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Examining Stereotypes

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Love and Desire in Middle Eastern Literature

The Middle East has appeared to some as a world of puritanical social mores. First encounters of Middle East literary classics can lead people to exclaim, “I didn’t know Arabs [or Muslims] could write such things!”

Yet, write such things they have, revealing as deep and broad a set of emotions on love, longing, and desire as any of the major world traditions.

Christendom (the area governed by Christian leaders) and Islamdom (the area governed by Islamic leaders, including most of the Middle East) encountered one another, not only through wars, but also through commerce and cultural interchange. In medieval times, the two worlds were separated in the West by only a porous and mobile border in Spain. Travelers and merchants who memorized love poems moved widely across political boundaries so that Arabic love poetry and treatises on courtly love influenced the courtly love traditions in Europe. At the same time, scholars also translated Arabic texts on topics other than love—such as philosophy, mathematics and medicine—into Latin.

Erotic and amatory themes abounded in Arabic ghazals, maqamat (rhymed lyric verse), strophic poems (knowns as zajals and muwashshahat), and popular love tales such as those found in The Arabian Nights were central features in Arabic literature. In some societies, educated people, including religious and legal scholars, were expected to know the various ghazal traditions, and many took pen names under which they composed or extemporized their own ghazals.

Sufi mystics incorporated love poems and amatory imagery into their meditative sessions—known as dhikr or sama’—with God, Muhammad, or the Sufi shaykh as the beloved and the mystical seeker as the lover. Sufi masters such as Ibn al-`Arabi (d. 1240 CE) and Rumi (d. 1273 CE) created an amatory cosmology in which erotic longing is viewed as a form of divine energy within the creation and enlivening of the world. Like the biblical Song of Songs, many of the treasured masterpieces of the tradition do not explicitly define the beloved as either earthly or divine, spurring centuries of debate, commentaries, and controversy that have only enhanced appreciation of the quality of the poems.

In the modern period, Arab, Persian, and Turkish writers have integrated love and sexuality into new forms of poetic expression, confessional writings, and social and anti-colonial critique, and have taken up the problems and the possibilities posed by sexual attraction in the modern world.

Supporting Links:

“Hafiz-e Shirazi.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed February 5, 2010).

Houshmand, Zara (Trans.). “Rumi’s Rubaiyat.” The Iranian. Link to resourcenew window (accessed February 5, 2010).

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