(Photo of Egyptian Preacher Abu-Islam via Reuters)
Originally published in the Daily News Egypt
“Valentine’s Day represents for the Christians, a celebration of adultery and prostitution, and those who go out on this day are prostitutes.” That is how Abu Islam, a radical Egyptian preacher has described Valentine’s Day. He took the hatred that many radicals share for this day to brand it with a new label and link it to Christianity, a faith that Muslims acknowledge and respect.
It is easy to dismiss Abu Islam as a marginal extremist whom none should take seriously, but I think we should take a look closer at his case as it is a perfect example of the flaws and the dangers of literal Islamism.
I still remember the remarks made by the Egyptian thinker, Mustafa Mahmoud, about love and Islam. He noticed that love was only mentioned once in the Quran as part of the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh’s wife, who tried to seduce him. Within that context, love had a negative connotation; it reflected lust, unlawful passion and adultery.
Mahmoud compared that story with the Quranic description of marriage, particularly verse 21 from Al-Rom Soura, as a relationship that is based on “mawada and rahma”. Though rahma can be easily translated as “compassion”, many wrongly translate mawada as “love”. Well, simply put, it isn’t. The best way to describe mawada is “a semi-platonic subtler form of love that is more controlled and less passionate”.
Mahmoud was not alone in his analysis of the holy book of Islam. Many literalistic scholars have gone even further to advocate that love is not what Muslims should aspire to achieve within marriage but that “mawada” is the desired goal. They based their conclusion on the maqasid (goals) of Shari’a.
As I have written before, the fundamental goal of Shari’a is to preserve the five essential elements of Islamic society: religion, life, intellect, lineage, and property. Those scholars believe that protecting the intellect requires not just the banning of alcohol but also the banning of any emotional imbalance that prevents rational thinking. Therefore, love and passion, in their view, falls into that category. No wonder they despise Valentine’s Day and view it as a holiday advocating adultery and decadence.
The problem with literal Islamism is twofold. First, it involves an inappropriate interpretation of the Quran: they read too much into verses that simply tell a story and they extrapolate its narrative concepts into wider, often unrelated subjects. Second, such an interpretation creates an inaccurate diagnosis of social problems, as many of those scholars wrongly link sexual violence, rape, adultery and secret marriage to an “imported” Western phenomenon like Valentine’s Day, romantic movies and liberalism in general.
Abu Islam has gone even further; like many radicals with whom I have spoken in the past, it seems that he looks at the main Christian belief that “God is love” and makes an unfounded leap to link Christianity with Valentine’s Day. Of course, they spice things up with their stereotype of Western women as wanting to be exploited.
Their twisted views overlook the core issues behind the dysfunctional moral code that currently plagues Muslim societies, issues such as economic problems, corruption, bad education and a lack of role models are not what Abu Islam likes to reflect upon, he would rather play the easy game of blaming the West.
Not to mention, those radicals ignore the simple fact that nowhere in the Quran has God stated that passionate love is forbidden; it was only mentioned when those feelings developed into passion and caused the actors to get carried away in actions like affairs and adultery. Only then did love become un-Islamic.
In other words, this teaching is about controlling the feelings rather than banning them. Also, their favourite prescriptions will not solve the problem but only compound it. Lust will not disappear when segregation is imposed; the children of literalism will become weak, insecure adults who may not be able to exercise self-control and may grab every opportunity to chase after their forbidden fantasies.
Banning romance is as impossible as banning breathing, and the Islamic republic of Iran is living proof. As reported by The Economist: “Despite the government’s best efforts, the romantic holiday [Valentine’s Day] has, in recent years, found a place in the hearts of many Iranians.”
However, it is not just Valentine’s Day; a visit to the tomb of the great poet Hafez in Shiraz, the poetic capital of Persia, was enough to prove to me that no one can ban emotions. There was something deeply touching, even inspiring, about the many Iranian couples who visited the tomb seeking blessing for a life of love and togetherness, according to Iranian traditions. For me, it was a magical scene, although it would probably elicit an angry shrug from many fundamental Islamists.
Romance was always alive in Egypt in an honourable way that preserved Islamic dignity and traditions. The best example of this is the legendary Om Kalthoum; she stood, even in her seventies, gracefully singing passionate love songs while a mixed crowd of women and men listened in awe. While she was respected by many religious scholars, others despised and bitterly attacked her.
One such detractor was Sheikh Kishk, who used to sarcastically denigrate and dismiss her as a silly old woman. Sadly, while Kishk was a minority in the 60s, the Muslim world is currently full of radicals who have fallen into the deep end with their obscene views.
For the record, I found Valentine’s Day to be a meaningless day that neither reflects nor advocates true love. Nonetheless, I see banning it as an even sillier, futile exercise that only reflects the shallowness of those who advocate it. Romance has lost its way in our country because we have lost our comfort zone and were pushed to the edge of insanity by the chronic decline of our society.
The court order against Abu Islam was a perfect decision, but it will not make his views disappear. Unless we regain our empathy, rationalism and values as true Muslims who practice religion with an equal balance of faith and rituals, body and soul, and materialism and feeling, the like of Abu Islam would be irrelevant. And, yes, it is true, God is love, just ask Rumi.