Abu 'L-ala Ahmad (b. Abdallah al-Ma'arri (973–1057), sometimes known as the Eastern Lucretius, is the third of the great zindīqs of Islam. No true Muslim feels comfortable in his poetic presence because of his skepticism toward positive religion in general and Islam in particular.
Born in Syria not far from Aleppo, al-Ma'arri was struck at an early age with smallpox, which was eventually to lead to his total blindness. He studied in Aleppo, Antioch, and other Syrian towns before returning to his native town of Maara. When he was beginning to make a name for himself as a poet, al-Ma'arri was attracted by the famous center of Baghdad. He set out for Baghdad in 1008, but only stayed eighteen months. Returning home, he lived in semi-retirement for the next fifty years until his death. However, such was his fame that eager disciples flocked to Maara to listen to his lectures on poetry and grammar.
His poetry was deeply affected by a pervasive pessimism. He constantly speaks of death as something very desirable and regards procreation as a sin. At times at least, he denies the resurrection:
- We laugh, but inept is our laughter;
We should weep and weep sore,
Who are shattered like glass, and thereafter
Remolded no more.
He is said to have wanted this verse inscribed over his grave:
- This wrong was by my father done
To me, but never by me to one.
- Better for Adam and all who issued forth from his loins
That he and they, yet unborn, created never had been!
For whilst his body was dust and rotten bones in the earth
Ah, did he feel what his children saw and suffered of woe.
As for religion, all men unquestioningly accept the creed of their fathers out habit, incapable of distinguishing the true from the false:
- Sometimes you may find a man skillful in his trade, perfect in sagacity and in the use of arguments, but when he comes to religion he is found obstinate, so does he follow the old groove. Piety is implanted in human nature; it is deemed a sure refuge. To the growing child that which falls from his elders' lips is a lesson that abides with him all his life. Monks in their cloisters and devotees in the mosques accept their creed just as a story is handed down from him who tells it, without distinguishing between a true interpreter and a false. If one of these had found his kin among the Magians, or among the Sabians, he would have declared himself a Magian, or among the Sabians he would have become nearly or quite like them.
For al-Ma'arri, religion is a "fable invented by the ancients," worthless except for those who exploit the credulous masses:
- 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 fairytales.
At other times he refers to religions as "noxious weeds":
- 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.
He clearly puts Islam on the same level as all other creeds, and does not believe a word of any of them:
- Hanifs [= Muslims] are stumbling, Christians all astray
Jews wildered, Magians far on error's way.
We mortals are composed of two great schools
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.
- 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.
- The holy fights by Moslem heroes fought,
The saintly works by Christian hermits wrought
And those of Jewry or of Sabian creed—
Their valour reaches not the Indian's deed
Whom zeal and awe religiously inspire
To cast his body on the flaming pyre.
Yet is man's death a long, long sleep of lead
And all his life a waking. O'er our dead
The prayers are chanted, hopeless farewells taken;
And there we lie, never to stir again.
Shall I so fear in mother earth to rest?
How soft a cradle is thy mother's breast!
When once the viewless spirit from me is gone,
By rains unfreshed let my bones rot on!
Here above, al-Ma'arri, while admiring the Indian more than the Muslim, and the Indian custom of cremation, still insists that death is not such a terrible thing, it is only a falling asleep. In his collection of poems known as the Luzumiyyat, al-Ma'arri clearly prefers this practice of cremation to the Muslim one of burial. On Judgment Day, according to Muslim belief, two angels, Munker and Nakir, open the graves of the dead and cross-examine them on their faith in a cruel fashion. Those found wanting are pushed back into the grave where they await hell. No wonder al-Ma'arri prefers cremation. Of course, Muslims should find the very idea of cremation totally abhorrent:
- And like the dead of Ind I do not fear
To go to thee in flames; the most austere
Angel of fire a softer tooth and tongue
Hath he than dreadful Munker and Nakir.
Margoliouth has compiled the following sentiments from al-Ma'arri's poems:
- 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. What inconsistency that God should forbid the taking of life, and Himself send two angels to take each man's! And as for the promise of a second life–the soul could well have dispensed with both existences.
Further thoughts on prophets reveal that al-Ma'arri did not consider them any better than the lying clergy:
- 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:
- Mohammed or Messiah! Hear thou me,
The truth entire nor here nor there can be;
How should our God who made the sun and the moon
Give all his light to One, I cannot see.
As for the ulama, the Muslim "clergy" or divines, al-Ma'arri has nothing but contempt for them:
- I take God to witness that the souls of men are without intelligence, like the souls of moths. They said, "A divine!" but the divine is an untruthful disputatious person, and words are wounds.
- 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 the recollection.
- They recite their sacred books, although the fact informs me
that these are a fiction from first to last. O Reason, thou (alone) speakest the truth. Then perish the fools who forged the religious traditions or interpreted them!
Al-Ma'arri was a supreme rationalist who everywhere asserts "the rights of reason against the claims of custom, tradition and authority."
- 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.
- 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:
- By fearing whom I trust I find my way
To truth; by trusting wholly I betray
The trust of wisdom; better far is doubt
Which brings the false into the light of day.
(The thoughts in the quatrain above can be compared to Tennyson's "There is more truth in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in all the creeds.")
Al-Ma'arri attacks many of the dogmas of Islam, particularly the Pilgrimage, which he calls "a heathen's journey." "Al-Ma'arri... regards Islam, and positive religion generally, as a human institution. As such, it is false and rotten to the core. Its founders sought to procure wealth and power for themselves, its dignitaries pursue worldly ends, its defenders rely on spurious documents which they ascribe to divinely inspired apostles, and its adherents accept mechanically whatever they are told to believe."
- 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.
- Praise God and pray
Walk seventy times, not seven, the Temple round
And impious remain!
Devout is he alone who, when he may
Feast his desires, is found
With courage to abstain
- Fortune is (so strangely) allotted, that rocks are visited (by pilgrims) and touched with hands and lips,
Like the Holy Rock (at Jerusalem) or the two Angles of Quraysh, howbeit all of them are stones that once were kicked.
Al-Ma'arri is referring to the two corners of the Kaaba in Mecca in which are set the Black Stone and the stone that is supposed to mark the sepulcher of Ishmael.
- Tis strange that Kurash and his people wash
Their faces in the staling of the kine;
And that the Christians say, Almighty God
Was tortured, mocked, and crucified in fine:
And that the Jews should picture Him as one
Who loves the odor of a roasting chine;
And stranger still that Muslims travel far
To kiss a black stone said to be divine:
Almighty God! will all the human race
Stray blindly from the Truth's most sacred shrine?
- They have not based their religion on any logical ground, whereby they might decide between Shiites and Sunnis. In the opinion of some whom I do not mention (with praise), the Black Stone is only a remnant of idols and (sacrificial) altarstones.
Here in the above verse al-Ma'arri is attributing an opinion to a critic, thereby protecting himself from charges of heresy, but we know from the two excerpts preceding that he deems most of the rites of the Pilgrimage including the kissing of the Black Stone to be superstitious nonsense.
Religions have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed, with sect fighting sect and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions are contrary to reason and sanity:
- If a man of sound judgment appeals to his intelligence,
he will hold cheap the various creeds and despise them.
Do thou take thereof so much as Reason delivered (to thee),
and let not ignorance plunge thee in their stagnant pool!
- 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 bidden say,
"We have been told the truth"; and if they refused, the sword was
drenched (in their blood).
They were terrified by scabbards full of calamities, and tempted by
great bowls brimming over with food for largesse.
- Falsehood hath so corrupted all the world,
Ne'er deal as true friends they whom sects divide;
But were not hate Man's natural element,
Churches and mosques had risen side by side.
Space forbids us from giving further examples of his merciless attacks on every kind of superstition—astrology, augury, belief in omens; the custom of exclaiming "God be praised" when anyone sneezes; myths such as the patriarchs lived to be hundreds of years old, holy men walked on water or performed miracles, etc.
Al-Ma'arri further offended Muslim sensibilities by composing "a somewhat frivolous parody of the sacred volume," i.e., the Koran, and "in the author's judgment its inferiority was simply due to the fact that it was not yet polished by the tongues of four centuries of readers." As if this were not enough, al-Ma'arri compounded his errors in the eyes of the orthodox by his work, the Epistle of Forgiveness. Nicholson, who was the ftrst to translate it into English at the beginning of the century, sums up its contents admirably:
Here the Paradise of the Faithful [Muslims] becomes a glorified salon tenanted by various heathen poets who have been forgiven-hence the title-and received among the Blest. This idea is carried out with much ingenuity and in a spirit of audacious burlesque that reminds us of Lucian. The poets are presented in a series of imaginary conversations with a certain Shaykh Ali b. Mansur, to whom the work is addressed, reciting and explaining their verses, quarreling with one another, and generally behaving as literary Bohemians.
Another remarkable feature of al-Ma'arri's thought was the belief that no living creature should be injured or harmed in any way. He adopted vegetarianism his thirtieth year and held in abhorrence all killing of animals, whether for food or sport. Von Kremer has suggested that al-Ma'arri was influenced by the Jains of India in his attitude to the sanctity of all living things. In his poetry, al-Ma'arri firmly advocates abstinence from meat, fish, milk, eggs, and honey on the grounds that it is an injustice to the animals concerned. Animals are capable of feeling pain, and it is immoral to inflict unnecessary harm on our fellow creatures. Even more remarkably, al-Ma'arri protests against the use of animal skins for clothing, suggests wooden shoes, and reproaches court ladies for wearing furs. Von Kremer has justly said that al-Ma'arri was centuries ahead of his time.
During his lifetime al-Ma'arri was charged with heresy, but he was not prosecuted, nor suffered any punishment for reasons that Von Kremer and Nicholson have carefully analyzed. Al-Ma'arri himself tells us that it is often wise to dissimulate, and thus we find many orthodox passages in his poetry that meant to throw the sniffers of heresy off the scent. At heart, he seems to have been a thorough skeptic who managed to ridicule practically every dogma of Islam.