Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri — or al-Ma’arri, for short — was born in a city called Maarat al-Numan in 973AD. This man, a person I was shocked to have never learned about in school, was one of the greatest Classical Arab poets to ever live, and let alone to come out of the 11th Century.
Famously atheist, and equally opposing all religious dogmas, al-Ma’arri caused quite the controversial stir during his 83 years of life. It is said that he only managed to avoid persecution by the Muslim and Christian communities as a result of his beautiful poetry and elegance in dealing with others.
What makes this man so inspiring is not only his future-minded, rationalist view of the world, but also the fact that he was never afraid to stand up for what he believed in, despite existing during a time when there was, largely, no place for his ideas.
In 2013, a statue of al-Ma’arri created by young sculpter, Fathi Mohammed, in the 1940’s, was beheaded by members of al-Qaeda. Al-Ma’arri was so badass during his lifetime, that he managed to piss off al-Qaeda almost a millenium after his death. Oh, and did I mention he was also blind?
I No Longer Steal From Nature
“And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs; for injustice is the worst of crimes.”
— Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri
Incredibly, al-Ma’arri is one of the first ethical vegans to ever write about his decision to abstain from consuming animal products. In his poem, “I No Longer Steal From Nature,” he details his emotional realization that cows, indeed, make milk for their young, not for noble ladies, and that bees work ever so hard to create their honey for food, only to have it unjustly stolen for human gain.
His choice to be vegan on the basis of a moral reasoning stemmed largely from his adherence to pacifism as a way of life. He was against all forms of violence, and believed strongly in social justice and the sanctity of life, declaring injustice as the worst of crimes. He defended animals as innocent lives that he believed were equally entitled to a freedom from suffering.
We could all learn a thing or two from this poet’s peaceful example, and the next time you hear someone say it’s too hard to be vegan in 2020, I hope you tell them about al-Ma’arri!
Hold Tight to What is Most Yourself
“Hold tight to what is most yourself,
Don’t squander it, don’t let your life
Be governed by what disturbs you.”
— Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri
During his lifetime, al-Ma’arri struggled with fitting in. Upon seeking recognition for his work in Baghdad, a necessary venture for any aspiring poet at the time, he found himself feeling dejected and lost. Al-Ma’arri felt as though the culture of writing with the sole purpose of pleasing noble patrons was void of precisely the purpose a philosopher should write.
Not too afraid to abandon the well-trodden path in favour of his own guidance, he travelled to the coast and began a career collaborating with others. This dedication to his intuition, and his craft, garnered him a tremendous deal of respect and good fortune, in his later years.
Despite his secluded way of life, he regularly maintained correspondence with scholars abroad and enjoyed success in all his relationships, though he would never marry.
Al-Ma’arri’s free-sprited way of living attests to his virtue of character, leaving behind an example and reminder to not let our lives be governed by that which disturbs us.
None to Lead But Reason
“And a perpetual loss I feel if, knowing, I believe a falsehood or deny the truth.” — Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri
Al-Ma’arri’s views on religion and authority were considered heretical at the time of his life, and remain highly debated to this day. He advocated for reason being the truth and the way above all, explaining that despite certain beliefs being attractive to humans by nature, to indulge in such falsehoods and fables would lead only to perpetual loss.
The philosopher did not shun all spiritual belief, though, rather he maintained an idea of heaven and hell that differed from those offered by Islamic scholars — most notably, his idea of heaven included people of all religions, backgrounds, and circumstance.
Taking issue with the kings and tyrannical leaders of his era, al-Ma’arri rejected religious authority as being based on nothing more than “a fable invented by the ancients,” with sacred rites being, “but a cheat contrived by men of old.” He was in active opposition of all false leaders, and those who hid behind God to enact their own desires.
Here, we see the poet’s open-mindedness existing in sharp contrast to the beliefs of the time. His gracefulness in dealing with others, despite often holding a dramatic difference of opinion, is a lesson we can all benefit from the moral of.
Kings are Sad Creatures
“Everyone who strives after gain in the perishable world will necessarily come to regret it, at the time of separation and the moment of non-being.”
— Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri
It wasn’t long before Al-Ma’arri rejected material possessions, alongside worldly pleasures, in favour of a simple life where he could be alone with his own thoughts.
He moved into a cave, where he depended primarily on the charity of others for survival, but seemed to dislike the idea of being regarded as an ascetic — meaning an individual who abstains from indulgence, typically for religious reasons.
Instead, he declared his abandonment of materialism and vice as a result of being unable to reconcile his understanding of the fleeting nature of human existence on earth, with the concept of his own life, and professional career.
Al-Ma’arri works are often reflective of his struggle with pessimistic thinking, in part due to his blindness, as well as his isolation. Simultaneously, the beauty of his poetry, and the story of his incredible lifetime exemplify only the true magnificence of his mind.
It strikes me that we could all learn to appreciate the things we have a little more, while realizing that, at the same time, their meaning in our life is limited and untethered to our potential for happiness.
Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri, what a badass man you truly were.
Alexandra Walker-Jones — September 2020
Studies in Islamic Poetry by Reynold A. Nicholson. Cambridge University Press, 1921, Cambridge, England.
The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature by A F L Beeston