“My father laid upon me the burden of life; I did no one that disservice.” – Al-Ma’arri (He requested to have inscribed over his grave)
Al-Ma’arri (973-1057), whose full name was Abu’L’ala Ahmad ibn ‘Abdullah al-Ma’arri, sometimes known as the Eastern Lucretius, is the third of the great zindiqs of Islam. No true Muslim feels comfortable in his poetic presence because of his skepticism toward positive religion in general and Islam in particular.
Al-Maʿarri was a skeptic in his beliefs and denounced superstition and dogmatism in religion.
One of the recurring themes of his philosophy was the right of reason against the claims of custom, tradition, and authority. Al-Maʿarri taught that religion was a “fable invented by the ancients”, worthless except for those who exploit the credulous masses.
Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Humanity lived comfortably till the prophets 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.
Al-Maʿarri criticized many of the dogmas of Islam, such as the Hajj, which he called “a pagan’s journey.” He rejected claims of any divine revelation and his creed was that of a philosopher and ascetic, for whom reason provides a moral guide, and virtue is its own reward. Al-Maʿarri held that the afterlife did not exist. Today he is often referred to as a heretic among Muslims in the Arab world.
His religious skepticism and positively anti-religious
“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”
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
Al-Maʿarri was an ascetic, renouncing worldly desires and living secluded from others while producing his works. He opposed all forms of violence. In Baghdad, while being well received, he decided not to sell his texts, which made it difficult for him to live.
Al-Ma’arri in later years became a strict vegetarian, neither consuming meat, nor any other animal products. In his poem titled “I no longer steal from nature” Al-Maʿarri reflected on these values and taught that we should not take from animals. He wrote:
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 was a rationalist who valued reason above tradition or revelation. Like the Indian secular philosopher 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.” :
Now this religion happens to prevail Until by that religion overthrown, Because men dare not live with men alone, But always with another fairy-tale.
Religion is a charming girl, I say; But over this poor threshold will not pass, For I may not unveil her, and alas! The bridal gift I can’t afford to pay.
If there should be some truth in what they teach Of unrelenting Monkar and Nakyr, Before whose throne all buried men appear— Then give me to the vultures, I beseech.
Al-Maarriʿs fundamental pessimism is expressed in his anti-natalist recommendation that no children should be begotten, so as to spare them the pains of life. In an elegy composed by him over the loss of a relative, he combines his grief with observations on the ephemerality of this life:
REASON AND TRUTH
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 thetruth. Al-Ma’arri
26. The Two Universal Sects
They all err—Moslems, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians: Humanity follows two world-wide
One, man intelligent without religion, The second, religious without intellect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is said to have wanted the following verse inscribed over his grave:
This wrong was by my father done
To me, but never by me to one.
Or, in modern translation:
My father laid upon me the burden of life;
I did no one that disservice.
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.
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.
For al-Ma’arri, religion is a “fable invented by the ancients,” worthless except for those who exploit
the credulous masses:
Al-Ma’arri was a forerunner to Khayyam’s thought on Life’s Passing.
Born 75 years before Omar Khayyam
Soften your tread. Methinks the earth’s surface is but bodies of the dead, Walk slowly in the air, so you do not trample on the remains of God’s servants.
And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River’s Lip on which we lean —
Ah, lean upon it lightly! For who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!
I think the Vessel, that with fugitive
Articulation answer’d, once did live,
And merry-make; and the cold Lip I kiss’d
How many Kisses might it take —and give!
And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek Of wind is flying through the court of state: “Here,” it proclaims, “there dwelt a potentate Who could not hear the sobbing of the weak.”
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter —the Wild Ass Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.
See you there! Bring some friends.