An ancient voice of reason: Abul Alaa Al-Ma’arri

The blanket Muslim identity assigned to many great historical figures from the early Islamic era does little justice to capturing the diversity of thought seen during that time-period. Many of the great thinkers and writers from the “Golden Age” of Islam engaged in open philosophical debates, often heavily influenced by the Greeks, and expressed high levels of skepticism about religious truths. One of the most outspoken was the eleventh century blind Arab poet Abul Alaa Al-Ma’arri who was more than just a little sceptical about religion in his writings.

Al-Ma’arri’ was named by Ibn Al-Jawzi,  a famous twelfth century Islamic theologian, as one of the three main heretics of Islam along with Ibn Al-Rawandi and Abū Hayyān al-Tawhīdī. Unlike Al-Rawandi and Al-Tawhidi whose  writings were mostly lost or destroyed (Al-Tawhidi is said to have burnt his own books), Al-Ma’arri’s work was well preserved. So what exactly do his writings tell us about the way he viewed religion and society?

  • Al-Ma’arri criticised tradition and championed reason 

“Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
Ay, but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.
Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all:
Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.
A little doubt is better than total credulity”

  •  He questioned the motives of religious leaders

“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” 

  • Had a particular issue with prophethood

“The Prophets, too, among us come to teach,
Are one with those who from the pulpit preach;
They pray, and slay, and pass away, and yet
Our ills are as the pebbles on the beach.” 

  • In his view hope for divine guidance gave way to injustice

“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.” 

  • Reason is a moral guide in itself

“Reason forbade me many things which,
Instinctively, my nature was attracted to;
And a perpetual loss I feel if, knowing,
I believe a falsehood or deny the truth.”

  • He was equally critical of all religions

“I marvel at Chosroes and his followers
Who wash their faces with cows’ urine (Zoroastrianism);
And at the Jews who speak of a God,
Who loves the splatter of blood and the smell of burnt offerings;
And at the Christians’ belief in a God who is humiliated, persecuted cruelly, but does not retaliate;
And at a people who journey from the ends of the earth,
To cast pebbles and kiss the Stone (Islam).
How startling are their beliefs!
Are all men, then, unable to see the truth?”

  • Religion in his opinion was incompatible with intellect

“They all err—Moslems, Jews,
Christians, and Zoroastrians:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.” 

“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 ordered to say,
‘We have been told the truth’;
If they refused, the sword was drenched with their blood.
They were terrified by scabbards of calamities,
And tempted by great bowls of food,
Offered in a lofty and condescending manner.” 

  • He was harsh in his condemnation and refers to religion as “noxious weed”

“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.”

  •  Overall, he was definitely a bit of a pessimist

“We laugh, but inept is our laughter,
We should weep, and weep sore,
Who are shattered like glass and thereafter
Remoulded no more.” 

“Choose from two ills: which rather in the main
Suits you? —to perish or to live in pain?” 

  • Mostly because he was too overwhelmed with suffering on earth

“The earth’s surface is but bodies of the dead,
Walk slowly in the air, so you do not trample on the remains of  God’s servants.”

  • He was a vegetarian (perhaps even a vegan) who believed it was cruel to inflict unnecessary harm to animals

 “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!”

  • Above all he valued reason 

“Oh, cleave ye to Reason’s path that rightly ye may be led
Let none set his hopes except upon the Preserver!
And quench not the Almighty’s beams, for lo, He hath given to all
A lamp of intelligence for use and enjoying.
I see humankind are lost in ignorance: even those
Of ripe age at random guess, like boys playing mora [a child’s guessing game].”

This is just a selection from his many writings in which Al-Ma’arri is consistently and unflinchingly critical of religious teachings and institutions. He’s been dead for almost a thousand years but Al-Ma’arri is still angering fundamentalists and in early 2013 his statue was beheaded by Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters in Syria.  

The now decapitated statue of Abul Alaa Al-Maa'rri
The now decapitated statue of Abul Alaa Al-Ma’arri

Many of the issues Al-Ma’arri raises about dogma, superstition and the abuse of clerical power are just as valid today as they were a millennium ago. Despite being accused of heresy, he was never persecuted and died at the ripe age of 86. One is left to wonder whether he got away with such blasphemous writing because of the more tolerant nature of the time or if he simply got lucky possibly out of pity for being blind. Many rationalists who shared his views on scripture and prophethood were harshly attacked and eventually such lines of thinking were completely shut down by traditionalists who viewed revelation as the only path to the truth. Today as rationalism continues to get silenced its important for us to remember the legacy of thinkers such as Al-Ma’arri in our history.