The Idea of India
What’s Love Got To Do With It?

The drive from Jammu to Srinagar takes about 12 hours by Sumo. That is what I had been told. It took me about about 12 hours to figure out exactly what a Sumo was. The public buses, small size mini vans in fact, that run regularly between the twin cities of Jammu and Srinagar, are referred to simply as Sumos, after the name of the most popular Tata Motors bus model that is most commonly used to cover this route.

Everyone in Jammu will tell you that on a clear day you can see the lights of Sialkot in Pakistan. There seems to be a never fading sense of surprise, and a joy in giving it expression at the realization that only a few physical kilometers seperates them in Jammu from what in their minds are a people and a nation historical, cultural and politically millions of kilometers away. The proximity also makes the landscape of the drive up to the Valley of Kashmir familiar – tree covered mountains guide the winding and twisting mountain roads as snow capped behemoths stand watch in the far distance, covered in an endless veil of clouds.  Though on the day I left for Kashmir there were low, gray, near invisible rain clouds and rain peppered the roof of the bus throughout the journey – it felt like we were driving through an endless car wash! I fell asleep.

At the Jawahar tunnel I was woken up by an Indian Border Security policeman – or so I thought because he was not in uniform. He asked for my passport which I handed to him without really thinking about it. In the distance, through the windscreen of the bus, I could see a large painted sign that said ALL FORIENGERS MUST REGISTER HERE. It reminded me of a similar sign one drives past on the way to Muzaffarabad from Islamabad in Pakistani Administered Kashmir. I prepared to step down from the bus was before I could the plainclothes security man stuck his head back into the bus, handed me my passport back and told the driver to move on!

Where are you from? I had not seen him get on. He wore a white, starched shalwar kameez and a skull cap. A young face with a moustache-less upper lip, but a full, medium length beard. He was holding out his hand which I enthusiastically shook happy to engage in a conversation after nearly 10 hours of sleeping and quietly starting out of the fogged bus window into the distance. I introduced himself. And so did he.

He was heading home for holidays. A doctor by training, born and raised in Srinagar, he would frequently take time off from his duties at a hospital in Delhi to return home and visit his family. His wife and 2 children had already moved up to the valley for the summer months and he was now joining them. An amiable man, with an easy smile and a clearly considered intellect, I immediately took to him. He had traveled abroad, visited New York, and spoke of his friends in the USA. He had even traveled to Pakistan, to study with Islamic scholars there, and spoke fondly of the welcome and hospitality he had received. He talked about his years in Srinagar, his adolescence during the militancy, and his efforts to concentrate on his education and find a way out of the valley. About his time in Delhi and how through hard work and determination he had finally managed to build a life where he could care for his own family and his parents.

After about an hour of so, he suddenly turned to me and said Tell me why do you media people insist on printing pictures of whores and stories about depraved and degenerate people? It creates a terrible impression on our young and is destroying our society! I was not sure what he was referring to, but surmised that perhaps it was a complaint about tabloid magazines and all the Bollywood gossip and starlets they usually carried in their pages. I had no answer, and in fact I did not want to answer this question from fear of where the conversation may lead. My silence however offered a path towards an even more uncomfortable dialogue.

Where is your wife from? Sweden. Is she Muslim? No, I said with a slight edge of annoyance. She is a Swede, culturally a Lutheran people – Christian I said in the hope of allaying him. I said this staring out the window in the hope that he would simply stop talking. Instead he laughed, Ah yes, a ‘people of the book’ – but they no longer are! His eyes were triumphant, as he stared at me. I beg your pardon? The Christians – they are no longer considered ‘a people of the book’ – Islam has allowed us to marry the women of ‘the people of the book’, but since the Christians accepted the trinity we do not consider them to be ‘a people of the book’! My look of disbelief, perhaps even of condescending amusement, only seemed to goad him further. Maulana S. in Pakistan declared this just 2 years ago!

In Pakistan? Maulana Who? 2 years ago? Didn’t the Christian declare this at Council of Chalcedon back in the 5th century? What took so long for this Maulana S. to arrive at this fatwa? Why was I not told!

He was not amused. She cannot be a wife to you unless she converts. I can’t see how a forced conversion to suit our religious prejudices would be worth more in the eyes of God? Its not forced – you can show her the truth of Islam, make her realize that it is the only true path. You can make her a Muslim!

Make her a Muslim? Perhaps you should try to make me one first! He was obviously in no mood for humor. No, you must have a Muslim wife. Or find another. But I love her. Love has nothing to do with it.


On June 4th 2009, President Barack Obama spoke to an imagined Muslim world. In that speech, one that I have discussed in some detail elsewhere, he said that:

…it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.  Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.

But President Obama forgot to attribute to the Arabs (and it was the Arab, not the Islamic or Muslim world that in fact President Obama was speaking to that day in Cairo) what should be considered their most significant and influential contribution to humanity and modernity – LOVE.

Love – unrequited, romantic, mad, senseless, all consuming, worthy of surrendering too, worthy of dying for, the kind that envelops as in adolescence and eludes us in adulthood emerges from the traditions of Islamic love poetry of Muslim Sicily and Spain. The troubadours are influenced from the rich traditions of court and love poetry that existed in these Arab lands, and later carry them into the rest of Europe from where today we can exclusively believe that ‘love’ is our invention.

The Andalusian courts maintained a rich practice of love poetry. It was here, in the 11th century, that the poet Ibn Hazm wrote what is considered to be one of the most influential poems on the art of love, Ring of the Dove.

Love may God honor you is a serious illness, one
whose treatment must be in proportion to the
affliction. Its a delicious disease, a welcome malady.
These who are free of it want not to be immune,  and
those who are stricken want not to be cured.

I’ve a sickness. Doctors can’t cure
Inexorably pulling me to the well of my destruction
Consented to be a sacrifice, killed for her love,
Eager, like the drunk gulping wine mixed with poison.
Shameless were those my nights,
Yet my soul loved them beyond all passion.

Ibn Hazm, The Ring Of The Dove
From Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World

As Lenn Evan Goodman describes it in her work Islamic Humanism:

The book is an essay on love – its signs and symptoms, phases, feelings, stratagems and changes – the gamut or romantic courtship, with its sighs and glances, loyalties and betrayals, secrets, hints, adversaries, trysts, triumphs, and disappointments. There are chapters on love at first sight, love letters, persons who fell in love while asleep and others who fell in love only after long acquaintance. The enemies of love include the Reproacher, the Slanderer, and the Spy.

This delicate representation of secular love comes from a man who belonged to a very orthodox, conservative school of Islamic theology. However, this may not be as surprising as it first appears. It has been argued that Ibn Hazam wanted to explicate on secular love to question the practices of the mystics – those who tried to find a spiritual meaning in erotica and romantic longings.

And these were the Sufis who combined secular and religious love. As the anthropologist Yalman writes in Cultural Horizons:

The interest in love as a social doctrine can be said to arise with the mystic tarikats very early in Islam. There is much talk of the heart; love in this sense is a dangerous, even subversive, doctrine…The degree to which the Middle East…was susceptible to such ideas can be understood from the fact that Divine love (tassavvuj) is the largest and the most persistent subject in the poetry and music of the Ottoman, Persian and indeed Mughal Empires.

The orthodox have always cringed at the centrality of love in Sufic practice. The conflict between these two exists in all Muslim societies and Kashmir is no exception. I speak about this in a separate post. But the conflict is easy to understand because, as Yalman, further explains

The metaphor of love…denies…the machine-like quality that well-run societies sometimes come to exhibit. Love as a consuming passion would set aside formalities and…undermine social barriers. It would erode the privileges of those small, closed groups that often run the important institutions of society, and would insist on hierarchical structures, built up with such care and dependent on people keeping their places and doing their duties, be brought down.

But we can go further as Theodore Zeldin points out in his fabulously fun work An Intimate History of Humanity, that:

The medieval Arabs were once the world’s most sophisticated lovers.

The customs of the Bedouins of the Arabian desert, a people today afixed with the crassest of racial stereotypes, allowed for an easily familiarity between the sexes. Humor and jokes were a central part of their social behavior and men and women could say most anything to each other. It is from here that the idea that a man could love a woman (or vice versa) to the abandonment of everything else emerges. As the Bedoiun song asks ‘What between us two brought love, in the valley of Bagid?’ and it answers that in fact it was the teasing, the jokes that the pair exchanged. A fact that was also not lost on Ibn Haz, of Ring of the Dove fame, when he said ‘Of love the first part is jesting and the last part right earnestness.’

The French troubadours, those most often credited with the creation of romantic love in Europe, were influenced by this magnificent poetic and spiritual experience of the Arabs of Southern Europe. It is through music that the ideas of Arab love are transmitted across the Pyrenees. Arabic musicians and poets traveled extensively – there was a love of innovation and novelty, and brought back sounds that no one had heard before. And they left their words and poetry in the lands they traveled to, influencing ideas and techniques. Some suspect that even the word troubadour comes from the Arabic tarab – meaning music.


The ideas about Islam running around on the streets of South Asia are de-contextualized creations of a people and minds who have little or no knowledge of, or perhaps even an interest in, the social, political and cultural spaces from which it emerged. They have cleansed its ideas and philosophies of history and the humanity that it is central to it and replaced it with a penal-colony rigidity and officiousness. Their creation is intolerant of human frailty, longings, emotions and possibilities. It is not of this world, nor meant for human society. It carries within it, like the dogmatic and essentialist ideologies of all religious interpretations whether Christian, Hindu, Jewish and others, the seeds of its own destruction and that of the societies that attempt to formalize it. By denigrating, dismissing and erasing everything that makes man, man, a human, human, its sows the seeds of its own demise. The imagined ‘greatness’ of the past that so many of the orthodox interpreters of Islam so desperately wish to re-create, ironically requires the very elements that the orthodox so dispise – innovation, tolerance, joy, pleasure, experimentation, acceptance, doubt, moderation and humanism. And, love.

June 27, 2009 | Filed under History, Kashmir, Sufism and tagged with , , , , .

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