Friday, September 23, 2011

Al-Ma'arri (973-1057)

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.

Abu 'L'Ala Ahmad ibn 'Abdallah al-Ma'arri was one of the greatest of Arab poets and a rare example of a Medieval rationalist. His originality wins him admirers among contemporary readers, and has relevance to struggles in Syria and beyond.

He was born to a prominent family in Ma'arra, near Aleppo. When he was four, he contracted smallpox and was left blind. Beginning his career as a poet at the age of 11, he travelled around Syria, to Aleppo, Antioch, and then to Baghdad, learning the traditional poetry. Some historians claim he also visited a Christian monastery near Tripoli where he was exposed to Hellenic philosophy. Although welcomed in the literary salons of Baghdad, al Ma'arri became an ascetic, who avoided other people, and refused to sell his poetry. Back home, he created an innovative and radical collection of verse, the Luzumiyyat. His dense and erudite poetry uses an obscure vocabulary and complex structure, and can be difficult to interpret. But his growing reputation brought many students and admirers to hear him lecture.

Al Ma'arri was very notable as a religious sceptic. He thought it was a matter of geographical accident what faith people adopted, and rejected the idea that Islam had a monopoly on truth:

They all err—Moslems, Jews,

Christians, and Zoroastrians:

Humanity follows two world-wide sects:

One, man intelligent without religion,

The second, religious without intellect.

He did not belive in divine revelation, though he was probably a deist rather than an actual atheist. Certainly for Al Ma'arri, reason alone should guide human beings. 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 Muslim orthodox of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. 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.

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.

Like Lucretius or Leopardi, he displays a pessimism about human life and death:

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 this reason, he felt it better not to have children, so as to spare them the pains of existence. He 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":

You are diseased in understanding and religion.


Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.


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:

My stay in the world is wearisome:

How long shall I associate with a people

Whose leaders command what is not good for it?

They wronged their subjects, allowed themselves

To deceive them and neglect their interests,

Although they are their hirelings.

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, perhaps because he includes conventionally pious phrases and orthodox statements amidst the radicalism. Author of books of poetry including The Tinder Spark, Unnecessary Necessity and the Epistle of Forgiveness, Al Ma'arri is a distinguished, if rare, example of a rationalist in the Islamic world, and one who was writing half a millennium before the Enlightenment thinkers of the West such as Voltaire.