“What if love was allowed in our society?” a colleague, my junior by about two decades asked. Perhaps she had married too early, before she had time to choose whom she wanted. She followed this question with: “I don’t want a quick answer. Rather, I don’t want an answer as much as I want to pose the question to the widest possible audience and provoke them into providing an answer.”

A few months after being asked this question, an article of the new draft of the Syrian Personal Status Law (currently being amended) caught my attention. First it permitted the marriage of 13 year-old girls and 15 year-old boys and then was amended in the second copy so that the ages were changed to 15 and 17 years respectively. I then heard the thoughts of one of the lawmakers, a lawyer with a background in very rigid Islamic jurisprudence. According to what he said about the draft law on the show “Life and People” broadcast, February 2, 2010 on Monte Carlo International, all ordinances are limited in the end by divine law as stated in the Qur’an. He went on to justify this article, saying that it exists to meet the needs of the vast farming community in Syria!

The irony is that the Islamists who boast that Islam was the first to free girls from the practice of burying them alive (as a form of infanticide), many of them now insist that her feelings, inclinations and thoughts be buried. They kill her independent personality before she is born and legislate her role early in life as a tool or thing owned to serve, and subjected to man’s whims. In the name of divine law, they suffocate the potential and aspiration of new life in the community. We, of course, know all the misogynistic conditions in our patriarchal society, since Syrian society is like all other Arab societies, and therefore it forces teenage girls into early marriages, before they consent or choose freely. These early marriages not just for small change, or to obtain her dowry, rather they are done in the name of avoiding future scandal since a teenage girl, or a woman of any age, she is a permanent scandal waiting to happen.

I recall reading after the 1967 June defeat some words by the poet, Nizar Qabbani, in the magazine “Positions,” published in Beirut in the early 1970s, in which he said: “The June defeat is not simply a military defeat, but it is also a defeat for the repressed and suppressed Arab body.” These words are what have made me, since that time and far from ideological theorizing or mainstream political discourse, realize one of the hidden structural reasons responsible for our repeated defeats and our failures to create a lasting civilization: The meaning that Qabbani’s lines entertain is that love is a complex human phenomenon filled with desire, whim, passion and a tendency to feel warm human emotions toward the opposite sex, in a way that ignites deep creative energy within mankind. Love, then, is a phenomenon that pertains to the cultural richness of a society and well as its development, and is not simply an instinctive tendency toward pleasure and satisfaction.

On the origin of love and the role of Arabs and Islam:
For Valentine’s Day this year, I thought that it was appropriate to start a special annual tradition and so I chose to read books on love, especially since the environment in and around Arab countries is saturated with an atmosphere of tension that fuels the continuation of a culture of hatred and killing and the threat of war. I began by reading “Love and the West,” a thought provoking book dating back to the 1930s by the French researcher, Denis de Rougemont and published by the Syrian Ministry of Culture in a second edition in 2007, which Dr. Amr Shakhashiru translated.

What caught my attention in reading this book were the new additions, which the Directorate of Authorship, Translation and Publishing in Ministry of Culture added in the introduction to the second addition. It added a long article also by de Rougemont titled “Love in the East and the West” which had been published previously in the magazine “Dialogue” in Beirut in 1963. The article approaches the idea of love as a phenomenon (meaning emotion and passion) that was born in the West (South of France) in the 12th century and was greatly impacted by two trends with origins in the Near East that then moved from Asia Minor and Iran to other parts of the Arab World.

The first of these trends is Manichean thought, which aimed for the purity of the self by removing it from the impurity of the body, and the sublimation of the self through perfect love. This ‘heresy,’ of great importance in Iran and Asia Minor, traveled to the Balkans and Northern Italy spreading until it reached the South of France where it established itself in royal courts and castles where Troubadours sang it in their poetry. These ‘heresies’ with Manichean roots that proliferated all over Europe intersected in their new vision toward women that was based on respect, reverence, and considered women to be like men in the permissiveness of their use of a kind of courting that refrained from bawdiness while still retaining its earthy pleasures. The secret to the quick spread of this phenomenon all over Europe can be attributed to two things: The first was the resistance of the church and its priests to this new kind of love. Priests who followed an ascetic order in regard to the idea of divine love, erected obstacles and undertook a resistance in order to combat this new phenomenon such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. However these obstacles, contrary to what they were expected to achieve, unleashed the energies, capabilities, and creativity of this phenomenon, since passions only deepen and burst forth when they are met with resistance.

The second of these trends can be attributed to a new poetic language of adoration that appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages and was able to express what the self was eager to express. It appeared suddenly during the same period in which poets and Troubadours appeared in the South of France. As de Rougemont says, the source of this new language was Andalusian Arabic poetry from the 11th century.

The eastern roots of this phenomenon of love in the West in part come from the Sufi school of thought that was born in Iraq, influenced by Ibn al-Arabi al-Andalus and that boasted the following 13th century thinkers: Al Halaj, Shirazi and Suhrawardi, all of whom resorted to metered poetry in which earthly love was an expression of divine love. (However, this was the sort of heresy that led to their destruction). The path that this innovative thought took to get to Europe was through Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus and then through the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Arab Andalusia. Thus it came to the South of France as can be seen in the 12th century historic meeting of the language of love and worldly heresy from a single origin. Athri poetry (originally a kind of Arabic poetry often written in expression of unrequited love), which was born from the meeting of these two spiritual currents coming from two shores of the Mediterranean, this poetry and therefore much of European writing and the common understanding of love – whether expressed in song or writing or in the ways of life - is descended from many of our writers and remains until this day. De Rougemont adds to this in his research and historical auditing by saying that this sort of platonic love has never existed – neither in the past nor the present – and can’t even be perceived outside of the context defined in the Qur’an and the Torah. As such, some East Asian religions, such as Brahmanism and Buddhism, have their own unique theories about the sexual relationship between men and women and see sexual relations as natural, social and free from any hint of romantic, idealistic or heated emotion. Love, as we have known it since the 12th century, does not have a name in some East Asian languages. For example, the verb “to love” in Chinese is defined only in the context of the relationship between a mother and her son. According to de Rougemont’s analysis, this goes back to the fact that the religions of these peoples say, as is put forth in one of their books “there is only one self for all things.” As for the individual self, it is doomed to fade away and blend into the absolute, which has no name and no form. Therefore, this vision does not include angels as the mediators between God and the believing self. Thus, is not proper for feelings of divine love to be symbols of spiritual ascension, nor it is acceptable for pictures to depict it. As for the Abrahamic religions, they weave between the human self and God a relationship that is based on either obedience or disobedience and so the salvation of the self is based on whether or not you accept this relationship. Sufism appears to be between the two and is like the relationship between worldly love in its outward expression. However, in reality it represents high spirituality that aims for closeness to God in respect to love only. An angel acts as mediator in this relationship of love. It’s well known how widespread the use of the word “angel” is today, whether in religious or secular literature and especially in love letters and writing such as “My angel” or “you are like an angel” etc.

Arab and Muslim Paradoxes Today:
De Rougemont concludes that what the Arabs produced has become a complimentary part of Western philosophy whereas it has not remained part of philosophy in the East. However, he also notes that this phenomenon of love has generally made huge strides in Western Europe since this period however we see that in the Arab world it subsided after a century or two.

This is the case because a deep lethargy has hit the Arab world since the fall of Baghdad as the political and cultural capital for the Islamic Arabic Empire in 1258 AD. The culture of ultra religious Islamic jurisprudence quickly filled this void with its various practices which forbid the meeting of mixing of the sexes outside the institution of legitimate marriage and which were constantly being cloned anew, but each time in a more strict form. At the same time, Arab Andalusia was living through the last of its dynasties (Banu al Ahmar) and weakness was spreading throughout it, causing the Arabs to loose their last dynasty in the year 1492.

Where the ultra conservative church in Europe failed in combating this phenomenon of love in the 12th century, ultra strict Islamic jurisprudence succeeded in the Arab world in what would begin the long era of decline in the region. Thus it is possible to conclude a number of ironies here: Perhaps the most obvious is the difference between continually burying the phenomenon of love in our societies and between the West in which love began to sing the way of life and its peoples and colors, returning to enrich life and develop again taking forms and styles and new and varied relationships and being part of a number of different schools even today. Western theorists, artists and aficionados who revere the individual as a human with the right to enrich her emotions, feelings and her life in the way she wants since the true spring does not produce flowers of but one color but rather an infinite number of flowers, roses and colors. However our scholars and their followers narrow mindedly insist that this is western decadence!

Another great difference is that historical Islam was a huge, diverse and pluralistic coffer of civilization throughout the Middle Ages, while current jihadist, takfiri political Islam, or narrow, doctrinal orthodox Islam does not permit the reading of the Qur’an that de Rougemont proffers on the origin of the phenomenon of love.

The third sad irony lies in the difference between our historical character and our identity as Arabs in the Middle Ages when there was radiating culture that was advanced for its time and our present identity with our pre Medieval culture and morals in an age which many intellectuals call post modernism.

Ever since any interaction between the two sexes (at any age), outside the institution of a legitimate marriage, became one of the great taboos our love has been in reverse and has been declining continually and along with it our Arab communities decline and their roles in the world become weaker – with the exception of certain times and places in the margins of society. These few exceptions are simply a result of encounters with the West or attempts to simulate the West and were under the pretext of the predominance of societal values and ethics saturated with the greed of personal ownership that goes hand in hand with the arrogance of male power and its extreme selfishness. These values leave no room for love and tolerance in their broadest since. Instead, intolerant tribal affiliations, disputes and continuous tribal wars have taken their place. And in this current social climate, is it shocking that so called ‘honor crimes’, which are widespread in many Arab communities, have acquired legitimacy under the law?

My dear colleague, the burial of love in our society continues.

Maaz Hassan, 3/4/2010, SWO,  What if we allowed love in our society?

Translated by Elizabeth Broadwin

source Arabic...