Love, Medieval Islamic Style

valentine heart and love wooden ...
valentine heart and love wooden ...

Valentine's Day is just around the corner. Named for the Christian saint Valentius who helped to cure the sick and marry Roman soldiers, today it has become a commercial holiday on which people exchange gifts, cards and sweets, and a time to think about love and the ones we love. The celebration of love as an ennobling sentiment worthy of celebration is not restricted to the Christian tradition though.

One of the most important scholars of the medieval Islamic world, Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī ibn Aḥmad ibn Saʿīd ibn Ḥazm (994-1064), an Andalusi legal scholar and philosopher dedicated an entire book-length study, Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah, to the nature of love. It was translated into English as The Ring of the Dove in 1953 by the British scholar A. J. Arberry. According to Ibn Ḥazm, the ideal love is a spiritual force that derives from God and that can unite the lovers' very souls. Everyone has a soul mate in the world, whom they must find to be happy and healthy. Ibn Ḥazm compares the attraction one feels toward their soul mate to that of a magnet.

"As for the lover, his soul is indeed free and aware of where that other soul is . . . his soul is ever seeking for the other, striving after it, searching it out, yearning to encounter it again, drawing it to itself . . . as a magnet draws the iron." (Ibn Ḥazm)

Ibn Ḥazm supports his idea that love reigns supreme with a rich sampling of anecdotes from his own life, telling us how his friends and acquaintances in medieval Cordoba fell in love, conducted their relationships, and sometimes tragically ended them. He tells of the ways we might recognize someone in love. They tend to be distracted, moody, have trouble sleeping and only want to talk about the person they love. He offers a long list of the ways in which someone may fall in love, including love at first sight, falling in love with an image of the person, falling in love through letters, and falling in love with someone after being friends for a long time.

In addition, Ibn Ḥazm tells us of the great loves of the Umayyad caliphs who created Andalusi civilization on European soil in the preceding generations. Ibn Ḥazm mentions, for instance, the great love Al-Muzaffar, son of the last leader of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain, had for Wahid, the daughter of a local cheese seller who eventually became his wife. As a spiritual force love is experienced by those in the highest social classes, just as it is by those in the lowest.

Perhaps most surprising, given the contemporary tendency to paint the medieval world as one of barbarity and constant religious warfare, is Ibn Ḥazm's message that love, the most ennobling of sentiments, is universal and brings together people of all religions and cultures. Ibn Ḥazm was the son of a learned adviser to the last of the Muslim caliphs on European soil, and woven throughout his reflections on love are his memories of what it was like to grow up in the splendor of the palaces, gardens and courtly parties that have come to define Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) in the popular imagination. In this book, Ibn Ḥazm uses his own experiences as proof of the power of love.

"I have trodden the carpets of caliphs, and attended the courts of kings, and yet never have I seen reverential awe equal to that which the lover manifests to his beloved. I have observed conquerors triumphing over vanquished princes, viziers exulting in their authority, statesmen rejoicing in their power, and in all this I have beheld nothing to exceed the happiness and hilarity of the lover when he is sure that the beloved's heart is in his keeping." (Ibn Ḥazm)

Ibn Ḥazm's treatise on love holds several other surprises for the modern reader, including vignettes of a thriving middle class in 11th century Muslim Spain that was populated by merchants, scholars and bureaucrats with cosmopolitan viewpoints who were used to traveling internationally and interacting with people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Ibn Ḥazm tells us of Andalusians falling in love with inn-keepers' daughters in Baghdad, of how Arab poets were seduced in Sicily, of Berber and Andalusian men vying for the same woman, and of hours spent with a group of friends in the office of the wise Jewish physician, Isma'il ibn Yunus in the town of Almeria along Spain's southern coast.

While Ibn Ḥazm's 11th-century book on love helps us reflect upon the ways in which we celebrate love today, especially around Valentine's Day, it also allows us to reflect on how love as a human phenomenon transcends social, religious, cultural and even temporal differences, offering to all us of us the possibility of a type of happiness that can't, in Ibn Ḥazm's view, hold a candle to all the power or celebrity in the world.