This is based on a talk given at the official launch of Shaykh Muhammad ibn Yahya al-Ninowy’s book, The Book of Love, at the Academia Library.
WHEN we pick up a copy of Shaykh Muhammad ibn Yahya al-Ninowy’s latest book, The Book of Love, we expect it to be a serious tome, with seriously weighty content. Serious the book is, indeed, but when the first page opens, we see a sentence resting upon a page.
At first glance, it defies the senses. We expect books to be full of words, chapters, meandering paragraphs and lush descriptions. Instead, we are confronted by little bunches of words, like cherries tantalisingly placed in a bowl.
And then we read, and then we realise that the The Book of Love has a few words, but actually says a lot more – a lot. In fact, as one dives deeper and deeper into its pages, and its meanings, it becomes a big ocean – or as a Sufi Shaykh always used to say – a Mercy Ocean.
Shaykh Ninowy, a scholar of classical training and tradition, has skillfully and strategically placed a series of aphorisms, or sayings and quotes, over 322 pages. A summary of his thoughts on a number of issues over the years, it has no particular order, but still creates a coherent whole.
Normally when I buy a book, I get excited. I’m old fashioned. I hate the distant, digital feel of tablets. I like to look at a book’s texture, design, paper and even smell. For me, a book is still a tactile experience. As a hard cover on high quality paper, the The Book of Love feels just right. As a bibliophile, I also have a strange habit – I sometimes read a book backwards, or randomly open it at any page.
So it should come as no surprise that the first page I opened in The Book of Love was page 122, and not page one. I came across aphorism #57: “Islam is a religion that came to give life, not to take it away”. I glanced across to #58: “It is never about fatwa, but about taqwa…”
Interestingly, both were things I had actually heard Shaykh Ninowy saying. They have always struck me, because so few have been able to bring the inherent poetry of classical Arabic into their English as Shaykh Ninowy – who hails form a scholarly family from Aleppo – has.
Paging forwards, this time, I stopped at #73: “This Din of ours is a Din of love – no love, no Din. The Beloved sent his Beloved out of love, with love, for the sake of love”.
This Rumi-esque statement enjoys resonance in this world of sectarian hatred, and speaks to the spirit of Shari’ah, which aphorism #81 certainly does: “Love is a moral law…it connects you to the soul of the universe, gives wings to the heart, unlimited skies to the mind, and life to life itself…”
Undeniably, the aphorisms are a tapestry woven together with experiential wisdom. We catch a whiff of Qur’an here, Hadith there…with Shaykh Ninowy holding the needle and thread. The Book of Love is a companion, a very accessible and readable companion – but it’s also framed as a classical text, the hub of a multi-layered commentary that will be filled out by sharh, or explanation.
Each aphorism in this book, therefore, is a door to another – as one travels from room to perfumed room. It is a refuge for the soul, and an escape from the undesirable human urges that drive us.
But more importantly, The Book of Love is a book of wasatiyyah, the celebrated Qur’anic middle way. However, wasatiyyah, or moderation in all things, is not a capitulation, or a watering down, of the core values of belief.
Wasatiyyah is totally, uncompromisingly, absolutely, about love. Wasatiyyah is love, and love is wasatiyyah. It is truly, unselfishly, loving for others what you love for yourself. This is a key to the Nur ul-Muhammadiyyah, the Prophetic light – a light of love and knowledge that awaits every soul on this earth.
The Book of Love is an extraordinary book written for extraordinary times – an era where confusion is the King, ignorance the Queen and Mr Nafs the treasurer. The Book of Love shines a light that shrinks the contemporary darkness. It is a book for everybody, and a mercy to all.
The Book of Love published by the Madina Institute, 2018.
By Shafiq Morton; Published in the Muslim Views, August 2018