Rebel Poet: Benjamin Zephaniah discusses the life of Abul ʿala Al-Maʿarri (أبو العلاء المعري), the medieval Arab vegan philosopher poet

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Rebel Poet: The Life of Al-Ma’arri

A thousand years ago, Al-Ma’arri was writing Arabic poems of extreme complexity, promoting a rational ideal and most remarkably, making an ethical case for veganism. We tell the story of his life in conversation with fellow vegan rebel poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

We first found out about Al-Ma’arri through a blog by Gary Francione and were both intrigued and surprised more had not been said about him.  Al-Ma’arri’s conversations and opinions seem progressive even by today’s standards. And, like anyone with views ahead of his time, he was questioned by society. The show dramatises his exchange with a leading cleric about veganism.

Benjamin Zephaniah

In this episode Benjamin Zephanaiah, the vegan rebel poet of today, joins us to bring Al-Ma’arri to life.

Benjamin Zephanaiah began as a dub poet and his verses reach people who don’t often enjoy poetry; his rhymes have been celebrated around the world and in a BBC vote to find the UK’s favourite poet he was the only living poet in the top ten. He campaigns in poetry and deed for causes from animals to miscarriages of justice.

He once publicly rejected a royal honour – an “Order of the British Empire” – saying “Whoever is behind this offer can never have read any of my work”. In the show, he finds common ground with Al-Ma’arri.

You can read Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry and find out more about him at his website.


As well as Professor Benjamin Zephaniah, our thanks also to contributors Richard Foltz (who has also written specifically about Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures), Ghazala Anwar, and to voice actors Motaz Al-Shehail (Al-Ma’arri in Arabic), Will Trimble (Al-Ma’arri in English) and Ian Peacock (the Cairo missionary). Thanks also to folk who helped me with research: Sarra Tlili, Sandhya of MEVeg, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies SOAS Radio (who let me use their studio) and Marta of SOAS Veg.


Because most contemporary sources are in Arabic, and I can’t read Arabic, I relied largely on the work of Victorian Orientalists, particularly David Margoliouth and Reynold Nicholson. Fortunately, much of this is available online, thanks to the work of Google and the Internet Archive.

Reynold Nicholson:

David Margoliouth:

Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society:

I did check some other more modern sources, but unfortunately those aren’t in a form that I can link to.


Digital media artist Robb Masters wrote our theme. I also used these actualities and sound effects for atmosphere:

In line with the usual artifice of radio, I edited our discussion with Benjamin Zephaniah and re-recorded some dialogue for clarity and flow.

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About Ian

London. Formerly known as New Media. Vegan since 1992.

9 responses to “Rebel Poet: Benjamin Zephaniah discusses the life of Abul ʿala Al-Maʿarri (أبو العلاء المعري), the medieval Arab vegan philosopher poet”

  1. ormondroyd says :

    A nicely done show (I have always loved radio) about a remarkable man. One whom I now feel very fortunate to have heard of. Fred, thirty year vegan

  2. Nemo says :

    An excellent article you might find of interest: Scientific American magazine, July 23, 2012 issue. “Early Humans Were Nearly All Vegetarian”

  3. Brian L says :

    Funny you mention he was a vegan. Even funnier you don’t mention he was an antinatalist, believing it was unethical to have children. Are you aware that a meat-eating person without children will impact the world ecosystem, and thus animals, less than a lifetime of being a vegan with children?

    Something to think about.

    • Ian McDonald says :

      It would be surprising if there was an episode of “The Vegan Option” about a medieval Arab poet that didn’t mention his veganism. After all, “from vegan perspectives” is in the tagline.

      Your assumption is open to question, but anti-natalism is actively discussed amongst vegans, and so I’ve added the episode idea to our “All Our Ideas” survey form, in case other people are interested in the topic for a future episode.

      • Brian L says :

        You are correct of course. Figure of speech, I suppose. I am impressed that the comments I made were posted, truth be told. Antinatalism does not get much ‘airtime, as you can imagine. I am grateful for your fairness, and openness, Ian… Stay strong.

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