When Christendom was groping amid the superstitions of the Dark Ages, and the Norsemen were ravaging the western part of Europe, and the princes of Islam were cutting each other's throats in the name of Allah and his Prophet, Abu'l-Ala'l-Ma'arri was waging his bloodless war against the follies and evils of his age. He attacked the superstitions and false traditions of law and religion, proclaiming the supremacy of the mind; he hurled his trenchant invectives at the tyranny, the bigotry, and the quackery of his times, asserting the supremacy of the soul; he held the standard of reason high above that of authority, fighting to the end the battle of the human intellect. An intransigeant with the exquisite mind of a sage and scholar, his weapons were never idle. But he was, above all, a poet; for when he stood before the eternal mystery of Life and Death, he sheathed his sword and murmured a prayer.

Abu'l-Ala'l-Ma'arri,a the Lucretius of Islam, the Voltaire of the East, was born in the spring of the year 973 A.D., in the obscure village of Ma'arrah,b which is about eighteen hours' journey south of Halab (Aleppo). And instead of Ahmad ibn Abdallah ibn Sulaiman ut-Tanukhi (of the tribe of Tanukh), he was called Abu'l-Ala (the Father of the Sublime), by which patronymic of distinction he is popularly known throughout the Arabic speaking world.

When a boy, Abu'l-Ala was instructed by his father; and subsequently he was sent to Halab, where he pursued his studies under the tutelage of the grammarian Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn us-Sad. His literary proclivity was evinced in his boyhood, and he wrote verse, we are told, before he was ten. Of these juvenile pieces, however, nothing was preserved.

He was about five years old when he fell a victim to small-pox and almost lost his sight from it. But a weakness in his eyes continued to trouble him and he became, in middle age, I presume, totally blind.c Some of his biographers would have us believe he was born blind; others state that he completely lost his sight when he was attacked by the virulent disease; and a few intimate that he could see slightly at least with the right eye. As to whether or not he was blind when he was sent to Halab to pursue his studies, his biographers do not agree. My theory, based on the careful perusal of his poems and on a statement advanced by one of his biographers,d is that he lost his sight gradually, and total blindness must have come upon him either in his youth or his middle age.e Were we to believe that he was born blind or that he suffered the complete loss of his sight in his boyhood, we should be at a loss to know, not how he wrote his books, for that was done by dictation; not how he taught his pupils, for that was done by lectures; but how he himself was taught in the absence in those days of a regular system of instruction for the blind.

In 1010 A.D. he visited Baghdad, the centre of learning and intelligence and the capital of the Abbaside Khalifs, where he passed about two years and became acquainted with most of the literary men of the age.f He attended the lectures and the readings of the leading doctors and grammarians, meeting with a civil reception at the hand of most of them. He also journeyed to Tripoli,g which boasted, in those days, of many public libraries; and, stopping at Ladhekiyah, he lodged in a monastery where he met and befriended a very learned monk. They discussed theology and metaphysics, disgressing now and then into the profane. Indeed, the skepticism which permeates Abu'l-Ala's writings must have been nursed in that convent by both the monk and the poet.

These are virtually the only data extant showing the various sources of Abu'l-Ala's learning; but to one endowed with a keen perception, a powerful intellect, a prodigious memory, together with strong innate literary predilections, they seem sufficient. He was especially noted for the extraordinary memory he possessed; and around this our Arab biographers and historians weave a thick net of anecdotes, or rather fables. I have no doubt that one with such a prodigious memory could retain in a few minutes what the average person could not; but when we are told that Abu'l-Ala once heard one of his pupils speaking with a friend in a foreign tongue, and repeated there and then the long conversation, word for word, without having the slightest idea of its meaning, we are disposed to be skeptical. Many such anecdotes are recorded and quoted by his Arab biographers without as much as intimating a single doubt.h The fact that he was blind partly explains the abnormal development of his memory.

His career as poet and scholar dates from the time he returned from Baghdad. This, so far as is known, was the last journey he made; and his home became henceforth his earthly prison. He calls himself "A double-fettered Captive,"i his solitude being the one and his blindness the other. Like most of the scholars of his age, in the absence of regular educational institutions, with perhaps one or two exceptions, he had to devote a part of his time to the large number of pupils that flocked to Ma'arrah from all parts of Asia Minor, Arabia, and India. Aside from this, he dictated to his numerous amanuenses on every possible and known subject. He is not only a poet of the first rank, but an essayist, a literary critic, and a mathematician as well. Everything he wrote was transcribed by many of his admirers, as was the fashion then, and thus circulated far and near. Nothing, however, was preserved but his Diwans, his Letters and the Epistle of Forgiveness,j of which I shall yet have occasion to speak.k

His reputation as poet and scholar had now, after his return from Baghdad, overleaped the horizons, as one writer has it. Honors were conferred upon him successively by the rulers and the scholars of his age. His many noted admirers were in constant communication with him. He was now looked upon as "the master of the learned, the chief of the wise, and the sole monarch of the bards of his century." Ma'arrahl became the Mecca of every literary aspirant; ambitious young scholars came there for enlightment and inspiration. And Abu'l-Ala, although a pessimist, received them with his wonted kindness and courtesy. He imparted to them what he knew, and told them candidly what he would not teach, since, unlike other philosophers, he was not able to grasp the truth, nor compass the smallest of the mysteries of creation. In his latter days, youthful admirers sought his blessing, which he, as the childless father of all, graciously conferred, but with no self-assumed spiritual or temporal authority.

For thirty years he remained a vegetarian, living the life of an ascetic.m This mode of living led his enemies to accuse him of renouncing Islam and embracing Brahminism, one of the tenets of which forbids the slaughter of animals. The accusation was rather sustained by the dispassionate attitude he held towards it, and, furthermore, by his vehement denunciation of the barbarous practice of killing animals for food or for sport.

Most of the censors of Abu'l-Ala were either spurred to their task by bigotry or animated by jealousy and ignorance. They held him up to ridicule and opprobrium, and such epithets as heretic, atheist, renegade, etc., were freely applied. But he was supremely indifferent to them all,n and never would he cross swords with any particular individual; he attacked the false doctrines they were teaching, turning a deaf ear to the virulent vituperations they hurled upon him. I fail to find in the three volumes of his poems, even in the Letters, one acrimonious line savoring of personality.

Ibn-Khillikan, The Plutarch of Arabia, who is cautious and guarded in his statements, speaking of Abu'l-Ala, truly says:

"His asceticism, his deep sense of right and wrong, his powerful intellect, his prodigious memory, and his wide range of learning, are alike acknowledged by both friend and foe."

His pessimism was natural, in part hereditary. The man was nothing if not genuine and sincere. Ruthlessly he said what he thought and felt. He had no secrets to hide from the world, no thoughts which he dared not express. His soul was as open as Nature; his mind was the polished mirror of his age.o It may be that had he not been blind-stricken and had not small-pox disfigured his features, he might have found a palliative in human society. His pessimism might not have been cured, but it might have been rendered at least enticing. Good-fellowship might have robbed it of its sting. Nor is his strong aversion to marriage, in view of these facts, surprising.

He lived to know that "his fame spread from the sequestered village of Ma'arrah to the utmost confines of the Arabic speaking world." In the spring of 1055 A.D. he died, and was buried in a garden surrounding his home. Adh-Dhahabi states that there were present at his grave eighty poets, and that the Koran was read there two hundred times in a fortnight. Eighty poets in the small town of Ma'arrah sounds incredible. But we must bear in mind that almost every one who studies the Arabic grammar has also to study prosody and versification and thus become at least a rhymster. Even to-day, the death of a noted person among the Arabs, is always an occasion for the display of much eloquence and tears, both in prose and verse.

Abu'l-Ala, beside being a poet and scholar of the first rank, was also one of the foremost thinkers of his age. Very little is said of his teachings, his characteristics, his many-sided intellect, in the biographies I have read. The fact that he was a liberal thinker, a trenchant writer,—free, candid, downright, independent, skeptical withal,—answers for the neglect on the part of Mohammedan doctors, who, when they do discuss him, try to conceal from the world what his poems unquestionably reveal. I am speaking, of course, of the neglect after his death. For during his life-time he was much honored, as I have shown, and many distinguished travellers came especially to Ma'arrah to see him. He was also often called upon to act as intercessor with the Emirs for the natives of his village."p

The larger collection of his poems, the Luzumiyat,q was published in Cairo, in two volumes, by Azeez Zind, from an original Ms. written in the twelfth century, under Abu'l-Ala's own title Lusum ma la Valsam, or the Necessity of what is Unnecessary. This title refers to the special system of rhyming which the poet adopted. And the poems, published in desultory fashion, were written, it seems, at different periods of his life, and are arranged according to his particular alphabetical system of rhyming. They bear no titles except, "And he also says, rhyming with so and so," whatever the consonant and vowel may be. In his Preface to the Luzumiyat he says:

"It happened that I composed these poems during the past years, and in them I have always aimed at the truth. They are certainly free from the blandishments of exaggeration. And while some of them are written in glorification of God, who is above such glory, others are, as it were, a reminder to those who forget, a pinch to those who sleep, and a warning to the children of the earth against the wiles of the great world, where human rights and human gratitude are often strangled by the same hand of Fate.

As for the translation of these chosen quatrains, let me say at the outset that it is almost impossible to adhere to the letter thereof and convey the meaning without being insipid, dull, and at times even ridiculous. There being no affinity between the Arabic and the English, their standards of art and beauty widely differ, and in the process of transformation the outer garment at times must necessarily be doffed. I have always adhered to the spirit, however, preserving the native imagery where it was not too clannish or grotesque. I have added nothing that was foreign to the ruling idea, nor have I omitted anything was necessary to the completion of the general thought. One might get an idea of what is called a scholarly translation from the works of any of the Orientalists who have made a study of Abu'l-Ala. The first English scholar to mention the poet, as far as I know, was J. D. Carlisle, who in his "Specimens of Arabic Poetry," published in 1810, has paraphrased in verse a quatrain on Pride and Virtue. He also translated into Latin one of Abu'l- Ala's bold epigrams, fearing, I suppose, to publish it at that time in English.

The quatrains which are here published are culled from the three Volumes of his poems, and they are arranged, as nearly as may be, in the logiccal order of their sequence of thought They form a kind of eclogue, which the poet-philosopher delivers from his prison in Ma'arrah.

Once, in Damascus, I visited, with some friends, a distinguished Sufi; and when the tea was being served, our host held forth on the subject of Abu'l-Ala's creed. He quoted from the Luzumiyat to show that the poet-philosopher of Ma'arrah was a true Sufi, and of the highest order. "In his passionate hatred of the vile world and all the vile material manifestations of life," quoth our host, "he was like a dervish dancing in sheer bewilderment; a holy man, indeed, melting in tears before the distorted image of Divinity. In his aloofness, as in the purity of his spirit, the ecstatic negations of Abu'l-Ala can only be translated in terms of the Sufi's creed. In his raptures, shathat, he was as distant as Ibn ul-Arabi; and in his bewilderment, heirat, he was as deeply intoxicated as Ibn ul-Fared. If others have symbolized the Divinity in wine, he symbolized it in Reason, which is the living oracle of the Soul; he has, in a word, embraced Divinity under the cover of a philosophy of extinction."...

This, and more such from our Sufi host, to which the guests gently nodded understanding. One of them, a young poet and scholar, even added that most of the irreligious opinions that are found in the Luzumiyat were forced upon the poet by the rigorous system of rhyming he adopted. The Rhyme, then, is responsible for the heresies of Abu'l-Ala! Allah be praised! But this view of the matter was not new to me. I have heard it expressed by zealous Muslem scholars, who see in Abu'l-Ala an adversary too strong to be allowed to enlist with the enemy. They will keep him, as one of the "Pillars of the Faith," at any cost. Coming from them, therefore, this rhyme-begotten heresy theory is not surprising.

But I am surprised to find a European scholar like Professor Margoliouth giving countenance to such views; even repeating, to support his own argument,r such drivel. For if the system of rhyme-ending imposes upon the poet his irreligious opinions, how can we account for them in his prose writings? How, for instance, explain his book "Al-fusul wal Ghayat (The Chapters and the Purposes), a work in which he parodied the Koran itself, and which only needed, as he said, to bring it to the standard of the Book, "the polishing of four centuries of reading in the pulpit?" And how account for his "Risalat ul-Ghufran" (Epistle of Forgiveness), a most remarkable work both in form and conception?—a Divina Comedia in its cotyledenous state, as it were, only that Abu'l-Ala does not seem to have relished the idea of visiting Juhannam. He must have felt that in his "three earthly prisons" he had had enough of it. So he visits the Jannat and there meets the pagan bards of Arabia lulling themselves in eternal bliss under the eternal shades of the sidr tree, writing and reading and discussing poetry. Now, to people the Muslem's Paradise with heathen poets who have been forgiven,—hence the title of the Work,—and received among the blest,—is not this clear enough, bold enough, loud enough even for the deaf and the blind? "The idea," says Professor Nicholson, speaking of The Epistle of Forgiveness,s "is carried out with such ingenuity and in a spirit of audacious burlesque that reminds one of Lucien."

This does not mean, however, that the work is essentially of a burlesque quality. Abu'l-Ala had humor; but his earnest tone is never so little at an ebb as when he is in his happiest mood. I quote from The Epistle of Forgiveness:

"Sometimes you may find a man skilful in his

trade," says the Author, "perfect in sagacity and in the use of arguments, but when he comes to religion he is found obstinate, so does he follow in 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 their 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 become nearly or quite like them."

It does seem, too, that the strain of heterodoxy in Abu'l-Ala is partly hereditary. His father, who was also a poet of some distinction, and his maternal uncle, were both noted for their liberal opinions in religious matters. And he himself, alluding in one of his poems to those who reproached him for not making the pilgrimage to Mecca, says that neither his father, nor his cousin, nor his uncle had pilgrimaged at all, and that he will not be denied forgiveness, if they are forgiven. And if they are not, he had as lief share their fate.

But aside from his prose writings, in which, do what we may, we can not explain away his supposed heresies, we find in the Luzumiyat themselves his dominant ideas on religion, for instance, being a superstition; wine, an unmitigated evil; virtue, its own reward; the cremation of the dead, a virtue; the slaughter or even the torture of animals a crime;t doubt, a way to truth; reason, the only prophet and guide;—we find these ideas clothed in various images and expressed in varied forms, but unmistakable in whatever guise we find them. Here, for instance, is Professor Nicholson's almost literal translation of a quatrain from the Luzumiyat:

Hanifsu are stumbling, Christians gone astray,
Jews wildered, Magians far on error's way:—
We mortals are composed of two great schools,
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.

And here is the same idea, done in a large picture. The translation, literal too, is mine:

'T is strange that Kusrah and his people wash
Their faces in the staling of the kine;
And that the Christians say, Almighty God
Was tortured, mocked, and crucified in fine:
And that the Jews should picture Him as one
Who loves the odor of a roasting chine;
And stranger still that Muslems travel far
To kiss a black stone said to be divine:—
Almighty God! will all the human race
Stray blindly from the Truth's most sacred shrine?v

The East still remains the battle-ground of the creeds. And the Europeans, though they shook off their fetters of moral and spiritual slavery, would keep us in ours to facilitate the conquests of European commence. Thus the terrible Dragon, which is fed by the foreign missionary and the native priest, by the theologians and the ulama, and which still preys upon the heart and mind of Orient nations, is as active to-day as it was ten centuries ago. Let those consider this, who think Von Kremer exaggerated when he said, "Abu'l-Ala is a poet many centuries ahead of his time."

Before closing, I wish to call attention to a question which, though unimportant in itself, is nevertheless worthy of the consideration of all admirers of Arabic and Persian literature. I refer to the similarity of thought which exists between Omar Khayyam and Abu'l-Ala. The former, I have reason to believe, was an imitator or a disciple of the latter. The birth of the first poet and the death of the second are not very far apart: they both occurred about the middle of the eleventh century. The English reading public here and abroad has already formed its opinion of Khayyam. Let it not, therefore, be supposed that in making this claim I aim to shake or undermine its great faith. My desire is to confirm, not to weaken,— to expand, not contract,—the Oriental influence on the Occidental mind.

Whoever will take the trouble, however, to read Omar Khayyam in conjunction with what is here translated of Abu'l-Ala, can not fail to see the striking similarity in thought and image of certain phases of the creed or the lack of creed of both poets.w To be sure, the skepticism and pessimism of Omar are to a great extent imported from Ma'arrah. But the Arab philosopher in his religious opinions is far more outspoken than the Persian tent-maker. I do not say that Omar was a plagiarist; but I say this: just as Voltaire, for instance, acquired most of his liberal and skeptical views from Hobbes, Locke and Bayle, so did Omar acquire his from Abu'l-Ala. In my notes to these quatrains I have quoted in comparison from both the Fitzgerald and the Herron-Allen versions of the Persian poet; and with so much or so little said, I leave the matter in the hands of the reader, who, upon a careful examination, will doubtless bear me out as to this point.