“Of Love, may God exalt you, the first part is jesting, and the last part is right earnestness.”
In the secret exchange of a glance, the imperceptible movement of the head, of the hand, the lightness of a word that feels as sharp as a sword, the madness, the happiness, the desperation, we find the keys of a different dimension of loving, far away from ours, both in the ideas and in time.
The most famous narrator of this world, of the courtly manners of Cordoba, of the gracious and terrible love and of the society in al-Andalus is Ibn Ḥazm. Descendant of a very powerful family, he stands out in the cultural and political scene of al-Andalus, influencing generations with his concepts and ideas, being the codifier of the laws of courtly love for ages.
As the Spanish scholar E. Garcia Gomez pointed out, Ibn Ḥazm lived “the most tragic moments of Muslim Spain” and “the decisive crisis of Islam in Andalusia”, and was strongly influenced by this historical conjunction. In fact, in Andalusia of the 11th century, we find the Islamic dominion divided in what Historians later called Mulūk al-Ṭawā‘if. This period started with the end of the rule of Al-Manṣūr Ibn Abī ‘Āmir in 1009/399 and brought to the formation of a great number of small kingdoms. After the disappearance of the Caliphate institution in 1031/422, the idea of unity of Al-Andalus was lost and more than 40 Ṭawā‘if appeared, but as the century wore on, the smallest kingdoms were absorbed and conquered by others, and, in the end, almost all the kingdoms were conquered by the North African dynasty of Almoravids.
This event caused a state of deep division in the Ummayad Caliphate of Spain and, in fact, ended its existence. The revolt against the Mansurids brought the power back to the Umayyads for almost twenty years but weakened the already shaken Caliphate of Al-Andalus. Although the period of “Taifas” was a moment of political weakness for Al-Andalus, it was very lively from a cultural point of view. Exchanges, not always peaceful, between the realms supported the exchange of ideas, religious conceptions, and literary innovations.
The strong presence of many different ethical groups, such as Arabs and Berbers, as well as communities of Christians and Jews, but also the desire to imitate the patronage of the Ummayads and the Mansurids led to a competition among the different kingdoms to support Arts and Literature. The latter flourished and there were many innovations and a great number of poems and anthologies. In this period, the strophic structure was introduced together with non-standard Arabic forms and even Romance expression, used in poems such as Zağal and the Muwššaḥ. In this panorama of political conflict and division, the lively cultural life remained united in the whole peninsula as well as with the rest of the Islamic World.
So, in this age, Ibn Ḥazm (994-1064) grew up and carried out his formation, his life and shaped his ideas and principles. Ibn Ḥazm is considered as one of the most influential intellectuals from that time, first for his work as a theologian, as he codified the Ẓāhirī doctrine, but also for his work as a philosopher, historian, and poet. His father, Ahmad bin Sa’id was a faithful vizier of the Ummayyads and so when the Caliph Hišām was overthrown, they had to leave their palace in Madīnah Al-Zahrā‘, the Caliphate capital, and flee from the town.
From this moment, Ibn Ḥazm was forced to run from one town to another, through the disintegration of the Ummayad Caliphate in Andalusia. He supported an Umayyad insurgency against the Berbers, he was vizier under the rule of ‘Abd Al-Raḥman IV, ‘Abd Al-Raḥman V and Hišām Al-Mu’tadd, and he spent several periods in prison due to his loyalty to the Umayyads. In the end, due to his experience as a vizier, he became disillusioned with politics and retired to a life of study, but remained an outstanding figure, denouncing political impostures and standing out as an independent thinker. He returned to the land of his family in Manta Līšam, where he was even unable to teach due to some restriction applied to him.
He died there after having composed 400 works, according to his son Abū Rāfi’. In this last period, he probably started writing one of his most famous works, Ṭawq Al-Ḥamāmah, the “Collar of the Dove”. This book, which belongs to the genre of “ Code of Love”, is very representative of this genre but also standing out of it. The deepness of reflection, the presence of personal experiences and the strong moral and religious teachings mark the difference with the other works of this kind, which are closer to a theoretical description of love and full of standardized forms and stories on the different kinds of love. Through this treatise, Ibn Ḥazm codified his ideas about courtly love and gave the possibility of looking into a different conception of Love. The book is a Mašrabiyya, a window open on this different world, giving us a glimpse on the ways of Andalusian Love.
The book is structured in thirty chapters, of different lengths, some of 7 lines, others as long as short treaties. In every chapter, the author follows a quite rigid system, where there is a first part talking about the psychology of love, such as his origin, or his ways of doing, his ways of growing and of dying out. The second chapter further explains the theory bringing examples, usually in the form of historical anecdotes, known as Ḫabar, very used in medieval literature as proof of the notions previously explained. Then the structure of the chapters is completed by the insertion of poems, written by the author himself. He then divides the thirty chapters into four parts, about the essence of Love, the attribute of Love and its accidents, the dangers threatening Love and, in the end, moral and religious considerations on Love. Such a rigid structure can probably be connected with the studies of Ibn Ḥazm. Being a theologian and an expert of Islamic Law, he probably kept this attitude of using a rigid structure to express his ideas. Moreover, the case system on which Islamic Law is based may have influenced the author in always reporting examples to support his theories.
Despite this structure, the book has a simple and clear style, making it easy and pleasant to read, while the insertion of poems is giving it an agile attitude. Woven in this rigid narrative structure of the book are hints on the shadowy paths of the gardens of courtly love. Since the beginning of the treatise, the influence of neo-platonic philosophy on the thought of the author is quite clear and, indeed, describing the essence of Love, Ibn Ḥazm goes back to the platonic idea of the two matching souls.
“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 of their original sublime element”.
Then he continues arguing about how love is directly linked to the soul, and on its higher and true level, not influenced by earthly matters, such as beauty or affinity in thoughts, showing how he was still influenced by conceptions such as ‘Uḏrī love or chaste ideals as well. At the same time, Ibn Ḥazm is dealing with profane love, deeply connected with beauty and pleasures of the flesh.
With its tendency of dwelling in the two dimensions of a higher level of love and another level, related to physical dimension, the whole work reflects the life of the author. Ibn Ḥazm, since he had to leave the comfort of Madīnah Al-Zahrā‘, was forced to face the reality of life and, through his political activity, had to get in touch with the best and the worst sides of human nature, all this without losing his moral and ethical principles. So, this is the real spirit of this work and the influence that the times had on an author. As we can see from his life and career, he always tried to be involved with the life of his time, exactly as his work is involved with the physical and more human dimension of Love. The Collar of the Dove never gives the impression of being an abstract treatise on the metaphysical essence of Love but, at the same time, it does not even omit this aspect, exactly as his author never forgets his principles and stays true to them even when the price is very high. This two complementary sides of both, the author’s life and the Collar of the Dove, remind the well known distinction between Bāṭin and Ẓāhir, the interior and the exterior aspect, where one is complementary to the other, and the exterior aspect is always hiding a deeper dimension, such as the idea of love in the Ṭawq Al-Ḥamāmah.
The last aspect to be considered about this masterpiece is that it gives us some valued social, anthropological and psychological information. Indeed, the book is a very interesting fresco of the society of that time and gives us the possibility of looking into the customs and mores of different social layers. This aspect is related to the background of the author, who grew up close to the harem in the Caliphate court and had a privileged point of observation of the rules of Love and of the courtly manners of nobles. In such position, he was able to collect stories and anecdotes to explain the nature of this life. On the other hand, he was able to observe other social classes while running from one town to the other, as well as during his time in prison.
This aspect of the meticulous description of the social dimension of love at that time is probably one of the most interesting aspects regarding this book because it allows us to compare the two different societies, ours and the Andalusian one, and the two different conceptions of Love and to look for teachings in it. In the end, reading nowadays a work like this one, we find out that compared to that time the conception of Love is not so different, we are still strongly influenced by the Platonic ideas, but what is really different and what really Ibn Ḥazm is showing us, is the way of approaching Love.
The process that the reader is going through reading Ṭawq Al-Ḥamāmah is a formation process, he is learning the ways of Love, what he should say, what he should not say, what to do and what not, contrasting with our idea of total sincerity in Love, of total openness. Because here the difference, much more subtle, lies in the differentiation between the two levels, the interior, and the exterior, without any contradiction if the exterior one is just formal and the reality lies in the interior one.
So Ibn Ḥazm, in his work, is giving us a code to read the language of Love, a map to stay on the right path. What is shown is that even if Love is a pure and high feeling, it connects with our souls, we cannot approach it without being prepared, we have to be educated to Love, to its ways of speaking, to its ways of acting, in general, to his exterior aspect. As a man of Law, Ibn Ḥazm explains to us the rules of this game of Love, he gives us the reasons, the class, and the cases, and with the elegance and the patience of a teacher, he speaks to us in the language of the players of Love. By Pietro Menghini
A. R. Gibb, J. H. Kramers, E. Lévi-Provençal, J. Schacht (Edited by), The Encyclopedia of Islam, Leiden E.J. Brill, 1986
D.K. Petrof, Tawk Al-hamam, J.Brill-Leide, 1914
Ibn Hazm, trans. By A.J. Arberry, The ring of the Dove, Luzac and Company
Nazan Yildiz, A Bird after Love: Ibn’ Hazm’s The Ring of the Dove and the Roots of Courtly Love, Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies Vol 2 No 8, MCSER Publishing, Rome-Italy, 2013