Skip to content
Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.
from the October 2019 issue

The Book of Stupid People

In an excerpt from his twelfth-century taxonomy of morons, Ibn al-Jawzi proves that idiocy is always a current event.

The terms “stupidity” and “nitwittedness” refer to miscalculation in the means and ways to a goal, although with good intentions, as opposed to “insanity,” which refers to a fault in both the means and in the intentions. For the stupid person has good intentions, but the manner he goes about achieving them is rotten, and his plans to reach his goal are faulty, while the insane person has rotten ideas to begin with, and chooses to pursue what should not be chosen. By way of example, I shall tell you about one of the nitwits: Once a bird escaped from a prince, and he commanded that the gate of the city be closed. His intention was to trap the bird!


There was a stupid person named “Hanbaqa” . . . and one of the stupid things that he did was that he put a chain on his neck made of seashells, bones, and pottery, and said, “I’m afraid that I will lose myself, so I did this so that I will know myself by it.”

But that night the necklace was moved from his neck to his brother’s neck, and when he woke up, he said, “O my brother, you are me, so who am I?!”


Al-Ḥusain ibn al-Sumayda‘ al-Anṭākī said, “In Antioch we had an employee from Aleppo who had a stupid secretary. One day two Muslim warships deployed against an enemy sank in the sea, and that secretary conveyed this news on behalf of his employer to Aleppo, writing, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate: Know, O blessed Commander, that two warships, meaning two boats, have foundered at sea, meaning sunk in the high waves, and their passengers were destroyed, meaning perished.”

And the commander of Aleppo replied, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate: Your message reached me, meaning it arrived, and I understood it, meaning I read it. Punish your secretary, meaning slap him, and dismiss him, meaning fire him, for he is an idiot, meaning stupid. Goodbye, meaning this is the end of the letter.”


A nitwit was eating a sheep’s head with his son, whose father was even stupider than he was. And the son said, “Daddy, if you get the ankle bone, will you give it to me to play with?”

“Damn your eyes,” said his father, “It’s not a grilled fish! It doesn’t have ankle bones!”

Translated from Abū al-Faraj ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn ‘Alī ibn al-Jawzī’s Akhbār al-Ḥamqā wa-l-Mughaffalīn, edited by ‘Azīzah Fuwāl (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-‘Arabī, 2005). Translation © 2019 by Emily Selove. All rights reserved.

Read more from the October 2019 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.