The Story of a Jurist’s Loves in Islamic Spain

Polymath Ibn Hazm was a trailblazer in his profession in Spain, best known for austere Quranic interpretations. But his book ‘The Ring of the Dove’ showed a different side as he wrote candidly on love

The Story of a Jurist’s Loves in Islamic Spain
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Toward the end of the mid-17th century, amid complications in European-Ottoman relations, the Dutch Republic appointed a new ambassador in Istanbul named Levinus Warner to represent his country in the Ottoman court. He remained in that position for 22 years where, in addition to tracking the wars and developments of the Ottoman Empire, he became an avid collector of Arabic manuscripts.

When the great Ottoman scholar and encyclopedist Hajji Khalifa (also known as Katip Celebi) died in 1658, a rare treasure fell into Warner’s hands. Hajji Khalifa owned one of the largest private libraries in Istanbul, and Warner bought about 1,000 books from it.

Fortunately for readers and scholars alike, one of the rare books acquired in this massive purchase was “Tawq al-Hamama” (“The Ring of the Dove”), a book written by Andalusian polymath and jurist Ibn Hazm (994-1064). Considered one of the most genuine works on love and passion in Arabic, “The Ring of the Dove” remained a hidden gem at Leiden University’s library — where Warner’s collection ended up — until the early 19th century, when Dutch Orientalist Reinhart Dozy, a specialist in Andalusian history and civilization, published “Spanish Islam: A History of the Moslems in Spain.”

Dozy took the story of Ibn Hazm’s first love from “The Ring of the Dove” and translated it elegantly into French. The story then spread throughout all of Europe and was translated into German, Spanish and Russian, bringing Ibn Hazm’s book and Dozy international recognition.

Unlike his jurisprudential and fundamentalist works that made him one of the great founders of a Sunni school of jurisprudence known as the Zahiri school, which relies in its interpretation on the apparent or outward meaning of a religious text, “The Ring of the Dove” stands out as a work dealing with love and compassion in explicit and unabashed ways, chronicling the mental state of lovers and the author’s own romantic biography.

The impetus for writing this book came from a close friend, who asked Ibn Hazm to write “realistically on the description of love, its meanings, its causes and symptoms, and what happens to it and because of it,” as Ibn Hazm relates in the introduction. The book is not just about love: It ranges widely, including references to the sheikhs who taught Ibn Hazm, to public figures in Cordoba, the Islamic capital of Andalusia, historical references, important events, private parties, the urban planning of Cordoba, the homes of the Hazm family and their lifestyle. Such writing was uncommon in literature of the time.

A man of religion and scholarship, Ibn Hazm revealed that he initially hesitated to write about this thorny subject of love. It might not be useful to men of piety, and that would make it a futile effort, he explained. But despite this awkward moral and religious question, he decided to move forward with the project in defiance of traditions, customs and religious fanaticism.

It is such setbacks that make his work unique to this day. He broke all faux modesty and the high walls of traditionalism and jurisprudence. Unlike fellow jurists who sometimes lead two lives, Ibn Hazm reveals explicit memories about himself, his friends and unknown others. All of them are lovers discussing their sighs, their feelings and their tears, using pigeons and mediators to correspond with each other, suffering from haters and blabbers, and dying for love. The book talks about the emotional sides of Ibn Hazm and many among his contemporaries, which included great men of politics, the army, literature and science in Andalusia. He states at the beginning of his book that he would not mention their names out of respect for their privacy.

The book talks about love from an authentic Islamic and Andalusian cultural perspective, but it is also universal, transcending time, place and a single culture, and delves into the souls of lovers everywhere.

Ibn Hazm divided “The Ring of the Dove” into 30 chapters, beginning with the chapter on signs or symptoms of love, such as an addiction to looking at the beloved, rushing to the place where the beloved is and the trembling or confusion when seeing the beloved one. He has a chapter on love that emerges in sleep or dreams. He has chapters about the ways lovers correspond with each other, the reactions when a person receives a letter from their lover, their secret meetings, the crucial role of mediators when meetings become impossible, loyalty, distance, separation — and even haters.

In each chapter of his book, Ibn Hazm presents the intellectual and philosophical summary of the issue at hand, with a mention of true tales of lovers to back it up and poems in eloquent Arabic that establish the meaning he deals with. In one chapter, he talks about “successful love,” in which lovers are safe from haters, slanderers and censors; close to each other without quarrels, boredom or blame; compatible in character and morality; and equal in love, living a comfortable life in which only death could separate them. He also talks of “the prestige of love,” saying, “I have trampled on the carpet of Caliphs, and I have seen the records of kings, but I have not seen a prestige that equals the prestige of a loved one before their beloved. I have seen how powerful individuals can dominate their chiefs, ministers control a state and the power of state guardians, but I have not seen greater joy than when a lover is certain that they possess the heart of their beloved one, when they trust their love and affection.”

What is striking in “The Ring of the Dove” is that it deals not only with the Andalusian woman in the context of the phenomenon of love and compassion but also with the social aspect and his firsthand experience. “I have myself observed women and gotten to know their secrets to an extent almost unparalleled,” he wrote, “for I was reared in their bosoms, and brought up among them, not knowing any other society. I never sat with men until I was already a youth.” He also tells us that the women trusted him, revealed to him their secrets and informed him of the mysteries of their affairs.

The loved women in “The Ring of the Dove” are classified into 30 types, all of them belonging to the higher social classes. In 25 of these cases, Ibn Hazm talks about his own story or that of one of his friends or a person known to him. The remaining five cases involve high-class women of a great deal of sophistication, culture and status. He also mentions the love stories of slave girls in at least two places in the book. It was not only men who initiated love, but also many women fell in love, and he told their stories. In one instance, a girl named Afra fell in love with Prince Abu Amer, the grandson of the legendary governor Mansour bin Abu Amer, the founder of the Amiri House who in the late era of the Umayyad dynasty was the de facto ruler of Andalusia. Afra loved Abu Amer, but Abu Amer told his friend Ibn Hazm that he did not love her and that he grew bored of hearing her name. Despite the sad ending in Afra’s case, Ibn Hazm tells us countless stories between lovers that had a happy ending. He was not ashamed of mentioning the love story of his older brother, Abu Bakr Ibn Hazm, with his beloved Atika bint Qandu, which ended in marriage and the two remained together until they died, just three years before Ibn Hazm began writing “The Ring of the Dove.”

Ibn Hazm came from a rich, aristocratic family and grew up in an environment surrounded by women who helped him learn the Quran, literature and poetry. This upbringing left a distinct mark on his psychology, and in the book he acknowledges the castle women for this favor they bestowed upon him:

Women taught me the Quran, they recited to me much poetry, and they trained me in calligraphy. My only care and mental exercise, since first I began to understand anything, even from the days of earliest childhood, has been to study the concerns of women, to investigate their histories, and to acquire all the knowledge I could about them.

Thus, the first 20 years of Ibn Hazm’s life were spent among noblewomen and concubines alike in the castle, and this affected him mentally and emotionally. From these experiences, he undoubtedly grasped the value of women in a male-dominated world, a value that would be expressed in the chaste and pure love stories that he himself experienced, witnessed in Cordoba or saw in other Andalusian cities.

These facts and observations would come to light with a fateful letter from his friend in Almería who asked for advice on “love and lovers.” At the time (about 1027), Ibn Hazm was living in Xativa and hesitant to write on that sensitive subject, especially in a society with rigid traditions and led by a posse of his Maliki opponents. However, his pen helped him to bring forth those tales of love and heartbreak that had laid hidden within him, to release those concealed feelings that needed to be recorded on the page. In doing so, he produced “The Ring of the Dove,” which can rightly be considered an immortal classic of world literature. In addition to being translated into several languages, this book has been printed in six editions, including three Arabic editions, the most notable being that of the Egyptian historian and author Tahir Makki (1924-2017).

His book has been described as the most accurate account of love, its manifestations and its causes ever written by a Muslim Arab. The brutal honesty with which Ibn Hazm treats his own personal accounts and experiences of love and passion distinguishes his work.

One of his best anecdotes from the book deals with his ardent love for a 16-year-old girl who did not reciprocate his affections. It seemed that her rejection had ignited a fiery love and desire within Ibn Hazm’s being and soul, as demonstrated in his sweet and meaningful description of those moments with the girl, 15 years or more after the fact:

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 favors. 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 expression; charming in her withdrawal, she was naturally reserved, and most graceful in repelling unwelcome advances. Her lovely face drew all hearts, although she also played the lute most beautifully. I found myself irresistibly drawn to her and loved her with all the violent passion of my youthful heart. For two years or thereabouts I labored 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.

Ibn Hazm recalls sitting beside this beautiful Andalusian girl one sunny, unforgettable day, among a group of other girls and women, in their spacious home, which sat high atop one of Cordoba’s hills. The group was enjoying the lovely panoramic view of the flourishing city through the large bay windows and encouraging the girl to sing for them. He then mentions how he tried to stand closer to this girl, hoping that she might give him a word, glance or even just lean toward him. The desire in his heart grew a little cooler in that moment as he confesses the following:

The ladies remained in the house for the earlier part of the day, and then took themselves to a structure that was attached to our mansion, overlooking the garden and giving a magnificent view of the whole of Cordoba; its bays were constructed with large open windows. We passed the time enjoying the panorama through the lattice openings. I recall that I was endeavoring to reach the bay where she was standing, to enjoy her proximity and to sidle up close to her. But no sooner did she observe me in the offing, than she left that bay and sought another, moving with consummate grace. I endeavored to come to the bay that she had departed, and she repeated her performance and passed on to another. She was well aware of my infatuation, while the other ladies were entirely unconscious of what was passing between us; for there was a large company of them.

Ibn Hazm then tells of how political events had forced his father to move from the eastern part of Cordoba to its western part, where their old home sat during the twilight years of Umayyad rule. He also discusses the upheavals and instability, from 1009 to 1012, that led to his minister father’s persecution, as well as his involuntary separation from this beloved servant girl. When his father died in 1014, Ibn Hazm, then 20, was suddenly reunited with the same girl, who had come to mourn his father with a group of women. When he saw her, his pain swelled in his chest, overwhelmed by the memories of her, which he had tried to forget:

She revived that passion long buried in my heart, and stirred my now still attachment, reminding me of an old love, an epoch gone by, a vanished time, departed months, faded memories, periods perished, days forever past, obliterated traces. She renewed my griefs, and reawakened my sorrows; and though upon that day I was downhearted for many reasons, yet I had indeed not forgotten her. My anguish was only intensified, the fire smoldering in my heart blazed into flame, my unhappiness was exacerbated, my despair was multiplied. Passion drew forth from my heart all that lay hidden within it. My soul answered the call, and I broke out into plaintive rhyme.

This heartbreak would not be the last over the course of Ibn Hazm’s love life. Nevertheless, he quickly pulled himself together and, little by little, started to forget the girl. It was not long until he was smitten by the breathtaking love, morals and beauty of another, named Naam. She was a slave girl whom he owned and who, unlike his first love, was completely compatible and devoted to him. It seemed that the two were destined for a lifelong relationship together, but fate would rule otherwise:

I was deeply in love with, and passionately enamored of, a certain slave-girl once in my possession, whose name was Naam. She was a dream of desire, a paragon of physical and moral beauty, and we were in perfect harmony. She had known no other man before me, and our love for each other was mutual and perfectly satisfying. Then the fates ravished her from me, and the nights and passing days carried her away; she became one with the dust and stones. At the time of her death, I was not yet twenty, and she younger than I. For seven months thereafter I never once put off my garments; my tears ceased not to flow, though I am a man not given to weeping, nor discovering relief in lamentation. And by God, I have not found consolation for her loss even to this day. If ransoms could have been of avail, I would have ransomed her with everything of which I possessed, my inheritance and all my earnings, and even the most precious limb of my body, swiftly and willingly. Since her death, life has never seemed sweet to me. I have never forgotten her memory, nor been intimate with any other woman. My love for her blotted out all that went before, and made anathema to me all that came after it.

Ibn Hazm does not confess to any more details or stories about his second love, nor does he discuss his wife with whom he remained until the end of his life in Andalusia. However, “The Ring of the Dove” reveals to us a man containing multitudes of scientific, juristic and literary ingenuity, in addition to an impressive encyclopedic knowledge of Islamic sciences and a striking concern for the history of Judaism and Christianity. Despite his reputation as a serious, resolute and robust mind in the face of his political and intellectual rivals, he was also nonetheless a man led by very delicate emotions and sensibilities, a person who understood the meaning of love and passion. It was this side of him that esteemed the place of women in the life of humanity, especially their ability to possess his heart at first glance.

Ibn Hazm died at the age of 70 in 1064, as an outcast rejected by both the rulers and clerics of Andalusia. His scientific, emotional and political legacy could be described only as bold and candid. He did not hide his political views, showing loyalty to the Umayyad dynasty against the various principalities and kingdoms that inherited the collapsed caliphate in the Iberian Peninsula. He also alienated the clergy by producing work that rejected ignorance, blind imitation and backwardness so much so that most of the Maliki jurists, practicing the dominant doctrine of Andalusia at the time, regarded him as a religious “innovator,” an Islamic concept close to heresy.

He also did not hide his emotional and romantic inclinations, writing with a boldness that few jurists in the Islamic world have done since his time, recognizing the world of love and adoration, its secrets and tales and the importance of love in the life of all humankind. His book “The Ring of the Dove” was the most important book in the Arab-Islamic heritage that breaks the imposed ban on this subject, belying the traditional stereotype of the jurist and cleric as being without heart or emotion. He fell in love, and he publicly admitted it, as immortalized in his book.

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