'L-ala Ahmad b. Abdallah al-Ma'arri (973-1057), sometimes
known as the Eastern Lucretius, is the third of the great zindiqs
of Islam. No true Muslim feels comfortable in his poetic presence
because of his skepticism toward positive religion in general and Islam in particular.
in Syria not far from Aleppo, al-Ma'arri was struck at an
early age with smallpox, which was eventually to lead to his total blindness. He studied in Aleppo, Antioch, and other Syrian towns
before returning to his native town of Maara. When he was beginning to make a name for himself as a poet, al-Ma'arri was
attracted by the famous center of Baghdad. He set out for Baghdad
in 1008, but only stayed eighteen months. Returning home, he lived in semi-retirement for the next
fifty years until his death.
such was his fame that eager disciples flocked to Maara
to listen to his lectures on poetry and grammar. His poetry was deeply
affected by a pervasive pessimism. He constantly speaks of death as something
very desirable and regards procreation as a sin. At times at least, he denies
“We laugh, but inept is our laughter;
should weep and weep sore,
are shattered like glass, and thereafter
said to have wanted this verse inscribed over his grave:
(2) “ This wrong was by my father done
me, but never by me to one. “
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.
for religion, all men unquestioningly accept the creed of their fathers’ out
of habit, incapable of distinguishing the true from the
Sometimes you may find a man skillful in his trade, perfect in sagacity and in the use of arguments, but when he comes to religion
he is found obstinate, so does he follow the old groove. Piety is implanted in
human nature; it is deemed a sure refuge. To the growing child that which falls
from his elders' lips is a lesson that abides with him all his life. Monks in
their cloisters and devotees in the mosques accept their creed just as a story
is handed down from him who tells it, without distinguishing between a true
interpreter and a false. If one of these had found his kin among the Magians, or
among the Sabians, he would have declared himself a Magian, or among the Sabians
he would have become nearly or quite like them.
For al-Ma'arri, religion is a "fable
invented by the ancients," worthless
except for those who exploit the credulous masses:
So, too, the creeds of man: the one prevails
the other comes; and this one fails
that one triumphs; ay, the lonesome world
always want the latest fairytales.
other times he refers to religions as "noxious
Among the crumbling ruins of the creeds
Scout upon his camel played his reeds
called out to his people -- "Let us hence!
pasture here is full of noxious weeds.
clearly puts Islam on the same level as all other creeds, and
does not believe a word of any of them:
Hanifs [= Muslims] are stumbling, Christians all astray
wildered, Magians far on error's way.
mortals are composed of two great schools
knaves or else religious fools.
What is religion? A maid kept close that no eye may view her;
price of her wedding gifts and dowry baffles the wooer.
all the goodly doctrine that I from the pulpit heard
heart has never accepted so much as a single word.
The holy fights by Moslem heroes fought,
saintly works by Christian hermits wrought
those of Jewry or of Sabian creed --
valor reaches not the Indian's deed
zeal and awe religiously inspire
cast his body on the flaming pyre.
is man's death a long, long sleep of lead
all his life a waking. O'er our dead
prayers are chanted, hopeless farewells taken;
there we lie, never to stir again.
I so fear in mother earth to rest?
soft a cradle is thy mother's breast!
once the viewless spirit from me is gone,
rains unfreshed let my bones rot on!
in 9 al-Ma'arri, while admiring the Indian more than the
Muslim, and the Indian custom of cremation, still insists that death is
not such a terrible thing, it is only a falling asleep. In his collection of
poems known as the Luzumiyyat, al-Ma'arri clearly prefers this practice of
cremation to the Muslim one of burial. On Judgment Day, according to Muslim
belief, two angels, Munker and Nakir, open the graves of the dead and
cross-examine them on their faith in a cruel fashion. Those found wanting are
pushed back into the grave where they await hell. No wonder al-Ma'arri prefers
cremation. Of course, Muslims should find the very idea of cremation totally
And like the dead of Ind I do not fear
go to thee in flames; the most austere
of fire a softer tooth and tongue
he than dreadful Munker and Nakir.
has compiled the following sentiments from al-Ma'arri's poems:
has compiled the following sentiments from al-Ma'arri's poems:
not suppose the statements of the Prophets to be true; they are all
fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and
spoiled life. The "sacred books" are only such a
set of idle tales as any age could have
and indeed did actually produce. What inconsistency that God should forbid the
taking of life, and Himself send two angels to take each man's!
And as for the promise of a second life
-- the soul could well have dispensed with
thoughts on prophets reveal that al-Ma'arri did not consider them any better than the lying clergy:
The Prophets, too, among us come to teach,
one with those who from the pulpit preach;
pray, and slay, and pass away, and yet
ills are as the pebbles on the beach.
does not have a monopoly on truth:
Mohammed or Messiah! Hear thou me,
truth entire nor here nor there can be;
should our God who made the sun and the moon
all his light to One, I cannot see.
for the ulama, the Muslim "clergy"
or divines, al-Ma'arri has
nothing but contempt for them:
I take God to witness that the souls of men are without
intelligence, like the souls of moths. They said, "A
divine!" but the divine is an untruthful disputatious person, and
words are wounds.
For his own sordid ends
pulpit he ascends
though he disbelieves in resurrection,
all his hearers quail
he unfolds a tale
Last Day scenes that stun the recollection.
They recite their sacred books, although the fact informs me
these are a fiction from first to last.
Reason, thou (alone) speakest the truth.
perish the fools who forged the religious traditions or interpreted them!
Oh, cleave ye to Reason's path that rightly ye may be led
none set his hopes except upon the Preserver!
quench not the Almighty's beams, for lo, He hath given to all
lamp of intelligence for use and enjoying.
see humankind are lost in ignorance: even those
ripe age at random guess, like boys playing mora [a child's
Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.
thy reason and let perdition take others all:
all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.
little doubt is better than total credulity:
By fearing whom I trust I find my way
truth; by trusting wholly I betray
trust of wisdom; better far is doubt
brings the false into the light of day.
thoughts in quatrain 19 can be compared to Tennyson's "There
is more truth in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in all the creeds.")
attacks many of the dogmas of Islam, particularly the Pilgrimage, which he calls
"a heathen's journey." "Al-Ma'arri.
regards Islam, and positive religion generally, as a human
institution. As such, it is false and rotten to the core. Its founders
sought to procure wealth and power for themselves, its
dignitaries pursue worldly ends, its defenders rely on spurious documents
which they ascribe to divinely inspired apostles, and its
adherents accept mechanically whatever they are told to
O fools, awake! The rites ye sacred hold
but a cheat contrived by men of old
lusted after wealth and gained their lust
died in baseness-and their law is dust.
seventy times, not seven, the Temple round
is he alone who, when he may
his desires, is found
courage to abstain
Fortune is (so strangely) allotted, that rocks are visited
pilgrims) and touched with hands and lips,
the Holy Rock (at Jerusalem) or the two Angles of Quraysh,
all of them are stones that once were kicked.
is referring to the two corners of the Kaaba in Mecca in which are set the Black
Stone and the stone that is supposed to mark
the sepulcher of Ishmael.
Tis strange that Kurash and his people wash
faces in the staling of the kine;
that the Christians say, Almighty God
tortured, mocked, and crucified in fine:
that the Jews should picture Him as one
loves the odor of a roasting chine;
stranger still that Muslims travel far
kiss a black stone said to be divine:
God! will all the human race
blindly from the Truth's most sacred shrine?
They have not based their
religion on any logical ground,
they might decide between Shiites and Sunnis. In the
of some whom I do not mention (with praise), the Black
is only a remnant of idols and (sacrificial) altar stones.
Here in verse 24 al-Ma'arri is attributing an opinion to a critic,
thereby protecting himself from charges of heresy, but we know from excerpts 22
and 23 that he deems most of the rites of the Pilgrimage including the kissing
of the Black Stone to be
have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed, with sect fighting sect and
fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a word. All religions
are contrary to reason and sanity:
If a man of sound judgment appeals to his intelligence,
will hold cheap the various creeds and despise them.
thou take thereof so much as Reason delivered (to thee),
let not ignorance plunge thee in their stagnant pool!
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 bidden say, "We have
been told the truth"; and if they refused, the sword was drenched
(in their blood). They were terrified by scabbards full of calamities, and
tempted by great bowls brimming over with food for largesse.
Falsehood hath so corrupted all the world,
deal as true friends they whom sects divide;
were not hate Man's natural element,
and mosques had risen side by side.
forbids us from giving further examples of his merciless
attacks on every kind of superstition-astrology, augury, belief in
omens; the custom of exclaiming "God
be praised" when anyone
sneezes; myths such as the patriarchs lived to be hundreds of
years old, holy men walked on water or performed miracles, etc.
Al-Ma'arri further offended Muslim sensibilities by composing
"somewhat frivolous parody of the sacred
volume," i.e., the Koran,
and "in the author's judgment its
inferiority was simply due to the fact
that it was not yet polished by the tongues of four
centuries of readers." As if
this were not enough, al-Ma'arri compounded
his errors in the eyes of the orthodox by his work, the
Epistle of Forgiveness. Nicholson, who was the first to translate
it into English at the beginning of the century, sums up its
contents admirably: Here the Paradise of the Faithful [Muslims] becomes a
glorified salon tenanted by various heathen poets who have been forgiven-hence
the title-and received among the Blest. This
idea is carried out with much ingenuity and in a spirit of audacious
burlesque that reminds us of Lucian. The poets are presented in a series of
imaginary conversations with a certain Shaykh Ali b. Mansur, to whom the work is
addressed, reciting and explaining their verses, quarreling with one another,
and generally behaving as literary Bohemians.
Another remarkable feature of al-Ma'arri's thought was the belief that no living
creature should be injured or harmed in any way. He adopted vegetarianism his
Another remarkable feature of al-Ma'arri's thought was the belief that no living creature should be injured or harmed in any way. He adopted vegetarianism histhirtieth year and held in abhorrence all killing of animals, whether for food or sport. Von Kremer has suggested that al-Ma'arri was influenced by the Jains of India in his attitude to the sanctity of all living things. In his poetry, al-Ma'arri firmly advocates abstinence from meat, fish, milk, eggs, and honey on the grounds that it is an injustice to the animals concerned. Animals are capable of feeling pain, and it is immoral to inflict unnecessary harm on our fellow creatures. Even more remarkably, al-Ma'arri protests against the use of animal skins for clothing, suggests wooden shoes, and reproaches court ladies for wearing furs. Von Kremer has justly said that al-Ma'arri was centuries ahead of his time.
his lifetime al-Ma'arri was charged with heresy, but he was not prosecuted, nor
suffered any punishment for reasons that Von Kremer and Nicholson have carefully
analyzed. Al-Ma'arri himself tells us that it is often wise to dissimulate, and
thus we find many orthodox passages in his poetry that meant to throw the
sniffers of heresy off the scent. At heart, he seems to have been a thorough
skeptic who managed to ridicule practically every dogma of Islam. Viva al-Ma'arri!
Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Zakariya ar Razi (865-925) was perhaps the greatest freethinker in the whole of Islam. He was the greatest physician in the Islamic world, and one of the great physicians of all time. He wrote over two hundred books on a wide variety of subjects. His greatest medical work was the monumental encyclopedia al Hawi, on which he worked for fifteen years. Ar Razi was a thorough empiricist, and not at all dogmatic. This is evident from his extant clinical notebook, in which he carefully recorded the progress of his patients, their maladies, and the results of the treatment. He wrote one of the earliest treatises on infectious diseases-smallpox and measles.
But what earned Ar Razi universal condemnation from Muslims for blasphemy were his views on revealed religions. He saw no possibility of a reconciliation between philosophy and religion. In two heretical works, one of which may well have influenced the European free thought classic De Tribus Impostoribus, Ar Razi gave vent to his hatred of revealed religions. Ar Razi’s heretical book
On Prophecy has not survived, but we know that it maintained the thesis that reason is superior to revelation, and salvation is only possible through philosophy. The second of Ar Razi’s heretical works has partly survived in a refutation by an Ismaili author. Here are its principal (and audacious) theses:
(1)All men are by nature equal and equally endowed with the faculty of reason that must not be disparaged in favor of blind faith; reason further enables men to perceive scientific truths in an immediate way. The prophets-these billy goats with long beards, as Ar Razi disdainfully describes them-cannot claim any intellectual or spiritual superiority. These billy goats pretend to come with a message from God, all the while exhausting themselves in spouting their lies, and imposing on the masses blind obedience to the "words of the master." The miracles of the prophets are impostures, based on trickery, or the stories regarding them are lies. The falseness of what all the prophets say is evident in the fact that they contradict one another: one affirms what the other denies, and yet each claims to be the sole depository of the truth; thus the New Testament contradicts the Torah, the Koran the New Testament. As for the Koran, it is but an assorted mixture of "absurd and inconsistent fables," which has ridiculously been judged inimitable, when, in fact, its language, style, and its much vaunted "eloquence" are far from being faultless. Custom, tradition, and intellectual laziness lead men to follow their religious leaders blindly. Religions have been the sole cause of the bloody wars that have ravaged mankind. Religions have also been resolutely hostile to philosophical speculation and to scientific research. The so-called holy scriptures are worthless and have done more harm than good, whereas the "writings of the ancients like Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Hippocrates have rendered much greater service to humanity."
(2)"The people who gather round the religious leaders are either feeble-minded, or they are women and adolescents. Religion stifles truth and fosters enmity. If a book in itself constitutes a demonstration that it is true revelation, the treatises of geometry, astronomy, medicine and logic can justify such a claim much better than the Quran [the transcendent literary beauty of which, denied by Razi, was thought by orthodox Muslims to prove the truth of Muhammad’s mission]."
In his political philosophy, Ar Razi believed one could live in an orderly society without being terrorized by religious law or coerced by the prophets. Certainly the precepts of Muslim law, such as the prohibition of wine, did not trouble him in the least. (As noted already, Ar Razi felt that it was through philosophy and human reason that human life could be improved, not through religion.)
Finally, Ar Razi believed in scientific and philosophical progress, that the sciences progressed from generation to generation. He held that one must keep an open mind, and not reject empirical observations simply because they do not fit into one’s preconceived scheme of things. Ar Razi believed that his own contributions to the sciences would be superseded by even greater minds than his.
It is clear from the preceding account that Ar Razi’s criticisms of religion are the most forceful that appeared in the entire Middle Ages, whether European or Islamic. His heretical writings, significantly, have not survived and were not widely read; nonetheless they are a witness to the remarkably tolerant Islamic culture and society in which Ar Razi lived (a tolerance lacking in other periods and places).
We believe that Ar Razi upholds the values that we cherish: rationalism, religious skepticism, belief in science, the application of human reason to the problems besetting mankind, empiricism, a lack of dogmatism, and distrust of blind tradition. These qualities, so rare at any time, are so much the more remarkable from someone living in the early years of the 10th century, and are just what we need if Islamic society is to regain its former glory.
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