Al-Ma’arri a pessimist in an Islamic world

Abu l’Ala al-Ma’arri (973–1058) is an exceptional figure in classical Arabic literature. He is worlds apart from those uncounted poets of whom the Arabs are so proud to this day, believing to find in their poetry an echo of their past greatness and the traces of the way of life of their ancestors. Ma’arri’s uniqueness manifests itself not only in his 50 years of voluntary isolation, it lies above all in his courageous and unapologetic attitude toward Islam. His prose, as well as his poetic work, is an unmistakable reflection of his pessimism towards the political rulers of his time and bold expression of his skepticism towards the “eternal, absolute” truths of faith. Unlike most of his fellow poets, he abhorred fame and money. He lived in seclusion, renouncing all the pleasures of life and devoting himself entirely to his one passion: the play with words and the perpetual effort to shape with absolute mastery the Arabic language, whose mysteries and riddles were well known to him.

In his childhood, al-Ma’arri suffered two tragic strokes of fate that were to have a great influence on his intellectual development. At the age of four, he was blinded after contracting smallpox. This drama, which plunged him into complete darkness, was initially experienced as a great pain. But in time, the “sad and gloomy prison” of blindness became a refuge for him — a refuge from the evils of the world around him. At the same time, it allowed him to embark on the inner journey that Henry Miller described in his great novel, Tropic of Cancer, as the only adventure “worth living.” And from then on he thanked God for letting him go blind.

The second drama in the poet’s childhood was the death of his father, who was his first teacher. Due to the loss of his father’s protection and advice, the fourteen-year-old felt completely isolated. But even this blow of fate gave the budding poet an insight into the mysteries and abysses of human existence: Death was no longer a damnation for him. It was a fate that no one can escape. And since life is so short and should never be trusted, death and transience appeared to him as the only truth. The great empires crumble and their glorious cities turn into heaps of ruins. The kings who ruled their nations with fire and sword end up being nothing but bones eaten away by sand and microbes. Only death is omnipresent, and the earth seems to be a huge graveyard.

Having overcome the fear of death, al-Ma’arri was also able to free himself from the fleeting pleasures of life and its illusions. It was the realization that death was the only, eternal and absolute truth that made al-Ma’arri discover the human body as another prison. A prison into which the spirit enters and which it leaves again without its consent. In order to free himself also from this second prison, the blind poet lived like a being on the constant flight in the world of the spirit. Since he considered reproduction and procreation, which led to ever new suffering, to be a sin, he categorically refused to marry — something that was not accepted and very badly regarded in the Arab world.

Abu l’Ala al-Ma’arri was born in 973 in Ma’arrat an- Nu’man, a small northern Syrian town about 70 kilometers south of Aleppo. He came from a distinguished family — his father is also said to have been a philologist and poet — and received an excellent education. After his father’s death, he studied Islamic religious studies, linguistics and literature with various teachers in his hometown of Ma’arrat and in Aleppo. Barely twenty years old, he was already considered a respected authority in the field of these sciences. His life in Syria, where many Christian and Jewish minorities resided, gave him the opportunity to study the other two major monotheistic religions in depth, comparing their texts, structures and rules with those of Islam. Soon discovering that no religion was better than the other, he called on the members of the different religions to be tolerant of each other.

As for Spinoza, so for al-Ma’arri, reason was the highest principle of all knowledge — a light given to man by God. In his critical rationalism, al-Ma’arri always critically questioned the dogmas of the revealed religions, their customs and laws. He ridiculed the hypocrisy and ignorance of the religious scholars, mocked the superstitions of the people. He rejected rituals such as the pilgrimage to Mecca, and polygamy and the slave trade were anathema to him. He mocked the Shiite Fatimids (an Islamic dynasty that, coming from Tunisia, had conquered Egypt, Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula and Syria), who believed in the return of the “Imam,” a “Rightly Guided One” (Mahdi) in succession to Muhammad, and provoked the wrath of his adversaries by his dictum: There is only one “Imam,” namely reason, which, in his words, “guides man in the bright light of day and in the darkness of night.” It was also reason that left him indifferent to all the “revolutions” of his time that advocated social justice and the end of despotism. The only goal of the leaders of such movements, in his opinion, was to come to power themselves and become despots in their turn. (A remarkable lesson 1000 years before the advent of communism!)

The spiritual independence of al-Ma’arri in relation to Islam is expressed most clearly in his main work “Risalat al-Ghufran” — “Epistle on Forgiveness” — written around the year 1033, the “Epistle” is addressed to the writer and man of letters Ali ibn Mansur Ibn al-Qarih from Aleppo, whom al-Ma’arri sends on a fictitious afterlife journey through paradise and hell — 300 years before Dante. There he meets with many other poets and scholars who, even in the afterlife, never tire of discussing questions of grammar and style. With this work, the word artist al-Ma’arri pursued — implicitly and explicitly — two goals: First, he wanted to make fun of the poets of his time, who tried to conceal their intellectual ignorance through their pompous phraseology and rhetoric. He offered up his entire, enormous knowledge of the Arabic language to prove to these poetlings that he had left them far behind in the field of language and poetry.

His second goal was to ridicule the inhabitants of Hell and Paradise, as well as to shake the belief in the Last Judgment, which was widespread not only among the general Muslim population, but also among the intellectual elite. On his journey, Ibn Qarih discovers that everything he knew about the afterlife does not correspond to reality. In paradise, he meets the “poètes maudits,” who had led a dissolute life and had also always indulged heavily in alcohol. And while the Koran describes paradise as a great garden where milk and honey flow, glowing-eyed huris and beautiful boys are always at the beck and call of the desires of the blessed, the afterlife traveler Ibn Qarih feels only deadly boredom in the vaunted place. The inhabitants, accustomed to travel and adventure in real life, do not know what to do with their time all day long. Incidentally, life in paradise is not much different from that before death. There, too, there are vices, lies, hypocrisy, hatred, jealousy and corruption. With his “epistle,” al-Ma’arri profoundly shook the Qur’an’s idyllic image of paradise — this image that continues to seduce young Muslims today to seek martyrdom in order to enjoy the countless pleasures of paradise.

The poets and pious “hommes de lettres,” however, who strictly adhered to the rules and regulations of Islam, were banished to hell by al-Ma’arri. But in contrast to the boring and dreary paradise, al-Ma’arri’s hell is very lively. With his characteristic sarcasm, the blind poet also succeeded with this rather cheerful picture of hell in leading all the common afterlife concepts of his contemporaries ad absurdum and questioning their credibility. Like Spinoza, he wanted to make clear that where reason does not prevail, the door is opened to superstition and the creation of legends. In his opinion, the depictions of paradise and hell are nothing but the result of legends — in other words, mendacious. But the blind poet goes one step further: He explains in the “Epistle on Forgiveness” that the divine justice of which Muslims dream and on which they place all their hope is absolutely no sure thing. Just like the powerful on earth, Allah can also be mistaken. He could be as strict and unjust as the earthly rulers.

“Risalat al-Ghufran” is a unique work in the history of classical Arabic literature. Unique in the sense that its author dared to shake taboos and deal with issues that had previously been sacrosanct. The Qur’an had described paradise and hell with a precision that seemed beyond criticism and challenge. Yet al-Ma’arri had the audacity and courage to defy all this and rely only on his imagination. That in itself is a mortal sin — not for nothing did the Prophet Muhammad persecute the poets of his time as liars and charlatans. It is even more unforgivable, of course, when this poetic fantasy dares to mock the eternal truths of faith.

For many centuries “Risalat al-Ghufran” was completely forgotten. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did it find the place in Arabic literature that it deserves. The Moroccan literary critic Abdul Fattah Kilito rightly believes that this is primarily due to Dante, although the latter knew neither al- Ma’arri nor his work. But by considering the “Epistle” as a precursor, albeit a distant one, of the famous “Divina Commedia,” the work attracted the attention of critics and literati in the Arab world and elsewhere.

At the age of 30, al-Ma’arri had decided to leave his small sleepy village for Baghdad. There, in the glittering center of the powerful Abbasid Empire, he wanted to compete with the greatest writers and poets of his time, all of whom were attracted by the cultural aura of the caliph’s residence. Baghdad in those days was indeed a citadel of science and art, meeting place of the most renowned minds of the world at that time, a stronghold of poets and literati. The palace of the Caliph as well as the residences of the high dignitaries of the Empire were open to artists and scholars, and the blind poet from the small Syrian town threw himself body and soul into the turbulent life of the greatest capital of the Islamic world. But he was soon disappointed, for the intellectual metropolis proved in reality to be a place of intrigue, hatred and jealousy. He found the competition between poets destructive, and the race for fame and money made life unbearable for the young, shy poet. The illness of his mother, whom he adored, gave him the reason to return home. His stay in Baghdad had lasted no more than a year and a half.

The long and arduous journey back to his village gave him the opportunity to determine the prospects of his future life. After learning — while still traveling — of his mother’s death, al-Ma’arri sent a poignant letter to the residents of his birthplace, informing them that he intended to live in complete seclusion in the future and imploring them to respect his choice.

From then on, he lived in a modest house that he would never leave during the 50 years he had left to live. There he gathered students around him, wrote prose works and poetry, and kept up a lively correspondence with scholars and distinguished contemporaries. Al-Ma’arri’s refuge was also frequently the destination of visitors — including viziers, governors, and scholars. But apart from these scholarly contacts, al-Ma’arri took virtually no further interest in the political, social, cultural, and religious events of the day. After his experiences convinced him that the world was evil and that life was nothing but damnation, he decided to devote the rest of his life to the thing that meant the most to him in the world: the Arabic language. Playing with words and in this way trying to unveil the mysteries of human existence became his most important task — just as it is said in the poem “The Blind Man” by Jorge Luis Borges:

I am a prisoner of drowsy time, which knows not dawn, not evening light. It is nighttime, no other time. Only poetry can now build my dull world.

During his long seclusion, al-Ma’arri wrote two important works. A volume of poetry entitled “Alluzumiat” (Obligations) and a volume of prose “Al Fusul wal Ghajat” (Sections and Endings). In both works, he retained the boldness of his youth, especially in his criticism of the religion of Islam. It has been suggested that the prose volume, by virtue of its power and stylistic brilliance, was a challenge to the Qur’an deliberately sought by al-Ma’arri, whose language he sought to imitate or even surpass, thereby challenging the Islamic dogma of the inimitability of the holy book. For al-Ma’arri, writing meant the “intense and hard struggle against taboos and prohibitions” and an attempt to prove that reason — “the only true Imam” — triumphed and ruled. For this reason, the orthodox theologians waged a merciless battle against him, accusing him of heresy and atheism. One of them even called him a “blind dog,” one of the greatest insults in the Arab-Islamic world. Al-Ma’arri, however, remained unflinching in the face of these attacks and accusations. Every now and then, he would sarcastically reply to his opponents, telling them that as a blind man, he could not illuminate the path of others who were, in turn, blind.

Al-Ma’arri’s worldview can be outlined in three terms: Pessimism, skepticism and rationalism — a philosophy reminiscent of Schopenhauer, which was completely alien to the Islamic world at the time. Until the end of his life — he died at the age of 84 in 1058 — al-Ma’arri never tired of defending the freedom of the mind, which was under the protection of its triple prison: blindness, the body and isolation. But this freedom of the spirit was betrayed by those close to him in the last hours of his life. It is handed down that he told them -. It is said that he dictated a text to them — while he was already in agony — which they rejected as “irrational and written in delirium” and burned. In this way, posterity was deprived of the testament of this great poet and writer — a man who was torn by doubts and pessimism throughout his life and whose thought and work today seem more topical and important than ever in an Islamic world internally threatened by fundamentalist fanaticism and terrorism.

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