Yesterday, the @guardian carried a report by Martin Chulov about the latest bombing in Syria. It took place in the famous town of Maarat al Numan, not far from Aleppo. The town had been home to one of Syria’s much-loved philosophers, al Ma’arri. And so I took a local bus there to find out more. This was before the war in Syria had become so terrible. Here’s the story:
I get off the bus at the top of the town and start assembling my meagre vocabulary in order to get to al Ma’arri’s tomb.
Abu ‘ala al Ma’arri or, to give him his full and glorious name, Abu ‘ala Ahmad ibn abd Allah ibn Suliman al Tanookhy al Ma’arri, was a writer I think I might well have got on with. He had a quirky, iconoclast take on life – a refreshing antidote to the strict, humourless way in which religion in Islamic countries today is sometimes both presented and perceived. He was also a vegetarian and an atheist – and therefore a very rare bird indeed in these parts.
Al Ma’arri was born in Ma’arrat al Numan, in 973CE and spent the greater part of his 84 years here. An illness left him blind from the age of five and he was forced to develop other compensatory skills including that of an exceptional memory which allowed him to study at Antioch, Aleppo and Tripoli – three of the great centres of learning at that time. His literary career was helped by the fact that he had a small private income.
In his 30s, he travelled to Baghdad where he established himself as a writer with very individual views and where he was much in demand at literary get-togethers. Those same views, however, worked against him when he decided that rather than sullying his art by selling his work he would simply recite it or offer it for discussion. Such high ideals, however, required a patron and unable to find one, and his own private income not being enough to survive on, he ran up against hard times and two years after arriving in Baghdad left it again to return to Ma’rrat al Numan. By then, he was 37 and on the way to adopting a lifestyle that was to characterise him for the rest of his long life.
From then on, he withdrew into himself, renouncing the excesses and vagaries of contemporary life. His own was governed by three things: his blindness, his writing and his solitude.
If this had been all I had to go on, I might have written off al Ma’arri as an eccentric recluse. However, his views marked him out as a very rare writer indeed for he spoke loud and clear of possibilities other than the orthodox.
The idea that there was only one true religion was one he rejected out of hand and, writing some seventy years before the First Crusade, was remarkably prescient: “Religions have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed with sect fighting sect and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions are contrary to reason and sanity.”
Read more about the town in my book My Home is Your Home