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Fatema Mernissi

Love in Digital Islam: Why Ibn Hazm is a Success on the Internet

New conclusion to the book L'amour dans les pays musulmans
© Fatema Mernissi, April 2008

I was enjoying fresh grilled sardines at the Miramar Beach eight kilometers from Rabat with my colleague Kamal, an expert on Medieval Arabic treatises on love, when my cell phone rang. Out of courtesy I asked Kamal if I might reply, because I had invited him in order to extract some information for a film scenario on the loves a Caliph who scandalized Damascus in the winter of 724 CE, when he decided to die after his beloved Hababa passed away. The Caliph was Yazid II Ibn Abd el Malik, the 9th inheritor of the Umayyad dynasty's throne: "When Hababa died and was taken to her tomb, Yazid was unable to walk or ride on a horse so crushed was he to the point that they had to put him on people's shoulders to take him to the Minbar (prayer pulpit)."(1) The price of the lunch by the waves would spare me hours of research in the dark libraries of Mohammed V University. The telephone call was from my Casablanca editor: she wanted to publish my book "Love in the Muslim World" as a paperback to target the millions of Moroccan youth who dash to the beaches in the summer.

"But Layla," I shouted, "this book is more than twenty years old! The young people you are targeting with your paperbacks aren't interested any more in Ibn Hazm! That Andalusian love expert, who is my main reference, was born in 384 AH (994 CE) in Cordoba, the Spanish city where the Umayyad caliphs reigned after they conquered Andalusia in 756 CE. Young Arabs, my dear, spend their time watching video clips on the 465 Panarab TV channels or chatting on the Internet."(2) And to make sure that Layla would give up her project, I added that at least "192 of these Arab channels flood our youth with a 24 hours non-stop deluge of superficial programs" which promote Western multinationals consumerism which clashes totally with Ibn Hazm's romantic message of love.(3)

Ibn Hazm's Ulfa is about empathy and tenderness: He dismisses Love at first sight as ridiculous.

Ibn Hazm defines love as Ulfa in the very title of his book (fi-l-Ulfa-wa-l-Ullaf), which literally means in Arabic 'to become attached to someone' (lazimahu) (4). To do so you have to use your aql to bring your partner to trust you enough to allow you to get closer! A synonymous of Ulfa is Uns, the very root of the Arabic word for human being: insan. Al Anasu, the human, is by definition the creature who does not live in solitude like a savage animal (wahsha). (5)

And no wonder, Ibn Hazm dismisses "love at first sight" as utterly ridiculous because it confuses love (hub) with desire (hawa): "I indeed marvel profoundly at all those who pretend to fall in love at first sight. I cannot easily prevail upon myself to believe their claim, and prefer to consider such love as merely a kind of lust."(7) And he is convinced that when you use your aql and manage to create a stable relation, you don't feel the need to either get new friends or buy new clothes: "Similarly I have never longed for a change for change's sake, in any of the things that I have possessed, I am speaking here not only of friends and comrades, but also of all the other things a man uses-clothes, riding-beast, food, and so on."(8)

Ibn Hazm's love is the opposite of our modern "pleasure at any cost" consumerist brainwashing!

I was convinced that my romantic Ibn Hazm had no chance in our satellite-tuned and Western ad-fueled Arab world. Ulfa is the total opposite of giving in blindly to desire because you need to negotiate with the other. The danger of attraction is that: "Your love for something makes you blind and deaf".(9) You need to summon your aql (reason) to avoid self-destruction. And vanishing in pleasures is exactly what consumerist ads brainwash you to do: "The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself." (10)

Ibn Hazm has no chance today, I was convinced, because his Ulfa is about altruistic love and community-building while consumerist ads brainwash us to vanish into individualist and egoistic self-love. And Western psychoanalysts are the first ones to witness the devastating impact of consumerist advertising that reduces humans to tragically solitary "Shopaholics" because they confuse love with compulsive acquisition. (11) The French psychoanalyst Charles Melman tracks the very problem of the modern youth who flood his office as due precisely to their being constantly bombarded by advertising which programs them to seek mindless and soulless "pleasure at any cost". (12) In his book "L'homme Sans Gravité: jouir à tout prix", Melman cautions Western parents and decision-makers that they are destroying their own youth because of "le traitement volontiers business-like des relations amoureuses".(13) Whence my conclusion that the famous conflict Mr. Samuel Huntington sells as a "Clash of Civilizations" (West/Islam) is in fact a clash between Aql, rational thinking, and consumerist advertising! Islam, just like the scientific Western civilization, encourages us to develop our aql so as to fight desire: "The one who is not ruled by his aql (reason) is destroyed by what he loves most", stressed the Imams such as Ibn al Jawziya (born in 691 AH/1292 CE), who carried up to the 14th century Ibn Hazm's tradition of writing treaties on love.(14) And Ibn al-Jawziya, just like any science-worshipping Western scholar, stressed that "fighting desire increases one's physical and emotional power and makes one eloquent as well."(15)

Now, to come back to the West, its rationalist tradition is challenged now by consumerism. According to C. Melman, the market promises to maximize the pleasures ('assurer le plus de jouir') and nothing is forbidden anymore ('il n'ya plus d'interdit') since the father whose function is to link 'desire to the law' has lost his authority. Hospitals are flooded with 15% of the French population who suffer from depression.(16) So, if the Westerners themselves are incapable of stopping the confusion of love with the irrational consumption which disturbs their children, how can one expect that our own Arab youth, brainwashed daily by advertising on the televisions and internet, will care for Ibn Hazm's Ulfa?

And to finish the long telephone call with Layla, I concluded on a very pessimistic note: "My poor Ibn Hazm is condemned to the fate of dinosaurs who disappeared from our planet 65 millions years ago after 150 millions years of existence!"(17) Just then, Kamal shook my elbow to force me to read what he had hastily written on the back of the menu: "Fatema, you are a dinosaur! You are disconnected from the digital galaxy: Ibn Hazm's book on love is a best seller on the Internet!" I was so disturbed by his message that I couldn't talk properly any more. I decided to cut off my call with Layla and pay attention to Kamal.

"Listen, Layla, I'm in a restaurant. I'll call you later about the book."

How I overcame my chilling discovery that I was a dinosaur? By calling Jahiz 's 'Adab' strategy to my rescue!

I realized that I was furious when I could not replace the phone in my pocket because Kamal had insulted me, referring to my age and technology: "I am a dinosaur! How insolent and me disconnected!" grumbled an inner voice. "And he's only seven years younger than I. I'm sixty-seven and he's sixty. By what miracle could he be connected if I'm not even more so?" It's true that Kamal hasn't gained even a kilo and has kept his athletic figure of thirty-seven years ago when we both began to work at the University, while mine has expanded lavishly. But I've never read anything that links your ability to absorb digital technology with weight! And that is when I decided to master my anger first so as to practice Al Jahiz Adab strategy.

As a privileged Moroccan woman-educated by the Alem, the religious authorities of Qarawiyine University in Fez, who opened the first co-ed schools in the 1940s and invited the girls to enter into competition with the boys in the nationalist movement, which resulted in the country's liberation in 1956, I was initiated into the Sufi discipline: "Speak good or be silent."(18) So not a single impolite word against Kamal.

The Adab strategy consists in extracting the precious knowledge from the enemy and in my case it meant inducing arrogant Kamal to divulge his information no more on my love- entranced Caliph Yazid II as I planned initially, but about the unexpected digital upsurge of Ibn Hazm. The Adab was defined by Jahiz (AH 255, CE 868), one of the strategists who helped the Abbasid caliphs to create a Muslim empire which extended from Morocco to Kachgar in China by relying on" The Art of Communication", the title of one of his books, as "adding the knowledge in the mind of the other to yours."(19) The clever caliphs invested money in translating the books of their enemies from Sanskrit (Indians), Persian (Iranians) and Greek (Europeans) into Arabic, and they won. I will do the same with Kamal: enrich myself with his knowledge, even if I have to pay for the lunch bill, which jumped astronomically, when my host opted for a Pastilla.

"Who consumes Ibn Hazm's message? "Was my question to Kamal. "Apparently a lot of people do," he started," because a Google search I did recently this month of July 2007 revealed that in 0.10 seconds he was mentioned 198,000 times. Just think for a minute about the profile of his likely consumers: the millions of young Moslems who study or work far from their families and who need not only to understand love for the first time but also to get the information from a religious authority who has two striking features. The first is that Imam Ibn Hazm was young, barely 35, when he ran away from his war-torn childhood city of Cordoba to settle in the Spanish city of Jativa in 418AH (1027 C.E) to write his book. The second is that he was born in a chaotic Spain torn by wars between Spanish and Arabs and between Arabs and Berbers. His life was hectic just like Arab youth today because wars were going on non-stop since he witnessed the collapse of the Umayyad Dynasty in Andalus. And since he inherited his father's aristocratic position as a Wezier, he ended up in prison and exile many times, which may explain his obsession with altruistic love."(20)

Ibn Hazm's digital success is due to the failure of Western science: Ulfa versus 'opioid' and 'love detectors'

Apparently, if the satellite-relayed information technologies such as TV and the Internet have transformed our planet, love seems to resist these apocalyptic changes. And one reason for this is that Western science advertised by secular Europe as the solution to all our problems, failed miserably when it comes to teaching us how to love. "The Science of Romance: Why We Need to Love to Survive" was the huge title of February 4, 2008 "Time Magazine" cover. But I discovered, after reading it, that scientists confess not knowing much: "We have only a very limited understanding of what romance is in a scientific sense," admits John Bancroft, emeritus director of the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind., a place where they know a thing or two about the way human beings pair up.(21) Whence the success of expensive gadgets such as 'Love Detector': "South Korea's KTF has launched a seductive new service - rightfully dubbed Love Detector - for its subscribers which will actually "analyze voice patterns to see if a lover is speaking honestly and with affection." In an interesting twist, the data is actually only shown to the customer who coughs up 1.58 Dollar per month (or less per call)" (22). The problem with this gadget, just as it is with "Coaching", is that it pushes the person to vanish into egoistic self-love. The love arrow is directed towards the self when it comes to consumerism, while it is directed towards the other in the case of Ulfa. And this is why I propose that we start campaigning for a United Nations Ulfa Fund.

Conclusion: Shouldn't we start a campaign for a U.N.U.F ("United Nations Ulfa Fund) to insure altruistic love production?

Why there is so little love and so many wars on our planet? Don't you think it is time we start asking the United Nations to start a UNUF (United Nations Ulfa Fund) to fight what an Arab scholar calls "cultural pollution" and considers more dangerous than environmental pollution (23).

(1) My translation of Abi l'Faraj al Isbahani (d. 356 H / 976 CE): "Kitab al Aghani" (The Book of Songs) Dar Ihya' at-Thurat al-Arabi, 1963, vol. 15, p. 145
(2) Abigail Hauslohner: "The Arab Broadcast Forum 2007", Arab Media and Society, June 2007 (
(3) Prof. Sultan Belghit: "Role of the Panarab Televisions in promoting a globalization of Arab culture", in: "Sho'oun Arabiyya", N°131, Autumn 2007
(4) Ibn Manzour (d.711H/1311): "Lissan al 'Arab" (The Tongue of the Arabs), Dar al Ma'arif, Le Caire.
(5) Ibn Manzour, op.cit.
(6) Ibn Manzour, op.cit.
(7) Ibn Hazm: "Tawq al Hamama", introduced by Dr . Ihsan Abbas, al Muassassa al Arabiya li dirasat wa nachr, Beyrouth 1993. The English translation is by A.J. Aberry, Litt.D, F.B.A, "The Ring of the Dove: A Treatise on the Art and Practice of Arab Love", Luzac &Company , LTD, London.
(8) Ibn Hazm, op.cit. page 125 and p. 56 of the English translation
(9) Hadith reported by many sources
(10) John Berger: "Ways of Seeing", British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books in 1972. p. 134
(11) Try the quiz: "Are you a shopaholic? Quiz and facts on compulsive shopping" (
(12) Charles Melman: "L'Homme Sans Gravité", Folio Essais, Denoel, Paris 2005
(13) Charles Melman, op. cit., p 133.
(14) Imam Ibn Qayim al Jawziya: "Rawdat al Muhibbin" (The Garden of the Lovers), Dar al Kutub al 'ilmiya, Beyrouth, 1977. page 10
(15) Ibn al Jawziya, op.cit.
(16) "Le pére ....qui a la charge de nouer le désir à la loi...n'a plus d'autorité" : Charles Melman, p. 41 et 50.
(17) John C.Kricher: "Dinosaurs", Peterson First Guides, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1990.
(18) Sahih Bukhari (d. 256 of the Hijra), Al Maktaba al a'çriya, Beyouth1998.volume 8-page 39.
(19) Jahiz: "Kitab al Bayan wa Tabyin" (The Art of Communication and Demonstration), al-Maktaba al açriya,Lebanon, 2001. For a brief summary of Adab, see F. Mernissi: Is the Satellite Reawakening Sindbad? : Adab, or Allying with the Stranger as the Strategy to Win the Globalized Planet. Erasmus Speech 2004
(20) Ibn Hazm p.125, P. 56 of the English translation.
(21) Jeffrey Kluger: "The Science of Romance", in: Time Magazine Vol 171, N°5, 2008.
(23) Prof. Sultan Belghith, op.cit , p88.

© Fatema Merissi
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