It’s time to get to the heart of the matter.
With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, saying the right words to express your affection can be more meaningful than lavish gifts.
And it is not as simple as it looks because modern Arabic popular culture has often relegated the expressions of love to the superficial.
We all heard the word al hob, the Arabic translation for love, bandied about in seemingly every pop song and television drama, but is it the only word out there?
It is a question posed by Muhamed Al Khalil, an associate professor of Arabic at New York University, Abu Dhabi.
The linguist explains how many Arabic speakers are yet to grasp the rich vocabulary on offer when it comes to expressing the various stages of love.
"There are so many lists or series of words about love that you can find in Arabic literature," he says.
"Many authors and Islamic scholars, like Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyyah (1292-1350), identified about 10 levels of love, while in the Sufi tradition, it is said there are up to 40 levels.
“So the Arabic dictionary is absolutely rich with words that give meaning to the various ways we feel and want to express love.”
Al Khalil encourages Arabic speakers to delve deeper into the language. Through that process, he says, words will be discovered that not only enlighten but enrich relationships.
“If you get more educated in Arabic literature, it certainly does adds a sensitivity towards how you approach relationships. A well-read person will know that love is not about domination or just two people living together,” he says.
“It is so much more than that. If you look at the way it is presented throughout Arabic literature, you start understanding that love is a deep and complex relationship and it needs to be approached that way.”
For an example of that depth, Al Khalil breaks down al hob, the common word used today for love.
“It is related to another word, ḥabb, which actually means seeds. You can even go further and find links to other words like abb which means father" he says. "If you look at this central Arabic word we use for love, you can see how it has so many connotations that can branch into many other roots.”
Here, Al Khalil outlines six other Arabic words for love we can use to express our various depths of emotion.
1. Al sabwa
The Arabic word for crush or puppy love.
“It means the first feelings of love that may not be true or cannot be trusted,” says Al Khalil. “The word itself is derived from the root words saba or siba, which mean young age."
2. Al shagaf
When infatuation makes way for something deeper, Al Khalil says it enters the realms of al shagaf.
"This is the level when the beloved controls the heart," he says. "The word is related to al shighaf, which means membrane. So this means the lover managed to get through that layer and this is why it is an advanced stage of love.”
3. Al ishq
A word often heard in Levant dramas, Al Khalil describes it as signifying a deep union.
“It is quite an intense love and it means when two things come together and become so intertwined that they really cannot be separated,” he says. “Those who experience it are always thinking about that person. They don’t want to be apart from one another.”
4. Al huyam
When Beyonce sings that she is “crazy in love”, she is in a state of al huyam.
“It literally means crazy because the word comes from the verb yaheem,” Al Khalil explains. “And that is somebody who roams around, distracted and absent-minded, as a result of being in love.”
5. Al wala'
When a love borders on obsession, it can be described as al wala’.
“This is a stage when the person who is in love starts losing control,” Al Khalil says. “The person becomes, to a certain level, obsessed and preoccupied with the beloved or the object they love.”
6. Al najwa
Ever experienced that comfortable silence with your partner where a knowing glance speaks louder than words? That relationship state is called al najwa.
“The connotation here is when love is silently felt,” Al Khalil says. “This is when hearts can communicate without speaking. This is a very advanced level of love expressed in the Arabic language."