[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
One of the popular themes in our popular culture is that peculiar feeing called love, and the way it sometimes torments people. Love stories with unhappy endings are quite common, and the heartbreaks they cause are quite bitter. No wonder so much music has been devoted to this trouble. “Love hurts,” a famous song warns, “love scars.”
The “L word” has apparently been a big deal throughout human history, but the modern world seems to have deepened the problem by making relationships and marriages more fragile. Ours is an increasingly individualistic world with ever-booming options. Hence, the chances that your beloved significant other will decide to go his or her own way at some point is much higher than it was for your grandparents. The chances that you will suffer from heartbreak, in other words, are worryingly good.
Alas, one might conclude, this whole love thing looks as if it were designed to make us humans suffer. But is it really that way? Or is there another way?
Enter the Sufi way
These questions came to mind recently as I was reading the latest novel, “Aşk” (Love), by Elif Şafak, one of Turkey’s best writers. The book, which became a Turkish bestseller for months, has not been translated into English yet, but if it ever is, I strongly recommend it. It presents two parallel stories, one set in present-day America, the other in 13th-century Konya; the connection is a book within the book titled “The Shariah of Love.”
I won’t go into the details of Şafak’s novel, but will focus only on the Sufi understanding of love that she touched upon.
The Sufis were the mystics of Islam. They wanted to surpass the cold legalism of the scholars of Shariah, or Islamic law, and “be one with God” through a discovery of the heart. Love, therefore, was an invaluable concept for the Sufis. But theirs was not a love atomized and divided into pieces, like we modern people are used to experiencing. It was rather a love connected to, and directed at, a single source.
I know it sounds ambiguous. So, let me try to explain by posing a question: With whom do you think people fall in love?
You might answer by saying, “Well, people often fall in love with beautiful, intelligent, witty, confident or honest people.”
And here is the difference. The Sufis would say, “Well, people often fall in love with Beauty, Intelligence, Wit, Confidence or Honesty.”
The Sufis, in other words, would see certain attributes as objects of love, rather than the specific people who happen to manifest them.
This makes sense, because people are mortal and unstable, while attributes are ever-lasting. Many beautiful women and men have lived throughout history, for example. All of them are gone, but Beauty, as an attribute, has remained. All the beautiful people we see today will also perish. But Beauty, again, will endure.
According to the Sufis, there was a good reason why the attributes were everlasting: They were rooted in none other than God, the one and only Absolute Being. It was Him, in other words, who was the source of all the wonderful things that we love. Mortal humans were just reflecting them for a while, often misleading us to think that they owned the attributes. But in fact they were just like mirrors reflecting the light from the sun. And the sun, with which everything shines, was God.
That’s why Ibn Arabi, the great Sufi, said: “If you love a being for his beauty, you love none other than God, for He is the Beautiful Being.”
If you are not religious, all this “God talk” will probably not make much sense to you. But then you can think of the attributes I am referring to as Plato’s Forms. According to the Greek philosopher, all the objects we see in the material world are imperfect copies of the perfect Forms that exist in a non-material realm. Everything we see with our eyes, in other words, are just “shadows” of the ultimate reality.
The mirror and the sun
“Well, interesting philosophy,” you may say. “But what does it mean for our lives?”
What it means is that if you have the guts to take the Sufi – or the Platonic – approach, you will see the world with a whole new perspective. You will experience, as a result, this whole love thing in a way that is different from most other people.
Then you will still love people, and other created beings, but you will realize that they are not the owners of the attributes that attract you. So you will not come to the level of worshipping them, as lovers often do in our non-Sufi, non-Platonic and highly superficial popular culture.
When you lose someone you love, you will still grieve, but you won’t come to the point of despair. You won’t come to the point where, as one of the celebrated thinkers of our age, Mariah Carey, put it, “I can’t live, if living is without you.”
You will rather understand that you lost a “mirror,” but the “sun” is still out there.
And you will know that the sun never leaves you out in the cold.