Arabian Nights: As a Culture We Are Obsessed with Love, but It Is Not the Western Variety We Might like to Believe. This Valentine's Day, We Would Do Well to Remember That Islam's Most Successful Export Is Not Fundamentalism but Romance

By Tallis, Frank | New Statesman (1996), February 9, 2004 | Go to article overview

Arabian Nights: As a Culture We Are Obsessed with Love, but It Is Not the Western Variety We Might like to Believe. This Valentine's Day, We Would Do Well to Remember That Islam's Most Successful Export Is Not Fundamentalism but Romance


Tallis, Frank, New Statesman (1996)


Islam has become associated with al-Qaeda and the constant threat of terrorist attack. For many, Islam and hatred have become synonymous. Yet historically, Islam's principal gift to the west was, and still is, love. On 14 February we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, Arabs--because when we celebrate romantic love, we are also celebrating an Arab tradition that swept over the Pyrenees in the Middle Ages and completely changed the way we think about intimate relationships.

Cultural historians insist that romantic love is a western innovation, created in the 13th and 14th centuries by the troubadours of southern France. In fact, the first great love songs were performed not by these itinerant French entertainers, but by Bedouin Arabs around 500 years earlier. Indeed, the word "troubadour" is very probably derived from the Arabic word "tarab", meaning musical enchantment.

Convention has it that the troubadours infiltrated the court of Poitiers, where Eleanor of Aquitaine and, later, her daughter Marie de Champagne ensured that the pursuit of romantic love would become the major preoccupation of western civilisation. However, in eighth-century Baghdad, the love poetry of the Bedouin had already inspired a thriving courtly tradition. The poet al-Abbas composed love songs for Harun al-Rashid (the caliph immortalised in The Thousand and One Nights), and the nature of true love was a frequently debated topic.

Arab love poetry often appeared in anthologies--much as it does today. An influential collection was the Masari al-Ushshaq by the tenth-century poet al-Sarraj. The word "masari" connotes "throwing to the ground" or "falling"--thus Arabs were "falling in love" 600 years before the English, who started to do so only after the scholar John Palsgrave introduced the term "to fall in love" in the 16th century.

By the 11th century, Islamic authors were writing love poetry on a much grander scale. These extended works are conspicuously similar to the medieval romances that eventually came out of the court at Poitiers. Arthurian legend has its roots not in a landscape of rolling hills and fairy-tale castles, but in the desert.

The most influential of these early Islamic romances is Layla and Majnun, a story neglected by almost everyone in the west with the exception, surprisingly, of Eric Clapton, for whom it was the inspiration for the hit song "Layla".

Layla and Majnun began life as a collection of independent but related tales about Kais (the "majnun", or romantic fool) and Layla, a Bedouin princess. The story is now best known in a version composed by the 12th-century Persian poet Niza, who took the traditional tales and linked them together with some new ones of his own to produce a longer narrative.

Layla and Majnun contains almost all of the characteristics that became the hallmarks of romantic or courtly literature: love at first sight; a love triangle; forbidden love; idealisation; lovesickness; restless wandering; lack of consummation; and a tragic end. Scenes from Layla and Majnun have surfaced in almost all of the great love stories of the western canon, from Tristan and Isolde to Romeo and Juliet.

A crucial feature of romantic love is that it is supposed to be eternal, which is why rings (having no beginning or end) and precious stones (being immutable) are used to celebrate engagement and marriage. Plato was the first to suggest that love has a spiritual dimension, and yet this idea was not taken up with very much enthusiasm by the classical poets, who were far more interested in the carnal aspects of love (Ovid's "The Art of Love", for example, is really a seduction manual). …

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Arabian Nights: As a Culture We Are Obsessed with Love, but It Is Not the Western Variety We Might like to Believe. This Valentine's Day, We Would Do Well to Remember That Islam's Most Successful Export Is Not Fundamentalism but Romance
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