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On the Nature of Love

Abű Muhammad ‘Alee ibn Ahmad ibn Sa‘eed ibn Hazm 

Excerpted with modifications and deletions from his book, Tawq al-Hamâmah (Ring of the Dove), translated by A.J. Arberry © 1953 Luzac & Co. Ltd.


Of Love – may God exalt you! – the first part is jesting, and the last part is right earnestness. So majestic are its diverse aspects, they are too subtle to be described; their reality can only be apprehended by personal experience. Love is neither disapproved by Religion, nor prohibited by Law; for every heart is in God’s hands…

Concerning the nature of Love men have held various and divergent opinions, which they have debated at great length. For my part I consider Love as a conjunction between scattered parts of souls that have become divided in this physical universe, a union effected within the substance for their original sublime element. I do not share the view advanced by Muhammad ibn Dâwűd – God have mercy on his soul! – who followed certain philosophers in declaring that spirits are segmented spheres; rather do I suppose an affinity of their vital forces in the supernal world which is their everlasting home, and a close approximation in the manner of their constitution. We know the secret of commingling and separation in created things to be simply a process of union and disassociation; like is ever at rest with like. Congeniality has a perceptible effect and a visible influence; repulsion of opposites, accord between similars, attraction of like for like- these are facts taking place all round us. How much more then should the same factors operate within the soul, whose world is pure and ethereal, whose substance is volatile and perfectly poised, whose constituent principle is so disposed as to be intensely sensitive to harmony, inclination, yearning, aversion, passionate desire and antipathy. All this is common knowledge; it is immediately observable in the moods which successively control every man, and to which we all accommodate ourselves successfully. Allâh Himself says, “It is He that created you of one soul, and fashioned thereof its spouse, that he might find repose in her” (Qur’ân – 7:189). Be it noted that the reason God assigns for man’s reposing in woman is that she was made out of him.

If the cause of Love were physical desire, the consequence would be that no body defective in any shape or form would attract admiration; yet we know of many a man actually preferring the inferior article, though well aware that another is superior, and quite unable to turn his heart away from it. Again, if Love were due to a harmony of characters, no man would love a person who was not of like purpose and in concord with him. We therefore conclude that Love is something within the soul itself.

Sometimes, it is true, Love comes as a result of a definite cause outside the soul, but then it passes away when the cause itself disappears: one who is fond of you because of a certain circumstance will turn his back on you when that motive no longer exists…

...The noblest sort of Love is that which exists between persons who love each other in God; either because of an identical zeal for the righteous work upon which they are engaged, or as the result of a harmony in sectarian belief and principles, or by virtue of a common possession of some noble knowledge. Next to this is the love which springs from kinship; then the love of familiarity and the sharing of identical aims; the love of comradeship and acquaintance; the love which is rooted in a benevolent regard for one’s fellow; the love that results from coveting the loved one’s worldly elevations; the love that is based upon a shared secret which both must conceal; love for the sake of getting enjoyment and satisfying desire; and passionate love, that has no other cause but that union of souls to which we have referred above.

All these varieties of Love come to an end when their causes disappear, and increase or diminish with them; they are intensified according to the degree of their proximity, and grow languid as their causes draw further and further away. The only exception is the Love of true passion, which has the mastery of the soul: this is the love which passes not away save with death. You will find a man far advanced in years, who swears that he has forgotten love entirely; yet when you remind him of it, he calls that love back to mind, and is rejoiced; he is filled with youthful desire; his old emotion returns to him; his yearning is mightily stirred. In none of the other sorts of love does anything like this happen: that mental preoccupation, that derangement of the reason, that melancholia, that transformation of settled temperaments, and alteration of natural dispositions, that moodiness, that sighing, and all the other symptoms of profound agitation which accompany passionate love.

All this proves that true Love is a spiritual approbation, a fusion of souls. It may be objected, that if Love were as I have described, it would be exactly equal in both the parties concerned, since the two parts would be partners in the act of union and the share of each would be the same. To this I reply, that the objection is indeed well-founded; but the soul of the man who loves not one who loves him is beset on all sides by various accidents which occlude, and veils that encompass it about, those earthly temperaments which now overlay it, so that his soul does not sense that part which was united with it before it came to occupy its present lodging-place. Had his soul been liberated from these restrictions, the two would have been equal in their experience of union and love. As for the lover, his soul is indeed free and aware of where that other is that shared with it in ancient proximity; his soul is ever seeking for the other, striving after it, searching it out, yearning to encounter it again, drawing it to itself if might be as a magnet draws the iron.

The essential force of the magnet, when in contact with the essential force of the iron, is not so strong or so refined as to seek out after the iron, for all that the iron is of the self-same kind and element; it is the force of iron, by virtue of its natural strength, that reaches out after its kind and is drawn towards it. Movement always takes place from the side of the more powerful. The force of iron, when left to itself and not prevented by any restriction, seeks out what resembles itself and with single-minded devotion, so to speak, hasten towards it; this it does naturally and necessarily, not out of free choice and set purpose. When you hold back the iron in your hand it is no longer attracted to the magnet, because the force it possesses is not sufficient to overcome the stronger force holding it back. When the particles of iron are numerous, one group of these is fully occupied with the other and all are adequately satisfied by their own kind, and do not care to seek after that small portion of their forces standing at a distance from them. When the mass of the magnet is large, however, and its forces are a match for all the forces lying within the iron’s mass, the iron reverts to its accustomed nature.

Similarly the fire which is latent in the flint, in spite of the force belonging to fire to unite and to summon together its scattered parts wherever they may be, does not in fact issue from the flint until the latter is struck. When the two masses press and rub closely against each other, the fire is liberated; otherwise it remains latent within the flint, and does not show or manifest itself at all.

My theory is further proved by the fact that you will never find two persons in love with one another without there being some likeness and agreement of natural attributes between them. This condition must definitely obtain, even if only to a small degree; the more numerous the resemblances, the greater will be their congeniality and the firmer their affection. It is only necessary to look for this, and you will see it quite plainly on all hands. The Messenger of Allâh () confirmed the matter when he said, “Spirits are regimented battalions; those who know one another associate familiarly together, while those who which do not know one another remain at variance.” A saint is reported as having said, “The spirits of believers know one another.”

For the same reason Hippocrates was not distressed when he was told of a man deficient in virtue who was in love with him. The matter being remarked upon, he said, “He would not have fallen in love with me if I had not accorded with him in some aspect of my character.” Plato relates how a certain king threw him in prison unjustly, and he did not cease to argue his case until he proved his innocence, and the king realized that he had been unjust to him. The minister who had charged himself with conveying Plato’s words to the monarch exclaimed, “O king, it has now become evident to you that he is innocent; what more lies between you and him?” The king answered, “Upon my life, I have nothing against him, except that I feel within myself and inexplicable disgust with him.” The minister reported this saying to Plato. The latter remarked, continuing his story, “So I was obliged to search within my soul and my character for some thing resembling his soul and his character, which might be a point of correspondence between us. I considered his character, and observed that he loved equity and hated injustice. I diagnosed the same disposition within myself; and no sooner did I set this point of agreement into motion and confront his soul with this characteristic which he possessed in common with me, than he gave orders for my release.” Plato related that the king then said to his minister, “All the antipathy against him that I formerly felt within me has now been dissolved.”

As for what causes Love in most cases to choose a beautiful form to light upon, it is evident that the soul itself being beautiful, it is affected by all beautiful things, and has a yearning for perfect symmetrical images; when it sees any such image, it fixes itself upon it; then, it discerns behind that image something of its own kind, it becomes united and true love is established. If however the soul does not discover anything of its own kind behind the image, its affection goes no further than the form, and remains mere carnal desire. Indeed, physical forms have a wonderful faculty of drawing together scattered parts of men’s souls.

I have read in the first book of Pentateuch how the Prophet Jacob, during the days when he was watching his uncle Laban’s sheep, to be a dowry for his uncle’s daughter, entered into an engagement with Laban that he should share with him the offspring of the flock; all the lambs that were of a single colour would belong to Jacob, while every lamb born with a white blaze was to fall to Laban. Now Jacob would lay hold of the tree branches and strip off the bark of a half, and leave the other half as they were; then he cast all into the water whither the sheep came down to drink. He would contrive to send the pregnant ewes down to drink at that time; and they would give birth in due course half to single-coloured lambs, and half to lambs marked with a blaze.

It is also related that a certain physiognomist had brought before him a black child, whose parents were both white. He examined his features, and saw that the infant undoubtedly belonged to the pair; then he desired to be acquainted with the place where the parents had lain down together. He was brought into the house where their marriage-bed was, and observed facing the woman’s field of vision the picture of a black man painted on the wall. He at once remarked to the father, “It is on account of this picture that you have had such a son born to you.”…

Precisely the same thing is to be found in the case of Hatred: you will see two persons hating one another for no basic cause or reason whatsoever, but simply because the one has a wholly irrational antipathy for the other.

Love – may God exalt you! – is in truth a baffling ailment, and its remedy is in strict accord with the degree to which it is treated; it is a delightful malady, a most desirable sickness. Whoever is free of it likes not to be immune, and whoever is struck down by it yearns not to recover. Love represents as glamorous that which a man formerly disdained, and renders easy for him that which he hitherto found hard; so that it even transforms established temperaments and inborn dispositions, as shall be set forth briefly in its own appropriate chapter, God willing.

Among my acquaintances I once knew a youth who was bogged down in love and stuck fast to toils; passion had grievously affected him, sickness had worn him out. Yet his soul found no comfort in praying to Almighty God to remove his afflictions; his tongue was not loosed in any petition for deliverance. His only prayer was to be united with and to be possessed of the one he loved, despite the enormity of his sufferings and the long protraction of his cares. (What is one to think of the sick man who desires not to be rid of his sickness?). One day I was seated with him, and felt so distressed at the visible evidence of his miserable condition, his head cast down, his staring eyes, that I said to him (among other things), “May Allâh grant you relief!” I at once observed in his face the marks of strong displeasure with what I had said…

What I have described is the exact opposite of what Abű Bakr Muhammad ibn Qâsim ibn Muhammad al-Qurashee once told me in reference to his own case. (He is the man better known as al-Shabanisee, a descendant of Imâm Hishâm ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahmân ibn Mu‘âwiyyah). He declared that he had never loved anyone, never grieved to be separated from any friend, and never in all his life transgressed the limits of association and comradeship to penetrate the bounds of love and passionate affection.

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