M. R. Menocal, a scholar on medieval history and culture, says: “Many Spaniards and many Hispanists, following their lead, have wished to view the eight hundred years of Islamic presence as a negative period in their history, a moment of alien intrusion that, if it cannot be erased, can at least be made to disappear in our historiographical fictions.”1 It is a must to realize that we live in a post-Reconquista era, where many sources got lost or excluded from academia, in order to understand what lies under European culture. Church’s censorship and dominant ideology led people’s belief to accept a myth of Islam being antagonistic to European culture. Even though Hispano-Arabic influence was later admitted from revision, Islam as a fundamental part of this influence was considered as one of the components in the background, which alienates this culture from its essence. However, there is something in this historical drama that remains particularly valuable and especially meaningful to a Muslim European, who wishes to reconcile the two complex realities – Islam and European culture. And the world of Al-Andalus in a close approach provides many topics to reflect on.

When historical events and cultural aspect of it are thought, the global effect is often times ignored. Muslim Spain, as a civilizational project, was the last outpost of Islam, and this phenomenon should be more accurately considered this way. Menocal states that due to “the anachronistic belief, as an appendage of the Oriental world of Islam” Al-Andalus was never seen as an integral part of Europe. In order to see what is the wrong belief in the intellectual isolation, it requires an attempt to break things down “by providing examples of music, literature, scholarship, culture and other elements that reveal ties between the two cultures.”2

Ibn Hazm Al-Andalusi, one of the most prominent scientists in the Islamic history, not only represents a gestalt of Islamic civilization, as a scholar, a poet, and a warrior, he also had a clear non-Arab self-consciousness and cultural code. According to the most grounded opinion, his family was of an Iberian Christian background, and his works reflect on so-called Arab-muwalladi antagonism, which is typical for the racially mixed society of Al-Andalus. In the preface to his famous treatise on love The Ring of the Dove, he says, “Spare me those tales of Bedouins, and of lovers long ago! Their ways, not our ways, and the stories told of them are too numerous in any case. It is not my practice to wear out anybody’s riding-beast but my own: I am not one of those who decks themselves up in borrowed plumes.”

The Ring of the Dove deserves more attention and work to be written about it since its influence extends beyond the culture of Al-Andalus of 11th century. There are recent academic works, such as the one by Daniel Hickman that not only states The Ring of the Dove’s profound impact on the European Medieval literature, with numerous textual examples, but also provides a hypothesis of its influence on Christian thought and philosophy.

It is worth mentioning, why such a literary genre as a treatise on love had a great importance in the past. To start with, a particular literary and social code of behavior that later became known under the general term of courtesy, emerged from European Medieval lyric poetry. Of course this courtesy was influenced from various other traditions like Neo-Platonic and Ovidian. Though, the core of any courtesy is likely to be Islamic, as it is not as much about sensuality, but about forging the character. The very idea of ennobling power of love as an essential part of European courtly culture, seems to be taken from Ibn Hazm’s work rather than authors like Andrea Capellanus, who considered ennobling in the meaning of social hierarchy, due to the seeking love from women of higher social rank.

There is a big misunderstanding regarding Ibn Hazm’s treatise that requires an explanation. For example, Juan Ruiz, a medieval Castilian poet, and archpriest, thought that Ibn Hazm’s work was mostly about adultery since Ibn Hazm clearly does not consider marriage as a necessary element of courtly love. In Islam, there is no concept of adultery as in Christianity, and in the historical context, the relationship does not necessarily require marriage as long as it is firm within Shariah law bounds. (There is a distinction in the law between spouses and “those whom one’s right hands possess”, i.e. slave girls).

I can tell you with regard to myself, that in my youth I enjoyed the loving friendship of a certain slave-girl who grew up in our house, and who at the time of my story was sixteen years of age. She had an extremely pretty face, and was moreover intelligent, chaste, pure, shy, and of the sweetest disposition; she was not given to jesting, and most sparing of her favours; She had a wonderful complexion, which she always kept closely veiled; innocent of every vice, and of very few words, she kept her eyes modestly cast down. Moreover, she was extremely cautious, and guiltless of all faults, ever maintaining a serious mien; charming in her withdrawal, she was naturally reserved, and most graceful in repelling unwelcome advances. She seated herself with becoming dignity, and was most sedate in her behavior; the way she fled from masculine attentions like a startled bird was delightful to behold. No hopes of easy conquest were to be entertained so far as she was concerned; none could look to succeed in his ambitions if these were aimed in her direction; eager expectation found no resting-place in her. Her lovely face attracted all hearts, but her manner kept at arm’s length all who came seeking her; she was far more glamorous in her refusals and rejections than those other girls, who rely upon easy compliance and the ready lavishing of their favours to make them interesting to men. In short, she was dedicated to earnestness in all matters, and had no desire for amusement of any kind; for all that she played the lute most beautifully. I found myself irresistibly drawn towards her, and loved her with all the violent passion of my youthful heart. For two years or thereabouts I laboured to the utmost of my powers to win one syllable of response from her, to hear from her lips a single word, other than the usual kind of banalities that may be heard by everyone; but all my efforts proved in vain”. 

The most remarkable fact here is that, European culture later adopted an example of attitude towards women of noble origin (open any chivalric romance – that’s how they were describing daughters of kings), which in Al-Andalus culture of the 11th century was a normal attitude towards slave girls.

Hickman, concludes with admitting that Islam influence the traditional role of women in European cultures by giving them voice and respect. “Empowerment of women received its inspiration in part from the tolerant and progressive society of Islamic Spain.” And this influence happened through works like Ibn Hazm’s neo-platonic love and carnal love emerging into one concept.

In the preface to his treatise, Ibn Hazm explains the reason of writing on such a subject, an atypical thing of him to do compared to his other and more serious works on law and philosophy, he says that it is a response to his friend’s request. He also cites the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) hadith about leisure:

“Rest your souls from time to time: they are apt to rust, in the same way that steel rusts.”

It becomes clear for us, that how powerful the effect of this leisure was in historical perspective. If only we had Muslim intellectuals who would spend their leisure during the spared time on at least one tens of such benefit today, we would be able to change a lot.

Daria Rusanova

1 Menocal, María  Rosa, “The  Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History:  A Forgotten Heritage”, Philadelphia: University  of   Pennsylvania, 1987. 

2 Daniel Hickman, “Ibn Hazm: an Islamic Source and Courtly Love”, University of Tennessee, 2014.

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