Eddie Murphy, a romantic comedy, and Islam are a highly improbable combination. Nonetheless, Boomerang, the 1992 Paramount Pictures release which features Murphy as Marcus, an advertising executive who happens to be an indecisive playboy, does offer a well-acted, powerful scene from which we might glean a few insights. As we approach the denouement of what, until that point, had been a legitimately funny albeit hopelessly predictable film, Marcus and Angela—played by Murphy’s co-star Halle Berry—have a memorable exchange.
Marcus Graham and Angela Lewis are an unlikely couple. They initially enjoy a collegial relationship but While Marcus is away from work, attempting to regain his composure and sulking over how things ended with another woman (Jaquelin)—with whom Marcus and Angela also work—Angela extends herself to him as a supportive friend and the two unexpectedly become lovers. Marcus returns to work with renewed confidence. He is content with how things are progressing with Angela and seems to have gotten over Jaquelin. Unsurprisingly, this attracts Jaquelin and she seduces him at a company gala while Angela is awaiting his return home so they can spend the evening together. As Marcus and Angela meet in the kitchen the following morning, the scene ensues:
Angela questions him about how last night went and he responds tepidly, “it went ok.” When she remarks that it must’ve gone better than just ok seeing as though he didn’t make it home until the middle of the night, he deflects by saying that he needed to take a walk to think about some things. “Like the fact that you’re still in love with Jaquelin!” she snaps. At this, he says “there are just some things you can’t control…like love.” She interjects in utter disbelief, “Love? Love? What do you know about love? I’m sick and tired of men using ‘love’ like it’s some disease you catch!” The scene crescendos when she aggressively shoves her index finger into his forehead, proclaiming, “Love should’ve brought your a** home last night! ….”
With the exception of a small minority of absolute materialists who maintain that ‘love’ is a mere chemical reaction, we all believe in love. However, this scene captures what we often overlook about love: its amorphous character. For Marcus, love justifies his lack of self-control and insensitive, deceitful behavior and for Angela, love should have restrained him. Actually, love is capable of both. “Make you do right, love’ll make you do wrong/ make you come home early/ make you stay out all night long…” Al Green soulfully hummed on Love and Happiness. The belief that love on its own can be a moral justification or criterion for judgment is deeply naïve. Interestingly, the Qur’ān is quite nuanced with regard to sentimentality. It does not posit love as an emotion or feeling that always leads to felicity. Quite the reverse, love is mentioned with both positive and negative signification. The following verse, for example, references love negatively:
“No! But you do not honor the orphan. And you do not encourage one another to feed the poor. And you consume inheritance, devouring [it] all together. And you love wealth immensely.” [89:17-20]
Similarly, Surah al-Baqarah references love that may be sincere but misdirected:
“…and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you…” [2:216]
Elsewhere in al-Baqarah we find:
“And [yet], among the people are those who take other than Allah as equals [to Him]. They love them as they should love Allah. But those who believe are stronger in love for Allah…” [2:165]
In this verse we can see love with both negative (the disbelievers love for the deities they worship as co-sharers of God’s divinity) and positive (the believers love for God) signification. Again, the question isn’t whether one loves or not; love may be bad or good. Rather, the operative considerations are what and how you love. “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly…” Toni Morrison muses in the voice of the narrator of her novel The Bluest Eye. Did Marcus actually love Jaquelin or Angela or both women? Perhaps; there is no way of knowing for sure. However, we can definitely say that it wasn’t love expressed in transparency, respect, and commitment.
To that effect, when ‘love’ is invoked positively in the Qur’ān it is often accompanied by other descriptors that attempt to concretize an otherwise indeterminate emotion:
“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you love and gentleness…” [30:21]
Exegetical writing concerning this verse concludes that the only love desirable among spouses is that which is characterized by gentleness. In other words, because love can be expressed in myriad ways, some positive and some negative, God must not only make it clear that spouses should love one another, but also make clear how they should love one another.
“Say [O Muhammad], if you love Allah then follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” [3:31]
This verse exhorts the believers to express their love for God through adherence to the Sunnah (tradition or way) of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace). Echoing Angela’s point from the scene, love expressed through following the Prophet (upon him be peace) encourages greater accountability and conscientiousness. Love and longing for the Divine that is accompanied by amoral, antinomian attitudes might, in fact, be as Marcus said, “just something you can’t control.” However, it is not the kind of love that is reciprocated by God.
“…My servant does not draw near to me with anything more beloved to Me than the religious duties I have imposed upon him/her; and My servant continues to draw near to me with additional works so that I love him/her. And when I love him/her, I am the hearing with which they hear, their vision with which they see, their hand with which they grasp, and their leg with which they walk. And were he/she to ask of Me, I would surely give them; and were they to ask me for refuge, I would surely grant them it.” (Bukhārī)