The Epistle of Forgiveness or: A Pardon to Enter the Garden - Vol. 2

The Epistle of Forgiveness or: A Pardon to Enter the Garden - Vol. 2

The Epistle of Forgiveness or: A Pardon to Enter the Garden - Vol. 2

The Epistle of Forgiveness or: A Pardon to Enter the Garden - Vol. 2


One of the most unusual books in classical Arabic literature, The Epistle of Forgiveness is the lengthy reply by the prolific Syrian poet and prose writer, Abu l-Ala al-Maarri (d. 449 H/1057 AD), to a letter by an obscure grammarian, Ibn al-Qarih. With biting irony, The Epistle of Forgiveness mocks Ibn al-Qarih’s hypocrisy and sycophancy by imagining he has died and arrived with some difficulty in Heaven, where he meets famous poets and philologists from the past. He also glimpses Hell, and converses with the Devil and various heretics. Al-Maarri—a maverick, a vegan, and often branded a heretic himself—seems to mock popular ideas about the Hereafter.

This second volume is a point-by-point reply to Ibn al-Qarih’s letter using al-Ma?arri’s characteristic mixture of erudition, irony, and admonition, enlivened with anecdotes and poems. Among other things, he writes about hypocrites; heretical poets, princes, rebels, and mystics; apostates; piety; superstition; the plight of men of letters; collaborative authorship; wine-drinking; old age; repentance; pre-Islamic pilgrimage customs; and money. This remarkable book is the first complete translation in any language, all the more impressive because of al-Ma?arri’s highly ornate and difficult style, his use of rhymed prose, and numerous obscure words and expressions.


At the end of the first part of al-Maʿarrī’s Epistle of Forgiveness the author says that he has been “long-winded in this part. Now we shall turn to reply to the letter.” in other words, Part One is merely the introduction to the proper answer to Ibn al-Qāriḥ’s letter. This introduction is in fact what made the Epistle famous, the part that has received the lion’s share and more of the attention of critics and translators. One is reminded of the even lengthier introduction that Ibn Khaldūn wrote several centuries later to his History: this Muqaddimah or Introduction has become a seminal text, one of the great achievements in the intellectual history of the world.

Part One of the Epistle of Forgiveness is a text about the idea of forgiveness, cast in the shape of an imaginary narrative in which the protagonist is, unusually, neither a fictional persona nor a thinly disguised version of the author, but the addressee and recipient of the Epistle, Ibn al-Qāriḥ, “the Sheikh.” in Part Two al-Maʿarrī turns directly to Ibn al-Qāriḥ’s somewhat rambling letter, commenting on it point by point, topic by topic, in the order in which they appear in the letter. As a result, Part Two is equally rambling, jumping from item to item, without the overarching narrative and the more or less unified theme (in spite of all its digressions) of Part One.

One of al-Maʿarrī’s prominent methods in responding to Ibn al-Qāriḥ’s letter is to treat the points made by Ibn al-Qāriḥ with profound and pervading irony, for it is rather obvious that, just as in Part One, the writer is mocking his correspondent. This begins right at the start: when al-Maʿarrī declares the Sheikh to be free of hypocrisy we can be certain that he means exactly the opposite of what he is saying. Much of the rest of the point-by-point reply should be read in the same light. When he objects to the Sheikh’s praise by playing down his own learning, one suspects that he was not unaware of his superior erudition. the clearest instance of mockery is the passage in which he ponders the Sheikh’s potential prowess on the marriage market, if he were to seek a mature spouse in the prime of life. It is impossible to decide to what extent, if at all, the lengthy section on heresy and heretics is to be read as irony. Abū l-ʿAlāʾ is a master of dissembling.

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