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The Epistle of Forgiveness

The Epistle of Forgiveness: Volume Two: Hypocrites, Heretics, and Other Sinners

Geert Jan van Gelder
Gregor Schoeler
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    The Epistle of Forgiveness
    Book Description:

    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-Ma'arri (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-Ma'arri - 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. Geert Jan van Gelderwas Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford from 1998 to 2012. He is the author of several books on classical Arabic literature, includingBeyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the PoemandOf Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic Literary Representations of Food. Gregor Schoelerwas the chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Basel from 1982 to 2009. His books in the fields of Islamic Studies and classical Arabic literature includeThe Oral and the Written in Early Islam, andParadies und Holle, a partial German translation of The Epistle of Forgiveness.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6896-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. viii-ix)
  3. Abbreviations used in the Introduction and Translation
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xiii)

    At the end of the first part of al-Maʿarrī’sEpistle of Forgivenessthe 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 theEpistlefamous, 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 hisHistory: thisMuqaddimahorIntroductionhas become...

  5. Notes to the Introduction
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  6. The Epistle of Forgiveness

    • On Hypocrisy
      (pp. 2-15)

      I have understood the Sheikh’s words, “may God make me his ransom”;¹ he does not intend to be a hypocrite in saying this. Mankind is far from being in agreement; yet this² is a natural trait by which the Sheikh is distinguished from others. People coexist by means of deceit; they have come to invent novel ways of lying. If Queen Shīrīn had said to Kisrā, “May God make me your ransom, whether you are staying here or traveling,” she would be merely have been beguiling him and dissembling, no matter how much she pleased him with her unadorned beauty...

    • The Sheikh’s Return to Aleppo
      (pp. 16-35)

      The Sheikh mentioned that he arrived in Aleppo—may God protect it! If it possessed reason it would have rejoiced at his arrival just as a bereaved crone who has lost her wits rejoices, a woman who has neglected the good management and care of her camels. Her only son has gone far away. He has not denied her what is due to her, and then returns after many years, and then she quenches, through him, her burning thirst. She was to him like a flat-nosed oryx cow grazing with her calf in the late afternoon. The calf was not...

    • Heretics, Apostates, and Impious Poets
      (pp. 36-121)

      As for the Sheikh’s quotation of Abū l-Ṭayyib’s verse:

      I blame the little people of these times118

      the man was fond of using the diminutive,119not being content merely with what a raider snatches away, as when he says:

      Who can help me make the little people of these days understand, who claim that a Bāqil among them can compute with Indian numerals?120


      Little darling of my heart! O my heart, my heart! Ah, Juml!121


      … My addressing that little moron with “O wise one!”122


      That little servant slept at night, when we…123


      Must I carry...

    • Old Age, Grave Sins, Pilgrimages, and Sincere Repentence
      (pp. 122-187)

      As for the Sheikh’s reference to his old age,405God (praised be He!) has created gall as well as honey, a desire for the Fleeting World as well as abstemiousness from it. When an intelligent person looks at it closely he sees that life only draws him to harm and drives his body onward on its course. Even he who stays in one place is like a traveler: divine decrees never confirm him in one state. A morning smiles or an evening, but he does not abide with either for long. Day and night are like rapacious wolves, and one’s...

    • The Stolen Dinars and the Number Eighty
      (pp. 188-216)

      I was pleased that the Sheikh’s dinars were returned to him.656They are helpers; their various kinds resemble one another. People have duties toward them; they can be devoted if (other people’s) disobedience is feared. ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ said to Muʿāwiyah: “I dreamed that the Resurrection had begun; you were brought while sweat was ‘bridling’ you!”657Muʿāwiyah replied, “Did you see there any of the dinars of Egypt?”658

      No doubt these dinars of the Sheikh were from “the dinars of Egypt” that did not come from the common people but from princes and they were not the bride-price for a...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 217-271)
  8. Glossary
    (pp. 272-292)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 293-304)
  10. Concordance with Risālat al-Ghufrān, 9th edition, edited by Bint al-Shāṭiʾ
    (pp. 305-312)
  11. فهرس القوافي
    (pp. 313-329)
  12. Index
    (pp. 330-343)
  13. About the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute
    (pp. 344-344)
  14. About the Typefaces
    (pp. 345-345)
  15. About the Editor-Translators
    (pp. 346-346)