“Freethinker,” “atheist,” “skeptic,” “agnostic,” “humanist,” “pious” are all epithets ascribed to the eleventh-century Syrian blind poet Abu’l-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri. In the midst of the Syrian civil war, his name was actively circulated in the Western media after the salafis of Jabhat an-Nusra beheaded the bust of the poet which stood in his hometown Ma‘arrat an-Nu‘man not far from Aleppo.
Writing in jest and earnest, wavering between piety and blasphemy and between humanist sentiments and incurable pessimism, al-Ma‘arri provoked contradictory interpretations and earned an ambiguous reputation both during his lifetime and in posterity. A staunch heretic for some, he is a symbol of the glorious Arab past, rationalism, and modernity for others. Al-Ma‘arri’s literary excellence and philological skills however secured for him an undeniable scholarly authority.
After providing a brief overview of the time and milieu al-Ma‘arri lived in and of the main features of his oeuvre, the lecture will focus on one of the most complex works of the poet – the collection of poems entitled Luzumiyyat where glorification and vilification of God, approval and denial of prophecy and religion, enunciations of rationalism and fatalism are followed by each other. Why to produce such a dense discourse of dissonance and contradictions? Was this kind of writing deliberate and how was it received? The lecture will focus on these questions bringing to the scene some major aspects of previous readings of Luzumiyyat both in the past and in modern times.
Sona Grioryan is at the final stage of her doctoral research in the Department of Medieval Studies at Central European University. Her dissertation largely explores notions of freethinking, unbelief and critique of religion during the Abbasid period. More specifically she deals with the religious thought of the Syrian poet Abu’l-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri (d.1058) and explores the relationship of writing and authority. Sona earned her first MA degree in Islamic studies from the Yerevan State University. She completed her second MA in the Department of Medieval Studies at CEU working on the anti-Christian polemics of the famous fourteenth-century Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyya. She was twice a research fellow at the Orient Institut-Beirut and an Erasmus student at the University of Münster.