Abu-l-Ala al-Maarri (973-1058) was a celebrated Arab poet who lived in what is today Syria and Iraq. A writer of poems, commentaries, elegies, and religious tracts, he was a skeptic and cynic.
Abu-l-Ala was born in Maarra, a small town in northern Syria near Aleppo; his family was highly respected. He received a good education for his day, in spite of the fact that he was partially blinded by smallpox at the age of 4. Syria was recognized at that time as a highly intellectual and cultural area, and Abu-l-Ala received his education in Aleppo, Tripoli, and Antioch under the best Syrian scholars. He seems to have studied to be a professional encomiast like his predecessor al-Mutanabbi but soon rejected this calling because of his proud nature.
Soon after the age of 20 Abu-l-Ala returned to Maarra, where he lived off the fees he received from his pupils until 1010. He then moved to Baghdad, the intellectual center of Islam. But he left after 19 months because he refused to write flattering verses for those in power. This period was the turning point in his life. To date, he had won distinction as an erudite savant and as an accomplished poet in the style of al-Mutanabbi, a poet he admired. But Abu-l-Ala's great works appear only after his visit to Baghdad. His later poetry is filled with many unorthodox ideas that he could have come across only in Baghdad.
He reached his hometown to find his mother had died. This affected him immensely. It is said that afterward he lived in a cave and adopted ascetic habits. He was nicknamed "the double prisoner" because of his blindness and seclusion.
But Abu-l-Ala's fame continued to draw students to him. He eventually amassed great wealth in his retreat. He passed his last 40 years in retirement but not idleness. This is evident by his long list of compositions. He is best known for two collections of poems entitled Sakt al-Zand and Luzumiyat and for many letters.
The problem of Abu-l-Ala's orthodoxy is often debated. He is usually held to be a heretic because of his chiding works on the Koran. His ideas are unusually skeptical of many accepted doctrines of his day. He was a monotheist, but his God was little more than an impersonal fate. He did not accept the theory of divine revelation. Religion in his view was the product of man's superstitions and the need for society to control these feelings. And he was always against religious leaders' taking advantage of their unsuspecting followers for their own personal benefit. He did not believe in a future life, and it was against his better wisdom to have children because of the miseries of living. He was a vegetarian and an ascetic. He did believe in a religion of active piety and righteousness, and thus his ideas were much like the Indian thought of his time.
There are a few fine works that translate some of Abu-l-Ala's compositions and include biographical and critical commentary: D. S. Margoliouth, The Letters of Abu-l-Ala (1898); Ameen F. Rihani, The Quatrains of Abu-l-Ala (1904); and Henry Baerlein, The Diwan of Abu-l-Ala (1908). One of the best descriptive works on Abu-l-Ala is in German: Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litterature (2 vols., 1898-1902; rev. ed. 1943-1949). The best work in English is Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (1907; 2d ed. 1930). Nicholson also wrote the valuable Studies in Islamic Poetry (1921). More general works are Philip K. Hitti, The History of the Arabs (1937; 8th rev. ed. 1963), and James Kritzeck, ed., Anthology of Islamic Literature (1966).