al-Ma’arri, Abu al-‘Ala

al-Ma’arri, Abu al-‘Ala
   One of the greatest Arab poets of the medieval period, al-Ma’arri was a blind Syrian poet known for his pessimism as well as his originality. Considered heretical by many Muslims, al-Ma’arri is a religious skeptic whose most famous work, nevertheless, is a vision of the afterlife.
   Born, as his name implies, in the town ofMa’arrah in Syria, south of Aleppo, al-Ma’arri was stricken with smallpox as a young child. He survived the disease but was blinded for life, yet he compensated for his blindness by cultivating his remarkable memory. Educated at Aleppo,Antioch, and Tripoli, al-Ma’arri is reputed to have memorized the manuscripts he found in those cities, so that he was able to immediately recall vast quantities of prose and verse.
   In 1008, thinking to embark on a literary career, al-Ma’arri set off for Baghdad, where he hoped to find a patron. Though well received in literary circles there, he was unable to secure a sponsor, and it was this as well as news of his mother’s failing health that convinced him to return to Ma’arrah after 18 months. Here he lived in semi-retirement for the rest of his life. But he produced a collection of early poems called Saqt al-zand (The Spark from the Flint), a collection that gave him a reputation and inspired a number of young poets to come to Ma’arrah to study with him. Later he produced a larger and more unorthodox volume of 1,592 poems called Luzum ma lam yalzam (The constraint of what is not compulsory), the title referring to the constraints he had imposed upon himself with the difficult rhyme schemes of the poems.
   Al-Ma’arri’s poetry as well as his prose is known for its difficulty, its pessimism, religious skepticism, asceticism, and heterodox ideas. Influenced by Indian thought, al-Ma’arri was a vegetarian, avidly opposed to causing cruelty to animals. He refused even to eat honey, since he saw this as an abuse of bees.He even suggested that animals, who suffered cruelly in this world, would be compensated by a kind of paradise in the afterlife. As for human beings, however, al-Ma’arri seems to have entertained grave doubts about the existence of any kind of immortality, which explains as well his advocating cremation. In addition, though an advocate of social justice, he apparently saw procreation as sinful, since it brought into the world more generations born to suffer. A supreme rationalist, he was skeptical about anything in religion that smacked of myth or absurdity; thus he had no patience with Sufism, the mystic sect of Islam, which he believed to be inspired by the devil. Nor did he have much patience with other poets, most of whom he saw as spinners of lies painting a romantic picture of life instead of telling the truth about life’s miseries as he knew them. Aware of how unorthodox his ideas must seem, al-Ma’arri often cloaked his opinions in obscure language or disguised them as animal fables: One of his more interesting works is a comment on current political events called the Risalat al’Sahil wa al’Shahij (Letters of a horse and a mule) in which the animals exchange opinions on the current state of government in Syria. But al-Ma’arri’s reputation as a heretic was solidified by the publication of his Al-Fusul wa al’Ghayat (Paragraphs and periods), a book that seemed to his contemporaries to be a parody of the KORAN itself.
   Al-Ma’arri’s most famous work is the prose text Risalat al-Ghufran (The Letter of Forgiveness), probably written toward the end of his life in about 1033. Here, in a text based on a very literal interpretation of certain sections of the Koran, he gives a fantastic vision of the afterlife (something he did not himself take seriously), presenting many pagan poets in heaven as “forgiven” (thus providing the title). In fact, al-Ma’arri presents both heaven and hell as peopled by poets and philologists who engage in lengthy discussions about the nature of language and poetry. The text may have influenced DANTE.
   ■ Al-Ma’arri, Abu al-‘Ala. Risalat al-Gufran: The Letter of Forgiveness. Translated by Arthur Wormhoudt. Oskaloosa, Iowa:William Penn College, 1997.
   ■ ———.Saqt al Zand: The Spark from the Flint. Translated by Arthur Wormhoudt. Oskaloosa, Iowa: William Penn College, 1972.
   ■ Irwin, Robert, ed.Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1999.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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