Kalila Wa Dimna

On Monday, March 7th we discussed Kalila wa Dimna (Kalila and Dimna), a bestseller for almost two thousand years in countless languages (first written in Arabic in 750 AD – the first work of literary prose narrative in Arabic). These charming and humorous animal fables have found their way into the folklore of every major culture and tradition.

Author’s Discussion: We were joined by the author Hooda Shawa Qaddumi, whose latest book, The Animals vs the Humans at the Court of the King of the Jinn, is an ecological tale inspired by an offshoot of the Kalila wa dimna tales – the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity and the animal fable genre, and beautifully illustrated by the calligrapher Hassan Musa.

Background about Kalila and Dimna

Kalila wa Dimna was originally written in Sanskrit, probably in Kashmir, some time in the fourth century A.D. In Sanskrit it was called the Panchatantra, or “Five Discourses.” It was written for three young princes who had driven their tutors to despair and their father to distraction. Afraid to entrust his kingdom to sons unable to master the most elementary lessons, the king turned over the problem to his wise wazir, and the wazir wrote the Panchatantra, which concealed great practical wisdom in the easily digestible form of animal fables. Six months later the princes were on the road to wisdom and later ruled judiciously.

Two hundred years after that, a Persian shah sent his personal physician, Burzoe, to India to find an herb rumored to bestow eternal life. Burzoe returned with a copy of the Panchatantra instead, which he claimed was just as good as the miraculous herb, for it would bestow great wisdom on the reader. The shah had Burzoe translate it into Pehlavi, a form of Old Persian, and liked it so much that he enshrined the translation in a special room of his palace.

Three hundred years later, after the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Near East, a Persian convert to Islam named Ibn al-Mukaffa’ chanced upon Burzoe’s Pehlavi version and translated it into Arabic in a style so lucid it is still considered a model of Arabic prose. Called Kalila wa dimna (Kalila and Dimna), after the two jackals who are the main characters, the book was written mainly for the instruction of civil servants. It was so entertaining, however, that it proved popular with all classes, entered the folklore of the Muslim world, and was carried by the Arabs to Spain. There it was translated into Old Spanish in the 13th century. In Italy it was one of the first books to appear after the invention of printing. Later it was also translated into Greek and then that version into Latin, Old Church Slavic, German and other languages. The Arabic version was translated into Ethiopic, Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Malay, Javanese, Laotian and Siamese. In the 19th century it was translated into Hindustani, thus completing the circle begun 1,700 years before in Kashmir.

This general description was in part taken from 18-21 of the July/August 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World, by Paul Lunde. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/197204/kalila.wa.dimna.htm

How to find it?

Kalila wa dimna has been put into so many adaptations it is hard to count, including a recent theatre production at the Barbican. We invite you to find your own version – Kalila wa dimna was never seen as a fixed corpus of stories, and later authors and editors felt free to add to, subtract from, and otherwise alter its contents.  We both discussed the individual tales, as well as the role the stories play in a broader sense.

For English readers, we recommend the latest retelling by Ramsay Wood, from Saqi Books, 2008 (more below).

For Arabic readers, nothing beats the original translated by Ibn al-Mukaffa – the first work of literary prose narrative in Arabic – but we also recommend (Kitab Kalila Wa Dimna) كتاب كليلة ودمنة adapted by Salem Shamseddine, from Al Maktaba Al Asriyya, Beirut, 2005.

About Ramsay Wood’s adaptation:

In his retelling of Kalila and Dimna, Ramsay Wood knits several oral storytelling traditions into a captivating literary style. This version from all major ancient texts is the first new compendium in English since 1570.

As Doris Lessing writes in  her introduction to the edition: This fresh creation follows the more than two thousand year old precedent of adapting, collating and arranging the material in any way that suits present purposes. It is contemporary, racy, vigorous, full of zest. It is also very funny. I defy anyone to sit down with it and not finish it at a sitting. Ramsay Wood’s own enjoyment in doing the book has made it so enjoyable.

About the featured author, Hooda Shawa Qaddumi:

Hooda Shawa Qaddumi has published three Arabic stories inspired by fables and legends of the Arab and Islamic world. Her latest book, The Animals vs the Humans at the Court of the King of the Jinn, is an ecological tale inspired by an offshoot from the Kalila wa dimna tales (the 950 AD Epistles of the Brethren of Purity) and related to the larger Animal fable genre. The book is beautifully illustrated by the calligrapher and artist Hassan Musa. 

Hooda was born in the UK in 1964 to a Palestinian father and British mother, and grew up in Riyadh and Gaza. Following a degree in Economics and Political Science from the American University in Cairo she worked as a journalist for Jordan TV, until she moved to Kuwait and taught English as a Second Language at the British Council and Kuwait University. This experience, working with children and adults in language acquisition led her to explore applications of teaching Arabic and ever since she has been actively involved in working with Arabic professional development programs on behalf of a number of private and government schools in Kuwait.

Hooda’s previous title, The Birds’ Journey to Mount Qaf, based on a Sufi poem of self-discovery, won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Children’s Literature in 2008. She also writes scripts for youth drama, conducts story telling workshops, and is currently working on a project based on a medieval Islamic fortune-telling device housed in the British Museum.

Further Reading about Kalila wa Dimna:

Atil, Esin. Kalila wa Dimna: Fables from a Fourteenth Century Arabic Manuscript. Washington. DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1981

Brockelmann, C. “Kalila wa Dimna” In Encyclopedia of Islam. New Edition, vol. 4, 503-6 Leiden: E.J. Brill.

De Blois, Francois. Burzoy’s Voyage to India and the Origin of the Book of Kalilah wa Dimnah. London: Royal Asiatic Society. 1990.

Grube, Ernst J.. ed. A Mirror for Princes from India: Illustrated Versions of the Kalilah wa Dimnah. Anvar-i Suhayli, Iyar-i Danish and Humayun Nameh. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1991.

O’Kane, Bernard. Early Perisan Painting: Kalila wa Dimna Manusciprts of the Late Fourteenth Century. London and New York. I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Raby, Julian. The Earliest Illustrations to Kalila wa Dimna.” In A Mirror for Princes from India. ed. Ernst J. Grube. 16-31.

Walzer, Sofie. “An Illustrated Leaf from a Lost Mamluk Kalilah wa Dimnah Manuscript.” Ars Orientalis 2 (1957): 503-5.

3 comments on “Kalila Wa Dimna

  1. Ramsay Wood says:

    Thanks! A Google alert picked up that you’d mentioned my (part One) version of Kalila (Fables of Friendship and Betrayal) by Saqi. FYI Part Two (Fables of Conflict and Intrigue) will be published by Medina Publishing in April 2011, deovolonte:


    If anyone at Kutub has the patience (or suffers from insomnia!), your March 7th discussion might benefit from watching the video of my 2009 ICR lecture at

    Gluttons for further punishment might also try the Interview on the site, where there are details about my opinion that the West owes Ibn al-Maqaffa a massive (and unrecognised) debt for passing on this ancient knowledge.

    Best wishes,

    Ramsay Wood

    • readkutub says:

      Thanks Ramsay! We look forward to following up on our discussion with part II of Kalila wa Dimna! We’ll definitely look out for the interviews and videos you mention…Looking forward to the conversation. Best, Kutub

  2. linwin says:

    Kalila wa dimnah collection books

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