Abu Al- ‘Ala' Al-Ma’arri: Arab Poet And Philosopher Extraordinaire
Abu Al- ‘Ala’ Al-Ma’arri
By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
In April 2013 I received shocking news that fanatics from the terrorist organization Jabhat al-Nusra fighting to overthrow the Syrian government, beheaded the statue of one of the world’s greatest poet-philosophers, the 11th century Abu al- ‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri.
He was one of my literary heroes. During my many trips to Syria I had visited his tomb and the library built to house his works in the northern Syrian city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man. I was angry and tormented when I reflected on the destruction that these pre-Stone Age thugs had committed to the memory of this great historical figure. His poetry whether in the original Arabic or translated into English such as the following verse had through the years kept me enthralled:
“I think our world is not a place to rest,
But where a man may take his little ease,
Until the landlord whom he never sees
Gives that apartment to another guest.”
So wrote Abu al-‘Ala’ Ahmad ibn Abdallah al-Ma’arri (973-1057), Arab poet/philosopher extraordinaire in this verse translated by Henry Baerlein, in his The Diwan of Abu al-‘Ala’. These words were not just lines of poetry but, rather, a vivid description of the life of the last of the great medieval Arab poets.
About himself, al-Ma’arri wrote, “Men of acute mind call me an ascetic, but they are wrong in their diagnosis. Although I disciplined my desires, I only abandoned worldly pleasures because the best of these withdrew themselves from me.”
Yet, his somewhat misanthropic nature appears in another remark: “I was made an abstainer from mankind by my acquaintance with them and my knowledge that created beings are dust.”
For years I had read his poetry translated into English and had been fascinated with his ideas. Hence, on one of my first trips to Syria, deep excitement gripped me when I neared the town where al-Ma’arri was born and buried. There I made, what I considered to be, my pilgrimage to the tomb of one of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages.
Abu’s A’la Al-Ma’arri
Maarat al-Nu’man (Ma’arrat al-Nu’man), located south of Aleppo and where al-Ma’arri’s father had once been the Governor, is a booming city of some 50,000. This dark-coloured limestone town, besides being noted for its renowned poet is also famous for its sweets, and for centuries, the town has been known as a commercial hub – its Saturday bazaar, an open-air carnival, the envy of the neighbouring towns.
During the Crusades, Maarat al-Nu’man was captured then completely destroyed. The Men of the Cross slaughtered most of its inhabitants and, as history records, after the fall of the town, the starving Crusaders feasted on barbecued human flesh. However, Maarat al-Nu’man subsequently arose from its ashes and today it is a target for poets and literary men from all parts of the Arab world and beyond.
We stopped by al-Ma’arri’s mausoleum next to a library, much frequented by the local intellectuals and dedicated to this famous 11th century blind Arab poet of philosophers, and philosopher of poets. As we walked toward his monument, excitement built within me. It felt as if I was to meet al-Ma’arri himself.
Life was not kind to al-Ma’arri who traced his ancestry back to the Tanukh tribe of Southern Arabia, and who, to some in the West, became known as the Eastern Lucretius. He was stricken with smallpox when he was four and this eventually led to his total blindness. He memorized the Holy Qur’an at an early age and at the same time became a scholar in the masterpieces of Arabic literature. He studied in Aleppo, Antioch, Damascus and other Syrian towns, learning by heart the manuscripts preserved in the libraries and schools in these cities, before returning to Maarat al-Nu’man.
However, Baghdad being the centre of the civilized world in that era attracted him and he travelled there in 1008, but only stayed eighteen months in that metropolis of learning. Returning home, he lived in semi-retirement, spending the remainder of his life in his place of birth. Seemingly always melancholic, he called himself, ‘the prisoner of two jails’ – the prison of blindness; and that of loneliness. However, he did not live a secluded life. Such was his renown that enthusiastic followers flocked to Maarat al-Nu’man to listen to his lectures on poetry and grammar.
Statue of Al-Ma’arri
Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri fully absorbed the Arab and Islamic culture of his age and was one of the greatest freethinkers in Islam. His poetry was deeply affected by a pervasive pessimism and although he was a believer in God he was a sceptic when it came to religion, running counter to the heroic idealism of his time. In one of his verses he says: “Death’s debt is then and there paid down by dying men; but it is a promise bare that they shall rise again.”
He constantly speaks of death as something very desirable and regards procreation as a sin. He taunted the privileged classes of his day and expressed a strong contempt for hypocrisy, injustice, and superstition.
From his poetry one will find that he was truly a man of compassion who fought in defence of freethinking, liberalism in thought and equality between people. No less notable were his enlightened stands against wars of aggression, bigotry, class distinction, oppression, racism and slavery. In his poetry, he called for equality between humans. This is attested to in this verse translated by Baerlein, in which the poet philosophises:
“You strut in piety the while you take
That pilgrimage to Mecca. Now beware,
For starving relatives befoul the air,
And curse, O fool, the threshold you forsake.”
He believed that religions were philosophies conceived by humans – fables invented by the ancients. In A Literary History of the Arabs, R.A. Nicholson quotes one of his poems:
“Hanifs (Muslims) are stumbling, Christians all astray,
Jews wildered, Magians far on error’s way.
We mortals are composed of two great schools –
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.”
In another verse as translated by Baerlein, he muses:
Now this religion happens to prevail
Until by that religion overthrown,–
Because man dare not live with men alone,
But always with another fairy-tale.
A giant in the Arab literary world he authored many works. From among his most famous are: Saqt az-zand (The Tinder Spark), his first great work; Luzumiyat (Necessities), his last great work referring to the unnecessary complexity of the rhyme; Al Fusal Wa’l-Ghahayat (Paragraphs and Periods), written in rhymed verse in Qur’anic style; and his most famous, Risalat al-Ghufran (Epistle of Pardon). His works influenced, not only Omar Khayyam but also a number of medieval Western men of letters. In fact, some literary historians believe that Risalat al-Ghufran inspired the great Italian poet Dante in his writing of the Divine Comedy.
A Free Syrian Army fighter washes the headless statue of Arab poet Abu al- Alaa al-Maarri
In this work, al-Ma’arri imagines paradise and hell and envisions the poets who dwell in both, narrating interesting stories of a meeting between Ibn al-Qareh (Ibn al-Qarih), a writer from Aleppo, and poets who lived in different ages. Dante in his Divine Comedy followed a very similar division of paradise and hell.
Al-Ma’arri lived a bachelor all his life and when he died at the age of 84, he asked for the following inscription to be inscribed on his tomb: “It is my father who did this wrong to me, but I did not commit one against any other.”
Al-Ma’arri is considered one of the outstanding names in the Arabic literature. Even after a millennium his impact on Arab intellectual life has continued until modern times. He continues to appeal to both young and old in the modern Arab world.
Gardens and Square commemorating Al-Ma’arri in Aleppo, Syria
For near a decade the city of Idleb, a few miles from Maarat al-Nu’man, has held an al-Ma’arri Cultural Festival. The activities include lectures by Syrian and Arab literalists and researchers on al-Ma’arri’s writings. The festival always concludes with a poetic evening, which includes the participation of poets from Syria and other parts of the Arab world. It brings alive the memory of Syria’s renowned poet and spreads his appeal to the modern generations. This all took place before the war on Syria.
I thought of this appeal as Abed al-Khelak Sergawi, the Director of al-Ma’arri’s home, now an Arab cultural centre, guided us through the poet’s former home. We stopped for a while at his tomb attempting to decipher the hardly legible famous inscription then walked along listening to Sergawi relate in detail the life story of this blind poet. Our last stop was the library containing copies of al-Ma’arri’s works and publications by others about his writings as well as many volumes relating to Arab literature and grammar.
The Director spoke with great passion about his favourite poet intermingled with reciting stanzas from al-Ma’arri’s works. He seemed glassy-eyed as he expressed his deep sorrow that none of the manuscripts of this world-famous poet were in the collection – only copies. The originals, with the exception of two in the Arab world – one in Egypt and one in Morocco – were in European libraries.
As we drove away from Maarat al-Nu’man and the tomb of its most famous son, I thought of Nicholson`s words about this poet of poets, “Amidst his meditations on the human tragedy, a fierce hatred of injustice, hypocrisy, and superstition blazes out.” These thoughts and his fierce determination to always speak the truth and support justice have kept his memory alive for hundreds of centuries.
In this verse translated by Baerlein al-Ma’arri muses:
“What shall it profit you, the vast amount
Of gold and grain you gather from the land
If you have laid no dominating hand
On virtues that will balance your account!”
Near 1,000 years after his death, the attempt by the 21st century’s terrorists carrying hatred in their hearts to erase al-Ma’arri’s memory with the symbolic decapitation of his statute, has not prevailed. His works will continue to survive as a guiding light to men and women of the pen.
Baerlein, Henry. The Diwan of Abu’l-ala. London: John Murray,
Fitzgerald, Edward. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. New York:
Avon Books, 1967
Hayes, John, R., The Genius of Arab Civilization. Cambridge,
Massachusetts: The MIT Press,Cambridge, 1975
al-Macarri, Abu al-cAla’. Risalat al-Ghufran. Beirut: Dar al‑Qalam,
Nicholson, R.A. A Literary History of the Arabs. London:
Cambridge University Press, 1969
Ullah, N. Islamic Literature. New York: Washington Square Press,