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Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri
Abul al-Ala al-Ma'arri, from a statue in Aleppo, Syria
Born 973 AD
Maarrat al-Nu'man, Abbasid Caliphate
Died 1058 AD
Maarrat al-Nu'man, Abbasid Caliphate (aged 85-86)
Nationality Syrian
Region Islamic philosophy
Religion None (deist)
Main interests Skepticism, Rationalism, Asceticism, Pessimism

Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri (Arabic أبو العلاء المعري Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, full name أبو العلاء أحمد بن عبد الله بن سليمان التنوخي المعري Abū al-ʿAlāʾ Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sulaimān al-Tanūẖī al-Maʿarrī, born 973 AD / AH 363, died 1058 AD/ AH 449) was a blind Syrian philosopher, poet, and writer.[1][2]

He was a controversial rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion rejecting the claim that Islam or any other religion possessed the truths they claim and considered the speech of prophets as a lie (literally, "forge") and "impossible" to be true. He was equally sarcastic towards the religions of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. He was also a vegan who argued for animal rights.


Abul Ala was born in Maʿarra (now Ma'arat al-Nu'man), Syria (region). He was a member of the Banu Sulayman, a notable family of Maʿarra, belonging to the larger Tanukh tribe. His paternal great-great-grandfather had been the city's first qadi. Some members of the Bany Sulayman had also been noted as good poets. He lost his eyesight at the age of four due to smallpox.[3]

He started his career as a poet at an early age, at about 11 or 12 years old. He was educated at first in Maʿarra and Aleppo, later also in Antioch and other Syrian cities. Among his teachers in Aleppo were companions from the circle of Ibn Khalawayh. This grammarian and Islamic scholar had died in 980/1 AD, when Al-Maʿarri was still a child. Al-Maʿarri nevertheless laments the loss of Ibn Ḵh̲ālawayh in strong terms in a poem of his Risālat al-ghufrān. Al-Qifti reports that when on his way to Tripoli, Al-Maʿarri visited a Christian monastery near Latakia where he listened to debates about Hellenic philosophy, which planted in him the seeds of his later skepticism and irreligiosity; but other historians such as Ibn al-Adim deny that he had been exposed to any theology other than Islamic doctrine.

He also spent eighteen months at Baghdad, where he was well received in the literary salons of the time. He returned to his native town of Maʿarra in about 1010 blaming his return on a lack of money and hearing that his mother was ill (she died before he arrived).

He remained in Ma'arra for the rest of his life, where he opted for an ascetic lifestyle, refusing to sell his poems, living in seclusion and observing a strict vegan[4][5] diet. He nevertheless enjoyed great respect and attracted many students locally, as well as actively holding correspondence with scholars abroad.[2]


Al-Maʿarri was a skeptic in his beliefs and denounced superstition and dogmatism in religion. Thus, he has been described as a pessimistic freethinker.[6] One of the recurring themes of his philosophy was the rights of reason against the claims of custom, tradition, and authority.

Al-Maʿarri taught that religion was a "fable invented by the ancients",[7] worthless except for those who exploit the credulous masses.[7]

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.[8]

Al-Maʿarri criticized many of the dogmas of Islam, such as the Hajj, which he called, "a heathen's journey."[9]

He rejected claims of any divine revelation.[10] His creed was that of a philosopher and ascetic, for whom reason provides a moral guide, and virtue is its own reward.[11]

Al-Maarri's 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:

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.[12]

His religious skepticism and positively anti-religious views are expressed in a poem which states, "The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains."[13]

He was equally sarcastic towards the religion of Islam as he was towards Judaism and Christianity. 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.[14]


Poem from Luzūmīyāt, read in Arabic
File:Poem by Abu 'ala al-Ma'arri ("I no longer steal from nature") read in Arabic.ogg
The restrictive rhyme and meter can be heard in the start of poem 197[4][15]

Problems playing this file? See media help.

An early collection of his poems appeared as "The Tinder Spark" (Saqṭ al-zand; سقط الزند). It gained great popularity and established his reputation as a poet.

A second, more original collection appeared under the title "Unnecessary Necessity" (Luzūm mā lam yalzam لزوم ما لا يلزم أو اللزوميات ), which is how Al-Ma’arri saw the business of living; also Luzūmīyāt "Necessities"), alluding to the unnecessary complexity of the rhyme scheme used.

His third famous work is a work of prose known as "The Epistle of Forgiveness" (Risālat al-ghufrān رسالة الغفران). In this work, the poet visits 4:48). Because of the aspect of conversing with the deceased in paradise, the Resalat Al-Ghufran has been compared to the Divine Comedy of Dante.[16]

"Paragraphs and Periods" (Al-Fuṣūl wa al-ghāyāt) is a collection of homilies.


  • G. Brackenbury (trans.), Risalat ul Ghufran, a Divine Comedy, 1943.

See also


  • P. Smoor, "Al-Maʿarri" in: H. A. R. Gibb (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume 3, Part 1, Brill, 1984, 927-935.

External links

  • Al-Ma'arri's poems (in English).
  • Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Ian McDonald and Diana Fleischman with guest Retrieved 2012-06-25.

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