In February 2013, as chaos raged through Syria, a small group of men from the Al Nusra front, the local Al Qaida affiliate, gathered in the town of Maari, near Aleppo. They were there to settle scores with the most distinguished sons of that town, one of the most famous poet of the whole Muslim world, Abu 'L'Ala Ahmad ibn 'Abdallah al-Ma'arri, known simply as Al Ma’arri, was both one of the greatest of Arab poets and a rare example of a Medieval rationalist. His poetry has relevance to struggles in Syria and beyond.
You've had your way a long, long time,
You kings and tyrants,
And still you work injustice hour by hour.
What ails you that do not tread a path of glory?
A man may take the field, although he love the bower.
But some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.
An idle thought! There's none to lead but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.
Until I started writing about disabled people in history, I’d never heard of Al Ma’arri. A Persian colleague pointed me towards him, explaining how prominent he was in the Islamic world. Yet because Al Ma’arri is so obscure in ours, it took some detective work to piece together his story.
He was born to a prominent family in Ma'arra, near Aleppo in 973, during the Abbasid Caliphate. One of his forebears had been the town’s first Islamic judge, and others had been poets. At the age of four, Al Ma’arri contracted smallpox and was left blind. He said of himself: “when I was four years old, there was a decree of fate about me, that I could not distinguish a full-grown camel from a tender young camel newly born.” However, he was to make up for his lack of sight by having an extraordinarily powerful memory.
Beginning his career as a poet at the age of 11, Al Ma’aari travelled around the region, to Aleppo, to Antioch, in modern day Turkey, and then to Baghdad, receiving a religious, linguistic and literary education through learning the poetic tradition. He may also visited the Christian monastery of Dayr-al-Farus on his way to Tripoli, where he was exposed to Hellenic philosophy. Maybe it was the Hellenic emphasis on skepticism and rational argument that awakened doubts in his own mind.
His first collection of poems was called The Tinder Spark. In 1004, his father, who had been his first teacher, died, and a few years later he travelled to Baghdad, to consult the libraries there. At the time, Baghdad would have been thronged with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Sufis, and also rationalists. Although welcomed in the literary salons of Baghdad, he only stayed in that city for about eighteen months. It’s not clear whether he left because he ran out of money, or because of literary arguments, or homesickness. He may even have been expelled for asking too many critical questions.
Returning home, he was heartbroken to find that his mother had already died. In reaction, Al Ma'arri announced his intention of becoming an ascetic, and of avoiding other people. But like many aspiring hermits, Al Ma’arri’s growing reputation brought many students and admirers to hear him lecture. I wonder whether he was frustrated by all the attention, or glad of his popularity?
He certainly had something to communicate, because he went on to create another innovative and radical collection of verse, the Luzumiyyat. This title, translated as “Unnecessary necessities”, apparently referred both to his attitude to living, and to the obscure vocabulary and complex structure of his poetry. What appeals to me about his poems is not just the originality of his ideas, but also the directness of his language. It feels like a modern thinker is speaking to you, not a contemporary of William the Conqueror. Yet unlike for example Jalludin Rumi, the 13th century Persian who is apparently the best selling poet in America, there seems to be no fresh modern translation of Al Ma’arri available in the West. Instead we have to rely on Reynolds Alleyne Nicholson, whose Studies in Islamic Poetry was written during the First World War and reissued in 1967.
I do not know how Al Maa’rri coped with his blindness in his daily life. He composed his writings entirely in his head, and dictated it to others. He also conducted an extensive correspondence. We think that he never married. But he was held in high esteem by his community, and I imagine his needs were met. After all, he was in his eighty-fifth year when he died, which would have been extremely old for the eleventh century. We known from a Persian poet who visited Al Ma’arri when he was in his seventies that he was “the chief man in the town, very rich, revered by the inhabitants and surrounded by more than two hundred students who came from all parts to attend his lectures on literature and poetry.”
None of this explains the actions of those men from the Al Nusra Front, who made a beeline for his statue near Aleppo and beheaded it. What had he done, that Islamists would take belated revenge against him? Given recent terrorist outrages, vandalism to a mere statue is minor news. But the fact that Al-Maari was seen as an important target for Islamists nearly a thousand years after his death says something about this writer’s significance.
Al Ma'arri was controversial in his own time, and is regarded as a heretic today, because he was one of the rare examples of religious skepticism in the Islamic world. For example, he rejected the idea that Islam had a monopoly on truth. He thought it was simply a matter of geographical accident what faith people adopted and in any case, to quote the man himself:
They all err—Moslems, Jews,
Christians, and Zoroastrians:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.
Those men are rushing towards decomposition,
All religions are equally strayed.
If one asks me, what is my doctrine,
It is clear:
Am I not, like others,
To me, he often feels like a wittier and more self-effacing version of Richard Dawkins. Although Al Ma’ari did not believe in divine revelation, he was probably a deist rather than an actual atheist. In other words, he may have accepted the existence of God, but did not believe that God intervened in the world. Certainly for Al Ma'arri, reason alone should guide human beings. In particular, he was critical of the self-interested and often corrupt edifice of religion, which he thought was a human-devised activity:
O fools, awake! The rites you sacred hold
Are but a cheat contrived by men of old,
Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust
And died in baseness—and their law is dust.
For example, he rejected the orthodox Muslim duty to make the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which he even described as a pagan journey. Nor did he believe in an afterlife:
Death's debt is then and there
Paid down by dying men;
But it is a promise bare
That they shall rise again.
When you hear a poem like this one, you can understand why an Islamist would reach for the Sharia law concerning heresy. It’s a wonder to me that the beheading didn’t happen to Al Ma’ari, and that he had a statue in Syria in the first place:
The Prophets, too, among us come to teach,
Are one with those who from the pulpit preach;
They pray, and slay, and pass away, and yet
Our ills are as the pebbles on the beach.
Islam does not have a monopoly on truth:
For Al Ma'arri, there was either no ultimate meaning to life, or at the very least it was unknowable:
Two fates still hold us fast,
A future and a past;
Two vessels' vast embrace
Surrounds us—time and space.
And when we ask what end
Our maker did intend,
Some answering voice is heard
That utters no plain word.
His work promotes a pessimism about human life and death, which I find very appealing and modern:
When I would string the pearls of my desire,
Alas, life's too short thread denies them room.
Huge volumes cannot yet contain entire
Man's hope; his life is but a summary of doom.
For him, life was ephemeral. Because of the low opinion he held about life, Al Ma’ari felt it better not to have children, so as to spare them the pains of existence. He wanted the epitaph on his grave to read “This wrong was by my father done to me, but never by me to anyone”. It was for this reason that he never married. He also opposed all violence and killing, becoming a vegan and avoiding the use of animal skins in clothing and footwear, and urging that no living creature should be harmed, as in his poem "I No Longer Steal from Nature":
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
Perceived my way before my hair went gray!
He seems to have been equally radical in his political thinking. For example, in another of his poems, a number of talking animals, including a donkey, a camel, a horse and a fox pass judgement on the Fatimid rulers of Aleppo.
His third great work was Risalat-al-Ghufran, or the Epistle of Forgiveness, comparable to Dante’s Divine Comedy, which it may have influenced. In this poem, the hero visits the Gardens of Paradise, where he meets heathen poets who have found forgiveness – again, violating Islamic doctrine. The work remains controversial, even today: in 2007, the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs banned it from the International Book Fair in Algiers.
We may have the idea that atheism was invented during the Enlightenment, but Al Ma'arri is not the only religious sceptic in the Islamic world. The more famous Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote in the twelfth century “Deaf to religion, this is my credo”. Unlike other heretics of the Islamic world such as Al-Hallaj and Ibn Muquaffa, Al Ma'arri avoided being killed for his free thinking beliefs. He was charged with heresy although never prosecuted. There is a spiritual quest in his work, a strand of monotheism, and perhaps this piety allowed him to appear more orthodox than he was. He was also held in great esteem by his neighbours and fellow citizens, which probably helped. As an example of the irony with which he approaches conventional subjects, there’s another poem where he depict himself arguing with the Angel of Death about the origin of certain Arabic words, in order to postphone the moment of his own mortality by another hour.
Being blind at that time was a different thing to today. For most of human history, disability was not a matter of identity. Only comparatively recently were people with different forms of illness and impairment considered as one category. To talk of “disabled people” or “people with disabilities” is a modern development, and the term disability itself only came into usage in the twentieth century. On the other hand, in historical eras when smallpox, polio, measles and other diseases were rife, illness and impairment would have been very common. Although many disabled people died prematurely, it is likely that prevalence of disability was much higher.
Historically, blindness was always seen as much of blessing as a curse. One recurring narrative suggests that blind people had deeper insight by way of compensation. Homer after all was blind, as well as the prophetic Tiresias of Greek mythodology. A number of historical figures are known to have been blind. For example, the revered C14th Italian composer Francesco Landini and his French contemporary, the blind knight Jean l’Aveugle (d. 1346), who was represented as noble and heroic. In C15th England, the poets John Gower (d. 1408) and John Audelay (died c. 1426) both wrote about their blindness.
In medieval Islam, blind people were not ostracized or seen as less than perfect. This positive attitude stems from the Koran and the Hadith, where disability is seen as part of the human condition. In one tradition, the Prophet Muhammed is preaching in Mecca, when a blind follower comes to ask about interpreting the Koran, and the Prophet turns away. Muhammed is then rebuked, because everyone who comes full of eagerness and in awe of God should be included. The Prophet’s companion Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum was blind, but was nevertheless responsible for the call to prayer, was put in charge of Medina when the Prophet was away, and finally died on the battlefield holding the Muslim standard.
Al Ma’ari’s poem, The Body is Your Vase, expresses some of this approach to disability:
The body, which gives you during life a form,
Is but your vase: be not deceived, my soul!
Cheap is the bowl for storing honey in,
But precious for the contents of the bowl.
Al Ma’arri lived at a time and in a culture where blind people were not necessarily excluded. He came from an elite family, and he won fame due to his originality and intelligence. In the words of his translator, Reynolds Nicholson, he was equally opposed to injustice, hypocrisy and superstition. I find it striking that such an Arab free thinker was writing half a millennium before Voltaire. The reason that many of Al Ma’ari’s works are lost to us is that the Crusaders wreaked devastation that the Crusades wreaked across Syria in the following centuries. This, too, is a timely thought. I look forward to the day when Christians, Muslims and free thinkers can read Al Ma’arri in peace and he is once again revered in his Syrian birthplace.