Ahmad Reza Taheri

I often come to the conclusion that there can be at least one notable difference between philosophers and poets. This difference might not be much felt in the secular societies. It comes to light particularly in the authoritative religious societies where obedience to the ruling institution (religion) or tradition is strongly enforced. This difference can be drawn when both “philosopher” and “poet” are involved in similar fields of knowledge or edification.

The fields of knowledge in question are confined to the domains of religion and philosophy. These fields, for example, can be “pantheism” a belief that god and the material world are one and god is present in everything; “deism” a belief that god does exist but does not interfere with the human life and the laws of the universe; “agnosticism” a belief that it is impossible to know whether or not god exists; and “atheism” disbelief in the existence of god. These are some of the study areas that skeptical philosophers and poets quite often express their opinions in diverse, unusual ways.

In the societies of our concern, those philosophers who believe in agnosticism or atheism and attempt to publicize such theories may face the wrath of the locals. This is usual to any religious society where majority believe in divine laws rather than secular laws. Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) perhaps is a good example. He was found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of impiety. He was finally sentenced to death. Epicurus (300 BC) can be cited as another example. He advocated that the cosmos was governed by the laws of chance without divine intervention. According to him, the gods do not punish the bad and reward the good as the common man believes. The teachings of Epicurus were severely criticized and attacked by other school of thoughts such as Stoicism. Of the modern times, Karl Marx (1818 –1883) is a notable example. He is not welcomed by the religious people, mainly because of his attack on religion. Marx believed that “religion is the opium of the masses.”

There are many other identical instances. Every society does have small number of like-minded philosophers. The moment they make themselves known to the public, they will be exposed to danger.

But, the question is that does the safety of a poet with comparable views equally will be endangered?

I don’t think so. A poet can be an artist. The poets, unlike the philosophers, often are complex and problematic (in their poetic expressions). The poets are so artful that it makes difficult to understand their real inclinations toward gods and religions. There are widely divergent views on the prominent poets. The poems of a poet would be prone to different interpretations. In this regard, one may not be able to appropriately classify the poets. It is a difficult task. The poets apparently present themselves on behalf of every school of thought. One can sense individualism, materialism, socialism, spiritualism, and mysticism in the works of skeptical poets.

But, philosophers can be characterized and recognized easier. It is owing to the fact that in comparison with poets, philosophers express themselves in black and white. The poets, by contrast, are intricate and enigmatic. The poetic expressions can take on many meanings and interpretations. Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), for example, can be taken as a good case. Khayyam’s personal beliefs are not known with certainty. Many from different religions admire his works. Although some of his poems are not Islamic, they are pretty well welcomed in the Islamic world. Actually, there is a spectrum of opinions about Khayyam. At one end of the spectrum, Muslims are proud of him, regarding Khayyam as a Sufi. At the other end of the spectrum, he is seen as an agnostic, skeptical or perhaps atheist.

The poem “enjoy wine and women, the earthly world is momentary and will end into nothing. Khayyam, to the world your presence does not matter, as if you don’t exist. Thus, enjoy your time.” Or, the poem “nobody knows the secret laws of the universe, behind the curtain you and I are discussing the issue, but once the curtain falls, neither you nor I can escape unharmed.” Or, where he talks to God, telling him that “there should be a difference between YOU and I”, referring to the poem where Khayyam’s wine-glass would break and for that he would make God responsible, etc. All these can be considered non-Islamic. It is also said that Khayyam had objected to the idea that “Every particular event was the result of God’s intervention.”

These expressions suggest that Khayyam was not a religious man; at times, he would be critically skeptical. To some, he did not believe in religion. Yet, Khayyam is highly respected by the Muslims, because to many Muslims, Khayyam was a true believer. So, when some claim that Khayyam was not religious, some others claim the otherwise. The roots of such differences can be found in the different interpretations of his poems. In some Muslim countries such as Iran, Khayyam’s birthday would be celebrated and quite often his poems would be remembered.

Now, do the like-minded philosophers being treated equally?

Obviously, it is not the case with the like-minded philosophers. The poets can be attached to all sections of the society irrespective of their belief systems. Many believe that “the poetry of Hafez Shirazi is influenced by Islam”. Yet, he is widely respected by the Hindus and the Christians. They believe that there are similarities between these religions and the poems of Hafez Shirazi. So, he is a poet for all.

In short, “poet” conveys the same blasphemy as that of the “philosopher.” Yet, poet remains safe and secure, respected and popular. It is the philosopher who must face the consequences. Is not it because the poets write in poetic fashion, but the philosophers write in prosaic fashion?!

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