Al-Ma’arri: the poet as religious sceptic

ZP_Champion of the World_2011 painting copyright Brian Whelan_Christ on the left Beelzebub on the right and God the referee up top “Champion of the World”, a painting by Brian Whelan, 2011. Jesus to the left, Beelzebub on the right, and God-the-Referee centre!


Al-Ma’arri (Ma’arri, Syria, 973-1058)


Whenever man from speech refrains, his foes are few,

Even though he’s stricken down by fortune and falls low.

Silently the flea sips up its fill of human blood,

Thus making less the heinousness of its sin:

It follows not the way parched mosquitoes go,

Trumpeting with high-trilled note, you smarting all the while.

If an insolent man thrusts a sword of speech against you,

Oppose him with your patience, so you may break its edge.


The body, which gives you during life a form,

Is but your vase: be not deceived, my soul!

Cheap is the bowl for storing honey in,

But precious for the contents of the bowl.

We laugh, but inept is our laughter,

We should weep, and weep sore,

Who are shattered like glass and thereafter

Remolded no more.


Two fates still hold us fast,

A future and a past;

Two vessels’ vast embrace

Surrounds us—time and space.

And when we ask what end

Our Maker did intend,

Some answering voice is heard

That utters no plain word.

You said, “A wise one created us”;

That may be true, we would agree.

Outside of time and space,” you postulated.

Then why not say at once that you

Propound a mystery immense

Which tells us of our lack of sense?


They all err—Muslims, Jews,

Christians, and Zoroastrians:

Humanity follows two world-wide sects:

One, man intelligent without religion,

The second, religious without intellect.


So, too, the creeds of man: the one prevails

Until the other comes; and this one fails

When that one triumphs; ah, the lonesome world

Will always want the latest fairy tales.


There was a time when I was fain to guess

The riddles of our life, when I would soar

Against the cruel secrets of the door,

So that I fell to deeper loneliness.


(Translation from Arabic: Henry Baerlein, 1909)

Live well! Be wary of this life, I say;

Do not o’erload yourself with righteousness.

Behold! the sword we polish in excess,

We gradually polish it away.


(Translation from Arabic: Henry Baerlein, 1909)


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.


Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be true;

Ah, 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.
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Translations* from Arabic into English:  Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945)

*Except for two poems translated by Henry Baerlein

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Al-Ma’arri (973-1058), whose full name was Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī,  (in Arabic:  أبو العلاء أحمد بن عبد الله بن سليمان التنوخي المعري  )  was born in Ma’arra, Syria.  He was a poet of common sense, a rationalist, a reasonable sceptic – and yet a pious man, too.   Are his poems heretical?   To some, yes.   Yet he wrote his Truth.  Not until the Enlightenment in the 18th century would such confident scepticism in Western thought arise again among poets and writers.   Al-Ma’arri’s sarcasm was egalitarian; Judaism, Christianity, and his own Islam all got from him a good tongue-lashing.   Reason he valued – above “tradition” or “revelation”.     Al-Ma’arri’s writings put us in mind of Xenophanes of Colophon, Lucretius, and the Cārvāka philosophers of India – all of whom were sharp minds that pierced beyond received Wisdom.

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