Abū al-‘Alā’ al-Ma‘arrī, often called al-Ma‘arrī after the town of his birth, was born in December 973 AD (363 AH), in the village of Ma‘arrat al-Nu‘mān. His birth name was Ahmad ibn Abdallah ibn Sulaiman ut-Tanhukhi (of the tribe of Tanukh). Later in life, he acquired the patronymic of distinction, Abū‘l-Alā (“the father of the sublime”). Al–Ma‘arrī came from a cultured family known for their liberal opinions, which may have included the more relaxed attitude toward religion for which al-Ma‘arrī became known. It is believed that some members of the family may even have neglected to take the requisite pilgrimage to Mecca during their lifetimes. His community, around the time of his birth, is said to have been one in which Alawī, Shia, and Sunni Muslims lived peacefully together. There was also a substantial Christian community. Al-Ma‘arrī’s father, Abdallah, was also a well-regarded poet, as were al-Ma‘arrī’s brothers, Mohammed and Abu‘l-Haitham. His grandfather was likely a kadī, or judge, in Ma‘arrah and, later, Homs, Syria. According to the Islamic scholar David Samuel Margoliouth, al-Ma‘arrī’s mother belonged to the family of Sabīkeh, whose members would have likely occupied important posts in various Syrian towns. At the age of five, al-Ma‘arrī nearly lost his eyesight due to a bout of smallpox. He suffered from enfeebled vision for a time thereafter and, due to accounts from his contemporaries, likely went completely blind by middle age.
Al-Ma‘arrī was educated by his father during his boyhood. He then went to Halab (now, Aleppo) for more formal studies under the tutelage of the grammarian Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn us-Sad. It is said that al-Ma‘arrī began writing verse before the age of ten. In 1010 (400 AH), he visited Baghdad, which was then both the center of scholarship and the then capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Al-Ma‘arrī also traveled to Tripoli and the Syrian port city Al-Lādhiqiyyah, where he stayed in a monastery and befriended a monk, with whom he discussed theology and metaphysics, among other subjects. Poet Ameen Rihani states that al-Ma‘arrī’s career as both a poet and scholar began after his return from Baghdad, which may have been the last journey he made before never again leaving Syria. In addition to studying under great Arabic scholars, al-Ma‘arrī also made use of Syria’s great libraries, particularly the one at Haleb, which is believed to have contained around twenty thousand volumes. Al-Ma‘arrī later studied at libraries in Antioch and Tripoli. By this time, he was likely unable to read any texts on his own. However, al-Ma‘arrī was blessed with an extraordinary memory, enabling him to memorize what was read or told to him by others. He was said even to be able to repeat verbatim tales that were recounted to him in unfamiliar dialects.
Margoliouth divides al-Ma‘arrī’s life into three periods: the end of his boyhood education (993 AD, 383 AH); his years in Ma‘arrah up to his two-year period in Baghdad, starting in 1008 AD (398 AH); and his return from Baghdad in 1010 AD (400 AH) and succeeding years in relative seclusion. By the same year that he returned home, both of al-Ma‘arrī’s parents had died. After returning to Ma‘arrah, al-Ma‘arrī lived on a modest trust-fund income that he shared with his caretaker. According to his poems and letters, it appears that al-Ma‘arrī may have regretted leaving Baghdad, but the return to Syria may have been necessary to reduce his living expenses. He also employed two amanuenses to record both his dictations of poetry and his letters, which were translated and anthologized by Margoliouth in 1898. Al-Ma‘arrī otherwise lived an ascetic life. He was a vegetarian, which led to accusations that he was a heretic. He also abstained from drinking wine and wearing clothing made from animals. Contrary to the funereal conventions of his community, he preferred the practice of cremation to that of burial.
Al-Ma‘arrī’s most famous literary work is Risalat al-Ghufran, or The Epistle of Forgiveness, a work that is sometimes called “a Divine Comedy,” due to its striking similarity to the book of the same name by Dante Alighieri. In the Risalat al-Ghufran, a poet makes trips to both heaven and hell and meets various figures from Arabic literature, seeing how they have been either punished or rewarded for their life’s work. Al-Ma‘arrī also included figures who were not Muslim. The book remains controversial in parts of the Islamic world. In 2007, the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs banned the work from the International Book Fair in Algiers.
Luzūmiyyāt, or Luzum ma la Yalsam (“the Necessity of what is Unnecessary”), is one of al-Ma‘arrī’s best known works and one of his longer collections of poetry. The poems were written during various periods, and the work was first published in Cairo in two volumes. The poems are organized alphabetically according to the rhyme scheme that al-Ma‘arrī employed. The quatrains translated by Rihani in the Luzumiyat of Abu’l-Ala (James T. White & Co., 1920) are derived from three volumes of al-Ma‘arri’s poetry, including the Luzūmiyyāt and Suct us-Zand. Rihani rendered selections from both texts into English for the first time. The Luzūmiyyāt, specifically, covers many subjects. Most controversially, the poet ridicules the tenets and institutions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Al-Ma‘arrī has been nicknamed “the Lucretius of Islam” and “the Voltaire of the East” for his secularist views. Rihani has asserted that al-Ma‘arrī was a literary influence on the Persian polymath Omar Khayyam.
As a scholar and teacher, al-Ma‘arrī acquired students from as far away as India, all of whom came to his home in Ma‘arrah, seeking his scholarship on Arabian grammar, poetry, and the antiquities. His home became a site of interest, and he became a celebrity. Much more of his literary output than what currently survives was supposedly transcribed by those who listened to and learned from him. In addition to his verse, al-Ma‘arrī is said to have been an essayist, literary critic, and mathematician.
Al-Ma‘arri died in Ma‘arrat al-Nu‘mān in 1057 AD (449 AH) after a short-term illness. Dirges were composed in his honor and many men of letters attended his funeral. He was buried in the garden that surrounded his home. In early 2013, a statue of al-Ma‘arri that had been erected in his hometown was beheaded by jihadists—one of numerous attacks on statues of the poet throughout northwestern Syria.