Camb. Hist. Iran III, index, s.vv. Āʾīn-nāma, Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, Khwadāy-nāmag,Mazdak, Mazdakism, Mazdak-nāmag, Tansar/Tōsar, and “Tansar, The Letter of.” P. Charles-Dominique, “Le système éthique d’Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ d’après ses deux épîtres dites ‘al-Ṣaġīr’ et ‘al-Kabīr’,” Arabica 12, 1965, pp. 45-66. P. Crone, Slaves on Horses, Cambridge, 1980, pp. 69 f. (on the Ṣaḥāba).

Ebn Esfandīār, Nāma-ye Tansar, ed. M. Mīnovī, Tehran, 1354 Š./1975; repr. with commentary, Tehran, 1354 Š./1975; tr. M. Boyce as The Letter of Tansar, Rome, 1968.

Ebn Qotayba, ʿOyūn al-aḵbār, 4 vols., Cairo, 1383/1963. ʿA. Eqbāl, Šarḥ-e ḥāl-e ʿAbd-Allāh b. Moqaffaʿ, Berlin, 1926.

Idem, “Kalīla wa Demna,” in FIZ 19, 1352 Š./1973, pp. 19-48.

J. van Ess, “Some Fragments of the Muʿāraḍat al-Qurʾān,” Studia Arabica et Islamica. Festschrift for Iḥsān ʿAbbās, ed. W. Qāḍī, Beirut, 1981, pp. 151-63.

F. Gabrieli, “L’opera di Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ,” Rivista degli studi orientali 13, 1931-32, pp. 197-247.

Idem, “Ibn al-Muḳaffaʿ” in EI ² III, pp. 883-85.

H. A. R. Gibb, Studies on the Civilization of Islam, ed. S. J. Shaw and W. R. Polk, London, 1962, pp. 63-65, 67, 117, 261.

S. D. Goitein, “A Turning Point in the History of the Muslim State,” in Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, Leiden, 1966, pp. 149-67 (on the Ṣaḥāba).

M. Guidi, ed. and tr., La lotta tra l’Islam e il manicheismo. Ketāb al-radd ʿalā … Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, Rome, 1927.

J. D. Latham, “Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and Early ʿAbbasid Prose,” in The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. ʿAbbasid Belles-Lettres, ed. J. Ashtiany et al., Cambridge, 1990, pp. 48-77 (but what is said on page 50 about Kalīla o Demna and the Pañcatantra requires revision).

M. Mīnovī, “Maktūb-ī ba ʿAbbās Eqbāl Āštīānī,” Yāḡmā 15, 1341 Š./1962, pp. 69-78; repr. in idem, Naqd-e ḥāl, 3rd. ed. 1367 Š./1988, pp. 9-30.

J. Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford, 1950; repr. 1964, index, s.v.

Ibn Muqaffaʿ. D. Sourdel, “La biographie d’Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ d’après les sources anciennes,” Arabica 1, 1954, pp. 307-23.

(J. Derek Latham)

Originally Published: December 15, 1997

Last Updated: December 6, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VIII, Fasc. 1, pp. 39-43

Cite this entry:

J. Derek Latham, “EBN AL-MOQAFFAʿ, ABŪ MOḤAMMAD ʿABD-ALLĀH RŌZBEH,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, VIII/1, pp. 39-43, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ebn-al-moqaffa (accessed on 30 December 2012).