The Luzumiyat of Abu'l-Ala/Notes to Preface


(a) My learned friend, Count E. de Mulinen, called my attention to the work of Von Kremer on Abu'l-Ala. And I have seen copies of a certain German Asiatic Review in which were published translations, made by that eminent Orientalist, of many poems from the Luzumiyat. He speaks of Abu'l-Ala as one of the greatest moralists of all times, whose profound genius anticipated much that is commonly attributed to the so-called modern spirit of enlightment.

Professor D. S. Margoliouth has also translated into English the Letters of Abu'l-Ala, which were published with the Arabic Text at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898. Also Professor Raynold A. Nicholson, in his work, "A Literary History of the Arabs," discusses the poet at length and renders into English some poems from the Luzumiyat. A work was published by Charles Carrington, Paris, 1904, under the title, "Un Précurseur d'Omar Khayyam, Le Poéte Aveugle: Extraits de Poémes et de Lettres d'Abu'l-Ala al-Ma'arri." And another, "The Diwan of Abu'l-Ala," done into English by Henry Baerlein, who must have helped himself freely to the Quatrains of Von Kremer.

(b) For a picturesque description of the squalidness and sordidness of Ma'arrah and its people, see Letter XX of "The Letters of Abu'l-Ala," Oxford Edition.

(c) When he visited Baghdad he was about thirty-seven years of age. And when he went to attend a lecture there by one of the leading scholars, he was called by the lecturer, istabl, which is Syrian slang for blind.

(d) "He was four years of age when he had the attack of small-pox. The sight of his left eye was entirely lost and the eyeball of his right had turned white. Al-Hafiz us-Silafi relates: 'Abu Muhammad Abdallah told me that he visited him (Abu'l-Ala) once with his uncle and found him sitting on an old hair matting. He was very old, and the disease that attacked him in his boyhood had left its deep traces on his emaciated face. He bade me come near him and blessed me as he placed his hand on my head. I was a boy then, and I can picture him before me now. I looked into his eyes and remarked how the one was horribly protruding, and the other, buried in its socket, could barely be seen.'"—Ibn Khillikan.

(e) "How long he retained any sort of vision is not certain. His frequent references in his writings to stars, flowers, and the forms of the Arabic letters imply that he could see a little at least some years after this calamity.—D. S. Margoliouth: The Letters of Abu'l-Ala.

"He used to play chess and nard."—Safadi.

(f) For an interesting account of Literary Society in Baghdad see Renan's "Islam and Science"; also the Biography to the Letters of Abu'l-Ala. Prof. Margoliouth, though not unfair in his judgment of the poet, is unnecessarily captious at times. He would seem partial to the suffrage of orthodox Mohammedans with regard to Abu'l- Ala's unorthodox religious views. But they have a reason, these ulama, for endeavoring to keep a genius like Abu'l-Ala within the pale of belief. Which reason, let us hope, has no claim on Prof. Margoliouth. And in his attempt to depreciate Abu'l-Ala as a disinterested and independent scholar and poet, he does not escape the inconsistency which often follows in the wake of cavil. Read this, for instance:

"Like many of those who have failed to secure material prosperity, he found comfort in a system which flatters the vanity of those who have not succeeded by teaching that success is not worth attaining."

And this, not on the same page perhaps, but close to it:

"For though other roads towards obtaining the means of supporting himself at Baghdad have been open to him, that which he refused to follow (the profession of an encomiast, i. e. a sycophant, a toady) was the most certain."

(g) Biography of Abu'l-Ala by Adh-Dhahabi.

(h) "The Letters, which abound in quotations, enable us to gauge the power of his memory better than these wonder-loving narrators."—D. S. Margoliouth.

(i) In one of his poems he speaks of three prisons, his body being the third. Here is Professor Nicholson's translation:

Methink I am thrice-imprisoned—ask not me
Of news that need no telling—
By loss of sight, confinement in my house,
And this vile body for my spirit's dwelling.

(j) Also his Commentary on the works of the poet Al-Mutanabbi.

(k) Adh-Dhahabi gives the titles of forty-eight of his works, to which Safadi adds fourteen. A literary baggage of considerable bulk, had not most of it perished when the Crusaders took Ma'arrah in 1098. Now, the Luzumiyat, the Letters, Suct uz-Zand and the Epistle of Forgiveness can be obtained in printed form.

(l) "What he says of Al-Maghribi in the First Letter became literally true of himself: 'As Sinai derives its fame from Moses and the Stone from Abraham, so Ma'arrah is from this time (after his return from Baghdad) known by him.'"—D. S. Margoliouth.

(m) Even before he visited Baghdad he had a pension of thirty dinars (about $100), half of which he paid to his servant, and the other half was sufficient to secure for him the necessaries of life. "He lived on lentils and figs," says Adh-Dhahabi; "he slept on a felt mattress; he wore nothing but cotton garments; and his dwelling was furnished with a straw matting.'

(n) We have the following from Adh-Dhahabi:

"One of these critics came one day to Abu'l-Ala and relating the conversation himself said, 'What is it that is quoted and said about you?' I asked.

'It is false; they are jealous of me,' he replied.

'And what have you to incite their jealousy? You have left for them both this world and the other.'

'And the other?' murmured the poet, questioning, ruminating. 'And the other, too?'"

(o) "His poems, generally known as the Luzumiyat, arrest attention by their boldness and originality as well as by the sombre and earnest tone which pervades them."—Raynold A. Nicholson: A Literary History of the Arabs.

(p) The Governor of Halab, Salih ibn Mirdas, passed once by Ma'arrah, when thirty of its distinguished citizens were imprisoned on account of a riot in the town the previous year. Abu'l-Ala being asked to intercede for them, was led to Salih, who received him most politely and asked him what he desired. The poet, in eloquent but unflattering speech, asked Salih 'to take and give forgiveness.' And the Governor, not displeased, replied: 'I grant it you.' Whereupon the prisoners were released.

(q) "His poems leave no aspect of the age (in which he lived) untouched, and present a vivid picture of degeneracy and corruption, in which tyrannous rulers, venal judges, hypocritical and unscrupulous theologians, swindling astrologers, roving swarms of dervishes and godless Carmathians, occupy a prominent place."—Raynold A. Nicholson: A Literary History of the Arabs.

(r) "The Mohammedan critics who thought he let his opinions be guided by his pen probably came near the truth. And any man who writes in such fetters as the meter (he means the rhyme-ending; for Abu'l-Ala made use of every known meter of Arabic prosody) of the Luzumiyat imposes, can exercise but slight control over his thoughts."—D. S. Margoliouth: Letters of Abu'l-Ala.

(s) This work, of which Professor Nicholson says there are but two copies extant, one in Constantinople and the other in his own Collection, was published in Cairo, in 1907, edited by Sheikh Ibrahim ul-Yazeji.

(t) "To let go a flea is a more virtuous act than to give a dirham to a beggar."—Abu'l-Ala.

(u) The Orthodox, i. e. the Mohammedans.

(v) I do not find these verses in the printed copies of either the Luzumiyat or Suet uz-Zand. But they are quoted, from some Ms. copy I suppose, by the historian Abu'l-Fida.

(w) Omar wrote poetry in Arabic too. My learned friend, Isa Iskandar Maluf of Zehleh, Mt. Lebanon, showed me some quatrains of Omar the Tentmaker and Astronomer," in an old Arabic Ms. which bear a striking resemblance to some of Abu'l-Ala's both in thought and style.