Al-Maʿarri – Arab skeptic and rationalist

In the history of Muslim cultures, there are a number of skeptics, rationalists, agnostics, atheists, and free-thinkers, whose works continue to be with us, even though many people, Muslim and Non-Muslim, may not have heard of them yet. One such historical figure is Al-Maʿarri (full name Abū al-ʿAlāʾ Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Maʿarrī). Born in the year 973 in what is now Syria, Al-Maʿarri was a poet and a philosopher, who had been blinded in childhood due to smallpox. That didn’t stop Al-Maʿarri from acquiring education in some of the best institutions of his time. He studied under Islamic scholars, as well as in Christian monasteries, where he learned about the works of Ancient Greek philosophers. He wrote prolifically, often combining poetry, prose, and parody, and sometimes inciting the ire of traditional Muslims with his irreverence for religious dogma. His work, Risālat al-ghufrān, has been compared to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and his work Al-Fuṣūl wa al-ghāyāt was even considered to be a parody of the Quran.

Al-Maʿarri was an advocate of critical reasoning and directed his critiques and his satire at Judaism and Christianity, as well as at Islam. Al-Maʿarri was also deeply compassionate, and chose to live a vegan lifestyle, and advocated for the welfare and rights of animals.

I would highly recommend looking up Al-Maʿarri and his works – some of which are available in various translations online and in libraries.

The following are some excerpts from his writings, translated into English.

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


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.


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 - The Luzumiyat


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


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.


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:




Sources: The Ambassadors Magazine, Al-Ma’arri (wikipedia) and Al-Ma’arri (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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