The Culmination of Love by Aamer Hussein

I love you with a double love: I love you passionately, and I love you for yourself. Loving you passionately has put me off others. I love you for yourself so you would drop your shutters and let me see you. I am not the one to be thanked, all thanks must go to you.

Rabia of Basra lived in twelfth-century Iraq. She wrote in Arabic, but her exemplary piety made her a saint who is venerated all over the Muslim world. In her era, the mystical tradition of Islam was growing, even bur­geoning. In contrast to the crippling orthodoxy, which emphasised the fear of God, and the rise of materialism in her society, the advocate of mysticism focused on love. The mystics preferred an intimate relationship with God rather than many of the barren rituals of formal worship. ‘This was the period’, says the German scholar Anne-Marie Schimmel, ‘when early Islamic mysticism, with its austere and world-detesting outlook, began to turn into love-mysticism.’ And Rabia took the lead. Schimmel thinks that the absoluteness of devotion Rabia displays in her verses is ‘stronger than her art’. Artistic or not, such poetic intimacies, as Rabia’s twentieth-century biographer, Widad Sakkakini, points out, were seen by many as transgres­sive. To address one’s maker as if He were her lover?

Another saintly figure took transgression even further. The tenth-century Iraqi poet Mansur al-Hallaj, whose seemingly blasphemous declarations of love and of identification with God led him to be executed in public by the authorities, became both metaphor and heroic subject for generations of his successors. His famous utterance, ‘ana al-haq’ (‘I am the absolute truth’) echoes through the languages of the Muslim world as the limit of transgres­sive devotion: it seems to point to self-identification with the Creator. But other verses cast a different light on his immersion in the object of his love:

I saw my lord with the eye of the heart

and said: Who are you? He answered: You.


I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I.

If Rabia abides in the Muslim imagination as a symbol of love in its purest and most disembodied form, which leads to peaceful reconciliation with a world that was formerly renounced, Hallaj occupies another corner, that of death in pursuit of the Beloved. Such all-encompassing love is, however, difficult to maintain in its earthly form, especially when harnessed to the writer’s craft.