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Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri
Born 973 CE
Maarrat al-Nu'man, Hamdanid Emirate of Aleppo
Died 1058 CE
Maarrat al-Nu'man, Mirdasid Emirate of Aleppo
Nationality Arab
Region Arabic literature
Main interests
Poetry, Skepticism, Rationalism, Ethics, Pessimism

Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri (Arabic أبو العلاء المعري Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, full name أبو العلاء أحمد بن عبد الله بن سليمان التنوخي المعري Abū al-ʿAlāʾ Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sulaimān al-Tanūẖī al-Maʿarrī; 973–1058) was a blind Arab philosopher, poet, and writer.

He was a controversial rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion and rejecting the claim that Islam or any other religion possessed the truths they claimed. He considered the words of prophets to be lies (literally, "forgery") and "impossible" to be true. He was equally sarcastic towards the religions of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. According to the poet Saadi Shirazi, he was a strict vegetarian who argued for animal rights. At his deathbed, according to Sa'di, he was ordered by the physician to take some chicken soup. When served, the blind Ma'arri burst into tears, reciting a heart-wrenching requiem to the slaughtered bird, adding that he felt easier dying than eating the broken body of the luckless creature.[citation needed]


Abul Ala was born in Maʿarra, modern Maarrat al-Nu'man, Syria. He was a member of the Banu Sulayman, a notable family of Maʿarra, belonging to the larger Tanukh tribe.[1][2][3] His paternal great-great-grandfather had been the city's first qadi. Some members of the Bany Sulayman had also been noted as good poets.

He lost his eyesight at the age of four due to smallpox.[4]

He started his career as a poet at an early age, at about 11 or 12 years old. He was educated at first in Maʿarra and Aleppo, later also in Antioch and other Syrian cities. Among his teachers in Aleppo were companions from the circle of Ibn Khalawayh. This grammarian and Islamic scholar had died in 980/1 CE, when al-Maʿarri was still a child. Al-Maʿarri nevertheless laments the loss of Ibn Ḵh̲ālawayh in strong terms in a poem of his Risālat al-ghufrān. Al-Qifti reports that when on his way to Tripoli, Al-Maʿarri visited a Christian monastery near Latakia where he listened to debates about Hellenistic philosophy, which planted in him the seeds of his later skepticism and irreligiosity; but other historians such as Ibn al-Adim deny that he had been exposed to any theology other than Islamic doctrine.

He also spent eighteen months at Baghdad, where he was well received in the literary salons of the time. He returned to his native town of Maʿarra in about 1010, having run out of money and hearing that his mother was ill (she died before he arrived).

He remained in Ma'arra for the rest of his life, where he opted for an ascetic lifestyle, refusing to sell his poems, living in seclusion and observing a strict vegan[5][6] diet. He nevertheless enjoyed great respect and attracted many students locally, as well as actively holding correspondence with scholars abroad.[3]


Al-Maʿarri was a skeptic in his beliefs and denounced superstition and dogmatism in religion. Thus, he has been described as a pessimistic freethinker.[7] One of the recurring themes of his philosophy was the rights of reason against the claims of custom, tradition, and authority.

Al-Maʿarri taught that religion was a "fable invented by the ancients",[8] worthless except for those who exploit the credulous masses.[8]

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.[9]

Al-Maʿarri criticized many of the dogmas of Islam, such as the Hajj, which he called "a pagan's journey."[10]

He rejected claims of any divine revelation.[11] His creed was that of a philosopher and ascetic, for whom reason provides a moral guide, and virtue is its own reward.[12]

Al-Maarri's fundamental pessimism is expressed in his anti-natalist recommendation that no children should be begotten, so as to spare them the pains of life. In an elegy composed by him over the loss of a relative, he combines his grief with observations on the ephemerality of this life:

Soften your tread. Methinks 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.[13]

His religious skepticism and positively anti-religious views are expressed in a poem which states, "The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains."[14]

He was equally sarcastic towards the religion of Islam as he was towards Judaism and Christianity. Al-Maʿarri remarked that monks in their cloisters or devotees in their mosques were blindly following the beliefs of their locality: if they were born among Magians or Sabians they would have become Magians or Sabians.[15]

Modern views[edit]

In 2013, almost a thousand years after his death, the al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda, beheaded a statue of Al Maʿarri during a civil war in Syria.[16] The motive behind the beheading is disputed; theories range from the fact that he was a heretic to the fact that he is believed by some to be related to the Assad family.[17]

Al Maʿarri is often cited by atheists across the Islamic world.[18]


The restrictive rhyme and meter can be heard in the start of poem 197[5][19]

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An early collection of his poems appeared as "The Tinder Spark" (Saqṭ al-zand; سقط الزند). It gained great popularity and established his reputation as a poet.

A second, more original collection appeared under the title "Unnecessary Necessity" (Luzūm mā lam yalzam لزوم ما لا يلزم أو اللزوميات ), which is how Al-Maʿarri saw the business of living; also Luzūmīyāt "Necessities", alluding to the unnecessary complexity of the rhyme scheme used.

His third famous work is a work of prose known as "The Epistle of Forgiveness" (Risālat al-ghufrān رسالة الغفران). In this work, the poet visits paradise and meets the Arab poets of the pagan period, contrary to Muslim doctrine which holds that only those who believe in God can find salvation (Quran 4:48). Because of the aspect of conversing with the deceased in paradise, the Resalat Al-Ghufran has been compared to the Divine Comedy of Dante.[20] which came hundreds of years after.

"Paragraphs and Periods" (Al-Fuṣūl wa al-ghāyāt) is a collection of homilies.


  • G. Brackenbury (trans.), Risalat ul Ghufran, a Divine Comedy, 1943.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 1940 أبو العلاء المعري: نسبه وأخباره وشعره ومعتقده، تأليف أحمد تيمور باشا، ص.3، ط
  2. ^ Miguel Asín Palacios, Islam and the Divine comedy, Routledge, 1968, ISBN 978-0-7146-1995-8, p. 55
  3. ^ a b Encyclopædia Britannica
  4. ^ Philip Khuri Hitti, Islam, a Way of Life, page 147. University of Minnesota Press
  5. ^ a b 28 11 2010 (2010-11-28). "On Veganism From a Medieval Arab Poet | Animal Rights". The Abolitionist Approach. Archived from the original on 19 December 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-28. 
  6. ^ D. S. Margoliouth, Abu 'l-ʿAla al-Maʿarri's correspondence on vegetarianism, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1902, p. 289.
  7. ^ By Philip Khuri Hitti Islam, a way of life p. 147
  8. ^ a b Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, 1962, A Literary History of the Arabs, page 318. Routledge
  9. ^ James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 3, page 190. Kessinger Publishing.
  10. ^ Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, 1962, A Literary History of the Arabs, page 319. Routledge
  11. ^ Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, 1962, A Literary History of the Arabs, page 317. Routledge
  12. ^ Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, 1962, A Literary History of the Arabs, page 323. Routledge
  13. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica al-Ma'arri
  14. ^ Freethought Traditions in the Islamic World by Fred Whitehead; also quoted in Cyril Glasse, (2001), The New Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 278. Rowman Altamira.
  15. ^ Reynold A. Nicholson Adapted from Studies in Islamic Poetry Cambridge University Press, 1921, Cambridge, England. p.1-32
  16. ^ France24, Jihadists behead statue of Syrian poet Abul Ala al-Maari, 14 February 2013
  17. ^ "Syrian Rebels". 
  18. ^ CAFÉ THAWRA,On Being an Atheist in The Land of Moses Jesus and Muhammad, 13 January 2010
  19. ^ Reynold Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Poetry and Mysticism, 1921, p. 134.
  20. ^ William Montgomery Watt and Pierre Cachia, A History of Islamic Spain, 2nd edition, Edinburgh University Press, 1996, pp. 125–126, ISBN 0-7486-0847-8.
  • P. Smoor, "Al-Maʿarri" in: H. A. R. Gibb (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume 3, Part 1, Brill, 1984, 927-935.

External links[edit]