Originally published on the Library of Arabic Literature blog, republished with permission.
Dr. Tom Shakespeare recently did a five-part series on “The Genius of Disability” for BBC Radio 3, with the first radio essay in the series focusing on the blind poet and writer Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, whose The Epistle of Forgiveness was recently edited and translated, in two volumes, by Geert Jan van Gelder and Gregor Schoeler for the Library of Arabic Literature.
Shakespeare is a sociologist focused on disability studies who currently lectures at the Norwich Medical School and is also keenly interested in disability arts. His interest in al-Maʿarrī began with a post on his blog, “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” where he writes about disabled people of consequence throughout history—that led to more reading and research, and the essay on Radio 3.
For the blog, Shakespeare talks about how he engages with al-Maʿarrī’s work through the contemporary lens of disability and how he hopes the LAL volumes “are the beginning of a longer engagement with him,” as, with the new translations, “suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.”
How did “The Genius of Disability” originate, and how did you settle on profiling al-Maʿarrī?
Tom Shakespeare: The background is that I have been running this blog for a number of years called “Our Statures Touch the Skies,” which is a quotation from Emily Dickinson. And what I wanted to do was write short biographies of famous disabled people.
I think that people need to know that disabled people have made all sorts of contributions throughout history. So, I was doing this blog, and one of my colleagues at the WHO [World Health Organization] was an Iranian psychologist, Taghi Yasamy. I was telling him about my blog and he said: “Obviously you should do al-Maʿarrī.”
I wrote the entry on the blog and, fastforward a couple of years, Radio 3 accepted a proposal to do five broadcasts. And I wanted to cover a range. I wanted men, women. I wanted a range of art forms. And, particularly, I wanted a range of impairments.
Al-Maʿarrī speaks to us today in a way that many more orthodox Muslim thinkers may not: he was a vegan, he was a pacifist, he was a freethinker, he was a skeptic. By including him, not only was I saying, Look, somebody with visual impairment can be at the forefront of the poetic tradition. But also that somebody from the Muslim tradition can be a freethinker and challenge our idea of what Islam includes.
[In 2013, Syria’s] al-Nusra Front beheaded a statue of al-Maʿarrī. So a thousand years after he lived and worked, he’s still a threat. This presumably fairly frail, old, blind guy, who lived to the age of eighty-something, and all he did was write poems—this poet was a challenge to the orthodoxy then and now.
As you read through his body of work in translation, were you able to connect with the poems and prose as much as with his personal story?
TS: The truth is that I could connect with the ideas, but the actual poetry was harder to connect with, and I think that’s because the versions I was reading were by Reynold Nicholson, who obviously was this pioneering Arabist of the first half of the 20th century, so credit to him. But I don’t think he was a great poet himself. So what we read is in that slightly stilted early 20th-century style and so it was difficult for me to connect with it as poetry. Some of it more than others.
What’s really helpful about the new volumes of The Epistle of Forgiveness is that they’re very modern and you can read it as a story. It’s fresh. And suddenly you can experience this tenth, eleventh century writer as if he was here.
I really hope that what’s been done with his prose, in The Epistle of Forgiveness, is also done with the collections Tinder Box and with The Unnecessary Necessities. Because I think that would bring this poet to a much wider audience.
I know that it’s not true to say that The Epistle of Forgiveness inspired Dante, but there is a comparison in that previous translations of Dante have been somewhat cumbersome. And then you get a fresh translation, by a poet, and suddenly it comes alive. And I think it’s the same with al-Maʿarrī. We have to have a translation for our own contemporary time.
Of course, there are poems in this prose [of The Epistle of Forgiveness], and they come out much better than they ever did before. What I hope is that these volumes reach beyond scholars of Islam or the Arab world. We need an accessible volume of the prose and the poetry. He can certainly appeal to a much wider audience.
The idea that this poet is writing in the eleventh century! Now, I studied Old English at Cambridge, and I read Beowulf, and I read other works of that time, and they are nowhere near the sophistication and the philosophical and dramatic interest of these writings. I think it’s a shame that we don’t hear more of these sorts of poets and prose writers in our Western tradition.
It’s interesting to think about al-Maʿarrī in this category, “disabled,” which as you point out is a very recent one. As you said in your radio essay, he would’ve been viewed differently in his time. How do you think looking at him through the lens of “disability” or “blindness” can help us see him afresh or connect to his work?
TS: It’s interesting: Immediately you’re using a visual metaphor, “looking at his work through that lens.” That’s an example of the way that all our language is taken up with visual metaphors. I think it’s an interesting question: What does it do to us? Maybe we might look at his metaphors. Maybe we might look at his language and descriptions, and maybe we might say: How many times does he use a visual metaphor? We can ask, as critics and readers, questions based on our knowledge of him. I think that what’s really interesting is that he would’ve memorized vast amounts of the poetic tradition.
He must’ve composed huge strands of poetry or prose in his head. I think he had four or five amanuenses who he dictated to. He had many, many students, and people came to study with him from all over the place. We know that various later scholars were trained by him.
I don’t know the extent to which [blindness] informs his works in a very direct sense. Other people I’ve written about—for instance there’s Virginia Woolf, who had depression, and I think you can say that that’s informed her work. With other writers, their physicality or their mental state doesn’t necessarily directly inform their work, but it does say something about the state in which the work was composed.
What’s interesting is that his prose and his poetry are very technically complex. So we have here an extraordinarily scholarly person who couldn’t read any of that, but he must have had at his disposal an immense range of references.
Maybe when you are blind or you lack a sense, you concentrate on other parts of your sensory apparatus. I think this is very commonly the case, that people who are restricted actually go much deeper with what they have left.
If he wasn’t blind, he wouldn’t be the poet he was. I’m almost certain of that.
You said, in an interesting short moment in the radio program, “I imagine his needs were met.” That would’ve been key.
TS: Yes, he was a man who was very venerated. He came from quite a noble family, so that would’ve been a help. I suspect he put his hand on someone’s shoulder, and he wandered around and was guided by somebody.
He lived to the age of 84, and when he died, apparently, 80-some poets created poems in his honor. This guy would’ve been rather a celebrity. He’d written a considerable amount of poetry and intervened in the political debates of the day. He’s a really fascinating figure and of course remains famous to this day. And he did all this despite beyond blind.
We also know that right at the core of the Islamic tradition, there is an acceptance and an inclusion of blindness, which must’ve helped.
How would you place al-Maʿarrī’s disability in a context of how blindness is and was seen elsewhere? You said it’s often, across places and times, been seen as a blessing.
TS: Yes, it often has been. Obviously, Homer is said to have been blind, and I don’t know if he actually was, but that’s the tradition. And some of the Old Testament prophets were said to have been blind. It’s almost like a trope that blindness doesn’t stop you, that people with blindness maybe even have additional insight. There’s almost like a special status. Right up to the present day, blind people have had a special status which other disabled people haven’t had. And sometimes blind people don’t want to be lumped in with everybody else because they might lose of their specialness.
On your blog, you wrote, “Throughout history, disability has led to isolation, either because people are excluded and shunned by their community, or else because their mobility or communication problems make it hard for them to participate. The upside of isolation can be a blossoming of creativity …” Did you see evidence of this in al-Maʿarrī’s case?
TS: I don’t think disabled people have always been excluded and shunned. I think they often have been. But on the blog, I talk about a lot of people from different eras who did manage to be accepted and included, and I think you have to be quite exceptional to manage that. If [al-Maʿarrī] had been a kid who’d gone blind at the age of four and had not shown any particular talent, we obviously would never have heard of him, and his life might’ve been far more short and brutal. But the fact was, at an early age, he showed that he had something to offer.
If you are disabled, you’re much more likely to have fallen by the wayside, to have not been able to make a contribution, to have been excluded. Unless you had a particular talent, in which case there are these few people in history who, because of their abilities or talent, do survive and do make a contribution and are remembered.
For example, on my blog, I talk about an Egyptian called Seneb. We only know about him because there’s this funerary monument, and it’s wonderful, and he’s a dwarf. And we have this beautiful rendering. He’s a little guy and he’s sitting on a bench next to his average-height wife and his two children. And he’s a civil servant in the pharaoh’s household, and he clearly lived, thrived, survived, had a happy life, was accepted and venerated. And you think, well, isn’t that great. And every now and then, you get a figure like this. But they’re not many and we must think that disability was actually very common.
We don’t hear from 99.99 percent of them, but every now and then, in the pages of history, we find that despite whatever ailed them, they were nurtured and did thrive. We can’t be sort of Pollyanna-ish and think that maybe it wasn’t a problem. It was a problem. But every now and then, disabled people managed to overcome the obstacles and make a major contribution. And he’s one of them.
I think from a Disability Studies point of view, and a Disability History point of view, it behooves us to remember, celebrate, and popularize these people. Because otherwise we end up with some glib assumption that, ‘Oh, it was always impossible, oh there was never hope for people.’ When that’s not quite true.
And today [it’s much the same]: one third of the children out of school are disabled. If you are blind in Syria today, or in many parts of the Arab world, you’d have real trouble getting an education. You would be at risk of exclusion. There are blind people who flourish, of course, but they’re facing additional barriers today as they would’ve done then.
You found evidence of al-Maʿarrī’s blindness possibly affecting his relationship to the body, for instance in, “The Body is Your Vase”?
“What matters is inside,” is what it says. It’s not that he ignores it completely, but he’s not defined by it. Disability was different in those days. It wouldn’t have been a sense of identity. If you were a modern American poet with a disability, that would be part of your identity, and you would probably talk about it. You would probably affiliate with other disabled people. It would be part of your makeup. It might not be the theme of your work, but you would have made a conscious choice to avoid it. Whereas in those days, it was just one of those things. God had sent you an ailment, and it was up to you to deal with that.
What do you hope next for al-Maʿarrī’s work?
I hope that these volumes are the beginning of a longer engagement with him. I sincerely hope that more of the poetry will be translated and that these efforts that the publishers have made will lead to a wider appreciation of his work. If my small little broadcast is part of that, I’m really, really pleased.
Interested in reading more? The Epistle of Forgiveness: Volumes One and Two is now available in paperback. 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.