‘Religion of Love’ Talk Examines Arabic Love Poetry

The theme of love persists throughout Arabic poetry and literature. Professor Michael Sells discussed that theme on Tuesday, paying particular attention to the poetry of Ibn Zaydun and Ibn al-‘Arabi. The religion of love, in different forms, is a common thread that links much of Arabic culture together, Sells said.

“Many of the Arabic poets from the pre-Islamic period to the present rivaled one another in something they called the ‘religion of love,'” he said. “What the religion of love meant in each case was very different.”

Arabic love poetry refers to a certain kind of theme, mood, and genre of poem. Sells, the John Henry Barrows professor of Islamic history and literature at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, teaches and studies the Quran, mysticism, Arabic and Islamic love poetry, mystical literature, and religion and violence. He has written several books and translations on these topics.

Sells attended a Jesuit high school in Portland, Ore. so that he could study Homeric Greek and Latin. The school applied these ancient languages to the real world by teaching students that internalizing the rhythms of Homeric Greek will help with future studies in business, writing, and medicine. The students were required to memorize some verses. This ritual of memorization is also practiced with Muslim and Arabic poetry, although often the memorization comes unconsciously from hearing the verses so many times, he said.

“I meet people all the time who can recite thousands of verses of Muslim poetry,” he said. “People still today attend mushairas-competitions in reciting this kind of poetry.”

The themes of love in these ancient poems are still relevant in today’s culture, according to Sells.

“Some of the music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have that kind of theme,” he said. “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Waiting For a Miracle’ or ‘There Ain’t No Cure For Love’-these are the same themes that anchor all the poetry.”

The poets he discussed rival each other in the religion of love. These poets offer an interesting window into the two worlds of Islamic poetry, he said.
The majority of Ibn Zaydun’s poems are viewed as love poems written to the daughter of the caliph of Moorish Spain. Just because a love poem is directed toward one person, however, does not mean it cannot apply to many other things, Sells said.

“If it’s a poem that made a central impression on the canon, it would have universal aspects where the beloved is also many other things, including a lost homeland or a lost youth or any kind of object of infinite longing,” he said. “This kind of longing is at the heart of this poetry.”

The daughter of the caliph eventually turned against Ibn Zaydun, and he was exiled, Sells said.

“You can feel the exile in his poetry as well as the longing and love,” he said.

Sells read aloud sections from his translation of Ibn Zaydun’s work in both English and Arabic to demonstrate the cadence of this genre of poetry. The shifting in perspective of the speaker is a common theme of this kind of poetry. The speaking could shift from third person to first person or from the plural to the singular, he said.

“This kind of constant shifting of persona provides a sense of drama within the poetry and a sense of constant lucidness,” Sells said. “The persona of the poet is appearing and disappearing in many guises, as is the persona of the beloved.”

Ibn al-‘Arabi, the other poet Sells discussed, tended to write very dark poems. Ibn al-‘Arabi, who was from a well-off family and educated in Seville, eventually converted to Sufism and split from his family to wander through Morocco, Jerusalem, and other parts of the Islamic world. He made his first pilgrimage to Mecca during the middle part of his life, Sells said.

“These wanderings were like global universities,” he said. “After his experience in Mecca, he began publishing and he established one of the most extraordinary publishing enterprises in the classical Islamic world in Damascus.”

All of these poems can be read as either secular or mystical love poems. After he was criticized for writing sensual poetry, Ibn al-‘Arabi wrote a commentary that connected his poems to metaphysics and to mystical psychology, Sells said.

“Every kiss, every pouring of wine, every beautiful glance, every flirtation is part of the mystical power,” Sells said. “I think that all of that is true.”

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Carolyn Freeman was the Editor-in-Chief for The Heights in 2016. You can follow her on Twitter at @carolynrfreeman. She drinks her coffee iced with chocolate soy milk.