Thursday, March 13th, 2014 9:42 am

Gregor Schoeler, a long-time chair of the University of Basel’s Islamic Studies department (1982-2009), worked together with Geert Jan van Gelder on two volumes of Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī’s The Epistle of Forgiveness (Volume One and Volume Two.) Schoeler, who first translated a small section of the work a half century ago and published a slightly abridged German translation of Part One in 2002, notes that the Epistle has been linked to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Yet, as Schoeler writes, al-Maʿarrī’s description of the hereafter, unlike Dante’s, seems to be shot through with a strong sense of irony. 

Schoeler photo 80x80

In an interview with M. Lynx Qualey, Schoeler talks about how al-Maʿarrī’s irony complicated the translation process and what this work shares—and doesn’t share—with the Commedia.

In a 2010 lecture, you called the Epistle “The Arabic Divine Comedy.” As you and Dr. van Gelder note in the introduction to Volume One, some scholars once believed that the Epistle influenced Dante’s work. But even though this idea has been abandoned, there are still clear parallels between the works. How would you characterize their similarities? In what ways can they be read against one another?

Yes, the notion that Dante was influenced by al-Maʿarrī had to be abandoned. The Epistle of Forgiveness was completely unknown in Europe in Dante’s time.

But al-Maʿarrī’s Epistle and Dante’s Commedia might have had a common Arabic source: The anonymous Kitāb al-Miʿraj, the book of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, widely known in Islam, was available in Dante’s time in several European languages (Old Spanish, Latin and Old French) and was probably known to him. It relates a nightly vision of Muhammad: the archangel Gabriel leads the prophet through the seven heavens and shows him Hell as well.

It would need a separate study to work out the parallels and, especially, the differences between al-Maʿarrī’s and Dante’s works. So, let me just make some general remarks. What the Epistle of Forgiveness and the Commedia have in common, is, of course, the eschatological tourism. Or, to put it more seriously, the journey through—or the vision of—Heaven and Hell and the encounter of the protagonists with the souls of mostly illustrious people.

A main difference is: While Dante’s descriptions of the Hereafter breathe a deeply religious spirit, al-Maʿarrī’s Paradise depicts a kind of Cockaigne—at least in Western perception. It seems to be described very ironically. The Russian scholar Ignatij Kračkovskij even suggested that al-Maʿarrī intended to parody the notion of the Islamic paradise with its streams of wine and black-eyed damsels. Many Muslims, however, reject this reading. The editor of the Arabic text, Bint al-Shāṭiʾ, insists that it contains no attacks against the Muslim religion.

One important parallel between the works is that the souls of the dead are rewarded or punished in the Hereafter according to their deeds in this world. This corresponds to the doctrines of the two monotheistic religions. But even here we find a crucial difference: Dante, in his Commedia, expresses a fundamental belief in divine justice, while al-Maʿarrī, on the contrary, expresses his doubts in a, for me, distressing way. He has one of the condemned souls say: “Some worse people than I have entered Paradise! But it is not everybody’s fortune to be granted forgiveness, it is like wealth in the fleeting world.”

As you note, it’s certain that the work as a whole is brimming with irony. Yet it’s sometimes unclear, on a passage-by-passage level, when al-Maʿarrī is being ironic. Some parts feel clearly ironic or mocking (“may God cheer this region with his [the Sheikh’s] vicinity!” and the frequent “as the Sheikh knows”), while in other sections, I’m not sure if I’m overlaying my 21st century readerly personae. Do we have any sense of how this was read in al-Maʿarrī’s time or by those who came soon after?

The Epistle attracted little attention among al-Maʿarrī’s contemporaries and later pre-modern Arabic authors. The hadith scholar al-Dhahabī (d. 1348) is an exception. He says: “The work contains Mazdakism and irreverence, but there is much erudition in it.” Al-Dhahabī’s attention focused on al-Maʿarrī’s doubtful orthodoxy, but also on his learning and the literary quality of his work. Perhaps this was the reaction as far as the work was received at all.

lal_vangelder_epistleofforgiveness_vol1 copyWhy do you think there has been a marked difference in how Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have read this work?

As we can see with al-Dhahabī, the few Muslims who knew al-Maʿarrī’s work in pre-modern times considered him a heretic because he evidently doubted established religious beliefs or treated them with irony or even with ridicule. Obviously, modern extreme Islamists share this conviction: Remember that al-Maʿarrī’s statue in his birth place Maʿarrat al-Nuʿmān was beheaded in the civil war not long ago.

European scholars, with their different cultural background, have perceived him differently—first among them Reynold A. Nicholson, who brought the Epistle to the attention of an international public. Nicholson got to the heart of the matter when saying that what we nowadays consider “honest doubt” was categorized as “total unbelief” by the Islamic rule of orthodoxy.

Bint al-Shāṭiʾ was a religious Muslim, but she was influenced by Western culture and had adopted the scholarly methods of the West. She devoted a large part of her life to the study of al-Maʿarrī and not only appreciated him as a poet and man of letters, but also held him in high regard as a human. I suppose that she wanted to keep the pure image she had of his personality flawless. As a religious Muslim, she could not admit that the works of her favorite poet contain assaults on Islam.

This work was created as a response to a letter from a little-known grammarian and man of letters in Aleppo. Do you have a sense of how al-Maʿarrī would have imagined the wider audience for his work as he was writing it? Who might have read it in his time? 

The first addressee was, of course, “the Sheikh,” Ibn al-Qarih, a little-known and mediocre man of letters. But Arab authors and poets wrote for a wider audience and in view of later perception. This is the case with al-Mutanabbī’s praise poems. For instance, his qasidas enjoyed enormous wider and later reception. And so did al-Maʿarrī’s philosophical poems.

But his Epistle of Forgiveness reached only a small audience, as can be deduced from the scarce transmission in manuscripts as well as from the few echoes to be heard in biographies and other works dealing with our author.

Can its scarce transmission be taken as evidence that it didn’t resonate with readers during its time? Or simply that it wasn’t widely shared?

Yes, I believe that the scarce transmission is an indication of the Epistle’s marginal resonance. Moreover, there is a catalogue of al-Maʿarrī’s works in the biographical literature; in this catalogue the Epistle is an also-ran. In addition to that, the Epistle was never cited nor discussed in classical Arabic literature, neither in adab (belles-lettres) nor in biographical literature–quite to the contrary of other great works of prose such as Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s Kalila wa-Dimna and some writings by al-Jāḥiẓ.

Dr. van Gelder said that you both initially balked at the idea of translating the full text. What changed your mind about it?

In our first draft, we did indeed cut out most of the passages containing highly specialized grammatical and etymological discussions. They seemed to us to be of little interest for a majority of readers. But then the editors convinced us to translate the complete text. And now we willingly acknowledge that they were right, and we are proud of having produced the first full translation into any language ever and worldwide.

Was a team translation necessary for this particular work? Or did it just happen that way?

Perhaps not necessary, but certainly better. With this extraordinarily difficult text, I would have made many more mistranslations if working alone. Geert Jan assures me that this is also the case for him. In addition, our countless mails not only improved the quality of our translation, but they were also mutually inspiring with regard to the understanding and interpretation of the text.

What makes this work so particularly challenging?  

Many things. For example: The fact that the work, with its fiction of a vision in Part I, was the answer to an epistle that is perhaps not much more than a begging letter; or that it consists of two entirely different parts connected, as to content, only by virtue of their both being an answer to that mediocre letter (the all-pervasive irony being another connecting element); or that it allows for an abundance of interpretations that are all –or may all be– “correct,” as do many of the great works of world literature like Cervantes’ Don Quijote and Goethe’s Faust; or that it is a work full of fiction and fantasy, of irony and humor, but also of skepticism and pessimism; or that, in his Epistle, the author expressed remarkable ideas in vivid and colorful episodes—ideas that came up in the West only after the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or even later.

Dr. Geert Jan van Gelder had written that the interpretation is “hampered by al-Maʿarrī’s pervasive use of irony.” Also, you particularly noted, in the introduction to Volume Two, that it’s “impossible to decide to what extent, if at all, the lengthy section on heresy and heretics is to be read as irony.” Do you lean in one direction or another? 

Let me give an example. In Part I, al-Maʿarrī has the famous early Abbasid poet Bashshār ibn Burd suffer terrible pains in hell. He has Ibn al-Qāriḥ address him thus: “You were excellent as a poet, but bad in your belief.” Without a later remark by al-Maʿarrī, we would probably have misinterpreted this sentence. In Part II, he says in the chapter on the heretics: “I shall not say categorically that he is one of the people of hell-fire… God is forbearing and munificent.”


Al-Maʿarrī himself does not consider Bashshār a dweller in hell. If he seems to in the first part, it’s because there he appears to take Ibn al-Qāriḥ’s point of view. The difficult question is: Are there occurrences of such irony also in the second part, where al-Maʿarrī speaks in his own name? Is our author really convinced of the everlasting damnation of alleged heretics such as Ṣāliḥ ibn ʿAbd al-Quddūs?

I believe al-Maʿarrī was a skeptic. He was swaying between the dogmas prescribed by religion and his own free-thinking rationalist ideas. You can see this from his philosophical poems, the Luzūmiyyāt, where physical resurrection sometimes provokes his irony and sometimes lets him look for reasons to believe in it.

Can reading the Epistle change how we see al-Maʿarrī’s poetry and other works, for instance the Luzūmiyyāt?

It might not change it, but it will certainly round off the picture and add to the understanding. The worldview expressed in the Epistle –rationalism, skepticism, pessimism– corresponds to that of the Luzūmiyyāt; this is also the case with al-Maʿarrī’s ethics, especially his sense of justice and compassion with the suffering creature. But while his poems are kept grey and drab, the Epistle is colorful; in the Epistle, the thoughts that are expressed in the Luzūmiyyāt in an abstract way are conveyed in lively scenes and colorful episodes. Just think of the poor women and animals in the Epistle, who had a miserable life on earth, but are compensated for their sufferings with a place in paradise.

In 26.6, al-Maʿarrī writes on collaborative authorship, “a thing very difficult to achieve among humans.” How did your collaborative translating process work? Was it a thing very difficult to achieve?

Collaborative authorship was very rare in pre-modern Islam and correspondingly experience was scarce. Today things have changed and there are many examples for productive cooperation; the brothers Grimm, for example, and their collection of fairy tales, or, in science, Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner who discovered nuclear fission. Geert Jan’s and my cooperation was not very difficult to achieve, also thanks to electronic communication.

Geert Jan sent me his English version for which he had taken my German translation into consideration. I checked his text twice word by word, and returned it to him with my suggestions. Then we discussed the suggestions thoroughly and almost always came to an agreement.

This must have been a tremendous challenge, both to interpret and to translate. Were there moments that were unexpectedly enjoyable? 

There were many enjoyable moments, whether expected or not. One was when I realized that in Geert Jan I had met the ideal collaborator. As for another, let me perhaps relate a very touching moment nearly 50 years ago. I was a young student and had just heard about al-Maʿarrī’s Epistle in a seminar. I then translated an episode without any help from my professor and without knowing that partial English and French translations existed. It was the episode of the tree of damsels, to me still the most witty and intriguing passage of the two parts. When I actually succeeded in this translation, this was a noteworthy moment. I then wished that I eventually would get the chance to translate the complete work. This wish has now been fulfilled, which fills me with great joy.