Samuel’s Law of Small Numbers

The world’s population has increased by 50% (1900-1950) and by 140% (1950-2000). It was projected by the United Nations to increase by around 50% in 2000-2050. Of the 3.44 billion increase (1950-2000), only 8% was in developed countries. Although Israel’s population has been soaring for the last 25 years, its population today is around 8.5 million, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

Some claim that population growth increases society’s total output and hence its geopolitical power. However, the relationship between aggregate population and social creativity (across industries and cities) seems in any event loose: the citizen population of Athens (in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.) was roughly 25,000, but produced intellectual and artistic works that dwarf those of entire continents.

Research provides major insights into the factors that determine a nation’s (or group’s) clout. Although being important in explaining the influence, money is not the only factor that determines political, economic, and technological success. It turns out there is another factor: being small in number as a nation, as stated poetically by Samuel (As-Samaw’al bin ‘Adiya’ [Hebrew: שמואל בן עדיה‎‎]): a Jewish poet and warrior who lived in the first half of the 6th century in the Arabian peninsula.

Samuel was esteemed by the Arabs for his loyalty and bravery. He owned a castle near Tayma (situated about 200 miles north of Al-Madinah), called, from its mixed color, Al-Ablaq. It was situated on a high hill and was a stopping-place for travelers to and from the Levant. When I started to learn Arabic at school, I did not know or discover the Arab-Jewish identity of many well-known poets, novelists, and intellectuals (Anwar Sha’ul, Murad Michael, Shalom Darwish, David Semah, Ya’qub Balbul, Isḥaq Bar-Moshe, Samir Naqqash, Mir Baṣri, Ibrahim Ovadia) and several other Jewish medical doctors, mathematicians, astrologers, astronomers, and philosophers, who lived in the Arabian peninsula and Northern Africa prior to the rise of Islam.


Samuel was one of the most famous poets of his time, thanks to the famous poem which he wrote after a princess tried to degrade his people since they were few in number. Here is an English translation of selected verses of the poem:

[3] She was reproaching us that we were few in numbers; so I said to her, “Indeed, noble men are few;”

[4] Not few are they whose remnants are like to us—youths who have climbed to the heights, and old men too;

[5] It harms us not that we are few, seeing that our kinsman is mighty, whereas the kinsman of the most part of men is abased;

[6] We have a mountain* where those we protect come to dwell, impregnable, turning back the eye and it aweary;

[16] Whenever a leader of ours disappears, another leader arises, one eloquent to speak as noble men speak, and strong to act moreover;

[18] Our days are famous amongst our foes; they have well-marked blazes and white pasterns;

[21] If you are ignorant, ask the people about us and them; and he who knows and he who is ignorant are, assuredly, not equal.

Some claim that the issue of over-population has been exaggerated by Thomas Robert Malthus and other past “prophets of doom,” yet critics are on a par with the belief that we should not worry at all about terrorism (one direct output of over-population!). If Malthus wrote of over-population and land scarcity, Samuel gave us some benefits of being small in number: as if he had warned that over-population cannot give a nation (or a group of people) policy “niche;” limiting its capacity and that of the global ecosystem, eventually choking off further economic growth and national creativity.

* The mountain is either to be taken metaphorically or literally as referring to Al-Ablaq. In fact, Samuel lived to be known for his loyalty and fulfillment of pledges. When prince poet Imru’ Al-Qays deposited his arms with Samuel, and the castle was besieged by his enemies after Al-Qays left for Byzantium, Samuel allowed his own son to be killed rather than surrender Al-Qays’s arms to the invader. This act earned Samuel lasting fame among Arabs: a popular proverb on the extent of one’s loyalty was coined, “more loyal than Samuel” (Arabic: Awfa minal Samaw’al).

About the Author
Fadi A. Haddadin is a Jordanian economist and policy analyst.
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