In early 2013, Islamist militants in north-west Syria chose a peculiar target. They decapitated a statue of the 11th Century poet and philosopher Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri.
The statue of a turbaned man with glowering eyes, knotted eyebrows, and a robust beard used to sit near the central museum of Maarat al-Numan. It was twice life-sized and had been cast in bronze in the 1940s by a young Syrian sculptor, Fathi Mohammed.
The statue was not old, nor was it of great artistic value but the man it depicted was a remarkable figure, whose ideas and way of life were at odds with his time.
“Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri is regarded as one of the three foremost atheists in Islamic history,” says Syrian art historian Nasser Rabbat. “The majority of Muslims would shun him.”
The poet-philosopher was born in Maarat al-Numan in AD973. “In the area where al-Maarri lived you were surrounded not only by Sunni Muslims, but you had Christian churches in huge numbers, and quite often they would be praying side by side in the same space – buildings that were once temples had become churches and were now being used as mosques,” says Rabbat.
“Also you had all the splinter groups from Islam. The Alawis – who rule Syria today – were starting to appear then. But also you had the Ismailis, and you had the Shias.”
One of al-Maarri’s verses captures the poet’s disenchantment with all forms of belief.
A squabble in Latakia between Ahmad and Messiah
One bangs his bell, the other, from his minaret, is shouting
Each proclaims the greatness of his faith. Tell me, which rings true?
(Ahmad refers to Muhammad and Messiah to Christ.)
His most famous work is Risulat ul-Ghufran or The Epistle of Forgiveness, which is sometimes seen as a precursor to Dante’s Divine Comedy. In it, al-Maarri describes a poet’s trip to heaven and hell, where he meets great men of Arabic literature and sees how they are being punished or rewarded for their life’s work.
But heaven as imagined by al-Maarri differed from the version offered by Islamic scholars. For a start, it contained non-Muslims.
Find out more
- The Museum of Lost Objects traces the stories of 10 antiquities or ancient sites that have been destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria
- Listen to the episode about al-Maarri the poet on Radio 4 from 12:00 GMT on Tuesday 8 March or get the Museum of Lost Objects podcast
- Also in this series: The Tell of Qarqur, The Winged Bull of Nineveh, The Temple of Bel, The Lion of al-Lat, Aleppo’s minaret and Mar Elian Monastery
A poet questioning the claim to divine truth of Islam’s holy books and clerics would be in danger if he lived in certain parts of Syria today, so it is a measure of the open-mindedness of his time that al-Maarri was largely left to his own devices.
“Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri managed to live his life without being persecuted,” says Rabbat. “Partly because he knew how to handle patrons, partly because he was such a beautiful poet and partly probably because he was blind.”
Al-Maarri lost his sight as a child as a result of smallpox (the piercing gaze in the now-decapitated statue was inaccurate) and later in life he would refer to himself as the “hostage of two prisons” – his blindness and his home, which he rarely left.
Only once did he journey as far afield as the great metropolis of Baghdad, where any poet worth his salt went to prove himself. But al-Maarri had a rough time in the big city. He felt poets there had to demean themselves, flattering their noble patrons by writing panegyrics. He refused to do that, packed his bags and returned home.
After that, he didn’t travel far. “He would go to Latakia on the coast – which today is impossible for someone from Maarrat al-Numan because the front line is between the two cities – but at the time it would have been a one-day trip.”
Al-Maarri’s unusual lifestyle attests to his free thinking. He was celibate, he favoured cremation over burial, and at the age of 30, he became a vegetarian.
When he was in his 70s he wrote letters explaining his decision to abstain from meat, quoting the Koran and an ancient Greek physician. He said it might be considered evil to cause animals pain, to rob them of their milk, to steal their eggs like thieves. But, tongue in cheek, he adds:
“Another reason that induced me to abstain from animal food is the fact that 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.”
In the 20th Century, al-Maarri was cast as an example of rational Arab humanism, a hero worthy of the same esteem as the great thinkers of the European Enlightenment. So his statue was erected in the 1940s and generations of school children in Syria grew up learning his poems.
“There’s a beautiful structure and rhyme, there’s something that makes it easy to get through your mind and stay forever,” says BBC Arabic’s Mahmoud al-Sheikh, a fan of the poet.
But the mood in al-Maarri’s verse is rather sombre.
“His attitude is very nihilistic,” says al-Sheikh. “He says: ‘I don’t believe in joy, I don’t believe in sadness – they are both the same. So when I hear good news, it’s the very same as bad news.'”
In another verse, part of an elegy to a dead relative, al-Maarri writes:
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.
After Syria’s civil war started, the statue of al-Maarri was sprayed with bullets by fighters who deemed his work heretical. Eventually militants from the al-Nusra front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, finished the job – it was reported that in February 2013, in the middle of the night, they knocked off his enormous bronze head.
You cannot help but imagine what he might have thought of it all. Some people commemorating his humble life with a statue, others attacking it – a frivolous struggle over symbols. Perhaps he is rolling in the grave he never wanted in the first place.
The Museum of Lost Objects traces the stories of 10 antiquities or ancient sites that have been destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria.
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