Advertisement Close

Ibn Hazm - Medieval Arab Scholar – Codifier Of The Art Of Love

posted on: Apr 20, 2016


Ibn Hazm statue in Cordoba, Spain.

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

Described by historians as one of the most distinguished and literary personalities in Arab Spain, Ibn Hazm, whose name is sometimes found in its Europeanized form, Abenhazam, was a creative scholar who is as much alive today as when he walked the streets of Cordova in the 11th century. Salma Jayyusi in The Legacy of Muslim Spain describes him as a genuine humanist, a man of powerful intellectual power, dynamic creativity and great moral integrity. A genius in his age, there is little doubt that he deserves these attributes.

Abu Muhammad ‘Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Sa’id ibn Hazm, better known simply as Ibn Hazm, was a medieval Arab-Spanish scholar par excellence. A jurist, theologian, genealogist and a man of letters, he was born in Cordova in 994 and died in Niebla, in 1064 A.D. This genuine medieval intellectual became noted, above all for his 30-chapter work, The Ring of the Dove – considered to be the most beautiful love-book in Arab literature.

Born into a princely family of Cordova of Christian origin that had converted to Islam, he became a part of high Cordovan society. His father’s prominent position within the court of the Amirid rulers al-Mansur and his son al-Muzaffar allowed him to receive an excellent education.

Ibn Hazm acquired his learning at the hands of the most famous teachers in Cordova and excelled in all the disciplines of the day, such as the Hadith, history, literature, medicine, philosophy and poetry. Due to his studies and brilliance, he became a renowned theologian; a critical historian of the religious, philosophical and theological schools; and a foremost leader in the Islamic sciences.

When the Umayyad Caliphate, with which his family was associated had been overthrown and followed by Berber rebels sacking Cordova in the 11th century, lbn Hazm was expelled from the city and his possessions were confiscated. He left for Almeria where he took part in a number of rebellions that attempted to return the Umayyads to power. With the quelling of the insurgencies, Ibn Hazm, discouraged by the events, took refuge in the town of Játiva where he settled and devoted his time to scholarly study.

Here, he found sufficient peace and security to write his celebrated book of love, Tawq al Hamama (The Ring of the Dove) which, in later centuries was translated into more than half a dozen languages. A treatise on the anatomy, psychology and manifestation of love in joy and sorrow, it covers the essence and nature of love and is a reflection of platonic passion – a delightful insight into the intimate culture of Muslim Spain. According to Mounah Khouri in The Genius of Arab Civilization, this work on chivalric love contains a number of similarities with Andreas Capellanus’s later work, The Art of Courtly Love – universally acknowledged to be one of the celebrated classics in medieval literature.

Ibn Hazm for many years remained faithful to the cause of the Umayyads viewing it as the only legitimate dynasty in Arab Spain. When the Umayyad Abd al-Rahman V regained the throne in 1023, Ibn Hazm became his vizier. Ruling for only two months, Abd al-Rahman was assassinated and lbn Hazm again was forced to leave Cordova. When he realized the restoration of the Umayyads had become an impossibility he left all political activity behind and devoted his time to the sciences.

He had an encyclopaedic mind and became an extraordinary historian, writing a great number of books, some three dozen still extant, covering a wide range of subjects. He became a leading scholar in numerous fields, ranging from literature and religion to a good many of the sciences. His book on religious sects has been hailed as the first work ever on comparative religion.

Yet, even though Ibn Hazm became famous in many medieval scholastic fields and is more famous as a philosopher of religion than a statesman or a man of letters, his Ring of the Dove has inscribed his name in history. In his section about literature in The Legacy of Islam, H.A.R. Gibb writes:

“The name of Ibn Hazm is proverbial in Islam for religious puritanism and biting controversy, and honoured in the West as that of the founder of the science of comparative religion. Yet this man wrote and illustrated with his own verse a treatise on love which rivals and perhaps surpasses the Book of Venus. He accepts the Platonic theory of love as the means whereby the severed portions of one sublime essence attain to earthly union, and in this spirit of purest romanticism unfolds an anatomy of love which is in many respects that of the troubadours of the next century, but to whose glowing altitudes they seldom attained.”

Poetic and partly autobiographical, The Ring of the Dove delves into the forms of the profane and divine love in the Muslim world of the time. Written in an elegant prose, combined with verse, this famous work considerably influenced the literatures of medieval Europe. It covers the possible causes, symptoms, accompanying phenomena, stages and outcomes of love, and appeals even to modern readers in that it encompasses the infinity of passion.

Ibn Hazm ornaments his lines with colourful anecdotes about himself and his peers, making his writings a documentation of history and historical events. Also, the lively and natural themes, enhanced by Arabic prose, makes his work a medieval, yet, almost modern book about platonic love.

Up until he was fourteen years old, Ibn Hazm lived in a harem and, hence, became very well acquainted with the ways of women, subsequently enhancing greatly his knowledge about love. The considerable number of women with whom he became acquainted in his youth provided him with a large repertoire of valuable insight and anecdotal material for his work. Ornamenting the subjects in his work he uses poetry and case studies of lovers and love affairs, vividly narrated, some relating to himself when he discusses temptation and sexual transgressions.

He narrates a story of how as a boy reaching adolescence he fell in love with a jariya (slave girl) named Nu’am who belonged to a noble lady. He explains that even though he formed an ideal picture of her, after he reached manhood, it all came to naught. Yet, she left a deep imprint on his memory.

In this masterpiece of love literature, Ibn Hazm, in one of his themes, even though asserting that the eyes play a large part in arousing strong feelings in lovers, is sceptical of love at first sight, stating that the staying power of this type of romance is minimal. He maintains that the eye is an open portal for the soul – the roadway to unveil its secrets and delve into its innermost thoughts and intimate secrets. In another section he contends that when jealousy dies out, love fades away and, in another, he states that love is an incurable disease, yet, a delightful condition for which one yearns.

In his Ring of the Dove, he describes heavenly and earthly love as no one had before him. This is illustrated vividly by the words of Miguel Cruz Hernández, in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, who quoting from this love-book, writes:

“…love is excited by ‘some accidents of bodily attraction and visual approval which do not extend more than to physical appearance’. But in this attraction there appear a number of graduations: sweetness, harmony, beauty and grace, with beauty defined as a ‘thin gauze which adorns the face with a certain splendour and fleeting glow towards which hearts are attracted’. Personal concrete love begins with sympathy, proceeds through fancy, produce love, reaches adulation or passion and culminates in amorous obsession, ‘which neither sleep, nor food, nor drink can conciliate, except very little, and one can even grow sick or fall into swoons and ecstatic states, speaking to oneself like a madman, or reaching the extreme of dying of love.”

Hernández’s words truly recap Ibn Hazm’s work on love and its attributes – a treatise unequalled in the medieval literature relating to love.


Al-Maqqarí, Ahmed ibn Mohammed. The History of the

         Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain. Pascual de Gayangos

(trans.). New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1964

Arnold, Sir Thomas and Alfred Guillaume (eds.). The Legacy of

Islam. London: Oxford University Press, 1931

Chejne, A. G. Muslim Spain – its History and Culture. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1974

Hayes, J.R. (ed.). The Genius of Arab Civilization – Source of

         Renaissance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1975

Imamuddin, S.M. Muslim Spain – 711-1492 A.D. Leiden: E.J. Brill,

1965 and 1981

Jayyusi, S.K. (ed.). The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Vol. II. Leiden:

E.J. Brill, 1992.

McCabe, Joseph. The Splendour of Moorish Spain. London: Watts

& Co., 1935

Nykl, A.R. Hispano-Arabic Poetry and its Relations With the Old

Provencal Troubadours. Baltimore: J.H. Furst Company, 1970

Sordo, E. Moorish Spain. New York: Crown Publishers, 1963

Watt, M. W. A History of Islamic Spain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh

University Press, 1967