Critique of Religions and Notions of Freethinking in al-Ma'arri's Luzumiyyat.

Doctoral Defense
Open to the Public
Nador u. 9, Monument Building
Senate Room
Friday, May 18, 2018 - 10:00am
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Friday, May 18, 2018 - 10:00am to 12:00pm

Summary of the Doctoral Dissertation


My dissertation is a study of the eleventh-century Syrian writer Abū'l 'Alā' al-Ma'arrī (d.1058) and his diwan entitled Luzūm mā lā yalzam (The Necessity of what is not Necessary). By historical contextualization and with the revision of analytical terms of reference previously applied to the study of al-Ma‘arrī and his Luzūm, the research aimed to enhance our understating of both al-Ma’arrī and the general dynamics of the period in which the poet lived and worked. Previous studies of Luzūm had shared the general assumption that a uniform, pietistic religious culture was the central driving force of society, even prior to the formal institutionalization of ‘ulamā’ under the Seljuqs, Ayyubids, and Mamluks. Most of these studies also assumed that, at the time of al-Ma‘arrī, the dynamics of the cultural and intellectual life were entirely driven by the rigid dichotomy between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy. Finally, previous studies, inattentive to and perhaps intolerant towards to any sort of incoherence, dissonance, paradox, and confusion, ended up presenting reductive — and, as a result, often superficial— studies of Luzūm. As a result, al-Ma‘arrī has been presented as an eccentric alien and a complete outsider to his age. Likewise, Luzūm has been presented as a completely unconventional work.

One aim of this dissertation was to reassess the meaning and the value of contradictions in Luzūm through a study of ambivalence. While it is true that, in terms of its literary features, Luzūm is unconventional in some ways, its contradictory content does not really make it so odd. Demonstrated through a close reading of the text in light of these contradictions, especially those regarding matters of faith and religion, this work has shown that Luzūm is not as foreign or strange to its time as had once been assumed. Al-Ma’arrī wrote Luzūm at a time of great cultural and religious diversity, intellectual pluralism, and epistemological, political and normative anxieties. In matters of faith and religion al-Ma‘arrī deliberately remained ambivalent in order to underline doubt, anxiety, and confusion over certainty. In fact, any statement of certainty in matters of faith and religion was severely rebuked by al-Ma‘arrī. In the midst of competing truths and orthodoxies, al-Ma‘arrī, through determined ambivalence and through affirmation and negation of the same concept at the same time, positioned himself against all kinds of certain and categorical conclusions. Al-Ma‘arrī’s Luzūm was therefore directly informed by the heated intellectual and religious debates of the day — which, to his mind, led nowhere. In this regard, Luzūm must be seen as a genuine reflection of the intellectual and political environment in which it was created. It was neither as alien, nor as inappropriate to its age, as scholars have often suggested.

Another aim of this dissertation was to provide some understanding of al-Ma‘arr’s freethinking. In modern scholarship there have been two major trends in assessing al-Ma‘arrī’s religious thought. One presents al-Ma‘arrī as a nonbeliever, a freethinker like Ibn ar-Rāwandī and Abū Bakr ar-Rāzī, who practiced dissimulation, taqīya because of the threat of persecution, and to therefore concealed his unbelief by contradictions. The other trend, however, presents al-Ma‘arrī as a sincere and pious believer. This dissertation has shown that, in regards to the context of al-Ma‘arrī and the milieu in which Luzūm was composed, notions involving dissimulation, including taqīya, concealed writing, and sincerity are not apt analytical tools.

These are the ideas that were proposed in this dissertation. In the first chapter, in order to contextualize my ensuing analysis of the Luzūm, I presented the intellectual, religious, and political states present in al-Ma‘arrī’s time. I also offered a survey of al-Ma‘arrī’s biography, works, networks, standing, and reputation. What resulted from this were some key observations. First, there were two main factors that reinforced a sense of doubt and confusion in al-Ma’arrī’s work. One was his short stay in Baghdad and, as a result, his immersion in the rich cultural life of the cosmopolitan capital. The other was the constant political instability in North Syria, which provided yet another cause for his anxieties. Second, with regard to his oeuvre, this chapter showed how admonitory and didactic works constituted a large portion of his corpus. Some of his epistles are also distinct due to their interplay of humor, irony, and sarcasm. It is clear that Luzūm is not al-Ma’arrī's only work with severe stylistic and formal constraints, as he applied rigid compositional rules to many of his works. Third, although al-Ma‘arrī wasan ascetic, he was also an active member of society, as can be seen through his teaching and writing. His social network consisted of students from a myriad of intellectual backgrounds and from different parts of the Islamicate world, men of authority, and people from his hometown of Ma‘arrat an-Nu‘mān. Fourth, in regards to al-Ma‘arrī’s possible affiliation to shi‘i trends, it was shown that, even if at one point the poet welcomed some Ismā‘ilī or Qarmāṭī teachings, in the end he denied the legitimacy of all of them. Finally, this chapter showed that, next to his fame as a poet and prose-writer, al-Ma‘arrī did in fact have the reputation of being an unbeliever during his life-time.

The second chapter was dedicated to the analysis of some ofthe literary aspects of Luzūm. I have argued that al-Ma‘arrī composed Luzūm not only for instructive and didactic purposes for his students, but also in order to receive distinction and acknowledgement of his virtuosity. Al-Ma‘arrī exceeded the exigenciesthe traditional ways of writing poetry and applied extraordinary rules of versification and prosody that would ultimately exhibit his literary skills and excellence. The mannerist desire to strike and impress stood behind the creative dynamics of Luzūm. For al-Ma’arrī, language was the only medium where order and certainty could be established. He shows this through Luzūmas well as through his many other works that contain complex and exigent formal rigidity. While order and consistency through the medium of language can be demonstrated through verbal mannerism, confusion and anxiety can be demonstrated through the mannerism of angst caused by tension, contradictions, and ambivalence.

It is at this point that this dissertation shifts from the context and form of Luzūm to a critical examination of the notions of belief and unbelief, which are significant themes present in the text. The third chapter presented a general survey of some of the essential aspects necessary to the study of unbelief and freethinking. This showed that, despite a temporal gap, there are similar - if not identical — sets of moods, motifs, and patterns present in both the European and ‘Abbasid histories of unbelief and freethinking, which make the use of comparisons legitimate. Further, there are possible links and channels between the two, as can be seen in the Book of the Three Imposters. I speculated on the possibility that al-Ma‘arrī might have been a link in this chain, especially when we consider the scope of his Andalusian network. This chapter also stressed that the consideration of taqīya, sincerity, and persecution cannot support any analytical contention if they are not properly related to both text and context. All of the previous analyses of Luzūm have failed to maintain this relationship between text and context, which has resulted in extremely reductive readings and definitions. This chapter argued that using ambivalence as a main interpretative tool in analyzing al-Ma‘arrī’s Luzūm, and also in matters of belief and unbelief, supports a reading that provides a proper space for the presence of contradictions, doubt, and uncertainly. This also provides a more nuanced understanding of al-Ma‘arrī’s freethinking, which becomes apparent through moods rather than argumentative statements and does not have any imposing tone as is the case with other freethinkers. This chapter has also argued that, while reading Luzūm, attention must be paid to its polemical content, specifically to situational statements made against other religions and sects and their teachings. Statements that show adherence to Muslim teachings and preference to a generic Islam over other religions are neither occasioned by taqīya, nor do they necessarily express sincere belief in Islam, as has been suggested by contemporary scholars. These were, instead, denominational and generic statements with a specific polemical purpose.

The fourth chapter provided a detailed analysis of the notions of God, revelation, and reason in Luzūm in the light of ambivalent attitude al-Ma‘arrī expressed towards them. It was shown that al-Ma‘arrī displayed significant ambivalence towards notions of God which,