An amorous monotheism
For the ignorant it might seem otherwise, writes Gamal Nkrumah, but there is plenty of room in Islam for love
The Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan of India built the most renowned monument to love bearing masonry and inlaid marble for his wife and sweetheart Mumtaz. The onion-shaped domes and flanking towers of the Taj Mahal, a testament to the brilliance of Islamic architecture in South Asia, have become an eternal symbol of true love.
"Love is the greatest reality upon which the entire creation rests," declares Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa. And love in Islam is at once spiritual and heavenly, carnal and mundane. Islam enjoins believers not to curb sensuous pleasures, but to restrict them to the confines of conjugal love.
"When asked, 20 years after her death, who was the dearest person to his heart, the Prophet Mohamed said without hesitation that it was his first wife Khadija," Heba Qutb, marriage and sex counsellor, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "When asked, 'And who is the second most beloved person to your heart,' he said that it was his then surviving wife Aisha."
"Now, imagine how many men in our contemporary Islamic culture would openly declare to their friends that they regard their spouses as dearer even than their own children or anyone else, for that matter."
Prophet Mohamed maintained that his daughter, Fatima, was no more precious to his heart than her long- deceased mother. "By modern standards, he was a very liberal and open-minded man. He often picked up a broom to sweep the floors of his house, and he mended his own clothes. How many Muslim men do that today?"
The point Qutb was corroborating was that the Prophet Mohamed had no problem conceding in public that the women he selected as spouses were the dearest and fondest beings to him.
"He always greeted his wives with a kiss. How many men return home from work to kiss their wives today? Very few I suspect."
The special status of family law in Islam places the family as the basic unit of Muslim society. The Prophet Mohamed enjoyed an especially meaningful and fulfilling conjugal life. He stressed the centrality of marriage in Islam. According to Imam Abu Abdallah Mohamed ibn Ismail Al-Bukhari, the leading authority on the Sunna (the Prophet's tradition), "Men and women are twin halves of each other."
Man and wife are partners with needs, responsibilities and duties. Be that as it may, marriage in Islam is acknowledged as the only legal and moral provision for physical and romantic relationships. Marriage is also seen as prerequisite for the advancement of spiritual good.
"There is no blame on you if ye make an offer of betrothal or hold it in your hearts. Allah knows that ye cherish them in your hearts. But, don't make a secret contract with them except in terms honourable, nor resolve on the tie of marriage till the term prescribed is fulfilled," says the Quran (Surat Al-Baqara).
The very notion of the Muslim woman as passive and sexually submissive is false and misleading, she argues. "Aisha often initiated the sexual act. She intimated her desire for her husband. And, he obliged."
She went even further. "In their ignorance many men, including scholars, make an issue out of the uncleanliness of menstruating women. But, do they read carefully what Al-Bukhari wrote? According to Al-Bukhari, the Prophet Mohamed used to recline on Aisha's lap. He did not feel this made him unclean, on the contrary he was making a point -- menstruation didn't make her any less of a human being."
He was a statesman and a religious leader, but he took the time to look into the minutiae of daily living. He was sensitive to the needs and cares of his spouses, no matter how mundane they appeared to him or others to be. He cared deeply for his wives.
Foreplay and postcoital, for instance, are regarded as essential prerequisites of a wife's sexual rights in Islam -- as a prerequisite of a happy and successful marital life. "There shall be no monastic celibacy in Islam," was an injunction of the Prophet Mohamed according to Al-Bukhari.
There is, also, the mystical path of love in the Sufi tradition of Islam. Sufi mysticism, or tassawwuf -- eschewing materialistic seductions and worldly pleasures -- has attracted the attention of thousands of Westerners for centuries.
"O my Lord if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, burn me in hell. And, if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me thence. But, if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty." Rabaa Al-Adawiya, the celebrated medieval Sufi mystic, pleaded with her God. Her devotional love of Allah is widely viewed as exemplary.
Indeed, Islam makes every aspect of human life, including conjugal love and love-making within the strict confines of marriage, sacred. Sex out of wedlock is unacceptable, though. Muslims know about love, but it is the love that is halal (religiously sanctioned) not the love that is haram (forbidden). Love, and it often comes as a shock to many Westerners, is a surprisingly prevalent subject in Islam. There are many different variations to the theme of love in Islam.
Sex and carnal desire are not overlooked in Islam as they are in some other monotheistic religions. However, Islam is about submission -- submitting personal whims to the will of Allah. "Islam prescribes the proper channels into which the natural instincts are steered," Qutb told the Weekly. Islam stresses the importance of conjugal love and emphasises the importance of the physical aspect of conjugal relationships. In Islam, for example, the importance of foreplay before sexual intercourse between a married couple is highlighted. But, Islam is not a religion that reeks of sex as some Orientalists claim.
Islam eschews Christianity's 2000 years of avoidance in which both carnal desire and the sex act itself have been denigraded or tiptoed around.
Sexual intercourse in Islam is subject to moral regulations. Infidelity, adultery, fornication, frivolous non-marital amusements and sexual abandon are eschewed -- are considered haram.
The married life of the prophet himself is upheld as the model of Muslim conjugal bliss. In many ways, Prophet Mohamed's first marriage was unconventional -- and especially in a contemporary context. Khadija was much older and much wealthier than Mohamed, but their marriage lasted 25 years and he never married another woman until she passed away. The marriage survived the death of their two sons.
The contemporary Preacher Amr Khaled notes that Khadija bint Khowayled, the first wife of Prophet Mohamed, was an astute businesswoman and the mother of his children who survived into adulthood. All the other wives of the Prophet either did not bear him children or their children died in infancy.
"Khadija had rejected several marriage proposals by the elite of Quraysh who were attracted by her beauty and wealth," notes Amr Khaled. "Here, we need to analyse this situation and ask whether it is appropriate for a woman to initiate a marriage proposal. According to this exemplary marriage of Khadija and Mohamed, yes a woman can broach this issue," Khaled extrapolates. "The issue is how it is done."
Khadija approached Mohamed indirectly, through the good offices of her close friend Nafisa bint Al-Munnabbih who coyly asked the prophet if he was married. "No, I am not married," Mohamed replied, whereupon Nafisa suggested that Khadija would make a good wife. "Was he interested," she inquired. When the Prophet expressed interest, Nafisa said that she would ask Khadija and let him know what Khadija thought of him. Of course, she already knew that Khadija was in love with the prophet.
"When she married the prophet, he was 40 years of age. It is amazing how a 55-year-old woman can climb a mountain to join her husband in a cave, only to sit and meditate with him," Amr Khaled notes.
Khaled was speaking of the Cave of Mount Hiraa where the inspired word of Allah first came to the Prophet, who then rushed to Khadija's bosom for tender words of encouragement.
Love ( hubb ), is a sublime emotion that has intrigued people the world over -- and Muslims are no exception. The renowned Andalusian poetess Wallada bint Al-Mustakfi (died 1091), who sustained a torrid love affair with the poet and vizier Ibn Zaidun, wrote some of the most passionate lyrics ( ghazzal ) of the period.
Another famed Andalusian Arab poet Abu Mohamed ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi (994-1064) wrote extensively about love and its attributes. His prose cleverly captures the magic of romance. He is widely regarded as one of the most prolific and poignant writers on the subject.
"Love has certain signs which the intelligent man quickly detects and the shrewd readily recognises," wrote Ibn Hazm in his celebrated The Dove's Necklace. "Of these [signs] the first is the brooding gaze -- the eye is the wide gateway of the soul, the scrutiniser of its secrets, conveying its most private thoughts and giving expression to its deepest hidden- feelings. You will see the lover gazing at the beloved unblinkingly," Ibn Hazm wrote.
"The lover will direct his conversation to the beloved even when he purports, however earnestly, to address another -- the affection is apparent to anyone with eyes to see." His treatise on love has since been the subject of much scholarly debate.
"The lover hurries to the spot where the beloved is at the moment," Ibn Hazm observed. It is hard to gauge the pain of forlorn love, though. Maybe it's the love of the chase. In such cases, Islam counsels prayer, patience and devotion to God.
But, Islam also makes allowance for conjugal unions that go wrong. Divorce is religiously sanctioned -- even though it is known as the most unpalatable of halal injunctions. khul', a relatively new concept in Egypt, has ironically had a long tradition in Islam harking back to the days of pristine Islam during the Prophet Mohamed's own lifetime. When the wife of Qais ibn Sammas beseeched the Prophet Mohamed to annul her marriage, she said that he was a reverent man, noble and of good character, but that she couldn't fall in love with him. Then according to Ibn Abbas the Prophet told her that she could divorce him (khul') provided that she left him all the material possessions he bequeathed upon her when they got married.
Islam appeals to the higher nature of man and discourages incessant amusement outside the conjugal context. Many Westerner take issue with Islam's insistence that polygamy, or more precisely polygyny, is religiously sanctioned. The Quran permits a Muslim man to marry up to four wives. However, Islam enjoins a man to deal justly with his wives.
"And among His signs is this; that He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest and peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy."
So how do contemporary Muslim men and women cope with love? A typical tale is that of Mustafa who hails from a provincial and conservative background. He is deeply religious and very pious in the highest sense of the word. He opted to heed his family's urging and agreed to an arranged marriage with one of his cousins. He believes that after marriage the love will really blossom. "She is beautiful and devout, what more do I need? I know all there is to know about her social and cultural background. It is bound to be a successful marriage, inshallah -- God willing."
The nuptial vow is sacred, Mustafa stresses. Marriage in Islam is based on al-mawwadah wal-rahmah (affection and compassion) between the spouses. Tender words and unselfish care are vital elements in cementing conjugal ties.
Then there is the story of Ahlam. At 25, she was already the mother of two children by different husbands.
After walking out on the first one when their son Nadim was seven months old, she supported her baby by lecturing at a prestigious university. Nadim went to a nursery during the day.
Soon she fell in love again. Her desire was to live with her lover, like couples do in the West. Fornication is frowned upon in Egyptian society and therefore opted for Urfi marriage. They eloped to the Red Sea resort of Dahab and got married there. But, that was not the end of the affair.
A year of unrestrained passion passed, quicker than she had anticipated. She insisted on a proper marriage and soon became pregnant again. Soon after things started to fall apart -- her life was crumbling before her eyes. Ahlam felt helpless, her dreams had turned into nightmares. She abhorred the life of open marriages and doomed affairs. She wanted out.
Ahlam learned the hard way that Muslims must learn where their true affections are placed.
"Islam is about being able to control your instincts, about being able to look beyond the present life. This life is very short. Nothing lasts, everything changes and comes to an end. What is important is the afterlife," says Hind, a thoroughly "liberal" Egyptian who was addicted as much to destructive relationships as she ever was to drugs and drink. "I have no desire whatsoever to go back to the past. It is all behind me now," she insists.
Today, she is married, "not perfectly happily", she concedes. "But I have a lovely daughter and I have Allah."
Marriage is essentially for the propagation of the human species, she has no qualms about that.
She concedes that, "We live in a male-dominated, or patriarchal community, but many of our practices are cultural and not religiously-sanctioned." She appreciates her husband's decency and gentle temperament, but is not head over heals about him. "He is a loving father and a good husband," she says. They share kindred tastes and aspirations, but are separated by an incompatibility of disposition, she explains. She yearns for the love that lives on under whatever difficulties.
Inji and Johannes have a blissful marriage. They met by chance on a beach in Sinai, Egypt, and fell instantly in love. A German by birth, Johannes became a Muslim before he married Inji. "I fell in love with him because he took Islam seriously. He is devout and never misses a prayer," she explained. He doesn't drink and treats people nicely. He is extremely polite and caring. I feel that I am extremely fortunate to have found such a loving and decent man. I have, thank God, alhamdullah, an ideal Muslim marriage."
From Al-Ahram Weekly published in Cairo