The poetry of a Syrian atheist
Kenan Malik

‘The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.’ No, not the latest missive from Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. In fact, it’s a missive not from a New Atheist at all, but from a very old one: Abul Ala Al-Ma’arri, a remarkable eleventh century Arab poet and freethinker.

Today we have become used to thinking of the Islamic world as walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking, and with a single, unquestioned, and unquestionable, view of God, faith and the Qur’an.  But in the first half-millennium of its existence, especially during the Abbasid period (750-1258), there was within the Islamic empire an extraordinary flourishing of philosophical debate and of freethinking, of a kind unseen since the heights of Greek philosophy, and that would be unseen again until the Enlightenment.

Most influential were the Rationalists, who were dedicated to the ideal of falsafah, by which they meant not simply the discipline of philosophy, but rather a way of living rationally in accordance with the laws of the cosmos. The faylasufs saw learning as an ethical duty, in much the same way as Enlightenment philosophes (who were deeply indebted to Muslim Rationalists) were to do 700 years later. The movement emerged as the newly created Islamic empire discovered within its borders a treasure house of Greek and Persian learning and began a comprehensive project of translating into Arabic all the works of Greek and Persian philosophers.  The faylasufs took from the Greeks not just their spirit of rational inquiry but also their faith in the boundless power of human intellect and its ability to derive the ultimate truths through reason alone. Most were deeply pious, and accepted the Qur’an as the word of God. But they challenged the idea that religious truths could be accessed only through divine revelation, many insisting that reason alone would suffice.

The earliest of the Islamic rationalist movements was the Mu’tazilite, at the heart of whose philosophy was a defence both of human reason and of the rationality of God’s ways. The early insights of the Mu’tazilah were developed in the Rationalist tradition through a line of thinkers including the first Muslim philosopher al-Kindi (c. 801- 873), al-Farabi (c. 872-951), often regarded as the founder of the falsafah school and known as the ‘Second Master’ (second, that is, after Aristotle), and the two most important Muslim philosophers, Ibn Sina (980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (1126-1196), known respectively in the West as Avicenna and Averroes. This tradition of Muslim Rationalism is today is barely remembered in the West (and still less in the islamic world). Yet its importance and influence, not least on so-called ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, is difficult to overstate.

The rise of the Rationallists led, as Jim Al-Khalili observes in his book Pathfinders, ‘to a humanist movement the like of which would be seen until fifteenth century Italy’ and to a remarkable flourishing of science and learning. Arab scholars revolutionized astronomy, invented algebra, helped develop the modern decimal number system (a rudimentary version of which they had discovered in India), established the basis of optics, and set the ground rules of cryptography. Seven centuries before the Scientific Revolution in Europe, the polymath Ibn al-Haytham effectively pioneered the scientific method, stressing the importance of observation and experimentation, and, Al-Khalili argues, ‘should be regarded as the world’s greatest physicist between Archimedes and Newton’.

The starting point for most of the Rationalists was God’s truth as revealed to Muhammad. But the stress they placed upon reason raised questions about the very nature of, and indeed need for, Revelation. So was born the Arab tradition of freethinking. Dubbed zindiqs, or heretics, by the authorities, (zindiqs included not just atheists but also believers with unacceptable views), the freethinkers posed an open challenge to Islamic dogma. Yet, until the twelfth century they were largely tolerated and, many, like, al-Ma’arri built a considerable following.

Born in what is now Syria, al-Ma’arri (c. 973-1058), blind from an early age, is one of the greatest poets in the Arab tradition. His most famous work, The Epistle of Forgiveness, in which he describes visiting paradise and meeting Arab poets of the pagan period, has often been compared to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Al-Ma’arri’s poetry was renowned for his unflinching religious skepticism:

They all err—Moslems, Jews,
Christians, and Zoroastrians:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.

Not to be led by reason, al-Ma’arri insisted, was to give in to tyranny and injustice:

You’ve had your way a long, long time,
You kings and tyrants,
And still you work injustice hour by hour.
What ails you that do not tread a path of glory?
A man may take the field, although he love the bower.
But some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.
An idle thought! There’s none to lead but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.

Reason was the greatest moral guide, and virtue its own reward:

Reason forbade me many things which,
Instinctively, my nature was attracted to;
And a perpetual loss I feel if, knowing,
I believe a falsehood or deny the truth.

Religion, in al-Ma’arri’s eyes, was like a ‘pasture full of noxious weeds, a ‘fable invented by the ancients’, to hold the masses in thrall:

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 ordered to say,
‘We have been told the truth’;
If they refused, the sword was drenched with their blood.
They were terrified by scabbards of calamities,
And tempted by great bowls of food,
Offered in a lofty and condescending manner.

The Qur’an and other sacred books were for al-Ma’arri ‘only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce’:

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.
And religious rites were a means of enslaving the masses:
O fools, awake! The rites you 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.

There was in al-Ma’arri’s poetry a deep strain of pessimism that harked back to a Stoic view of the world:

We laugh, but inept is our laughter,
We should weep, and weep sore,
Who are shattered like glass and thereafter
Remoulded no more.

Al-Ma’arri had a great belief in the sanctity of life – he became a vegetarian, not wishing to harm other living creatures – but seemed sometimes to be overwhelmed by the ephemeral, pain-filled character of human life:

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.

Life’s two gifts, it seemed to him, were pain or death:

Over many a race the sun’s bright net was spread
And loosed their pearls nor left them even a thread.
This dire world delights us, though all sup—
All whom she mothers—from one mortal cup.
Choose from two ills: which rather in the main
Suits you? —to perish or to live in pain?

Sometimes it seemed to al-Ma’arri that it would have been better had humans never been created:

Better for Adam and all who issued forth from his loins
That he and they, yet unborn, created never had been!
For whilst his body was dust and rotten bones in the earth
Ah, did he feel what his children saw and suffered of woe.

The almost unplumbable darkness of al-Ma’arri’s vision reveals the difficulty of living without God in tenth century Arabia. Modern humanism has its material roots in the ability of humans to transform their world, a world in which the great revolutions – scientific, industrial and political – have provided concrete meaning to the idea of human-driven progress.  This was not al-Ma’arri’s world. His was a world in which life seemed forever static and immovable, constrained by the brute facts of nature, in which the idea that humans could transform the world for the better would have seemed not merely hubristic but irrational and insane, in which grief and anguish were as much a natural, ineradicable part of life as the sun rising in the morning and the leaves falling in autumn.  It was a world in which without God there seemed no possibility of comfort and solace, no prospect of infusing life with a sense of meaning, no hope of recompense for life of pain and torment. In such a world it took immense courage to look into the void and accept the darkness, to examine one’s life and acknowledge unflinchingly its unremitting pain. Most Rationalists leavened that pain by accepting God’s existence and viewing reason, not as a challenge to Scripture, but as an alternative path to Scripture’s truths. Not so al-Ma’arri.

By the twelfth century, the Rationalists were on the defensive, under sustained criticism from Traditionalist thinkers, who viewed human reason as weak and corrupt as human beings themselves, and for whom Revelation and Scripture was the only sure path to truth.  Traditionalists were often forced to engage with rationalists on philosophical ground, and appropriated many arguments from the Ancient philosophers. But more often than not Traditionalists dissociated themselves completely from falsafah on the grounds that it was either impious or foreign, or both. ‘We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples’, insisted al-Kindi. It was precisely such openness that the Traditionalists so feared and detested.

The triumph of the Traditionalists signaled the closing in of the Islamic mind (to borrow a phrase that Charles Freeman used to describe the emergence of the Christian tradition). The Rationalist tradition foundered, freethinkers and other heretics were hunted down, persecuted, often killed. There continued, of course, to be many different traditions, beliefs and practices within Islam. But never again was there such an openness to debate and inquiry as there had been in the early centuries of the Islamic empire.

Thinkers such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and al-Ma’arri came to be influential – but not in the Islamic world. Ironically, it was in Christian Europe that their philosophy found its greatest following. There never had been a tradition of freethinking within Christianity. But from the twelfth century onwards, Christian thinkers, most notably Thomas Aquinas, rediscovered their Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers, through Muslim commentaries and translations, a development that would eventually lead to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and to the breaking asunder of the closed world of Christendom.

Influential though they were, the Muslim Rationalists and freethinkers have, in the rush to insist that there exists a unique ‘Western’ or ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, been largely  forgotten today. Forgotten, too, has been fact that that Western or Judeo-Christian tradition rests as much, if not more, upon the labours of pagan and Muslim thinkers as of Christian ones. So let us give the last word to al-Ma’arri:

Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
Ay, 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.