In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Al-Maʿarrī

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman between the Byzantine Purple Chamber and the Mirdasid Dynasty Palatial Tent
  • Dedication to a Commander in Disgrace
  • From Al-ʿAziz to Al-Mustansir, Fatimid Missions Coming and Going
  • “The Spark in the Tinder Wood”: Saqṭ al-zand
  • Themes According to Classical Convention in his Juvenile Poems
  • “Compulsion without Necessity”: Luzūm mā lā yalzam, Sources
  • “Compulsion without Necessity”: Luzūm ma la yalzam, Studies
  • Some Early Translations and Free Adaptations
  • The Oath: Its Mental Reservation Compared to Veracity
  • Either the Pond of Khumm or the Cave of Abu Bakr
  • “The Book of Headings and Closures in Praise of Allah with Sermons”: Kitāb al-fuṣūl wal- ghāyāt fī tamjīd Allāh wal-mawāʿiẓ
  • “The Epistle of Forgiveness”: Risālat al-ghufrān
  • “The Epistle of the Angels”: Risālat al-malāʾikah
  • His Desire to Surpass the Classical Style of Other Poems
  • Al-Maʿarrī in the tracks of Aḥmad Abū al-Ṭayyib al-Mutanabbī
  • “Epistles”: Rasāʾil, of Congratulation, of Condolence, or Excuse to Friends and Dignitaries
  • Books Incomplete, or Lost

Islamic Studies Al-Maʿarrī
Pieter Smoor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0259


Abu al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sulaymān al-Tanūkhī lived 363–449AH/973–1057 CE. Despite his blindness, he was very observant of both people and animals. Al-Maʿarrī, of Maʿarrat al- Nuʿmān, a town in Syria, thought that God would take note of whoever suffers and who causes suffering. When someone dies, there will be compensation for the good deeds done on earth. But what about sheep who offer their wool to be turned into coats? According to al-Maʿarrī, God is never to blame. He has the right to the throne and unceasing praise belongs to Him, for He is most elevated in the world, which appears as his reflection. The stars above observe people through a net hanging in heaven; they look like shimmering lights in the water. Al-Maʿarrī loved poetry and prose, and was interested in the nature of scriptural language. Having returned from his visits to neighboring Aleppo and then to distant Baghdad, he gathered many pupils to his hometown, Meanwhile, enemies tried to have him punished before the Qadi because of his extreme praise for the southern tribe of Tanukh. According to the angel Gabriel, the northern Muḍar should have precedence as the tribe of Muhammad. Al-Maʿarri was unwilling to try to imitate the message of the Qurʾan, but he did boast of his capability to achieve a highly polished and similar masterpiece. Indeed, he created a splendid structure out of metric verse and rhyming sentences. His prose, along with his poetry, is loaded with riddles, proverbs, praise, and lamentation. In his writings, speech is used by animals as well as humans. During his career, al-Maʿarrī escaped conviction due to friends in high positions. One of whom, first honored as the Byzantine catepano (governor) was later promoted by the Imam Caliph al-Ḥākim to become ʿAzīz al-Dawlah (“The Mighty One of the Dynasty,” or “Beloved of the Dynasty”). Another was honored as al-Muʾayyad fi l-Dīn (The Supported One in Religion) and he organized Fatimid propaganda. Finally, Abu al-ʿAlāʾ was well informed of the religious and political disputes between Sunnis and Shiʿites. Even the rule of women in Byzantium did not escape his notice.

General Overview

Taʿrīf al-Qudamāʾ, under the entry “Aḥmad,” says that al-Maʿarri was able to study the Qurʾanic sciences and Arabic literature with the assistance of his nephews of Tanukh, a clan in Syria, of the originally South Arabian tribe Qahtan. During an educational tour he passed by the monastery of al-Fanus, “of The Shroud”, named as such after the sudarium, latin for “sweat cloth” of Jesus, place possibly holding this relic, situated in neighboring Latakia, al-Lādhiqiyyah. Passing by it, he followed lessons in the mosque libraries of Aleppo (Halab) and Kafartab. But, according to Ibn al-ʿAdīm, the library of Antioch, Antakiyah, was closed down by the Greeks of Byzantium. After his juvenile period, Abu al-ʿAlāʾ, desiring more scholarly knowledge, decided to travel on camel, voyaging by boat down the Euphrates River to Baghdad. Even before his departure from Aleppo, he had achieved fame as a poet, producing eulogies about Saʿd al-Dawlah and Saʿid al-Dawlah of the Hamdanid dynasty, whose reign (due to Byzantine and Fatimid protection) had survived in Aleppo. After the gradual dismissal of the Hamdanid Emirs, he started to eulogize their chancellors, as well as Salih ibn Mirdas a powerful Emir from the Bedouin Kilab tribe. The promoted ʿAziz al- Dawlah (“The Mighty One,” or “The Beloved of the Dynasty”) of Egyptian Fatimids, Governor Anushtakin al-Duzbari, then Amir Thimal ibn Salih (also “Mighty, Beloved of the Dynasty”) had to lead the cavalry, with his son Thabit ibn Thimal supporting the Fatimid infantry. Saleh 1969 and Saleh 1970 present Arabic sources and criticism, as well as information. There are many volumes of lists of names of people in Aleppo, the generations close to al-Maʿarri. In particular, Ibn al-ʿAdim 1986–1990, a facsimile of the Aleppine historian’s work, and Ibn al-ʿAdim 1988 provide descriptions of Aleppo and its districts. Ibn al-ʿAdim 1951–1968 is a shorter collection (three volumes), with interesting reports on the vicissitudes of tribal chiefs residing in Aleppo, indicating when they had to deal with al-Maʿarri. Bianquis 1986–1989 is a study of names spanning a century around al-Maʿarri in Syria, including the governors involved with the poet. Goitein 1966 contrasts the welfare of the lower classes with the high dignitaries. Halm 1997 gives an account of non-Fatimid emirs like Anushtakin, a commander in the Fatimid Empire. Cairo (al-Qahirah) then suffered in chaos under the regime of al-Hakim, who finally disappeared to re-appear by rajʿah in a different place through elevatio, in the future to be expected by his believers among the Druze.

  • Bianquis, Thierry. Damas et la Syrie sous la domination Fatimide (359–468/969–1076), Essai d’interprétation de chroniques arabes médiévales. 2 vols. Damas: Institut Français de Damas, Editions d’Amérique et d’Orient, Adrien Maisonneuve, Paris, 1986–1989.

    A prosopographic research of numerous families and tribes, with their leadership and intrigues in the districts of Aleppo. Leaders encountered are numerous, such as AnushTakin al-Darazi (al-Duzbari), Saliḥ ibn Mirdas Asad al-Dawlah, Thimal ibn Saliḥ Muʿizz al-Dawlah Abu ʿUlwan, Nasr ibn Saliḥ Shibl al-Dawlah, Abu Shujaʿ Fatik ʿAziz al-Dawlah the Armenian Greek ghulam, and Hibat Allah Ibn Abi ʿImran “The Chief Missionary” Dāʿī l-Duʿāh (Ibn al-Muʾayyad).

  • Goitein, S. D. “A Turning Point in the History of the Muslim State, A Propos of the Kitāb al-Ṣaḥāba of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ.” In Studies in Islamic History and Institutions. By S. D. Goitein, 149–167. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1966.

    Rejecting the idea of absolute rule, the ʿulama’ defended religious law, shariʿah, based on their own communal opinion, ijmāʿ al-ʿulamāʾ. When the proposal of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ giving absolute control over the army to the Abbasid caliph Mansur was not accepted, “communal opinion” prevailed over the rigid rule deriving from the Sassanid kings. Nevertheless, under Shujāʿ Fātik (The Undaunted Hero Killer), armored squadrons were imagined to be like rigidly disciplined metric syllables; see al-Maʿarri 1975, cited under “The Epistle of the Neigher and the Brayer”: Risālat al-Ṣāhil wal-Shāḥij.

  • Halm, Heinz. The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning. London: I.B. Tauris, 1997.

    An overview of the Sevener Shiʿah Fatimids, starting with their ideology at ʿAskar Mukram and Salamiyyah, then continuing with a great deal of information on successive Fatimid imams and caliphs in their fortified capital towns, moving from Mahdiyyah to Qayrawan, finally reaching al-Qahirah. Published in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

  • Ibn al-ʿAdim, Kamal al-Din. Bughyat al-ṭalab fī tārīkh Ḥalab/Everything Desirable about the History of Aleppo. 10 vols. Compiled by David Morray. Facsimile edition. Frankfurt: Fuat Sezgin, 1986–1990.

    A facsimile edition of a very extensive history of Aleppo and its surrounding districts, in ten volumes, written by Ibn al-ʿAdim, who was an original Aleppine inhabitant.

  • Ibn al-ʿAdim, Kamal al-Din. “Al-Inṣāf wa l-taḥarrī fī dafʿ al-ẓulm wa l-tajarrī ʿan Abī l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī.” In Taʿrīf al-Qudamāʾ. Edited by Hamid ʿAbd al-Majid, Mustafa al-Saqqa, ʿAbd al-Salam Harun, ʿAbd al-Rahim Mahmud, and Ibrahim al-Ibyari. Cairo, 1944CE.

    A very important compendium in Arabic, quoting the author Ibn al-ʿAdim, who lived (H588/1192CE-H660/1262CE) more than two centuries after al-Maʿarrī, and who exerted himself defending al-Maʿarri against potential critics and opponents accusing him of heretical views. Translates as “Justice and challenge concerning the prevention of injustice, and offence given to Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī.” See also the entry on “Aḥmad, ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Maʿarrī.”

  • Ibn al-ʿAdim, Kamal al-Din. Bughyat al-ṭalab fī tārīkh Ḥalab. 11 vols. Edited by Suhayl Zakkar. Dar al-Fikr, Beirut and Damascus, 1988.

    A printed edition of Ibn al-ʿAdim 1986–1990. Renders the text from Bughyat al-Ṭalab accessible, where the article “Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sulaymān” is more informative than Ibn al-ʿAdim’s other work, titled al-Inṣāf. Procured by Zakkar at the University of Damascus, whose notes are very useful because of their reference to previous and contemporary sources by other Arab historians. Available online.

  • Ibn al-ʿAdim, Kamal al-Din. Zubdat al-ḥalab minTārīkh Ḥalab. 3 vols. Edited by Sami Dahan. Damascus, Syria: Institut Français de Damas, 1951–1968.

    A totally different work of highly valuable interest, both political and sociological (translates as “The Creamy Milk from the History of Aleppo”). It is in particular interesting for its description of the surviving Hamdanid emirs of Aleppo, followed by the upstart Bedouin emirs from the Kilab tribe of Mirdasids.

  • Saleh, Moustapha. “Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī (363–449/973–1057), Bibliographie critique.” Bulletin d’Études Orientales 22 (1969): 134–204.

    A general overview of all sources, with titles and explanations in French.

  • Saleh, Moustapha. “Deuxième partie: Études critiques modernes.” Bulletin d’Études Orientales 23 (1970): 197–309.

    Part Two of a general overview of all of al-Maʿarri’s books in French. Its first half is in Arabic.

  • Taʿrīf al-Qudamāʾ bi-Abī l-ʿAlāʾ. Lajnat Iḥyāʾ Āthār Abī l-ʿAlāʾ, al-Sifr al-awwal. Edited by Hamid ʿAbd al-Majid, Mustafa al-Saqqa, ʿAbd al-Salam Harun, ʿAbd al-Rahim Mahmud, and Ibrahim al-Ibyari. Cairo, 1944.

    One voluminous book (“What the Ancients Teach Us about Abū l-ʿAlāʾ, Committee for the Resurrection of his Works, The First Compendium under the supervision of Taha Husayn”, first published AH 1363/1944 CE), this is an overview in Arabic of all known sources, including the fragments concerning Abu al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarri. Contains passages that have not yet been edited in Arabic. Offers an edition of fragments that are impossible to read in manuscript form. Sources have been edited complete or in part. Not included, however, is Ibn Hijjah al-Hamawi 1886–1887 (cited under His Desire to Surpass the Classical Style of Other Poems and al-Badiʿi 1944 (cited under “The Book of Headings and Closures in Praise of Allah with Sermons”: Kitāb al-fuṣūl wal- ghāyāt fī tamjīd Allāh wal-mawāʿiẓ.

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