Al-Ma'arri: Bits of Unburied Treasure
by Tom Merrill
After much scrounging around on the internet for material that would tell me
more about one of the greatest Arab classical poets, Abu 'L' Ala Ahmad ibn 'Abdallah
al-Ma'arri (commonly referred to as al Ma'arri, herein referred to as Al M) I
came up with surprisingly little considering the prolific poet's literary
I did find a few pages by people who knew who he was, and who applauded some of
his more famous quotations. I also found pages about the beheading of a
statue of him by al-Nusra Front jihadists in 2013, plus some mentions of the
banning of one of his major works—The Epistle Of Forgiveness—from a book fair in
Algiers in 2007.
The beheading and the book banning came as no surprise, since Al M was an ardent
anti-superstitionist. The book banning was certainly due to that. The beheading may well have been too, although some think the statue's attackers
had no knowledge of Al M's views, but were acting on assumptions or beliefs
having nothing to do with his philosophy.
At any rate, the only substantial piece on him that I found—in somewhat
fragmented form—was published almost a hundred years ago, in 1921. Its
author, Reynold Nicholson, who taught at Cambridge University and was a noted
Rumi scholar and translator, provides a persuasive interpretation of Al M's
works and takes the view, which I share, that the poet sometimes resorted to
subterfuge in his writings in order to throw religious authorities off his
scent. Every now and then, Al M can almost sound like a believer, but Nicholson advises
readers not to be fooled—and puts together a strong case to back up that
Al M was born in Northwestern Syria in the 10th century, in Ma'Arrat al-Numan, a
town south of Aleppo. Up until a few years before his birth, Syria was
still ruled by Ali Sayf al-Dawla, whose court was known for its appreciation and
encouragement of literature. After al-Dawla's death in 967 however, the
country's peace was often disrupted by various warring forces vying for control
of the region, among them the Byzantines. Although during a good part of the
l0th century Islam may not have been quite as ferocious an enforcer of orthodoxy
as it would soon become, politico-religious storms were continually brewing on
the horizon and bursting onto the scene. How much could be taken for
granted one can only imagine. The influence of religious zealots could vary
according to which power was dominant at the time.
Since to live amid poltico-religious strife is never to know what may come next,
it seems reasonable to suppose that Al M passed much of his lifetime in a
climate of uncertainty. When regimes change, so may the status of
citizens. What was safe before may no longer be. His was quite an
unsettled historical moment, perhaps not without parallels to our own. Today we see movements afoot in various places to shift the balance of power
back to ruthless orthodoxies with their harsh strictures and invariably punitive
mindsets. We watch uneasily as advances in social policy are steadily
chipped away at. We sense that rights are in danger of being rescinded,
freedoms of being abrogated. We see that those who crave power, once they
have acquired it, will next strive to uproot whatever may stand in the way of
their keeping it. Consider the fractious would-be autocrat who has been
hard at work trying to upend the more egalitarian social order it took decades
of struggle to achieve. Peace of mind or a sense of security is impossible
in such circumstances.
Some internet wit observed that Al M's worldview "was like if Voltaire had lived
700 years earlier and written better poetry." The comparison between the
two thinkers is apt. Both enjoyed fame and recognition in their lifetimes, both
had cause to keep a step ahead of the faith-police and mix their messages as
necessary, both were luckily able to die natural deaths.
Since Al M had the misfortune to be stuck in a spot on the map and timeline
where adherence to superstition was expected, and where life could be made
uncomfortable, even impossible, for those with different ideas, I have little
doubt that Nicholson was right about why he now and then gave half-hearted nods
to the prevailing myth. They were acts of self-defense. No less than
Voltaire, he had to exercise caution, however grudgingly he went through the
motions. One's social milieu is bound to have a psychological impact, and
to influence how one negotiates it. Where the terrain is treacherous, it is wise
to step carefully, at least if one cares about one's life and freedom. Superstitionism is notorious for ruling with an iron fist.
Al M decried all violence, abhorred the slaughter of animals, considered it
wrong to steal the bees' honey or the birds' eggs—since they produced them for
themselves and not for us—and was resolutely determined to speak the truth as
he knew it. He has been called a Jainist, and everything I've read, either by or
about him, supports that claim.
But what comes through strongest in his writings is how appalled he was by the
pandemic reign of superstitionism. In committing so completely to the
cause of releasing the duped from their bondage to the unreal, he not only put
himself at risk, but took on a seemingly hopeless task. What else but an
evolutionary miracle could ever bring about such a turnaround? He
nonetheless made it his lifelong work to defeat the sway of make-believe. He envisioned a day when mankind would be emancipated from the tyranny of
spectres, from faith in phantoms that have never been seen. It is clear
that he thought that if life must go on, the world would be a better place if
people were freed from the governance of fertile imaginations with dubious
In one of his greatest works, The Luzumiyat, Al M appended a note to readers
attesting to the inadequacy of its contents. The reason the poetry falls
so short, he explains, is that its author is not a model fabulist, but aims only
at telling the truth—thus failing to carry out the art's proper business. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that in his next major work, Risalat ul
Ghufran, a work of fantasy, there is no mock apology. In the Risalat—which is
the book that got banned from the Algiers book fair in 2007, and which has been
called a precursor to Dante's Divine Comedy—Al M goes to heaven, and there
meets and converses with earlier poets as godless as himself. No wonder the
book in effect got burned in Algeria. I suspect some of his work was
buried or disposed of in antiquity as well, and that what has survived of it is
less than his entire corpus.
He lived most of his life as a recluse, but many came to sit at his feet—as it
were—and listen. In some of his poems he begs people to cease regarding
him as a sage. That I think was sincere. Considering how prolific a
writer he was, no doubt the regular inflow of distractions could be a nuisance. And if some who came knocking were less than model believers, it is also
possible that he worried about arousing the suspicions of the faith-police. How the burden of popularity weighed on him is impossible to know. He may
have been secretly glad for the attention. Lonely and blind, perhaps it
sometimes served as a pleasant respite from work. Legend has it at any rate that
he always played the perfect host. And I suspect he hated locking anyone
Most attractive to me in Al M are his dismissal of superstitionism, which he saw
as a ploy to entrap and dominate the gullible, and his tireless advocacy for the
unborn, and for sparing them the consequences of existence.
Because Al M most certainly deserves a wide audience, and because I found so
little about him on the internet, why not give a shot, I thought, at trying to
bring more notice to a truly singular thinker who—possibly owing to his
rejection of commonly held beliefs and fanatically embraced
creeds—unfortunately appears to be somewhat out of circulation. Suppression of his extant works may be inevitable in places like Algeria, and
quite possibly also in Christian strongholds (He mocked all religions equally.) But I often think of the internet as the world's largest library, and I would
like to see that library even better stocked, especially with topshelf material.
And now for some snippets and quotes, from The Luzumiyat—first translated into
English by Ameen Rihani in 1902 and re-published in 1920—and from Nicholson. (And
kudos to Google for the hard work it has done in bringing some of his work
to the internet (Full
text of "The Luzumiyat of Abu'l-Ala: Selected from His Luzem Ma la Yalzam and
Suct Uz-zand and First ...")
Upon the threshing-floor of life I burn
Beside the Winnower a word to learn;
And only this: Man's of the soil and sun,
And to the soil and sun he shall return.
And like a spider's house or sparrow's nest,
The Sultan's palace, though upon the crest
Of glory's mountain, soon or late must go:
Ay, all abodes to ruin are addrest.
So, too, the creeds of Man: the one prevails
Until the other comes; and this one fails
When that one triumphs; ay, the lonesome world
Will always want the latest fairy-tales.
Many a grave embraces friend and foe
Behind the curtain of this sorry show
Of love and hate inscrutable; alas!
The Fates will always reap the while they sow.
The silken fibre of the fell Zakkum,
As warp and woof, is woven on the loom
Of life into a tapestry of dreams
To decorate the chariot-seat of Doom.
And still we weave, and still we are content
In slaving for the sovereigns who have spent
The savings of the toiling of the mind
Upon the glory of Dismemberment.
Nor king nor slave the hungry Days will spare;
Between their fangéd Hours alike we fare:
Anon they bound upon us while we play
Unheeding at the threshold of their Lair.
Religion is a maiden veiled in prayer,
Whose bridal gifts and dowry those who care
Can buy in Mutakallem's shop of words;
But I for such, a dirham can not spare.
Why linger here, why turn another page?
Oh! seal with doubt the whole book of the age;
Doubt every one, even him, the seeming slave
Of righteousness, and doubt the canting sage.
The sable wings of Night pursuing day
Across the opalescent hills, display
The wondrous star-gems which the fiery suns
Are scattering upon their fiery way.
O my Companion, Night is passing fair,
Fairer than aught the dawn and sundown wear;
And fairer, too, than all the gilded days
Of blond Illusion and its golden snare.
Hark, in the minarets muazzens call
The evening hour that in the interval
Of darkness Ahmad might remembered be, —
Remembered of the Darkness be they all.
And hear the others who with cymbals try
To stay the feet of every passer-by:
The market-men along the darkling lane
Are crying up their wares. — Oh! let them cry.
Mohammed or Messiah! Hear thou me,
The truth entire nor here nor there can be;
How should our God who made the sun and moon
Give all his light to One, I cannot see.
Now, I believe the Potter will essay
Once more the Wheel, and from a better clay
Will make a better Vessel, and perchance
A masterpiece which will endure for aye.
With better skill he even will remould
The scattered potsherds of the New and Old;
Then you and I will not disdain to buy,
Though in the mart of Iblis they be sold.
To humankind, O Brother, consecrate
Thy heart, and shun the hundred Sects that prate
About the things they little know about —
Let all receive thy pity, none thy hate.
Carouse, ye sovereign lords! The wheel will roll
Forever to confound and to console:
Who sips to-day the golden cup will drink
Mayhap to-morrow in a wooden bowl —
And silent drink. The tumult of our mirth
Is worse than our mad welcoming of birth: —
The thunder hath a grandeur, but the rains,
Without the thunder, quench the thirst of Earth.
Oh! let them in the marshes grope, or ride
Their jaded Myths along the mountain-side;
Come up with me, O Brother, to the heights
Where Reason is the prophet and the guide.
"What is thy faith and creed," they ask of me,
"And who art thou? Unseal thy pedigree." —
I am the child of Time, my tribe, mankind,
And now this world's my caravanseri.
Among the crumbling ruins of the creeds
The Scout upon his camel played his reeds
And called out to his people, — "Let us hence!
The pasture here is full of noxious weeds."
Among us falsehood is proclaimed aloud,
But truth is whispered to the phantom bowed
Of conscience; ay! and Wrong is ever crowned,
While Right and Reason are denied a shroud.
And why in this dark Kingdom tribute pay?
With clamant multitudes why stop to pray?
Oh! hear the inner Voice: — "If thou'lt be right,
Do what they deem is wrong, and go thy way."
Hear ye who in the dust of ages creep
And in the halls of wicked masters sleep: —
Arise! and out of this wan weariness
Where Allah's laughter makes the Devil weep.
Arise! for lo! the Laughter and the Weeping
Reveal the Weapon which the Master's keeping
Above your heads; Oh! take it up and strike!
The lion of tyranny is only sleeping.
They all err — Moslems, Christians, Jews, and Magians;
Two make Humanity's universal sect:
One intelligent without religion,
And one religious without intellect.
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!
Who'll rescue me from living in a town
Where I am spoken of with praise unfit ?
Rich, pious, learned: such is my renown,
But many a barrier stands between me and it.
I admit to ignorance, yet wise was thought
By some — and is not ours a wondrous case?
For truly we all are good for naught:
I am not noble nor are they base.
My body in life's strait grip scarce bears the strain —
How shall I move decay to clasp it round?
O the large gifts of death! Ease after pain
He brings to us, and silence after sound.
Experience nests in thickets of close shade,
Who gives his mind and life may hunt it down.
How many months and years have I outstayed!
And yet, I think myself a fool and clown.
And falsehood like a star all naked stands,
But truth still hides her face in hood and veil.
Is there no ship or shore my outstretched hands
May grasp, to save me from this malicious sea?
Make not, when you work a deed of shame,
The scoundrel's plea, "My forbears did the same".
O fools, awake! The rites ye 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.
Death's debt is then and there
Paid down by dying men;
But it is a promise bare
That they shall rise again.
If criminals are fated,
It's wrong to punish crime.
When God earth's ores created,
He knew that on a time
They would become the sources
For sword blades dripping blood
To flash across the manes of horses
If knowledge aids not me nor baulks my foe,
The losers in Life's game are those who know.
As Allah laid our fortune, so it lies
For ever — O vain wisdom of the wise!
Can this doomed caitiff man, tho' far he fly,
'Scape from his Lord's dominion, earth and sky?
Nay, soon shall we, the hindmost gang, tread o'er
The path our fellow-slaves have trod before.
Surveying humankind, I marvel still
How one thirsts while another drinks his fill.
I draw my bow and every shaft flies wide.
The arrow aimed at me ne'er turns aside.
The Christian, as more anciently the Jew,
Told thee traditions far from proven true;
And Persia boasted of the Fire she lit,
No power ever should extinguish it.
These holy days are birds of the same feather,
Sabbath and Sunday make a pair together.
In all that concerns thee thou art satisfied with a blind conformity,
even in thy declaration that God is One and Single.
We have been commanded to think on His wondrous works; and
some persons, if they think on Him, fall into error.
All bigoted disputants, when they see the light of a manifest truth,
They have not based their religion on any logical ground, whereby
they might decide between Shf'ites and Sunnis.
In the opinion of some whom I do not mention (with praise), the
Black Stone is only a remnant of idols and (sacrificial) altar-stones.
If a man of sound judgment appeals to his intelligence, he will
hold cheap the various creeds and despise them.
Do thou take thereof so much as Reason delivered (to thee), and
let not ignorance plunge thee in their stagnant pool!
Had they been left alone with Reason, they would not have accepted
a spoken lie; but the whips were raised to strike them;
Traditions were brought to them, and they were bidden say, "We have been told
the truth"; and if they refused, the sword was drenched in their blood.
They were terrified by scabbards full of calamities, and tempted
by great bowls brimming over with food for largesse.
The spirit is a subtle thing, confined
Close in the body, unperceived by mind.
Glory to God! will it retain the power
To judge aright? and will it in the hour
Of exit feel what then it must explore?
That 'tis that sheds on bodies dark a light
Of beauty as of lamps discerned beneath the night.
'Twill stay beside its body, some pretend;
Some think on meeting Death it will ascend —
But never they that watch him take his toll
Will smell the fragrance of a human soul.
Happiest of all the hermit who doth ban
The sons o' the world and dies a childless man.
Time passes and in tomb the body lays:
Did ever man rejoice in length of days?
And some opine the soul of earthly mould;
Nay, for it mounts to heaven (as others hold),
And whether it remove to bale or bliss
Wears in that world the form it had in this;
Where, being incarnate, it must suffer pain
Still to be dressed and eat and drink in vain.
'Tis certain Allah's power, resistless, dread,
Can judge His creatures and can raise the dead.
Behold and marvel how the planets, some
Endowed with voices, roll, tho' rumoured dumb.
Obey not rascals who religion use
Only to clutch increasing revenues.
A Jew that bears in hand the Torah, greed
Incites him, not a holy wash to read.
What feuds between us hath religion twined
And given us o'er to hates of every kind!
Did not a prophet's ordinance bestow
On Arab lords the women of their foe?
The one religion is that thou be just
To all — and what religion owneth he
That scorns due right? Man cannot lead his soul
To virtue, though he lead a host in arms.
Would he but fast a month from sin, 'twould serve him
Instead of fasting through Sha'ban and Rajab.
God curse people who call me an infidel when I tell them the
until thou deemest veracity a danger to thy life; then lie
through thick and thin.
Do not acquaint rascals with the essence of thy religion
else thou will expose thyself to ruin.
I lift my voice whene'er I talk in vain,
But do I speak the truth, hushed are my lips again.
Immortal wouldst thou be, then draw no breath:
This life is but a ladder unto death.
My aim is to speak the truth. Now, the proper end of poetry is not truth, but
and in proportion as it is diverted from its proper end its perfection is
Therefore I must crave the indulgence of my readers for this book of moral
Al M wrote his own epitaph, which appears on his tombstone:
"My father did this to me, but I to no one have done this."