Hot and dusty, it was summer in Al-Anadalus. Seville, to be precise, which was after all the center of the world. Well, at least it was the greatest empire standing that far to the West during those Moorish times.
The largest and most prosperous land in Europe, water flowed through the city of Seville in countless canals; flowing water pouring out of countless fountains; there were great libraries and bath houses. It was a place where a philosopher could always find a job.
Walking toward one of the city's legendary markets, our young philosopher smiled in anticipation. He knew the future was bright and, though he was only sent to buy figs, he knew so much more awaited his senses. He could spend hours in the city markets-- in delight listening to people speaking in dozens of languages and catching in the wind the fragrance of fruit from the Levant and sweet sugar from Egypt; there were perfumed vinegars and syrups made from grapes. Wines. Cherries, endives, oranges, spicy sausage; dried fruit, dried fish, mint, orange blossoms and roses---cumin, peppers and of course saffron.
Just thinking about the perfume of these things caused him to quicken his pace. And, turning the corner into the narrow and covered streets which led to the market, for no reason whatsoever, our hero looked up.
It was at that precise moment that the woman had flung open the window of her bedroom. She needed air and so had spontaneously-- on a whim-- opened the window from her room on the second floor.
Not surprising-- given the story-- their eyes locked.
And as a thousand birds took flight in his heart, the woman stood there barely breathing. Time stopped. Too quickly, however, time started again as she heard someone in the house approaching her room (opening windows being something not encouraged in her world) she quickly shut the window and went back to her chores. Somehow, though, she felt absolutely sure that she would never be the same again.
Our hero, Ibn Arabi, by that time had started running- back in the direction from which he had come. Being the man he was-- even so young-- he sat down and immediately composed a love poem. And attaching it to a letter penned in almost impossible beauty, he had one of his servants deliver the sealed letter to her home. Of course, she knew at once it was from him.
Then, for precisely one year, every morning at precisely the same time, he would walk to the market to buy figs. And every morning, at precisely the same time, she would fling open her window. Their afternoons were consumed by the writing of love letters to each other.
And like the love letters they penned to each other, their desire too required an answer. "I will soon go mad if I cannot taste your lips," She actually said this (for we have the letter to prove it). To wait is to be enchanted... this being something that Medieval physicians declared could lead a person into madness (see Averroes' study of love as affliction)
Only a few of their letters survive today. A taste of what must have been pure intoxication, the two became quickly overwhelmed in a Sea of Love. Or so it seemed, at least. Scholars have tried to analyze their few surviving letters and the general consensus seems to be that she sought to make herself known to him. As he sought to know her.
I want to understand. I do understand. I understand, I understand
And so in this way, they circled each other-- like planets circling the sun; like dervishes circling God. In love, there is a great desire to be known by the Beloved. Just in the same way that the Beloved seeks to know the soul that he feels belongs to him. As the poets insist, true love is a great mirror reflecting one's soul at the same time reflecting the soul of the Beloved in unio mystica.
All of this being part of a playful game of hide-and-seek that God plays with Himself, says the hindu and sufi mystics. Perhaps no one in history worked out a theory for this like our young philosopher. Indeed, his theories on divine love made him famous throughout the Islamic world. Born 100 years before Dante, scholars posit that it was Ibn Arabi's poetry and philosophy which would inspire, illuminate and be reborn within Dante's poetry of Beatrice. Beatrice's Body. Beatrice's soul.
Stranger things have happened, I am sure you will agree. Ibn Arabi's theories of love-- born from their love letters-- became a dialectic of love, which itself became a religion of love, characterized by angel's wings and planets circling the sun (both images which came themselves straight out of their letters). Desire transfigured by imagination-- imagination, says Arabi being the function of the heart. As the brain thinks and body moves, so does heart imagine and desire. And this is expressed in the form of heavenly angels--their wings beating in desire, they leave feathers behind in bed.
When I think of them-- Lover and Beloved-- I cannot help but wonder what became of them. Well, I know what became of him, but what of the woman in the window? Her angel's wings beating in desire, I imagine sometimes that she did go mad from longing... falling in love, falling in despair, falling ill. Falling out of her window.
I wonder too whether people still fall in love in the same way. In times past, we know from poems and novels that people did fall in love precisely in the way described above. A veiled glimpse ignites a fire causing two people to circle each other as Lover desires Beloved; each seeking to know the Other. This all being something which took place within the landscape of the heart itself. It was something imagined-- over weeks upon weeks; months upon months. Imagined as "'spirits take bodies and bodies become spirits'"
People reported that like the other magical incantation-- abbracadbra-- that just whispering the words out loud "I-love-you" had the power to move mountains. It even had the power to cure gout. I wonder, looking at their letters, whether people are still capable of this i fedeli d'amore (or in this translation below) a "wondrous" Religion of Love.
A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka'ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Quran.
My creed is Love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
Paintings by the great Farah Ossouli.