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Love’s Ethics: ʿIshq in Islamic Romantic Epics
This paper examines the function of Persian romantic epics as a dominant literary vehicle for writing about love in the medieval Islamic world. I compare a selection of Persian romantic epics against historical discourses on ʿishq (a term often translated as radical love or érōs). I argue that Neẓāmī’s (d. 1209) Persian romantic epic Layli and Majnun offers a novel formulation of ʿishq that foregrounds corporeal transformation, which is taken up in works written in response (javāb) to it such as Amīr Khusrow's Layli and Majnun, and later allegorical texts such as Emād al-Dīn ʿAlī Kermānī’s (f. 14th century) Maḥabbat-nāma-ye ṣāḥib-dilān (Love Story of the Lords of Hearts). In these works, the focus on corporeal transformation gives way to a channeling ofʿishq’s embodied work towards ethical actions. I begin with a section on historical-literary formulations of ʿishq in philosophical, medical, courtly, and mystical discourses. In these discourses, ʿishq is primarily thought to render a lover passive either through medical illness, courtly suffering at the behest of the beloved, or mystical annihilation. Turning to literary analysis, I interrogate the use of epistolary form in Neẓāmī’s work and the javāb tradition as a technique that opens a space for disputation between different protagonists who have distinctive opinions on love. The incorporation of the literary device of the letter gives voice to the beloved in ways that confront prior understandings of ʿishq as an overwhelming force that renders a lover passive, and of the lover-beloved relationship. I explore Layli’s perspective in Neẓāmī and Amīr Khusrow’s texts who, through letters, critiques Majnun’s dominant perspective and articulates an alternative position on the active role of a lover within the constraints of social life. I then compare this vision of a lover’s behavior with Kermānī’s allegorical staging of disputations between the soul and the body to show how the use of epistolary form in the javāb tradition creates pauses that allow for the reader to consider and reconsider the relationship between love, embodiment, and sociality. In Kermānī’s text, the body articulates a position that resembles Layli’s in prior romantic epics and further underscores how ʿishq can lead to activity rather than passivity. Overall, these perspectives show how Islamic romantic epics play with literary form so as to offer a different kind of dialogic space that implodes this accretion of meanings of ʿishq through a novel foregrounding of action.
Religious Studies/Theology
Geographic Area
All Middle East
Central Asia
Sub Area