by Irfan Bashir
A loved one once said to her lover, “O youth, thou hast seen many cities abroad. Which of them, then, is the fairest?” He replied, “The city where my sweetheart is.” ~Rumi
The Abrahamic account of creation says that in the beginning before time was not and only God existed, the command Kun gave birth to time and space. The Sufis believe that this command was born out of pure universal love- the longing of awareness to experience itself through apparent duality. And by way of manifestation of this longing, humans arrived in a physical form, and this separation from the state of Union with God was called hijr. To remind us of our return to the Beloved, a longing was left in the human soul; a longing that would find expression in the human being in many forms. This longing was love hidden beneath all the layers of the human consciousness and its many expressions. Much has been debated as to what the true definition of love is and poets and men of science alike have tried. And failed. Love just is. That which is everywhere and everywhen cannot be contained in meaning, but our humanity demands that we try. Therefore, every human being is always in pursuit of its meaning.
In contrast, love in Arabian nights is shameless. It results in utter chaos, sometimes even death. It’s not the kind that Sufis and Saints practice; it’s more personal and often involves an object or a person that is loved. We even see love turn bitter and descend to hatred and vengeance. In the frame tale, it’s evident how love, when it fails, turns into madness. When Shahzaman finds out that his wife was cheating on him, he kills both the wife and her lover. And after that, he loses all attachment to the world and is reduced to ruins. His vengeance is followed by extreme depression as a result of a broken heart. He doesn’t see any meaning in life and when his brother invites him to hunt (which kings back in the day enjoyed the most), he refuses to join him. Shahzaman is a powerful king and yet after suffering betrayal in love becomes a lifeless man. The same thing happens to his brother Shahryar who experiences betrayal and ends up abandoning his kingdom. It isn’t until both of them see a pattern of betrayals by women — that allow the brothers to concoct a reasoning that all women are harlots — that they find peace and return to their normal lives. Normal would be an overstatement though. We observe how Shahzaman ends up marrying virgins every night and killing them the next morning, an extreme defense mechanism to layer his pain under anger and sadism. Truth remains that failure in love drives him to madness where he is no longer a just king. His power as a king only makes it worse for he is able to channelize his pain into his kingdom in completely ugly ways. He ends up slaughtering women left and right like a lunatic and for what?
To further explore the meaning of love, it becomes pertinent then to technically divide it into two categories: conditional love and unconditional love. Conditional love can be defined as the sort of love that limits itself by being dependent on certain conditions. If these conditions (which are different for each person) are met then love is sustained and stays selfless and the person continues to devote themselves selflessly to their beloved. However, if the conditions are not met then selflessness turns to selfishness and love descends to hatred, jealousy, malice, anger, depression, powerlessness, pity, or other negative emotions that the person uses to express their underlying pain. Love then is akin to union with the beloved and heartbreak is the separation of the lover from the beloved which leaves the person with emptiness and pain inside. Conditional love is what we can say that majority of people practice. It is a set of conditions that as long as they are adhered to in the relationship keep the love alive. We further observe that people can engage in conditional love with the same person that they separated from again if either of the two people changes their conditions on which their breakup was previously based. Conditional love allows for technical analysis to take place by using various scientific disciplines like psychology, biology, or even basic economics (cost/benefit analysis).
Unconditional love in contrast is an entirely different phenomenon. To even vaguely contain it in meaning would require us to make room for abstraction and metaphoric discourse. Unlike conditional love whose major condition is the participation of the beloved to varying extents with the lover, unconditional love needs no such participation from the beloved. The lover alone is enough. I will argue that unconditional love is not limited to the domain of saints and majnu’s and that common people are very much capable of unconditional love. The only restriction is that common people cannot sustain unconditional love for long and sooner or later time makes it conditional. Take for example a mother’s love for her child when it is a baby. The mother loves its baby irrespective of whether the baby will love her back or not; only with time do we see the affection devolve to incorporate conditions.
The stories in Arabian nights pertain mostly to conditional love and are therefore easier to analyze through intellectual deduction. The strongest connection of love with any negative emotion would be with jealousy. Love even though capable of making people selfless beyond any limit can also pave way for jealousy in the human being. Jealousy naturally tends to accompany conditional love as the lover becomes possessive of their beloved. The jealousy then acts as a doorway to other negative states such as anger and frustration. We observe this in the story of ‘Khalifa the Fisherman’ when Harun al Rashid falls in love with Qutub al-Qulub. He falls so madly in love with her that he forgets about his wife Zubaidah and his kingdom. He only attends Friday prayers and rest of the time stays with Qutub al-Qulub. This creates jealousy in Zubaidah who in turn drugs Qutub al-Qulub and has her locked up in a chest and sold in the market. Here we observe how easy it is for jealousy to arise when love is at stake. Any person or object we love is very much capable of arousing jealousy in us if certain conditions are met. But where does this jealousy spring from? I think it is from unfulfilled desire that jealousy makes birth. In this case, when Harun al Rashid doesn’t spend time with Zubaidah, she ends up longing for his attention. This desire for attention and the failure to get it due to Qutub al-Qulub results in her becoming jealous. The jealousy in turn leads to envy and malice. Failed love thus is a breeding ground for negative states of being; it invites negative emotions to well up and lead people to ugly conclusions.
The tale of the ‘Semi-petrified Prince’ is another example of how love can sometimes turn people to take extreme steps. When the prince finds that his wife was cheating on him, love quickly paves way for anger, and he ends up murdering the slave whom his wife was bedding. In turn, when the wife finds out that her husband killed her lover, she through occult magic turns his body into stone. Here we can see people face betrayal in love, anger naturally surfaces and takes full control of the human being leading him/her to ugly conclusions. This anger comes from pain; pain that refuses to leave until it finds an expression and often that expression is anger. Thus we see that love can make people lose their moral center making them do things that they would never have otherwise done. This stands true for real life too. “The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) analyzed the murders of women in 18 states from 2003 to 2014, finding a total of 10,018 deaths. Of those, 55 percent were intimate partner violence-related, meaning they occurred at the hands of a former or current partner or the partner’s family or friends. In 93 percent of those cases, the culprit was a current or former romantic partner.” These statistics paint a dark picture of failed love turning to hatred and leading people to commit violent crimes. The stories in Arabian Nights do a great job of portraying the dynamics that govern the affairs of love, and how when they fail, negative consequences are almost impossible to avoid. Maybe in real life, we don’t see people killing women left and right as Shahzaman does, but that’s also because in modern society many checks and balances exist that prevent such a situation from arising. As Maulana Rumi says regarding the human condition for violence and gore, “That which was in Pharaoh, the same is in thee, but thy dragon is confined in the pit…. Thy fire hath not Pharoah’s fuel; otherwise, it is one that throws out flames like Pharoah” How fragile then is the human ego that it crumbles to pieces when it doesn’t get the love that it wants; when its desire for love fails, it becomes a slave of darker desires.
Love can also lead people to perform acts of bravery that they otherwise wouldn’t be capable of. Loa Tzu says, “To love someone deeply gives you strength. Being loved by someone deeply gives you courage.” When we love someone intensely, we forego the need to be safe and put ourselves in situations that under normal circumstances we would never do. Love acts like a drug that puts people on a spell under which they do brave and stupid things. In the Nights, it is well depicted in the tale of ‘The woman and her five would-be lovers’. We see how an ordinary woman when separated from her lover traps five powerful men in cages hence making a mockery of them. The Wali (magistrate), Kazi (Qadi), Vizier, King, and the carpenter are all outwitted by an average woman who doesn’t hold any position of power in society. The woman for the sake of love goes to the extremity of imprisoning four of the most powerful men in the kingdom. Love made it possible that an ordinary woman performed an extraordinary feat of courage so as to be joined with her beloved again. Certain stories seem to be predestined to unfold the way they do. When Majnu (Qais) would be asked as to why he was so crazy about Laila, he would say that it was predestined and outside of his control.
Love and Destiny go and hand in hand. Love, a deep longing for union, and destiny, the force that often allows love to find expression on the canvas of being. In truth, no one knows how to contain either of the two in meaning, just like no one knows why the Law exists the way it does — the law that governs how everything ought to behave in this chaotic universe. Arundhati Roy’s famous quote very beautifully captures the essence of the Law, destiny, and love: “That it really began in the days when the love laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
There is something about the essence of love that makes it stand apart from all other states of being. It is as if it has this element of destiny that governs its course. Perhaps that’s why when we fall for someone it feels like we have known them forever as if an invisible string connects us to them. It feels like the seed of desire was sown in our hearts long before we met this person, and one day we realize that seed has grown into a tree whose every leaf has the beloved’s name written on it. Those leaves are desires that enslave us and compel us to oblige in whichever direction love wants to throw us in. In economics, it is said that an invisible hand governs the transactions of cause and effect that take place in everyday life. The force of love is much akin to how the invisible hand works. And we are mere witnesses of this wonderful and sometimes scary phenomenon.
In the Nights, the tale of ‘Nur al-Din and Shams al-Din’ does a good job of showing how destiny can sometimes conspire to bring two people together. Sitt al-Husn (Daughter and of Shams al-Din) and Badr al-Din Hasan (Son of Nur al-Din) are both tied by destiny’s strings long before they are born. Their marriage and love story was woven well before their birth by their parents. From Damascus to Cairo, love makes them go from one place to another sometimes by being kidnapped by Ifrits or sometimes escaping persecution from the Sultan. It seems ridiculous how Badr finds Sitt again when he is working in the cook’s shop in Damascus where Ajib (his son) and the Wazir go to have a meal. This tale is a classic example of love’s workings along with destiny. In the real world maybe people don’t have Ifrit’s kidnap them and help them meet their beloved, but nonetheless, it so often happens to people that they meet their beloved in times and places where they least expect to.
The stories in Arabian Nights are rich in flavors of violence, injustice against women, shamelessness, humor, numerology, vengeance, occult magic, and deceit. But love is one of those flavors whose taste refuses to leave us even after we are done consuming it. And so it is in real life. As human beings, we taste many flavors of life but love is the most addictive of all. Therefore, by compulsion or obligation, when love calls us we hear its call. And to hear is to obey.
“Look at the smile on the Earth’s lips this morning, she laid again with me last night!” ~Hafiz