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African Proverb of the Month
June 2008

Akbar na:r min asgar shara:r (Arabic)
Le grand feu debute par le premier étincele. (French)
Great fires erupt from tiny sparks. (English)

Arabic (Libya) Proverb

Background, Explanation, Meaning and Everyday Use

In Libyan society, especially in the Sebha Region where I have worked, this Arabic proverb is used to comment on how tiny acts of hastiness and evil erupt into big problems causing unnecessary rifts and big fights.

It is well-known from our common experience that fire accidents in our households as well as wild fires in forests start from tiny sparks that turn into huge fires. This is a natural practice generated by the nature of fire and materials that are inflammable. When two parts of dry branches rub against each other in the forest and produce tiny sparks of fire, the forest winds fan the fire further. The fire spreads and consumes the surrounding dry wood and becomes bigger. In the process the surrounding area also gets heated up and other inflammable materials around that fire also catch fire and so the fire gradually becomes bigger and bigger. In a similar way, when dry grass in wild bushes burns up, it will spread wildly over huge areas of grassland killing flora and fauna. Here the tiny spark is the tiny cause and the great fire is the huge effect.

A similar practice is also observed in our social life. For example, when two headstrong or quarrelsome people come together and one of them does something wrong – be it an insult or an aggressive gesture however small it may be -- it will produce an opposite reaction from the other person. Here their tendency for harming others (by insult or hurt) is the tiny cause. Since both of them are dry with bad tendencies like the dry wood or grass ready to burn, they pick a quarrel spontaneously and the quarrel turns into a bigger quarrel when their friends also join the fray and the context of their arguments fans the fire of the dispute.

This proverb is in Libyan Spoken Arabic (also called Libyan Vernacular Arabic) and in Standard Arabic that is the national or official language of Libya.

Biblical Parallels

"So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a

forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell" (James 3:5-6). The context in which this Libyan proverb is used is with reference to the evil power of the tongue. Words of indiscretion have led to great problems as shown in the lives of many Biblical characters and different Biblical texts:

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof " (Proverbs 18:21)

"He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction" (Proverbs 13:3).

"He who has a wayward and a crooked mind finds no good, and he who has a willful and contrary tongue will fall into calamity" (Proverbs 17:20).

God in His infinite wisdom created us and gave us different body parts for different

kinds of functions. The best thing about it is that He gave us control over these parts. Your leg can not move without your will, neither can your tongue speak without your will. That is why the Bible teaches us to tame our tongue. I wondered why God says tame the tongue and not any other part of the body, until I came across this Scripture which gave me a deeper understanding of the potential locked within the tongue:

When I talk about the tongue I mean its main function that is to speak and release words. Words are very powerful; they are containers of positive or negative power. Power for building or destroying, for creating light or darkness, for releasing life or death, for causing hope or despair, for healing or for hurting, for blessing or for cursing. You can use your tongue as a building tool to build your life and the lives of other people around you, or to completely destroy. Remember, you are always in control of you tongue. An untamed tongue is the spark that sets an entire forest on fire. It is easy to judge if your tongue is tamed or not by listening to the words that proceed from your mouth. Are they words of gossip which destroy the foundation of trust? Are they negative words which birth unbelief and discontent? Are they unkind words loaded with fear and intimidation?

Did you know that you are a prophet of your own destiny? There are many ways of telling if someone is heading for success or failure, such as their character, values, priorities or convictions. But above all things a person's words will reveal to us who he or she is. We know the character of God through reading His Word. That is how we know His likes and dislikes.

Contemporary Use and Religious Application

Proverbs of this type are generally used in a negative sense in many languages since fire denotes something bad, destructive. Just as the tiniest spark can cause a forest fire, the wicked use of the tongue can cause great harm. In the Bible the reference is to its negative use such as in James 5 and 6. In Libyan Arabic this proverb can be used both positively and negatively. Probably the positive sense is a recent development that has to be further confirmed.

This proverb captures an interesting process of small causes producing great effects and has a serious implication for ordering our lives. It is so because the same type of natural practice can also be observed in our social practices. Our disposition is the root cause of all our activity – be it mental, vocal, or physical. And if you do good, you beget good; if you do evil, you beget evil. Human beings, by nature, are sensitive to censure but at the same time, they are also inclined towards censure of others, as we commonly observe in gossiping. In addition, as they are sensitive to censure, they always have the tendency to react to any censorious activity by condemning the opponent and thus set in a chain reaction of abuse and counter abuse resulting in big quarrels and even violence depending upon the individuals' nature.

Let us take a simple example to illustrate how tiny mistakes in behavior cause great problems. A person driving on the main road was in a mindless hurry and wanted to pass through the crossroads ignoring the traffic jam. He nearly hit another person's car and the latter objected to the former’s rash driving. However, instead of apologizing, the rash driver retorted angrily. Consequently, the other driver's sentiments were hurt and he equally reacted angrily by abusing the rash driver. Their friends passing by also joined them and inflamed the situation like the adjoining dry grass or dry wood in a forest. Word upon word piled up and erupted into a big quarrel and both the people hit each other and the wind screen of the first person's car was smashed in the process. Thank God a policeman came to the rescue. Had the rash driver apologized to the other, this quarrel might have been avoided; had his friends tried to mitigate the problem, the quarrel would have been stopped before it got out of hand; and had they not allowed the arguments to pile up, the situation would have been controlled and the quarrel stopped. But none of them took place and hence a tiny spark erupted into a big fire.

In our daily life we see some people gossiping about others and land themselves into unnecessary problems that burn up their personal happiness, time, and energy. Not only their happiness, but also the other people's happiness is spoiled by such evil talk.

This proverb should be used appropriately to drive home the point that unnecessary physical, or mental or vocal acts of evil, even though they are very insignificant and small, should be avoided at all costs. Especially, words should be used very, very carefully since their effect is longstanding. A bad word leads to another bad word and both of them lead the users to the hospital! Even if the other person is wrong, it is better to be patient and remember what Christ said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!" and "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matthew 5:39).

This negative proverb has a positive side to it: Just as one bad act leads to another, one kind act also leads to another. In our daily life we notice how small emotions generate great revolutions both at the personal level and the collective level. Since charity begins at home, the personal level should be given the greatest importance. Incidentally what is achieved at the personal level gets elevated to the collective level as each one joins together to form the group.

As one's disposition impels a desire, this desire leads to an effort producing an act by the actor. If the disposition or character is good, good acts are produced; and if the disposition is bad, bad acts are produced. Consequently, the results also will be good or bad. Therefore, deliberately think of good things only.

NOTE: This Libyan proverb is taken from From Sebha with Love: A Collection of Libyan Proverbs by Chilukuri Bhuvaneswar.

Professor Chilukuri Bhuvaneswar
University of Sebha
Sebha, Libya


Hyderabad, India
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