“I seek no face, I treasure no experience, no memory. Anything I write down here is only for personal guidance because of my constant gravitation away from solitude. It will remind me how to go home. Not to be like the man who looked in the glass and straightway forgot what manner of man he was: yet I shall not remember myself in such a way that I remember the person I am not.
Abandon worship in the mosque and shrink
From idle prayer, from sacrificial sheep,
For Destiny will bring the bowl of sleep
Or bowl of tribulation——you shall drink.
The scarlet eyes of Morning are pursued
By Night, who growls along the narrow lane;
But as they crash upon our world the twain
Devour us and are strengthened for the feud.
Vain are your dreams of marvellous emprise,
Vainly you sail among uncharted spaces,
Vainly seek harbour in this world of faces
If it has been determined otherwise.
Behold, my friends, there is reserved for me
The splendour of our traffic with the sky:
You pay your court to Saturn, whereas I
Am slain by One far mightier than he.
You that must travel with a weary load
Along this darkling, labyrinthine street——
Have men with torches at your head and feet
If you would pass the dangers of the road.
So shall you find all armour incomplete
And open to the whips of circumstance,
That so shall you be girdled of mischance
Till you be folded in the winding-sheet.
Have conversation with the wind that goes
Bearing a pack of loveliness and pain:
The golden exultation of the grain
And the last, sacred whisper of the rose
But if in some enchanted garden bloom
The rose imperial that will not fade,
Ah! shall I go with desecrating spade
And underneath her glories build a tomb?
Shall I that am as dust upon the plain
Think with unloosened hurricanes to fight?
Or shall I that was ravished from the night
Fall on the bosom of the night again?
Endure! and if you rashly would unfold
That manuscript whereon our lives are traced,
Recall the stream which carols thro’ the waste
And in the dark is rich with alien gold.
Myself did linger by the ragged beach,
Whereat wave after wave did rise and curl;
And as they fell, they fell—I saw them hurl
A message far more eloquent than speech:
We that with song our pilgrimage beguile,
With purple islands which a sunset bore,
We, sunk upon the sacrilegious shore,
May parley with oblivion awhile.
I would not have you keep nor idly flaunt
What may be gathered from the gracious land,
But I would have you sow with sleepless hand
The virtues that will balance your account.
The days are dressing all of us in white,
For him who will suspend us in a row.
But for the sun there is no death. I know
The centuries are morsels of the night.
A deed magnanimous, a noble thought
Are as the music singing thro’ the years
When surly Time the tyrant domineers
Against the lute whereoutof it was wrought.
Now to the Master of the World resign
Whatever touches you, what is prepared,
For many sons of wisdom are ensnared
And many fools in happiness recline.
Long have I tarried where the waters roll
From undeciphered caverns of the main,
And I have searched, and I have searched in vain,
Where I could drown the sorrows of my soul.
If I have harboured love within my breast,
’Twas for my comrades of the dusty day,
Who with me watched the loitering stars at play,
Who bore the burden of the same unrest,
For once the witcheries a maiden flung——
Then afterwards I knew she was the bride
Of Death; and as he came, so tender-eyed,
I—I rebuked him roundly, being young.
Yet if all things that vanish in their noon
Are but the part of some eternal scheme,
Of what the nightingale may chance to dream
Or what the lotus murmurs to the moon !
Have I not heard sagacious ones repeat
An irresistibly grim argument:
That we for all our blustering content
Are as the silent shadows at our feet.
Aye, when the torch is low and we prepare
Beyond the notes of revelry to pass——
Old Silence will keep watch upon the grass,
The solemn shadows will assemble there.
No Sultan at his pleasure shall erect
A dwelling less obedient to decay
Than I, whom all the mysteries obey,
Build with the twilight for an architect,
Dark leans to dark! the passions of a man
Are twined about all transitory things,
For verily the child of wisdom clings
More unto dreamland than Arabistan.
Death leans to death! nor shall your vigilance
Prevent him from whate’er he would possess,
Nor, brother, shall unfilial peevishness
Prevent you from the grand inheritance.
Farewell, my soul!—bird in the narrow jail
Who cannot sing. The door is opened! Fly!
Ah, soon you stop, and looking down you cry
The saddest song of all, poor nightingale.
Our fortune is like mariners to float
Amid the perils of dim waterways;
Shall then our seamanship have aught of praise
If the great anchor drags behind the boat?
Ah! let the burial of yesterday,
Of yesterday be ruthlessly decreed,
And, if you will, refuse the mourner’s reed,
And, if you will, plant cypress in the way.
As little shall it serve you in the fight
If you remonstrate with the storming seas,
As if you querulously sigh to these
Of some imagined haven of delight.
Steed of my soul! when you and I were young
We lived to cleave as arrows thro’ the night,——
Now there is ta’en from me the last of light,
And wheresoe’er I gaze a veil is hung.
No longer as a wreck shall I be hurled
Where beacons lure the fascinated helm,
For I have been admitted to the realm
Of darkness that encompasses the world.
Man has been thought superior to the swarm
Of ruminating cows, of witless foals
Who, crouching when the voice of thunder rolls,
Are banqueted upon a thunderstorm.
But shall the fearing eyes of humankind
Have peeped beyond the curtain and excel
The boldness of a wondering gazelle
Or of a bird imprisoned in the wind?
Ah! never may we hope to win release
Before we that unripeness overthrow,——
So must the corn in agitation grow
Before the sickle sings the songs of peace.
Lo! there are many ways and many traps
And many guides, and which of them is lord?
For verily Mahomet has the sword,
And he may have the truth—perhaps! perhaps!
Now this religion happens to prevail
Until by that religion overthrown,—
Because men dare not live with men alone,
But always with another fairy-tale.
Religion is a charming girl, I say;
But over this poor threshold will not pass,
For I may not unveil her, and alas!
The bridal gift I can’t afford to pay.
I have imagined that our welfare is
Required to rise triumphant from defeat;
And so the musk, which as the more you beat,
Gives ever more delightful fragrancies.
For as a gate of sorrow-land unbars
The region of unfaltering delight,
So may you gather from the fields of night
That harvest of diviner thought, the stars.
Send into banishment whatever blows
Across the waves of your tempestuous heart;
Let every wish save Allah’s wish depart,
And you will have ineffable repose.
My faith it is that all the wanton pack
Of living shall be—hush, poor heart!—withdrawn,
As even to the camel comes a dawn
Without a burden for his wounded back.
If there should be some truth in what they teach
Of unrelenting Monkar and Nakyr,
Before whose throne all buried men appear——
Then give me to the vultures, I beseech.
Some yellow sand all hunger shall assuage
And for my thirst no cloud have need to roll,
And ah! the drooping bird which is my soul
No longer shall be prisoned in the cage.
Life is a flame that flickers in the wind,
A bird that crouches in the fowler’s net—
Nor may between her flutterings forget
That hour the dreams of youth were unconfined.
There was a time when I was fain to guess
The riddles of our life, when I would soar
Against the cruel secrets of the door,
So that I fell to deeper loneliness.
One is behind the draperies of life,
One who will tear these tanglements away—
No dark assassin, for the dawn of day
Leaps out, as leapeth laughter, from the knife.
If you will do some deed before you die,
Remember not this caravan of death,
But have belief that every little breath
Will stay with you for an eternity.
Astrologers!—give ear to what they say!
“The stars be words; they float on heaven’s breath
And faithfully reveal the days of death,
And surely will reveal that longer day.”
I shook the trees of knowledge. Ah! the fruit
Was fair upon the bleakness of the soil.
I filled a hundred vessels with my spoil,
And then I rested from the grand pursuit.
Alas! I took me servants: I was proud
Of prose and of the neat, the cunning rhyme,
But all their inclination was the crime
Of scattering my treasure to the crowd.
And yet—and yet this very seed I throw
May rise aloft, a brother of the bird,
Uncaring if his melodies are heard——
Or shall I not hear anything below?
The glazier out of sounding Erzerûm,
Frequented us and softly would conspire
Upon our broken glass with blue-red fire,
As one might lift a pale thing from the tomb.
He was the glazier out of Erzerûm,
Whose wizardry would make the children cry——
There will be no such wizardry when I
Am broken by the chariot-wheels of Doom.
The chariot-wheels of Doom! Now, hear them roll
Across the desert and the noisy mart,
Across the silent places of your heart——
Smile on the driver you will not cajole.
I never look upon the placid plain
But I must think of those who lived before
And gave their quantities of sweat and gore,
And went and will not travel back again.
Aye! verily, the fields of blandishment
Where shepherds meditate among their cattle,
Those are the direst of the fields of battle,
For in the victor’s train there is no tent.
Where are the doctors who were nobly fired
And loved their toil because we ventured not,
Who spent their lives in searching for the spot
To which the generations have retired?
“Great is your soul,”—these are the words they preach,—
“It passes from your framework to the frame
Of others, and upon this road of shame
Turns purer and more pure.”—Oh, let them teach!
I look on men as I would look on trees,
That may be writing in the purple dome
Romantic lines of black, and are at home
Where lie the little garden hostelries.
Live well! Be wary of this life, I say;
Do not o’erload yourself with righteousness.
Behold! the sword we polish in excess,
We gradually polish it away.
God who created metal is the same
Who will devour it. As the warriors ride
With iron horses and with iron pride——
Come, let us laugh into the merry flame.
But for the grandest flame our God prepares
The breast of man, which is the grandest urn;
Yet is that flame so powerless to burn
Those butterflies, the swarm of little cares.
And if you find a solitary sage
Who teaches what is truth—ah, then you find
The lord of men, the guardian of the wind,
The victor of all armies and of age.
See that procession passing down the street,
The black and white procession of the days——
Far better dance along and bawl your praise
Than if you follow with unwilling feet.
But in the noisy ranks you will forget
What is the flag. Oh, comrade, fall aside
And think a little moment of the pride
Of yonder sun, think of the twilight’s net.
The songs we fashion from our new delight
Are echoes. When the first of men sang out,
He shuddered, hearing not alone the shout
Of hills but of the peoples in the night.
And all the marvels that our eyes behold
Are pictures. There has happened some event
For each of them, and this they represent——
Our lives are like a tale that has been told.
There is a palace, and the ruined wall
Divides the sand, a very home of tears,
And where love whispered of a thousand years
The silken-footed caterpillars crawl.
And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek
Of wind is flying through the court of state:
“Here,” it proclaims, “there dwelt a potentate
Who could not hear the sobbing of the weak.”
Beneath our palaces the corner-stone
Is quaking. What of noble we possess,
In love or courage or in tenderness,
Can rise from our infirmities alone.
We suffer—that we know, and that is all
Our knowledge. If we recklessly should strain
To sweep aside the solid rocks of pain,
Then would the domes of love and courage fall.
But there is one who trembles at the touch
Of sorrow less than all of you, for he
Has got the care of no big treasury,
And with regard to wits not overmuch.
I think our world is not a place of rest,
But where a man may take his little ease,
Until the landlord whom he never sees
Gives that apartment to another guest.
Say that you come to life as ’twere a feast,
Prepared to pay whatever is the bill
Of death or tears or——surely, friend, you wilt
Not shrink at death, which is among the least?
Rise up against your troubles, cast away
What is too great for mortal man to bear.
But seize no foolish arms against the share
Which you the piteous mortal have to pay.
Be gracious to the King. You canot feign
That nobody was tyrant, that the sword
Of justice always gave the just award
Before these Ghassanites began to reign.
You cultivate the ranks of golden grain,
He cultivates the cavaliers. They go
With him careering on some other foe,
And your battalions will be staunch again.
The good law and the bad law disappear
Below the flood of custom, or they float
And, like the wonderful Sar’aby coat,
They captivate us for a little year.
God pities him who pities. Ah, pursue
No longer now the children of the wood;
Or have you not, poor huntsman, understood
That somebody is overtaking you?
God is above. We never shall attain
Our liberty from hands that overshroud;
Or can we shake aside this heavy cloud
More than a slave can shake aside the chain?
“There is no God save Allah!”—that is true,
Nor is there any prophet save the mind
Of man who wanders through the dark to find
The Paradise that is in me and you.
The rolling, ever-rolling years of time
Are as a diwan of Arabian song;
The poet, headstrong and supremely strong,
Refuses to repeat a single rhyme.
An archer took an arrow in his hand;
So fair he sent it singing to the sky
That he brought justice down from—ah, so high!
He was an archer in the morning land.
The man who shot his arrow from the west
Made empty roads of air; yet have I thought
Our life was happier until we brought
This cold one of the skies to rule the nest.
Run! follow, follow happiness, the maid
Whose laughter is the laughing waterfall;
Run! call to her—but if no maiden call,
’Tis something to have loved the flying shade.
You strut in piety the while you take
That pilgrimage to Mecca. Now beware,
For starving relatives befoul the air,
And curse, O fool, the threshold you forsake.
How man is made! He staggers at the voice,
The little voice that leads you to the land
Of virtue; but, on hearing the command
To lead a giant army, will rejoice.
Behold the cup whereon your slave has trod;
That is what every cup is falling to.
Your slave—remember that he lives by you,
While in the form of him we bow to God.
The lowliest of the people is the lord
Who knows not where each day to make his bed,
Whose crown is kept upon the royal head
By that poor naked minister, the sword.
Which is the tyrant? say you. Well, ’tis he
That has the vine-leaf strewn among his hair
And will deliver countries to the care
Of courtesans——but I am vague, you see.
The dwellers of the city will oppress
Your days: the lion, a fight-thirsty fool,
The fox who wears the robe of men that rule——
So run with me towards the wilderness.
Our wilderness will be the laughing land,
Where nuts are hung for us, where nodding peas
Are wild enough to press about our knees,
And water fills the hollow of our hand.
My village is the loneliness, and I
Am as the travellers through the Syrian sand,
That for a moment see the warning hand
Of one who breasted up the rock, their spy.
Where is the valiance of the folk who sing
These valiant stories of the world to come?
Which they describe, forsooth! as if it swum
In air and anchored with a yard of string.
Two merchantmen decided they would battle,
To prove at last who sold the finest wares;
And while Mahomet shrieked his call to prayers,
The true Messiah waved his wooden rattle.
Perchance the world is nothing, is a dream,
And every noise the dreamland people say
We sedulously note, and we and they
May be the shadows flung by what we seem.
Zohair the poet sang of loveliness
Which is the flight of things. Oh, meditate
Upon the sorrows of our earthly state,
For what is lovely we may not possess.
Heigho! the splendid air is full of wings,
And they will take us to the——friend, be wise
For if you navigate among the skies
You too may reach the subterranean kings.
Now fear the rose! You travel to the gloom
Of which the roses sing and sing so fair,
And, but for them, you’d have a certain share
In life: your name be read upon the tomb.
There is a tower of silence, and the bell
Moves up—another man is made to be.
For certain years they move in company,
But you, when fails your song do fail as well.
No sword will summon Death, and he will stay
For neither helm nor shield his falling rod.
We are the crooked alphabet of God,
And He will read us ere he wipes away.
How strange that we, perambulating dust,
Should be the vessels of eternal fire,
That such unfading passion of desire
Should be within our fading bodies thrust.
Deep in a silent chamber of the rose
There was a fattened worm. He looked around,
Espied a relative and spoke at him:
It seems to me this world is very good.
A most unlovely world, said brother worm,
For all of us are piteous prisoners.
And if, declared the first, your thought is true,
And this a prison be, melikes it well.
So well that I shall weave a song of praise
And thankfulness because the world was wrought
For us and with such providential care——
My brother, I will shame you into singing.
Then, cried the second, I shall raise a voice
And see what poor apologies are made.
And so they sang, these two, for many days,
And while they sang the rose was beautiful.
But this affected not the songful ones,
And evermore in beauty lived the rose.
And when the worms were old and wiser too,
They fell to silence and humility.
A night of silence! ’Twas the swinging sea
And this our world of darkness. And the twain
Rolled on below the stars; they flung a chain
Around the silences which are in me.
The shadows come, and they will come to bless
Their brother and his dwelling and his fame,
When I shall soil no more with any blame
Or any praise the silence I possess.
Abu al-‘Alā Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sulaimān al-Tanūkhī al-Ma’arri (b. 973, d. 1057) was a blind poet and philosopher. Born in Syria, he lost his sight at an early age due to smallpox. Although he spent most of his life in Syria in his hometown of Ma’arrat al-Numan, he also taught in Baghdad.
He was a skeptic and a rationalist, a keen observer of the human condition, and an advocate for the poor and lowly. Modern doctrinaire Muslims may not find this kind of critical thinking to their taste. But Abu’l-Ala stands out as one of the best thinkers of medieval Islam, and deserves to be better known. This work is composed of selections from his two collections of poetry, The Tinder Spark, and Unnecessary Necessity.