The Great Syrian Freethinkers: Al-Ma’arri

May 19, 2013


Such was the nature of the power of Christianity, its dogma, its insecurity, during the Middle Ages, that a great writer, humanist, and long time friend of the King could be put to death for nothing more than refusing to swear that King Henry VIII was the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Thomas More was lucky in one sense. He had his head swiftly detached from the rest of his body with one sweep of the executioners axe. Lucky, because others were not accorded the same swift death. Robert Lawrence, a Carthusian Monk, refused also to submit to the Oath of Supremacy. Though, unlike More, Lawrence was hung, just enough to ensure he lost consciousness. He was then revived, in time to see his stomach slashed open, and his insides pulled out, and set on fire. He was then cut into pieces, his head stuck on a spike on London Bridge. This agonisingly horrid punishment was handed down for questioning the King’s power over Rome, not for questioning Christianity or religion in general. Simply for questioning the power of the Monarch over the power of the Pope.
This was England, and this was Christianity, in the Middle Ages.

Whilst we see no one questioning Christianity in general, or religion itself in general, throughout Christian Europe really from the death of Greek Philosophy, through the rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, until the Enlightenment…. (we can perhaps ascribe that situation, to the existence, wealth and power of the Papacy over the centuries; a single authority that Islam has always lacked) we see some wonderful free thinkers, and rationalists coming out of the areas considered Islamic during those centuries. It would seem that Islamic settlements dealt far less harshly with free thought and criticism during those centuries, than Christianity. The violent suppression of free thought that plagues Islamic Nations today, appears to be a relatively new phenomenon for the faith.

Over the next few articles, I will endeavour to introduce you to a few rather wonderful culturally Islamic freethinkers from days past.

In the city of Aleppo, in Syria, stands a statue to the poet, Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri. His statue has recently been beheaded, by Syrian rebels. The beheading of the statue of Al-Ma’arri by Islamic extremists, for me, is a rather fitting tribute to a brilliant freethinker, who attracted great attention among poets and writers of the late 10th Century with his sharp critique of Islam and religion in general. Al-Ma’arri’s life was never in danger for questioning, and often insulting the idea of religious belief. That’s not to say that categories of punishable Heresy didn’t exist in Islamic tradition, they certainly did, though not as harsh at that time, as was happening across Europe. This is evident in tracing Al-Ma’arri’s route across the Middle East, and his notable presence in Baghdad.

His freethinking and his ideas thereof, are often repeated in one way or another by freethinkers today. On a side note, he was a strict vegetarian, believing it immoral to harm animals in any way. One may quite rightly say, he was a genius, well ahead of his time. And far advanced, even in the 10th Century, when compared with the religious fundamentalists that beheaded his statue earlier this year.

His philosophical poetry, at times reads like the works of modern day, so called ‘new Atheists’ much of the time.
In one poem, Al-Ma’arri writes:

“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 fairytales.”

– ‘The lonesome World’ – Here Al-Ma’arri is convinced that the World is on its own, yet humanity cries out for something more, and in that sense, will always welcome fairytales to make the spiritual loneliness of humanity seem less so. A rather revolutionary idea in such a dark age. Reason is rejected, for the latest fashionable fairytale. The supremacy and importance of reason, becomes a key feature of Al-Ma’arri’s works.

He is also not afraid to openly criticise the leaders of faiths. A surefire way to get your head swiftly removed from the rest of your body, in Christendom at the time:

“O fools, awake! The rites ye 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.”

Al-Ma’ari gives us his own distinction between those who subscribe to religious schools of thought, and those he refers to as ‘Enlightened’. To be enlightened, to Al-Ma’arri, is to give up on religious superstition:

“Hanifs (Muslims) are stumbling, Christians all astray
Jews wildered, Magians far on error’s way.
We mortals are composed of two great schools
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.”

– For Al-Ma’arri, reason was enough to guide humanity. For Al-Ma’arri, all religion is just a tool of power over whom he considered to be fools.

He is scathing in his attack on the rise of religions, how he considers them to have perpetuated through the years, whilst at the same time he advances the cause and superiority of reason.

“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 bidden say,
“We have been told the truth”; and if they refused, the sword was
drenched (in their blood).
They were terrified by scabbards full of calamities, and tempted by
great bowls brimming over with food for largesse.”

He has no trouble using such fierce and provocative language, with his mention of the angels of Islam, Munkar and Nakir. According to Islamic tradition, after your burial upon death, and after the last mourner has left the site of your grave, Munkar and Nakir prop you up, and ask you:

“Who is your Lord? Who is your Prophet? What is your religion?”

– If you answer correctly (Al-Lah, Muhammad, and Islam) then you will be treated kindly. If you answer incorrectly, you will be punished horrifically whilst you await the day of judgement. Al-Ma’arri doesn’t appreciate this idea. He states:

“And like the dead of Ind I do not fear
To go to thee in flames; the most austere
Angel of fire a softer tooth and tongue
Hath he than dreadful Munkar and Nakir.”

– Here, he is openly noting that the Indian tradition of cremation is far preferable upon death, than a visit from the ‘dreadful’ Munkar and Nakir. The use of the word ‘dreadful’, had it been applied to Christian figures, or angels, would most certainly have been considered far to heretical for the author not to face immediate and harsh death. Had he used similarly toxic language within certain Middle Eastern countries today, I suspect he might have received quite an outpouring of outrage and calls for death. But, Al-Ma’arri moved freely across the Islamic World in the late 10th Century, stopping for at least a year and a half in the culture centre of Baghdad, in which he was warmly welcomed and celebrated by literary circles.

“They recite their sacred books, although the fact informs me
that these are a fiction from first to last.
O Reason, thou (alone) speakest the truth.
Then perish the fools who forged the religious traditions or interpreted them!”

Al-Marri seems to us, to be better suited to walking and talking in the streets of 19th Century Philadelphia with Thomas Paine, or sitting around a fire place, with a whiskey, deep in discussions in the mid-20th Century with Bertrand Russell, or joining Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris on stage for merciless debates with religious apologists in the early 21st Century; than he does to the Middle Ages. His appeal to reason, his dismissal of superstition, and his openly antagonistic and scathing approach to dealing with religious dogma and power, seems alien to a Middle Age in which we today consider to have been the dark days of human intellectual advancement. Islam appears to be entering a stage of its history today, in which Christianity emerged from two centuries ago. An insecure age, in which questioning is suspicious, freethought is a dangerous concept, and satire or ridicule inexcusable to the faith.

I advise reading the works of Al-Ma’arri. They do not only suggest a vast gulf when it comes to the perception of ‘heresy’ between the Islamic World of the Dark and Middle Ages, with the Christian World. They also speak to our sense of humanity, the supremacy of reason, and of the importance of free expression. They remind us that our Enlightenment traditions are not new. They are embedded within the psyche of mankind as can be seen from Epicurus, to Al-Ma’arri, to Paine, to Hitchens. Enlightenment thinking has a wonderful tradition unto itself. The poems are as relevant today as they were in the 10th Century. And that is what makes Al-Ma’arri – one of the few I name as personal heroes – worthy of greatness.