al-Ma'arri

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Authors born between 800 and 1100 CE

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Contents  

Introduction

Calmness

Sanctity of Life

Reason and Truth

Mortality

Those Who Falsely Lead Us 

Religion and Superstition

Sources

 

Introduction

Al-Ma'arri (973-1057), whose full name was Abu 'L'Ala Ahmad ibn 'Abdallah al-Ma'arri, was born in Ma'arra, south of Aleppo. He  achieved fame as one of greatest of Arab poets. Al-Ma'arri was stricken with smallpox when four and became blind.  As he grew older, he was able to travel to Aleppo, Antioch and other Syrian cities, learning by heart the manuscripts preserved there. Al-Ma'arri spent 18 months at Baghdad, then the center of learning and poetry, leaving to return to his native town. There he created the Luzumiyyat, a large collection of verses that contrasts from traditional works by its irregular structure and in the opinions it contains.  His presence in Ma'arra drew many people, who came to hear him lecture on poetry and rhetoric.

 Of himself, al-Ma'arri wrote "Men of acute mind call me an ascetic, but they are wrong in their diagnosis. Although I disciplined my desires, I only abandoned worldly pleasures because the best of these withdrew themselves from me." But his somewhat misanthropic nature appears in another remark:  "I was made an abstainer from mankind by my acquaintance with them and my knowledge that created beings are dust."

In the meditations of the Luzumiyyat are sentiments which, had they not been surrounded by many expressions of  pious faith, would have incurred a charge of heresy. In a somewhat oblique apology for any offenses his work might engender, al-Ma'arri said "I have not sought to embellish my verse by means of fiction or fill my pages with love idylls, battle scenes, descriptions of wine parties and the like. My aim is to speak the truth. Now, the proper end of poetry is not truth, but falsehood, and in proportion as it is diverted from its proper end its perfection is impaired. Therefore I must crave the indulgence of my readers for this book of moral poetry." 

Al-Ma'arri's skepticism of all religions reminds us of Xenophanes, Carvaka, and Lucretius, and does not re-appear in Western thought until the Enlightenment. He was equally sarcastic towards the religions of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Al-Ma'arri 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. Al-Ma'arri was a rationalist who valued reason above tradition or revelation. Like Carvaka he saw religion in general as a human institution invented as a source of power and income for its founders and priesthood, who pursued worldly ends with forged documents attributed to divine inspiration. Like Vardhamana and the Jains, al-Ma'arri believed in the sanctity of life, urging that no living creature should be harmed. He became a vegetarian and opposed all killing of animals, and the use of animal skins for clothing.

Al-Ma'arri passed judgments with a freedom that must have offended the privileged members of his society. In Reynold Nicholson's words "Amidst his meditations on the human tragedy, a fierce hatred of injustice, hypocrisy, and superstition blazes out." Many of the extracts below are taken from Nicholson's translation.

 

   

Calmness

                          

                    1 A Friend Who Can Talk Well

 

     The world's best moment is a calm hour passed

In listening to a friend who can talk well.

How wonderful is life from first to last!

But ancient Time keeps ever young in tooth:

His ruin cuts down nations in their prime.

In every region Time prepares their graves—

None ever digs the grave of Time.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

     

                    2 Refrain from Speech

 

     Whenever man from speech refrains, his foes are few,

Even though he's stricken down by fortune and falls low.

Silently the flea sips up its fill of human blood,

Thus making less the heinousness of its sin:

It follows not the way parched mosquitoes go,

Trumpeting with high-trilled note, you smarting all the while.

If an insolent man thrusts a sword of speech against you,

Oppose him with your patience, so you may break its edge.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

      

                    3  Disbelieve in Transmigration

 

      Spirits are said to move by transmigration

From body into body, till they are purged;

But disbelieve what error may have urged,

Unless your mind confirm the information.

   

Though high their heads they carry, like the palm,

Bodies are but as herbs that grow and fade.

Hard polishing wears out the tempered blade,

Allay your soul's desires and live calm.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

  

                    4  Victory will Bring Revenge

 

      If time aids thee to victory, he will aid

Thy foe anon to take a full revenge.

The days' meridian heats bear off as spoil

That shed from the moist dawn gone by.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

 

Sanctity of Life

 

 

                    5 The Body is Your Vase

 

      The body, which gives you during life a form,

Is but your vase: be not deceived, my soul!

Cheap is the bowl for storing honey in,

But precious for the contents of the bowl.

                                   Al-Ma'arri

 

                    6  I No Longer Steal from Nature

 

      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!

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

 

Reason and Truth

 

                    7  Falsehood is Perpetual Loss

 

      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.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    8  What Choice Has Man?

 

     Had men followed me, confound them,

Well had I guided them to truth

Or to some plain track by which

They might arrive there soon.

For here I've lived until I'm tired

Of Time, and it of me;

And my heart has sipped

The cream of life's experience.

 

What choice has a man but solitude and loneliness,

When fate grants him nothing that he craves?

Do what you will, make peace or war:

The days with arbitrary hand bestow

Their measure to warrior and man of peace.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

 

                    9  None to Lead but Reason

 

      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.

                                          Al-Ma'arri  

 

                    10  The Large Gifts of Death

 

      Who'll rescue me from living in a town

Where I am spoken of with praise unfit ?

Rich, pious, learned: such is my renown,

But many a barrier stands between me and it.

 

I admit to ignorance, yet wise was thought

By some—and is not ours a wondrous case?

For truly we all are good for naught:

I am not noble nor are they not base.

 

My body in life's strait grip scarce bears the strain—

How shall I move decay to clasp it round?

O the large gifts of death! Ease after pain

He brings to us, and silence after sound.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

 

                    11  Truth Hides Her Face

 

      Experience nests in thickets of close shade,

Who gives his mind and life may hunt it down.

How many months and years have I outstayed!

And yet, I think myself a fool and clown.

 

And falsehood like a star all naked stands,

But truth still hides her face in hood and veil.

Is there no ship or shore my outstretched hands

May grasp, to save me from this malicious sea?

                                        Al-Ma'arri    

 

                    12  The Scoundrel's Plea

 

       Make not, when you work a deed of shame,  

The scoundrel's plea, "My forbears did the same".

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    13  Time and Space

 

      Two fates still hold us fast,

A future and a past;

Two vessels' vast embrace

Surrounds us—time and space.

 

And when we ask what end

Our maker did intend,

Some answering voice is heard

That utters no plain word.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

 

Mortality

 

                    14  Death Stalks the Night 

 

     I bid each day farewell, aware its like,

Once gone from me, will never more return.

Ill-starred are easy ways on which the careless stroll,

Although they rank their lot a happy one.

For me, it's as though I ride an old and jaded beast,

When outstretched on a bough

The lizard basks in the blaze of noon.

Death stalks the night when friends and enemies sleep on,

And ever is afoot while we recline at ease.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    15  The Present Hour is Yours 

 

      The city's leading cleric went out to bury his friend;

Do you not see he brought no lesson from the grave?

The present hour is yours; the past, a babble of a dream;

And what remains has nothing sweet in store for you.

                                        Al-Ma'arri

 

                    16  The Bitter Draught of Life

 

      Ah, let us go, whom nature gave firm minds

And taught us to hold courage firmly fast,

To meet the fates pursuing us, that we may die at last.

The draught of life, to me it seems a bitter thing to drain;

And see, in bitter truth, we spew it out again.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    17 Guidance of Confusion

 

      Birth I chose not, nor old age, nor to live:

What the past grudged me shall the present give?

Here must I stay, by fates' two hands constrained,

And not leave until my leaving is ordained.

You who would guide me out of dark illusion,

You lie—your story contains nothing but confusion.

For can you alter that you brand with shame,

Or is it not unalterably the same?

                                         Al-Ma'arri

 

 

                    18 Who is Saved from the Grave?

 

      Age after age entirely dark hath run

When not one dawn revealed a rising sun.

Things change and pass, the world unshaken stands

With all its western, all its eastern lands.

 

The pen flowed and the fiat was fulfilled,

The ink dried on the parchment as fate willed.

Could the king his governors around him save—

Or Caesar his patricians—from the grave?

                                           Al-Ma'arri

 

                    19 The Arrogant beneath our Feet

 

      It's sorrow enough that after he roamed at will,

The days beckon a man and say,

"Leave, and enter now a grave!"

How many  times have our feet trodden beneath the dust

A brow of the arrogant, a skull of the debonair!

 Al-Ma'arri

   

                    20  Life's Short Thread

 

     When I would string the pearls of my desire,

Alas, life's too short thread denies them room.

Huge volumes cannot yet contain entire

Man's hope; his life is but a summary of doom.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    21  Perish or Live in Pain?

 

     Over many a race the sun's bright net was spread

And loosed their pearls nor left them even a thread.

This dire world delights us, though all sup—

All whom she mothers—from one mortal cup.

Choose from two ills: which rather in the main

Suits you? —to perish or to live in pain?

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    22  Shattered Like Glass

 

      We laugh, but inept is our laughter,

We should weep, and weep sore,

Who are shattered like glass and thereafter

Remolded no more.

                                   Al-Ma'arri

 

 

Those Who Falsely Lead Us

 

 

                    23  Leaders Wrong Their Subjects

 

      My stay in the world is wearisome:

How long shall I associate with a people

Whose leaders command what is not good for it?

They wronged their subjects, allowed themselves

To deceive them and neglect their interests,

Although they are their hirelings.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

 

                    24  Servants of the People

 

      If we consider things well,

They surely disclose this secret:

The people's leader is the servant

Of those he rules.

                                                   Al-Ma'arri

 

 

Religion and Superstition

 

 

                    25  Creation Reveals A Lack of Sense

 

    You said, "A wise one created us ";

That may be true, we would agree.

"Outside of time and space," you postulated.

Then why not say at once that you

Propound a mystery immense

Which tells us of our lack of sense?

                                    Al-Ma'arri  

       

                    26  The Two Universal Sects

 

      They all err—Moslems, Jews,

Christians, and Zoroastrians:

Humanity follows two world-wide sects:

One, man intelligent without religion,

The second, religious without intellect.

                                   Al-Ma'arri

    

 

                    27  The Cheat of Sacred Rites

 

      O fools, awake! The rites you 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.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

     

28   A Spoken Lie Enforced by Blood  

                               

               

      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.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    29  Death's Debt is Paid in Full

     

      Death's debt is then and there

Paid down by dying men;

But it is a promise bare

That they shall rise again.

                                        Al-Ma'arri

 

                    30  Scenes that Stun Introspection

     

      For his own sordid ends

The pulpit he ascends,

And though he disbelieves in resurrection,

Makes all his hearers quail

Whilst he unfolds a tale

Of Last Day scenes that stun all introspection.

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    31 The Hand Lies Open

     

      Your thought kindled a fire that showed beside you

A path while you were seeking light to guide you.

Stargazers, charmers, soothsayers are cheats,

All of that sort a cunning greed dissemble:

However much the aged beggar's hand may tremble,

It none the less lies open for receipts. 

                                       Al-Ma'arri

 

                    32 Creator of Wrongs

 

      If criminals are fated,

It's wrong to punish crime.

When God earth's ores created,

He knew that on a time

They would become the sources

For sword blades dripping blood

To flash across the manes of horses

Iron-curbed, iron-shod.

                                     Al-Ma'arri

 

                    33  Creeds as Fairy Tales

So, too, the creeds of man: the one prevails

Until the other comes; and this one fails

When that one triumphs; ay, the lonesome world

Will always want the latest fairy tales.

                                     Al-Ma'arri

 

                    34   What is Religion?

What is religion? A maid kept close that no eye may view her;

The price of her wedding gifts and dowry baffles the wooer.

Of all the goodly doctrine that I from the pulpit heard

My heart has never accepted so much as a single word.

                                     Al-Ma'arri

 

                    35   The Prophets and the Priests

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.

Islam does not have a monopoly on truth:

                                     Al-Ma'arri

 

                    36    Fools Awake!

 

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.

                                     Al-Ma'arri

 

                     37   A Little Doubt is Better

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:

                                     Al-Ma'arri

 

Sources

1-32  Adapted from Studies in Islamic Poetry by Reynold A. Nicholson. Cambridge University Press, 1921, Cambridge, England. 

33-37  From the Web Site of the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society (ISIS). This website has alternative translations for some of the verses translated by Nicholson.

 

         Adaptation and selection copyright © Rex Pay 2000