The Epistle of Forgiveness or A Pardon to Enter the Garden - Vol. 1

The Epistle of Forgiveness or A Pardon to Enter the Garden - Vol. 1

The Epistle of Forgiveness or A Pardon to Enter the Garden - Vol. 1

The Epistle of Forgiveness or A Pardon to Enter the Garden - Vol. 1


Known as “one of the most complex and unusual texts in Arabic literature” (Banipal Magazine), The Epistle of Forgiveness is the lengthy reply by the prolific Syrian poet and prose writer, Abu l-'Ala' al-Ma'arri (d. 449 H/1057 AD), to a letter by an obscure grammarian, Ibn al-Qari. With biting irony, The Epistle of Forgiveness mocks Ibn al-Qari’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. In al-Maarri’s imaginative telling, Ibn al-Qari also glimpses Hell and converses with the Devil and various heretics. Al-Ma'arri—a maverick, a vegan, and often branded a heretic himself—seems to mock popular ideas about the Hereafter. Among other things, he introduces us to hypocrites, poets, princes, rebels, mystics, and apostates, with asides on piety, superstition, wine-drinking, old age, and other topics. This remarkable book is the first complete translation of this masterpiece into any language, all the more impressive because of Al-Ma'arri's highly ornate and difficult style, his use of rhymed prose, and his numerous obscure words and expressions. Replete with erudite commentary, amusing anecdotes, and sardonic wit, The Epistle of Forgiveness is an imaginative tour-de-force by one of the most pre-eminent figures in classical Arabic literature.


The lengthy, mocking reply by a cantankerous maverick, obsessed with lexicography and grammar, to a rambling, groveling, and self-righteous letter by an obscure grammarian and mediocre stylist: this does not sound, prima facie, like a masterwork to be included in a series of Arabic classics. It is even doubtful whether it firmly belongs to the canonical works of Arabic literature. The maverick author, Abu l-?Ala? al-Ma?arri, was certainly famous, or infamous, as we shall see, but in the entry on him in the biographical dictionary by Ibn Khallikan (d. 681/1282), who calls him the author of “many famous compositions and widely known epistles,” the present work is not even mentioned; in the very long entry on him in a somewhat earlier, similar work by Yaqut (d. 626/1229) it is merely listed in a long list of works, without commentary. It is true that the same Yaqut has an entry on the rather obscure author of the original letter, the grammarian Ibn al-Qari?, whom he describes as “the one who wrote a wellknown letter to Abu l-?Ala?, known as ‘the Epistle of Ibn al-Qari?’,” which suggests that Abu l-?Ala?’s reply was famous. However, the work is not often mentioned or discussed in pre-modern times, unlike Abu l-?Ala?’s poetry.

As happens occasionally in the history of Arabic literature, the Risalat al-Ghufran (The Epistle of Forgiveness), owes its present fame mostly to the rediscovery in modern times, by a western Arabist. Reynold A. Nicholson, in a letter to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, describes a collection of manuscripts gathered by his grandfather, to which, as he writes, “I would call special attention, because it is, as I believe, a genuine work, hitherto unknown and undescribed, of the famous blind poet and man of letters, Abu ’l ?Ala al-Ma?arri.” Over the following few years, between 1900 and 1902, he published a partial edition with a summary and at times paraphrasing translation of the contents in a series of articles in the same journal. The Epistle’s subsequent rise to fame is mainly due to the fact that it seemed to prefigure Dante’s Commedia Divina and that misguided attempts were made to prove the influence of the Arabic work on the Italian. This thesis has now been abandoned and one can appreciate Risalat al-Ghufran in its own right.

The earliest appearance of al-Ma?arri in Arabic literature is found in a work by a contemporary, one of the greatest anthologists of Arabic literature, al-Tha?alibi (d. 429/1038). In the supplement to his Yatimat al-dahr, he quotes a certain poet, Abu l-?asan al-Dulafi al-Ma??isi, who told him:

In Ma?arrat al-Nu?man I came across a true marvel. I saw a blind man, a witty
poet, who played chess and backgammon, and who was at home in every genre
of seriousness and jesting. He was called Abu l-?Ala?. I heard him say, “I praise God
for being blind, just as others praise Him for being able to see. He did me a favor
and did me a good turn by sparing me the sight of boring and hateful people.”

Our author is usually called Abu l-?Ala? al-Ma?arri, the first part (literally “Father of Loftiness”) not being a teknonym in this case—for he never had children— but an added honorific name or nickname, and the second part derived from his place of birth, Ma?arrat al-Nu?man, or al-Ma?arrah for short, a town in northern Syria, between Aleppo and Homs. The medieval biographical dictionaries, usually arranged alphabetically, list him under his given name, A?mad, and supply not only the name of his father, ?Abd Allah, and grandfather, Sulayman, but also some twenty to thirty further generations, tracing him back to the legendary realm of pre-Islamic Arab genealogy; he belonged to the famous tribal confederation called Tanukh, entitling him to the epithet al-Tanukhi. He was born toward sunset on Friday, 27 Rabi? Awwal, 363 (26 December AD 973) in a respectable family of religious scholars and judges. At the age of four he lost his eyesight due to smallpox. He made up for this disability by having a truly prodigious memory, about which several anecdotes are related; apparently he had the aural equivalent of a photographic memory and he stood out in a milieu that was already accustomed to memorization on a large scale. His blindness meant that . . .

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