The Tribunal of Love: The Four Stages of Love in Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s Poetry

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Tue, 2022-10-18
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We are extremely pleased that former CAWU intern Lara Gibson wrote her senior thesis at Durham University on Ibn al-Fāriḍ (1181- 1235 CE), an Egyptian Sufi poet who taught at al-Azhar and in whose work conceptions of love play a central role. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam in which the growth towards divine love is a major element in the journey of faith. In his poetry, Ibn al-Fāriḍ presents love as the driving force behind all of life. He champions the worthiness of all types of love on the spiritual journey towards divine love.

Ibn al-Fāriḍ and other Sufi thinkers likely would have known something about the concept of the love of God in both the Old and New Testaments, and love as a key attribute of God in Christianity that, in particular, plays a key role in Christian mysticism.

Ibn al-Fāriḍ lived in turbulent times. The Shi’ite Fatimid Empire had fallen in disarray. The Fatimid Caliphs claimed to be the divinely chosen and guided heirs of the Prophet Muḥammad, in direct and unbroken succession via ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, son-in-law of the Prophet and fourth Caliph. Egypt was a majority Sunni Muslim country that did not accept Fatimid claims to legitimacy. When Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in 1171, he actively spread Sunni beliefs. One of his methods was to systematically appoint Sunni jurists to legal positions throughout the state. This made him extremely popular amongst the majority Sunni population.

Jerusalem had fallen in 1187 and Acre had become the capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem until Acre fell in 1291. Kurt J. Werthmuller describes in his book Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt, 1218–1250 the strong role of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egyptian society. Ibn al-Fāriḍ displays no antagonism toward Christians, not even those of the Crusader kingdom.

Lara Gibson describes four stages of love in Ibn al-Fāriḍ. Egotistical love is the lowest stage of love and involves the narcissistic pursuit of earthly objects but these “inspire the lover to ascend the ladder of love, as he uses ‘profane love as a stepping stone to divine love as many Sufis before him had advocated,’ Suleyman Derin writes in From Rabi`a to Ibn al-Fārid Towards Some Paradigms of the Sufi Conception of Love. As Lara explains, “egotistical love thus functions as an essential sensory experience enabling man to release his animalistic thirst on the path to cleansing the ego or nafs and ascending eventually to stage four of unitive divine love.”

“Submission to divine love is the ability to love all beings unconditionally,” Lara writes. In this stage “the lover releases his nafs of profane desires, embraces his inner self and he chooses to direct his love solely towards God. This metaphysical love can be defined as ‘an absorbing passion for the immortal, for the beautiful both in mind and body,’ Derin writes. By wholly liberating the nafs of earthly longings, the cleansed soul can partake in this higher ‘absorbing passion’ or ‘ishq and love God unconditionally, fully appreciating his abstract majesty.”


The universal and unconditional nature of this love corresponds to the Christian concept of agape, the highest form of love, the love of God for humanity and of humanity for God. In Sufi terminology, the concept of agape seems to correspond to the Arabic term ‘ishq, a burning love for God and the pathway to connection between humanity and the Divine. You can read more in Lara’s paper here.

With these concepts, we find an intriguing relationship between Sufi and Christians conceptions of love. Scholars continue to debate exactly how these traditions influenced one another. But it is possible that the resonance between these concepts can help to explain why many Americans and Europeans have been more attracted to Sufism than other forms of Islam. Some even converted to this form of Islam such as the well-known scholar, Abdallah Schleifer, Professor Emeritus & Senior Fellow at the Kamal Adham Center for TV Journalism, American University in Cairo.

Sufism helped Lara Gibson to develop her love for the Arab World. It was her ambition to become a journalist in the Arab World and we were thrilled to learn that she has decided to return to Egypt for work. Lara is returning to a country that Egyptians like to describe as Umm el-Dunyā, “mother of the world,” a mother with a great history but today struggling with the challenges of modern times.

October 18, 2022

Cornelis Hulsman,

Senior Advisor - Dialogue Across Borders