The 11th Century poet who pissed off al-Qaeda

In the spring of 2013, fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian offshoot of al Qaeda, beheaded the statue of an 11th Century poet.

This iconoclastic moment was more than the destruction of a piece of modern Syrian cultural heritage, it was the collision of two historical trajectories that represent the nexus of clashing ideologies of the modern Arab world. The scene was reminiscent of an inverted version of the French revolution, where religious effigies lost their heads to the mobs of Robespierre. The stage was set: on one side, a modern ideology reacting against liberalism and harkening back to an imagined Golden Age; on the other, a medieval thinker looking forward towards a liberal modernity.

Almost 1,000 years after his death, what was so dangerous about this writer that warranted his symbolic decapitation?

More importantly, could this have been the result of a ripple effect from a 20th Century literary squabble?

Sculptor Fathi Muhammad in 1944 with the statue (head intact)
Sculptor Fathi Muhammad in 1944 with the statue (head intact)

The statue was a likeness of Abu al ‘Alaa al Ma’arri, a blind Arab poet, philosopher, and writer who lived from 973-1080 CE.

Between the ages of three and four, he contracted smallpox to which he lost his vision. This disability was little of a barrier to his prolificity. In his English translation of al-Ma’arri’s correspondences, British Orientalist translator Margoliouth relates a possibly apocryphal story of Abu al ‘Alaa repeating back the entire conversation of a visiting Azerbaijani student, despite not speaking the language. Al-Ma’arri began his career around the age of 12, when he was sent to study in Aleppo by his family. Later, he would maintain an extensive correspondence with scholars, nobility, and family of his day through his pupils.

Abu Alaa’ al-Ma’arri was born and died in his hometown of Ma’arrat al Nu’ma – from which his nisba (Arabic toponymic nickname) is derived.

He came from a prominent family of ulama’ (religious scholars) whose ancestor was reportedly the first qadi (judge) of Ma’arrat al Nu’man. His family, the Banu Sulayman, were famed for being a family of poets. They were also a branch of the Tanukh tribe who had formed a part of the local aristocracy since pre-Islamic tribes, but originated in the southern part of Syria and had even been allies of the Romans and joined them in the fight against the rebel queen Zenobia.

The court of Sayf al-Dawla, ruler of the Hamdanid dynasty, in the years before Al-Ma'arri's birth
The court of Sayf al-Dawla, ruler of the Hamdanid dynasty, in the years before Al-Ma’arri’s birth

During his own lifetime, however, the family formed part of the upper crust that rubbed elbows with the ruling Hamdanid and subsequent Midrasid dynasties. And although there was significant political instability, they managed to maintain their stature. He was sent away to begin his education at a young age with some of the brightest minds, such as ibn Khalawayh’s circle. Later, despite having significant advantage and luxury, he would reject this in favour of a life of asceticism.

The town was a minor outpost on trading caravan routes, positioned at a crossroads halfway between the ports on the Mediterranean coast and major markets in cities like Aleppo and Antioch. Normally a relatively quiet town, it was its unfortunate geography that later caused it to be the site of a few major sieges and a symbolic flashpoint. Later, it would be the backdrop for a horrific siege in which Crusaders cannibalised its native inhabitants after exhausting their own food supplies. During the Syrian civil war, it would be a major clash point between the Syrian rebels, Jabhat al Nusra, and Assad’s forces.

A mother in child walk through a bombed-out street in Ma'arat al Nu'man, which has changed hands several times thus far in the civil war
A mother in child walk through a bombed-out street in Ma’arat al Nu’man, which has changed hands several times thus far in the civil war

Al-Ma’arri lived in this town for most of his life, except for a few short brief periods in which he traveled to the eastern Mediterranean coastal city of Tripoli and, later, Baghdad to study.

Fittingly, it was also in Ma’arrat al Nu’man where his statue was extremely posthumously decapitated. Ever since, Jabhat al-Nusra soon began to follow suit across Idlib province by decapitating all of his likenesses they encounter.

Renowned as one of the greatest poets of classical Arabic literature, al Maarri’s voice has echoed across the centuries.

Contextually, writing an expose tracing the influence of al-Ma’arri’s thought in the Arabic-speaking would be like writing the same about Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. Most writers don’t mention him because it seems redundant to do so. Everyone has read his work. Nonetheless, due to unfamiliarity with his work in the West, it may be necessary to understand his ideas to get a sense of how ahead of his time he was. Some have drawn parallels between his work and Lucretius, but his philosophy was more like if Voltaire had been born 700 years earlier and had written better poetry.

He also wrote scathing criticisms of institutional religion and championed rationalism in an era more known for its mysticism.

Another statue and square in al-Ma'ari's honor in Aleppo before the Syrian Civil War
Another statue and square in al-Ma’ari’s honour in Aleppo before the Syrian Civil War

In his “Risalat al Ghufran” or “Epistle of Forgiveness,” he describes a trip to the afterlife. There, he encounters both Heaven and Hell. His paradise, however, is filled with thinkers and pagan poets. Meanwhile, Hell is filled with religious figures. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because some scholars think that Dante’s “Divine Comedy” was inspired by both this work and the writings of al-Ma’arri’s contemporary, Ibn al-‘Arabi.

The Algerian government recently banned this work and another of his which attempted to imitate the poetry of the Qur’an.

In another work, the “Luzumiyyat” he said:

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.

Was al Qaeda afraid of his work encouraging freethinkers in Syria to rebel against their rule? After all, it is a return to the golden age of the Caliphate which they seek.

But this type of heresy was not out of place in his own day, which actively encouraged theological debate.

Unlike the romantic mystics favoured by the Persians and Turks, the Arabs had always preferred the poetry of skeptical cynics. While the Sufi writers wrote wine-poetry about experiencing the intoxication of divine love, the cynics harkened back to the poetry of the jahiliyyah, “Age of Ignorance.” The panegyrics, odes, epics, and lyrical poetry of the pre-Islamic age were the rubric through which the literary quality of all later poetry would be judged.

Despite his obvious distaste for religion, which he saw as a farce, even the great Sufi poets like Sa’adi and Omar Khayyam wrote of his influence in their work. The literary scholar, Rihani even goes as far as to call the “Rubaiyyat” an imitation of al-Ma’ari’s work.

"The Tinder Spark", a collection of Al-Ma'arri's poetry from Syria, circa 1300 CE
“The Tinder Spark”, a collection of Al-Ma’arri’s poetry from Syria, circa 1300 CE

During his time studying in Baghdad he was present at discussions of religious scholars, invited to court, and was even invited to recite his poetry and speak at the al-Mansour Mosque. He maintained debates through correspondence with these intellectual figures during his ascetic seclusion in his hometown, and many would even come to visit him. His colleagues at the Nizamiyya in Baghdad included other influential thinkers, who in turn corresponded with figures like Avicenna.

Although we lack evidence of a direct correspondence between the two, the similarity of their ideas about reason are striking. Eventually, this would lead us to the philosophers and scientists of the European Enlightenment, and Avicenna would even end up painted into Michaelangelo’s famous “School of Athens.” Al-Ma’arri himself, however, would fall mostly out of view.

It wasn’t only in the proverbial “East” that his influence was felt. Even Franz Kafka kept a copy of a German, Orientalist translation on his shelf.

But, even after centuries of a parade of both consecutive Islamic and secular governments, a collection of his work and this later statue itself remained unscathed. Al-Ma’arri lived until the age of 84, which was extraordinarily old for his day, and despite some scholars issuing fatwas declaring him a heretic, he continued to teach even when he was a hermetic in his hometown. So, what was so dangerous about this man that could lead these extremists to behead a mere representation of him almost ten centuries after his death?

Al-Ma'arri's decapitated statue in Syria
Al-Ma’arri’s decapitated statue in Syria

Curiously, Jabhat al Nusra never released a video of the operation, nor an accompanying statement – which seems odd as they release a video for everything they do.

Of course, destroying and defacing statues is nothing new for extremist groups. During its five year reign, the Taliban destroyed thousands of years worth of Silk Road monuments in Afghanistan. And alongside other Takfiri groups like ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra has rampaged across Syria destroying the tombs of Sufi saints, graves of Shia scholars, and UNESCO World Heritage sites.

In its report on the incident, France 24 speculated on the reasons behind the statue’s decapitation. One of the theories touch upon was the possibility that Jabhat al Nusra had mistaken assumed that he was either a distant relative of the Assad family or somehow related to Muhammad and therefore revered by Shi’ites. But if this were the case, the regime’s army would certainly not have garrisoned a nearby cultural centre housing some of his artefacts and named in his honour.

It was only later writers that began to write critically of him and denounce his writings as straying from their version of normative Islam. Most critically, a 20th Century ideological struggle between a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, and an Egyptian modernist, Taha Hussein, could possibly be the answer to the puzzle.

Taha Hussein (right), one of 20th Century Egypt's most one of the most influential  writers and intellectuals
Taha Hussein (right), one of 20th Century Egypt’s most influential writers and intellectuals

One of the earliest denouncements on record comes from a 13th Century ideologue of the Hanbali school. Ibn Qayyim al Jawziyyah, a student of Ibn Taymiyyah, said of Al-Ma’arri:

The heretics in Islam are three: Ibn al Rawandi, Abu Hayyan al Tawhidi, and Abu Alaa al-Ma’arri – of them, mostly Abu Hayyan, because they (attempt to) edify grandiloquence but in fact they babble.

The writings of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Qayyim al Jawziyyah that Sayyid Qutb would later draw influence. After being radicalised during his studies in Colorado in the US, Sayyid Qutb saw in the West a decadent society that reacted to joy of news of the death of his compatriot, Hassan al Banna. Before this point, he had teetered on the edge between secularism and a milder form of Islamism.

Taha Hussein, an influential Egyptian intellectual, referred to in the Arab world as “The Dean of Arabic Literature” began his studies at Azhar University. Hussein – also blind – saw in himself a reflection of al-Ma’arri. During the course of his scholarly career he wrote four books dedicated to the art and content of al-Ma’arri’s corpus. Hussein was just as influenced by western philosophy as Arab philosophy and drew inspiration from Voltaire, Descartes and even Kafka. He compared Kafka’s work and philosophy to al Ma’ari. This began all began with his first dissertation on al-Ma’ari in 1915. Eventually, he carried this influence with him when he became Minister of Education in 1950.

A Free Syrian Army fighter washes the headless statue of Arab poet Abu al-Ala al-Maari at Maaret al-Naaman's museum in Idlib
A Free Syrian Army fighter washes the headless statue of al-Ma’arri at Maaret al-Naaman’s museum in Idlib

As such, Qutb’s first thesis was a rejection of his contemporary, Taha Hussein, and he continued to criticise his modernist program as an example of Westernisation and degradation of Arab society away from what he saw as its roots. Qutb’s writing would later lay the foundations for the ideology behind al-Qaeda. His brother, in fact, would later become Osama bin Laden’s mentor.

Fittingly, in 2013, a statue of Taha Hussein in Minya, Egypt mysteriously disappeared as well.

It is tempting to think what might have been if history would have been different and heeded the call of al-Ma’arri’s philosophy and followed along that trajectory instead of allowing the religious scholars, ulama, to seize power during later dynasties. Nonetheless, al-Ma’arri stands an example of an extraordinary forward-thinking man that can still be relevant today.

Perhaps, when the war in Syria finally reaches its conclusion, al-Ma’arri’s legacy will be restored to be called upon by the next generation of Arab intellectuals.

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