[I am posting this article belatedly. It was published in The National a few weeks ago to co-incide with the day which in Arabic is charmingly called Yawm-al-hubb, the Day of Love.]
Before reading this article I should warn you that it might be considered subversive. It may lead you into the paths of disbelief. Beware dear reader, for we are about to discuss Valentine’s Day.Even though I am a Muslim, or perhaps because I am one, I will quite readily wish you “Happy Valentine’s Day” today. Even this simple act might land me in trouble with a handful of Islamic scholars such as the Egyptian cleric Hazem Shuman. He warned young Muslims this week that Valentine’s Day was “more dangerous than Aids, Ebola and cholera”. Wow, I had no idea that a red rose could be so lethal.
We enjoy such perplexing tales courtesy of the right-wing press, keen to promote the view that Muslims see Valentine’s Day – and by extension love itself – as evil. Fox News last year covered a Kuwaiti MP who chaired a committee to prevent “such alien events from impacting on Kuwaiti society and spreading corruption”. Britain’s Daily Star tabloid newspaper elevated the former head of Al-Muhajiroun, Anjem Choudhary, to cleric status and quoted him saying that those celebrating Valentine’s Day “would rot in hell”.
Boy, if there is anything that Muslims are good at it, it is melodrama. But are Muslims such as these just as guilty as the right-wing press of confusing the celebration of love with love itself?
The origins of Valentine’s Day lie not in the romance with which we associate it today, but in events any person of faith would uphold. The celebration is usually traced to a number of early Christian martyrs called Valentine who were persecuted by pagan rulers.
Another Valentine performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers forced to remain single by an Emperor who believed unmarried men made better soldiers.
Since these events happened well before the advent of Islam, it is notable that the individuals are remembered for standing up for their belief in God and upholding the sanctity of marriage, two fundamental pillars of Islam as a deen, a way of life.
There were already Roman celebrations linked to fertility, so it is possible the church decided to celebrate the feast of St Valentine at the same time to “Christianise” the festival. In the same way, Muslims in Egypt proposed to rename February 14 as “Prophet Mohammed’s Day”. One can only imagine that this was to defuse misconceptions young people may have about love and its various expressions.
Those who argue for moving to a more “proper” Islamic celebration are most likely the same who argue against a specific day for love in the first place, their objection being why should love be limited to Valentine’s Day? But doesn’t the same argument apply to celebrating Prophet Mohammed’s Day? Shouldn’t that be every day as well?
The connection with romantic love began with Geoffrey Chaucer, whose 14th century poem celebrating the king’s engagement described it as the time when birds choose their mate. From then on romance and Valentine’s Day become increasingly entwined. The French set up a “court of love” on Valentine’s Day in 1400 to deal with love contracts, betrayals and violence against women, with the judges selected by the women themselves.
With the constant discussions about sharia courts, which deal mainly with women and personal law, perhaps they too should be renamed courts of love and aim to instil love and compassion between those in dispute? They could even allow female plaintiffs to choose the judges as in the French model – they would be selecting from a panel of judges, so all would be equally qualified. It seems a courteous and civilised way of resolving the current legal imbalances in many courts which do not allow women to be fully heard.
The modern Valentine’s Day was created by Esther Howland, who mass produced cards of paper lace in 1847. Her seemingly innocuous act changed the face of the US greeting card industry which now credits Valentine’s Day with the second largest sales after Christmas.
Approximately one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year, with women buying 85 per cent of them. Many are sent anonymously. It is a worrying echo of the stereotype that women ought to be shy in expressing their liking of someone, the hunted rather than the hunted.
Conversely, men spend twice as much as women on the day, suggesting that they too are under pressure to conform to a stereotype of wooing a woman with their wealth. Advertisers and marketers have turned love into a cosmetic, superficial experience.
On the other hand, Muslims seem to have reduced romance to a legalistic directive, determining their three words to be “it is bid’ah”, a worldly innovation contrary to Islam. Expressing love on days such as Valentine’s is “bid’ah”. What is perplexing is not just this legal opinion, but that Muslims need to ask such questions. How did we reach the point where we ask legal authorities about matters of celebrating love? Consider other questions that are asked: “Is falling in love allowed in Islam?” or “Can a husband express his love to his wife?” They reflect the increasingly legalistic approach Muslims are taking in all matters of life.
These two polar opposites have both reduced love to a caricature of its true self, forcing us to choose between cheesy superficiality on the one hand and heartless rigidity on the other. It sounds almost like a “with us or against us” choice, and we all know the trouble that causes.
Presented with this stark absurdity, all human beings – which, of course, includes Muslims – will be forced to look into their hearts and realise that expressing love is simply common sense. Instead of fatwas on how, what and where to celebrate, we need legal scholars to decree a return to the way of the Prophet – common sense and humanity.
Those people of faith who oppose Valentine’s Day are missing a trick. Faith is about celebrating love – love of the Divine, love of humanity, love of your companion. There is no need to reject a celebration of love; rather those who believe in the sanctity of marriage should recapture such events for their original celebration of marriage. And each Valentine’s Day let us see love blossom and a thousand marriages bloom.
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