Romantic Love in Islam


Islam is a religion of love wherein romance has historically played a fundamental role. The Prophet of Islam was himself a passionate lover of women who confessed, “It has been given to me to love three things in your base world: women, perfumes, and prayer.” An entire chapter of the Qur’an (66:1) is entitled “Banning” after its opening verse wherein God rebukes Muhammad for swearing to go on sexual strike against his wives. However, the Prophet receives reproach elsewhere in the Qur’an for his penchant for falling in love with women, which was apparently so excessive that the Lord finally forbade him to marry anyone else “even though their beauty cause you to marvel” (33:52). How dull in human sentiment the biography of the Prophet would be without his serial romances and marriages— with Khadija, his first wife; with Ayesha, the artless redhead coquette; with Hafsa, daughter of Umar; with Safya, the ravishing Jewess; and others unknown.

The Prophet’s companions, their followers, and the imams in succeeding generations were great lovers of women as well. His descendant, the sixth Shiite Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 145/ 765)—who was praised by later Sufis such as ‘Attar as being “the path-master of the people of love”—remarked, “Whoever’s love for us increases, his love for women must also increase,” and, “Whenever a person’s love for women increases, his faith also increases.”

The spirit of early Islam was utterly opposed to the Christian view that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh (Galatians 5:17), and was more in accord with the overt eroticism of the Song of Songs. In the holy Qur’an, men are incited to have sex with their wives, being advised during the month of fasting (Ramadan), “Go unto your wives____Your wives are a raiment to you and you are a raiment to them” (Qur’an 2:187).

Elsewhere, the Qur’an emphasizes the emotional and sexual “relief” couples provide each other: “And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may take rest with them, and He established between you love and compassion” (Qur’an 30:21). “The man who marries takes possession of half of religion,” said the Prophet; thus in Islam it can be said that half of one’s religious faith consists in romantic love. Apropos of this hadith, Abdelwahab Bouhdiba observes, “The personality of man finds fulfilment only in the intimacy of the sexes” (Bouhdiba 1985, 91).

Many key theologians in later Islamic literature composed major works on eroticism, romance, and love. The most famous work of this genre—translated into several European languages—was Ibn Hazm’s (d. 457/1064) Tawq al-Hamama (The Ring of the Dove). It was a work on the theory and practice of romantic love between men and women as experienced in eleventh-century Cordova, Spain. In Tawq al-Hamama, Ibn Hazm describes the essence and nature of love, its causes, symptoms, accomplishments, frustrations, and perils. He emphasizes early in the text that “Love is neither disapproved by Religion, nor prohibited by the Law; for every heart is in God’s hands. Many rightly guided caliphs and orthodox imams have been lovers” (Ibn Hazm 1994, 22). Scholars today debate whether Ibn Hazm’s work was the true inspiration behind Andreas Capellanus’s The Art of Courtly Love—the bible of the French troubadours, composed at Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court at Poitiers between 1170 and 1174.

Ibn Dawud (d. 297/910) was the son of the founder of the Zahiri school of jurisprudence and one of the two chief jurisconsults in Baghdad. A century before Ibn Hazm, Ibn Dawud had written one of the most famous topics in Arabic on love. The Kitab al-Zahra (topic of the Flower) was a huge tome that discusses the pathology and psychology of love and propounds theories about its origin. Ibn Dawud described human love (‘ishq) as a disease for which doctors have no cure, a noble malady of the soul that has no higher therapeutical end.

For the development of later love theory in Islamic thought, this work is extremely important in being the first work to narrate the following Prophetic tradition about the martyrs of love: “He who loves and remains chaste and conceals his secret and dies, dies a martyr.” This theme was closely related to the idea of a chaste and faithful al-hubb al-’udhri (‘Udhri love), a basic theme in classical Arabic poetry that influenced later Islamic philosophy and Sufism. Renate Jacobi (775) notes, “The ‘Benou-Azra, who ‘when loving, die,’ became known in European literature through Stendhal’s treatise De l’amour (1822) and inspired the Romantics.”

This martyrs of love topos entered later Arabic love theory in works such as Abu Muhammad Ja’far bin Ahmad al-Sarraj’s (d. 500/1106) Masari al-’ushshaq (The Battleground, or Calamities of the Slain Lovers), and Abu’l-Faraj bin al-Jawzi’s (d. 579/1200) Dhamm al-hawa (The Condemnation of Lust, or Passionate Love). The latter work is an attack on the evils of sexual passion and erotic melancholy. It also devotes several chapters to “The Reward of those who loved passionately and remained chaste and concealed their secret;” “The passionate lovers who became proverbial for their love (and most of whom died for it);” and “Accounts of those whom love (‘ishq) killed.”

In line with the Prophet’s statement, “Women prevail exceedingly over the wise, just as the ignorant prevail over them,” the Persian Sufi tradition in Islam was unrepentantly romantic and condemned those who remained unmoved by romance and untouched by Eros. “If the language of love makes no impression on you, you are as good as dead,” stated the supreme Persian love poet Sa’di of Shiraz (d. ca. 692/ 1292). On the Prophet’s above saying, Islam’s greatest Sufi poet Rumi (d. 672/1273) commented in his Mathnawi that “What is ‘beloved’ is not merely ma’shuqa (your female mistress) but actually she is a ray of God, the divine Truth.” Romantic love was understood as forming a bridge across which every seeker must fare to reach the farther—divine—shore, an idea encapsulated in the Arabic maxim, “The unreal form is a bridge to al-majaz qan-tarat al-haqiqat (the supraformal Reality).” Thus Rumi states, “What is beloved is not a phenomenal form, whether it be the love of this world or love of the Next.”

Several great names in Sufism are associated with this mystical interpretation of romantic love: Ahmad al-Ghazali (d. 520/1126), author of Sawanih al-’ushshaq (The Lovers’ Experiences); Ruzbihan Baqli (d. 606/1210), the most important theologian of Eros in the Mongol period, author of ‘Abhar al-ashiqin (Jasmine of the Lovers); and Awhad al-Din Kirmani (d. 635/1238).

Much of Arabic and Persian Sufi literature was devoted to analyzing the prevalence of the feminine over the masculine in Islam. Reflecting on the Prophet’s love of “women, perfumes, and prayer,” Islam’s greatest Sufi philosopher, Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), reasoned that the Prophet loved women so much because in them divine Reality can be most perfectly contemplated. Ibn ‘Arabi was also the author of a collection of mystical love poetry called The Interpreter of Desires, which he dedicated to a young and wise Isfahani girl, Nizam, who was for him a type of heavenly Eternal Feminine, a Beatrice, who embodied for him divine love and beauty.

The domineering power of romantic love was most vividly described by the Persian Sufi poet ‘Attar of Nishapur (d. 618/1221) in his Conference of the Birds. He tells the story of a venerable old Sufi master who falls in love with a Christian girl, burns up the Qur’an, drinks wine, herds her pigs, and becomes an apostate to Islam in pursuit of what Sufis came to call “the religion of love.” Sa’di, who dedicated most of his lyrics to descriptions of the superior power and nobility of romantic love, knew quite well that “a man may have committed the Qur’an to memory, but when distracted with love, forgets the alphabet.”

In his Garden of Mystery, the Persian Sufi poet Shabistari (d. after 741/1340) reflecting on this transformative experience of romantic love which elevates man to God, said, “No one’s heart is ever ravished in love by aught than God himself, for God has no partner in his actions.” Thus, all the great romances of the Persians and the Arabs—Layla and Majnun, Vis and Ramin, Khusraw and Shirin—became interpreted by the Sufis in line with the idea of “the True Beauty that is concealed under the veil of the particular self-determination of the human figurative beloved,” as Lahuri expressed it in his seventeenth-century commentary on the Divan (collection of poems) of the greatest Persian erotic poet, Hafiz (d. 792/1389). After all, as Rumi had declared, “Whether Eros hails from hither or Yonder, it will lead us ultimately back to that King.”

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