Friday, 22 April 2016

A Prophet Before His Time

Its not often that a atheist leaning Arab has ever survived to die of old age, particularly a well respected and well read poet, but such is the case with Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri, a man who lived in what is now Syria around 1,000 AD.

Blind and rather penniless (he once joked that he became a vegetarian not through moral choice but because "my income is a little over 20 dinars a year and when my servant takes out of that as much as he wants, no magnificent sum is left so I restrict myself to beans and lentils, and such food as I would rather not mention"), he was also a deliberate celibate in a society, that even now expects men to have a wife and children.

Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri A Free Thinking Poet

He was by all accounts an interesting early free thinker (certainly for the time and place he lived), who even wrote a book whose story line was similar to the much later 'Divine Comedy' by Dante. In his version of the idea, "The Epistle of Forgiveness",  the poet visits paradise and meets the Arab poets of the pagan period (which many Muslims believe impossible, as only Muslims can go to paradise), but unlike Dante, he also did allow for Christians and Jews to be in Paradise with Muslims as well as virtuous pagans.

Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri No Longer Honoured In His Homeland

This was because in fact he didn't actually believe in an afterlife, nor that God much cared about religion, but that rather the god (he as was a monotheist ~ a fact which may have saved him from persecution by locals, who thought that fact made him a strict Muslim), would consider virtue as its own reward. He escaped censure or death in own time through a mixture of obscurity (he was a regional rather than a national poet in his own time), and misunderstanding (the locals didn't really understand his non Islamic leanings - he certainly believed in one creator god, but not a god of one, or any religion, so virtuous people would get gods blessings).

The reason why he has made the news recently is that a statue to him, raised to him in his home town in the 1940's has been destroyed by Islamic extremists (is there any other kind these days?), as they now consider him to be a heretic. However the tale of him (his poems were once taught in Arab schools, despite their non Muslim nature ... but not anymore), and his statue, is a pointer to the liberal and moderate direction mainstream Islam could have taken in the post war years, if only they had been able to take religion out of secular life, and the wahhabi of Saudi Arabia, and Shia's of Iran, hadn't suddenly started exporting that 'old time religion' back into the region.

Kabul In The 1970's Was A Modernising Place ....

Sadly, the Islamic world has simply rolled back the clock 14 centuries in the last 30 years, both for themselves, and also they are about to do the same for Europe .... what a chance for us all to escape the bloodshed was missed in that golden post-war 30 years after WWII.

But in the meantime, any man who can say "The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains", is my kind of free thinker.  


  1. Nice words but blatantly not true. The number of intelligent and articulate God botherers defies belief (pun intended). It's like all those Jazz fans; they may have brains but they also have neutral and reverse gears which enable them some sort of fulfillment from an absence of rhythm or melody.

    1. I assume the your complaint is about his quote in the post - "The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains" .... I would have thought that this was right up your alley?

      After all he is sympathetic to many of your opinions as stated on earlier posts regarding 'God botherers,. Its easy to argue that being deluded by believing in god, prevents them from being 'intelligent', but does not prevent them being 'articulate' in that delusion.

    2. One can argue that a belief in a god prevents them from being intelligent but all the evidence proves otherwise, there are far too many intelligent believers. The brain is complex and has evolved not to be logical (necessarily) but to survive, and if a belief in a higher power somehow helped, the brain isn't going to forget it overnight. The primitive part of our brain very often trumps the rest of it and all the intelligence can do is cry sour grapes.

  2. Kabul was very different before the King was deposed. Mini Skirts for Chrissake!!

    1. Yes, its hard to believe isn't it. Thanks for comment.


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