Abu 'I-,Ala' Ahmad b. 'Abd Allah b. Sulayman al-Ma`arri

Al-Ma`arri (973-1058 c.E.), sometimes known as the Eastern Lucretius, is the third of the great zindiqs of Islam, and no true Muslim feels comfortable in his poetic presence because of his skepticism toward positive religion in general, and Islam in particular.

Born in Syria not far from Aleppo, al-Malarri, or Abu 'I-,Ala', as he is sometimes called,I was struck with smallpox at an early age. This eventually led to his total blindness. He studied in Aleppo, Antioch, and other Syrian towns before returning to his native town of Ma`arrat al-Nu`man. When he was beginning to make a name for himself as a poet, al-Malarri was attracted by the famous center of Baghdad. He set out for Baghdad in 1008, but stayed only eighteen months.

Returning home, he lived in semiretirement for fifty years, until his death. Such was his fame, however, that eager disciples flocked to Malarrat al-Nulman to listen to his lectures on poetry and grammar. His poetry was deeply affected by a pervasive pessimism. He constantly spoke of death as something very desirable, and regarded procreation as a sin. At times, at least, he denied the resurrection:


He is said to have wanted this verse inscribed over his grave:


In other words, it would have been better not to have been born:


As for religion, all men unquestioningly accept the creed of their fathers out of habit, incapable of distinguishing the true from the false:


Sometimes you may find a man skilful in his trade, perfect in sagacity and in the use of arguments, but when he comes to religion he is found obstinate, so does he follow the old groove. Piety is implanted in human nature; it is deemed a sure refuge. To the growing child that which falls from his elders' lips is a lesson that abides with him all his life. Monks in their cloisters and devotees in the mosques accept their creed just as a story is handed down from him who tells it, without distinguishing between a true interpreter and a false. If one of these had found his kin among the Magians, or among the Sabians, he would have declared himself a Magian, or among the Sabians he would have become nearly or quite like them.

For al-Malarri, religion is a "fable invented by the ancients," worthless except for those who exploit the credulous masses:


At other times he refers to religions as "noxious weeds":


He clearly puts Islam on the same level as all other creeds, and does not believe a word of any of them:




Here, al-Ma'arri, while admiring the Indian, more than the Muslim, and the Indian custom of cremation, still insists that death is not such a terrible thing; it is only a falling asleep. In his collection of poems known as the Luzumuyat, alMa`arri clearly prefers this practice of cremation to the Muslim one of burial. On Judgment Day, according to Muslim belief, the angels Munker and Nakir open the graves of the dead and crossexamine them in a cruel fashion on their faith. Those found wanting are pushed back into the grave, where they await hell. No wonder al-Ma`arri prefers cremation. Of course, all Muslims find the very idea of cremation totally abhorrent:


Margoliouth has compiled the following sentiments from al-Ma'arri's poems:


Do not suppose the statements of the Prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The "sacred books "are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce. What inconsistency that God should forbid the taking of life, and Himself send two angels to take each man's! And as for the promise of a second life-the soul could well have dispensed with both existences.

Further thoughts on prophets reveal that al-Malarri, did not consider them any better than the lying clergy:


Islam does not have the monopoly of truth:


As for the `ulama', the Muslim "clergy" or divines, a]-Malarn, has nothing but contempt for them:




Al-Ma'arri was a supreme rationalist who everywhere asserted "the rights of reason against the claims of custom, tradition and authority":



A little doubt is better than total credulity:


The thoughts in the above quatrain can be compared to Tennyson's "There is more truth in honest doubt, Believe me, than in all the creeds."

Al-Malarn attacks many of the dogmas of Islam, particularly the Pilgrimage, which he calls "a heathen's journey." As Nicholson remarked,

Al-Ma`arri ... regards Islam, and positive religion generally, as a human institution. As such, it is false and rotten to the core. Its founders sought to procure wealth and power for themselves, its dignitaries pursue worldly ends, its defenders rely on spurious documents whivh they ascribe to divinely inspired apostles, and its adherents accept mechanically whatever they are told to believe.2




Al-Ma'arri is referring to the two corners of the Kasha in Mecca in which are set the Black Stone and the stone which is supposed to mark the sepulchre of Ishmael.



Here al-Malarri is attributing an opinion to a critic, thereby protecting himself from charges of heresy, but we know from [22] and [23] that he deems most of the rites of the Pilgrimage, including the kissing of the black stone, to be superstitious nonsense. Religions have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed, with sect fighting sect, and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions are contrary to reason and sanity:




Space forbids me from giving further examples of his merciless attacks on every kind of superstition-astrology, augury, belief in omens, the custom of exclaiming "God bless you" when someone sneezes. The patriarchs did not live to be hundreds of years old, holy men did not walk on water or perform any miracles, and so on.

Al-Ma`arri further offended Muslim sensibilities by composing "a somewhat frivolous parody of the sacred volume" i.e., the Koran, and "in the author's judgment its inferiority was simply due to the fact that it was not yet polished by the tongues of four centuries of readers." As if this were not enough, al-Ma`arri compounded his errors in the eyes of the orthodox by his work the Epistle of Forgiveness. Nicholson, who was the first to translate it into English at the beginning of the century, sums up its contents admirably:

Here the Paradise of the Faithful [Muslims] becomes a glorified salon tenanted by various heathen poets who have been forgiven-hence the title-and received among the Blest. This idea is carried out with much ingenuity and in a spirit of audacious burlesque that reminds us of Lucian. The poets are presented in a series of imaginary conversations with a certain Shaykh `Ali b. Mansur, to whom the work is addressed, reciting and explaining their verses, quarreling with one another, and generally behaving as literary Bohemians.'

Another remarkable feature of his thought was the belief that no living creature should be injured or harmed in any way. Al-Ma'arri. adopted vegetarianism in his thirtieth year, and held all killing of animals, whether for food or sport, in abhorrence. Alfred von Kremer has suggested that al-Ma`arri was influenced by the Jains of India in his attitude to the sanctity of all living things.' In his poetry, al-Ma`arri firmly advocates abstinence from meat, fish, milk, eggs, and honey on the ground that it is an injustice to the animals concerned. Animals are capable of feeling pain, and it is immoral to inflict unnecessary harm on our fellow creatures. And even more remarkably, al-Ma'arri protests against the use of animal skins for clothing, suggests wooden shoes, and reproaches court ladies for wearing furs.

Von Kremer has justly said that al-Ma`am was centuries ahead of his time.

Al-Ma`arri was charged with heresy during his lifetime, but he was not prosecuted or punished for reasons that both von Kremer and Nicholson have carefully analyzed.' Al-Ma`arri himself said that it is often wise to dissimulate, and thus we find many orthodox passages in his poetry that were meant to throw the sniffers of heresy off the scent. At heart, he seems to have been a thorough skeptic who managed to ridicule practically every dogma of Islam.


1. This is rather confusing, because, accordingly, he sometimes appears in dictionaries and encyclopedias under "A" rather than "M."

2. R. A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921), p. 173. This entire chapter is based on Nicholson's classic study of Islamic poetry.

3. R. A. Nicholson, "The Risalatu'l-Ghufran," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1900): 637-720.

4. Alfred von Kremer, "Ein Freidenker der Islam," in Zeitschrift der Deutschen Mor- genlandischen Gesellschaft 29 (1876): 304-12.

5. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Poetry; von Kremer, "Ein Freidenker der Islam."

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