Desire and Love in Marriage
By Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford
I want to begin by trying to explain to you the difference between desire (Arabic, hawa) and love (mahabba).
Desire is something that happens to you; you are passive before it; it arises; it gets you; it seems strong and you seem weak. It is aroused by what I will call immediate perceptions – looks, colour, shape, flavour, fragrance, sound, the cadences of a voice, the lilt of a movement. (You will recognize in that little list, most of the constituents of popular love songs found in all cultures: “I love the way … etc.”) And this desire grows and grows and is not satisfied until you take possession of the desired object. And possession here means not just admiring from a distance, but holding, touching, or more than that. Once that possession has happened, the desire weakens and drains away. Then the satiation itself passes. After that, the desire revives, so long as the object of desire still retains most of those things – looks, etc. – that aroused it in the first place. It revives also, and indeed gains in strength, if the object of desire is taken away – for example, if there is a long physical separation from it, or if someone else takes possession of it. Then, desire mixes with other strong emotions – irrational grief, anger, jealousy and suchlike. The experience of all human beings in all ages is that those things that prompt desire (looks, etc.) necessarily and inevitably fade. This happens and happens without fail. There are no exceptions. Now if desire is to be a reason for marriage, and marriage is meant to last, then desire better grow into something else, or marriage better be grounded on something else as well as desire. If not, then the marriage too must fail.
Love is another thing altogether. It is what you deliver; you are the agent of it, it needs your will and intention; and it needs your good reasons for it. Whereas desire is easy, love is a difficult thing. To get a sense of how difficult, imagine you are living at the time of the first fitnas in the history of Islam. The Muslims are fighting each other; some are on the side of ‘Uthman, others on the side of ‘Ali, God be pleased with both of them. But you know the Sunna. The Prophet, salla l-Lahu ‘alayhi wa-sallam, loved them both. So then, you know that you too should love them both. Perhaps your friends and family are on one side or the other. Perhaps you too will have to declare yourself on one side or the other, events may give you no choice about it. But your heart is an inviolable space; none can take that from you: your Creator always knows in every detail what your heart is striving for. Also, even when you must utter words, you can choose them with wisdom; you can equivocate if they do not allow you to keep silent. In this circumstance, you know what is right, and the effort to do what is right – and you may succeed in the effort only up to a point – is what distinguishes love from desire. One who is weak in loving the Companions of God’s Messenger, will soon forget all the good qualities of ‘Ali or of ‘Uthman, or will exaggerate or over-mention their errors, and so on. But one who is strong in that love will not forget the good qualities of either, he will keep those qualities in mind whenever either or both of them are mentioned, and that memory will suffice to keep him on the Sunna. So too partners in marriage must keep in mind that God has said He has honoured the children of Adam above all His creatures; we owe it to each of them, even to enemies of ourselves or of our religion, to remember that and to shape our attitudes, our words and our manners of speaking, and our actions, accordingly.
A marriage may not start on the basis of either desire or love, but if it is to continue it will have to find a basis in either desire or love or both. It may start on the basis of desire, but it will only last comfortably and easily on the basis of love. Love, as I have just illustrated, is the disposition, within doing something that is right (something commended and commanded), to remember the reasons for doing it, and then to put your heart into doing it well. Whatever you put your heart into, that is what you love. The rest is either just desire or just duty, or an unstable mixture of the two. A marriage needs, as much as anything else, to be stable – the parties must always know where they stand with each other, and that they can trust each other. There are minimum conditions of behaviour – of civility, kindness and gentleness in speech and touch, mutual interest and respect – that help to secure that stability, and I will go over some of them. There are also good reasons for marriage, and remembering them makes it much easier and more rewarding to make the effort of love in the particular example of it that you are living through, or considering living through – your own marriage.
Before I turn to the sunnas and fiqh of marriage, I want to clarify further the terms I am using. Some of you may feel that ‘love’ is not the right word. That, instead, I should be using another word, like ‘duty’ or ‘conscientiousness’. But, no, I am reasonably confident that I do mean ‘love’, which I define as putting your heart into doing the right thing. The example I gave you (loving ‘Uthman and ‘Ali both together) is not an example of mere duty or of a mere cold, rigid, formal loyalty. It is instead an effort of generosity, of magnanimity, of keeping your heart open to the qualities of both men. Let me make it clear with the help of a rough analogy with a different sort of appetite, food. Food serves the purpose of sustaining bodily functions if it is nutritious. The right nutritional values could probably be concentrated in tablets or drinks. But you would soon get fed up with eating tablets and drinking smoothies. You also need the business of choosing and acquiring ingredients, testing for freshness and quality, and cooking and serving, and company, and so on. Then the nutrition comes within a wide range of activities, most of which are pleasurable. You get your food, and on top of that you enjoy it. And if you are grateful for the nutrition and the pleasure, and not excessive or wasteful, the demands of the religion are also met. Now consider a difficult situation. You are really hungry and want food. But the food presented to you arouses no appetite in you. You may decide not to bother and allow yourself to get even hungrier, which is at best a temporary option. Or you can eat it while hating every mouthful, after which you will be agitated and feeling sorry for yourself, perhaps even feeling hungry though you are in fact only discontented. Or you can accept the necessity of the situation, look again at the food presented to you and focus on the fact that it is there, laid before you after an effort of some sort entailing the myriad of activities I mentioned, and that moreover it will deal with your need for food at that time. That way, when you have had enough, you will have allowed the food to serve at least its minimum purpose. That is an effort of generosity on your part, which is positive, and the food will satisfy accordingly, and the occasion will not have been ruined altogether. This effort of generosity, of being open to the qualities of what is before you, if you are capable of it, is one of the measures, one of the steps, that constitute putting your heart into something or loving something. It takes a bit of trouble. Whereas to respond to what rouses your desire or appetite – that takes no trouble at all.