The Virtue of Love in Islam: Common Values, Shared Visions

Introduction

The 7th day in the month of Ramadan of the year (610 CE) was like any other day Mohammad spent in solitude in a cave high above Mecca. But that night changed his life. He had fallen asleep in the cave when he suddenly was awakened with an overwhelming feeling of a divine presence. An angel was there.

Mohammad must have been terrified, especially when the angel enveloped him in a horrifying embrace so that it felt as though his very breath was being squeezed from his body. The angel gave him one command: “Iqra’!” (Read or Recite). Mohammad protested in vain that he could not read. The command was issued twice more, and each time he would feel he was reaching the end of his endurance, but he uttered the same response. Finally, the angel released him, and Mohammad found divinely inspired words pouring out of his mouth:

“Recite in the name of your Lord who created; created the human being from a clinging substance. Recite! Your Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught the human being that which he knew not.” (Qur’an 96:1-5)

Mohammad was horrified. As he tumbled down the mountain, he looked upwards, and the angel was everywhere filling the horizon. Wherever he turned, the figure was there, inescapably present. He shouted, who are you and the angel replied, “I’m Gabriel and you are the Messenger of God”.

Mohammad kept tumbling down the mountain and rushed home, running, falling, crawling and shaking, he cried to Khadijah: “Cover me! Cover me!”. She laid him down, placing a cloak over him, held him lovingly in her arms, soothing him and trying to calm him. As soon as he had recovered a little, he told her what had happened and shared his fears that he might be now possessed by a spirit. Mohammad was terrified. She held him close and with a comforting but determined voice she said: “Never! By God! God will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your relatives, help the poor, serve your guests generously, and assist those affected by calamities” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). She saw in her husband a virtuous man—who is honest and just, given to helping others.

The first person on the face of the earth to believe in the Message entrusted to Mohammad was his own loving wife, Khadijah. At once, she went to see an older male cousin, Waraqa, a follower of Jesus who had studied the Scriptures. After hearing from her about Mohammad’s experience, Waraqa confirmed that Muhammad received a revelation similar, he said, to what Moses used to receive.

Such was the beginning of Islam. An unwilling Prophet who started as a seeker, nurtured by the love of a devoted wife and confirmed by a follower of Jesus.

What Is Love in Islam?

Twenty three years later, what started with that first revelation continued and became a book. That book claims to be the inerrant word of God. But how does God describe Himself in this book? Is He love?

If we’re looking for the word love which is the translation of the Arabic word حب, this word is mentioned 76 times in the Qur’an. I should think, however, that we are more interested in the meaning of the word in relation to God and His creation. Is the love described in the Qur’an theoretical or is it contextual? Is it conditional or is it unconditional?

Let us look into that. The Qur’an says that human beings are created to worship Allah. What is the relationship then, between worshipping and loving Allah?

Around the 10th Century, a debate started in Baghdad regarding the purpose behind Allah’s creations and actions. Some theologians thought that the attribution of reason or purpose to Allah’s deeds leads to the assumption that Allah is in need of His creatures and He creates them to meet some needs. The dominant view, however, especially among those who came later and had a more rationalistic approach like Nasir ul‑Din al‑Tusi (1201-1274) has always been that Allah is the Wise, so whatever He does is for a good and well planned purposes. He never does something arbitrarily or in vain. He himself said in the Qur’an: “Did you think, then, that We created you in vain” (23:115)

The question is not whether Allah is love? Or whether He loves us? The question should be, why are we here in the first place? Is our existence on this planet accidental, or are we the beneficiaries of a cosmic order that was planned beforehand to help us flourish?

So let’s start with the answer to the first question. Is Allah Love?

Allah gave me existence [1](82:07). Without Him being willing to do that I would not be. So His love is demonstrated through His will to allow me to exist. It is also demonstrated through His generosity when He allowed me to have consciousness, so I can realize that we are here together, He and I. He demonstrated His love when He allowed me to know Him[2] (3:62) through the guidance He sent me[3] (2:02) and inspirted me to write devotionally about Him as a sign of my great love for Him.

Adam, Eve, and Original Sin

The story of Adam’s creation in the Qur’an summarizes the beginning of the love relationship between the Creator and His unique masterpiece, He called Adam. The Qur’an tells us that Adam was created perfect, in the best of stature (95:04) and together with Adam was created his mate (4:01), Eve.

Allah taught Adam the names of everything (2:31) because Adam was teachable. Out of Allah’s love, Adam and Eve were both given the greatest gift any creature ever received; reason and freedom, meaning the ability to make choices. Their freedom to choose was tested in heaven when Adam and Eve were told not to get near a particular tree (2:35), but they chose to do just that with little persuasion from Satan. That was the first time they exercised their freedom to choose, and Adam and Eve will now learn that choices have consequences. “God said, “You get down to earth, as enemies to one another. You will live and have your home there for a while” (7:24). “There you will live,” he added, “and there you will die, and from it you will be brought forth [on Resurrection Day]” (7:25).

As for disobeying the instructions given to them, the Qur’an tells us that, “Adam then received words from his Lord, and God accepted his repentance. He alone is the Accepter of Repentance, the Mercy Giver” (2:37).

According to the Qur’an, there is no original sin. Allah did not create us to burden us with guilt for generations to come. Life on earth is not described in the Qur’an as a punishment, because earth was apparently a part of a universe that was designed for large multi-cellular beings like ourselves. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen were among the first atoms brought into existence by the stars. Carbon forms the building blocks of living things, and hydrogen and oxygen form water as the matrix of carbon-based life. As if from the very first moment of creation, the biochemistry of life was already preordained by a loving God. In the universal language, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are terms of endearment, because they explain the loving plan Allah used to prepare earth for us.

“Allah sent down rain from the sky for you, causing gardens full of beauty to grow” (27:60) “and made every living thing from water? Will they not then believe?” (21:30).

Now that they are settled on a planet that was designed just for them and they do not have to fear the wrath of an angry God, who just forgave them their first wrong decision, Adam and Eve will be able to start their life on earth without any guilt. All along the Qur’an tells us that God out of His love and compassion was in touch with Adam and his descendants, teaching them how to make the right choices to prepare for their eternal life with Him. One of the most liberating and loving rules He gave us is: “Each soul is responsible for its own actions, and no bearer of burdens will bear the burdens of another. In time you must all return to your Lord, and He will make you understand the truth about your differences” (6:164).

This is how the relationship between Human beings and their Lord started.

So how Allah does reveal Himself to us through the Qur’an? He called Himself the Merciful to all, the Mercy Giver 114 times. What He wants on earth, He says, is “people He loves and who love Him” 5:54. He added “The Merciful-to-All will bestow His affection on those who have believed and done righteous deeds” (19:96). For others, “He is forgiving and Merciful-to-All” (2:199). Yet for anyone wondering whether one is worthy of Allah’s love, He said through His Prophet: “If you love Allah, follow me. Allah will surely love you and forgive your sins. Allah is forgiving and merciful” (3:31). He is also “most forgiving, most forbearing” (2:235). Just for those who are wondering if Allah needs us, He says, “Know that Allah is Rich beyond need and He is Praiseworthy” (02:267). He is kind, caring, and just.

One of Allah’s attributes is, Al Wajid. This word has several meanings, among which is “to bring into existence”. It also has the meaning of intense, existential love from its root wajd. Reflecting upon this divine name, we can see that there is a relationship between love and creation. With further reflection we can come to a truly profound insight, namely, that Allah’s love is the very cause of existence. We are alive today because of His love; the whole Universe is here because of His love.

In a statement declaring the love relationship that exists between the Creator and the created, which is continuously declaring His glory, the Qur’an says:

“The seven heavens and the earth, and everyone in them declare His glory. There is nothing that does not glorify Him with praise, but you fail to understand the manner of their glorification. He is All-Forbearing, Most-Forgiving” (17:44).

If He is such a loving God, does He punish those who disobey Him?

Each one of us exists because He loves us. But what happens when we refuse to accept Him as our Creator, or when we know Him, but we reject Him, when we do not love him back or when we do not love each other or when we spread mischief, lies, fear, hatred and wars? He should probably be very upset with us but instead He gives us another chance to come back to His embrace of loving mercy. He says:

“My worshipers who have transgressed against themselves, do not despair of Allah’s mercy, for Allah forgives all sins. He is the Ever-Forgiving, the Mercy-Giver” (39:53).

Yet for those who heard His message but still insist on disobeying the guidance He sent through His Prophets, He says:

“Turn in repentance to your Lord and submit to Him before the punishment comes upon you and you cannot be helped” (39:54). “Follow the best teaching sent down to you from your Lord before the punishment comes upon you suddenly, when you are not expecting it (39:55), so that a soul may not say, ‘How sorry I am for having neglected my duty to Allah and having been among the mockers’ (39:56), or say, ‘Had Allah guided me, I would have been among those who are mindful of Allah’ (39:57), or say, when one sees the punishment, ‘If only I had another chance to be among those who do good’ (39:58), [but Allah will reply], ‘No! My verses did come to you, but you denied them, turned arrogant, and denied the truth’ ” (39:59).

Yes, the Qur’an tells us that Allah will continue to give a chance for repentance to all people as long as they are alive, but if they die and did not repent, He will punish those arrogant and mischievous people who received His guidance but refused to follow it, or those who openly challenged Him, by harming innocent others, those who used others for their own purposes, oppressed or manipulated millions of people for personal gain, or otherwise exploited their racial or nationalistic dominance.

He is Allah, The Knower of Everything, from whom we cannot runaway except by running back to Him. The only reason we have any worth on this small planet is because He enabled us to know Him and to love Him.

This actually, will fulfil the first of the two great Commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Loving One’s Neighbor

What about our relationship with each other, the love we should have for our neighbors? Before talking about this, I have to explain that the Qur’an is of at least two parts, the Message given to Muhammad as a Messenger and the Prophethood given to him as a Prophet. But, what is the difference between the two?

The verses of the Qur’an dealing with the Prophethood talk about the universe, its laws, the creation of heaven and earth, the creation of every living being from water and all things that were not known to us but are revealed in the Qur’an such as previous events with other Prophets.

While the verses dealing with the message are verses dealing with the organization of human life on earth, meaning our relationship with our neighbors and the relationships among communities and nations. Muhammad the Messenger of Allah said, according to Bukhari and Muslim: “You are not a true believer until you love for your brother, or he said for your neighbor, what you love for yourself”. He also said, “You are npt a true believer if you go to bed knowing that your neighbor is hungry”.

Further, “Abdullah bin Amr had a sheep slaughtered for his family, so when he came home he said: ‘Have you given some to our Jewish neighbor?’. He added, I heard the Messenger of Allah saying: ‘Jibril continued to instruct me to treat the neighbors kindly and politely, I thought he would order me to make them heirs”. According to Jami` at-Tirmidhi 1943, Book 27, Hadith 49.

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “The Compassionate One has mercy on those who are merciful. If you show mercy to those who are on the earth, He Who is in the heaven will show mercy to you”. Abu Dawood..vol 3..no 1533

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, (pbuh) said: You will not enter Paradise until you believe and you will not believe until you love each other. Shall I tell you something if you do, you would love each other? Spread peace among you.

So love here is not only a relationship with one neighbor, it is also communal. But how do you love your neighbor and beyond this particular neighbor, how do you love all of your neighbors.

Suppose you have several neighbors and you love them all equally. But you notice that one of the neighbor is cheating another, do you act like it doesn’t concern you? Or do you try to advise him. The Messenger of Allah said: Support your brother whether he is an oppressor or oppressed. A companion said: I support him if he is oppressed, how can I support him if he is an oppressor. The Messenger replied: by preventing him from oppressing others. This is how you support him. (Sahih al-Bukhari 2444).

In a communal situation loving you neighbors and reconciling them when there is a conflict, is establishing justice. This justice I’m talking about is not dry, detached justice. It is rather justice based on love, so I call it compassionate justice. Hence my definition of justice. “Justice is love in a communal situation and among communities.”

Love in Islam is then contextual. It was practiced during the brief rule of Mohammad (P.B.U.H) to Medina on both the personal as well as the communal level. A prime example of that love is the covenants given by Muhammad to the Christians of Najran and the Christians of the world.

Love in Islam is an act of worship, because it is in obedience to Allah and His Messenger.

But what about the Sufi love?

For some Muslims adoring God is the highest reason for their existence on earth. They are so devotionally committed to loving Allah that they spent long hours, days and nights performing dhikr, the remembrance of Allah through reciting His Holy Names and Attributes, glorifying Him and praising Him. To them He is the only reality there is, and the reality they seek. While they are doing this, they try to live in harmony with all creations (mankind, animals, and nature).

They call their journey the path الطريق and the path is the path to God. To undertake the journey you need the guidance of someone who traveled that path before and can help you maneuver your ways around the obstacles that you will meet on your journey. This person is traditionally the Sheikh or the Sufi Master. This journey towards God is done through Sohbet, which is a spiritual relation between teacher and student that relies on oral storytelling traditions and practices. During Sohbet a love relationship grows not only between the Sheikh and his disciples, but also between the disciples themselves.

During Sohbet a conversation between friends of spirit and heart takes place, it is a deep listening and transmission of heart as well.

Sufism can best be explained by the parable of the rain drop, the river and the ocean:

One day a rain drop was sitting on a leaf of a branch extending over a flowing river. The drop was lonely and it knew it can’t stay there forever. It kept looking at the flowing water below and it knew it belongs there. But it was scared and afraid to lose its drop-ness. It wasn’t sure where the river will be following to, or whether its destination will be the ocean it knows it originated from. But the river was moving fast with all the other drops into somewhere.

Finally the allure of the river became so un-resistible and the drop got all the courage it can master and took a leap of faith toward the river. It felt great. It floated.

If we liken the human individual to a drop, and Allah to the ocean we can say that the function of the Sheikh is to carry the drop to the ocean, so the sheikh is the river. The drop however, must commit itself to the river, so that it can be carried to the ocean.

Needless to say, for the drop to reach the ocean with the help of the river, it must first put up with a great deal of difficulties arising from its various encounters in the river, so that it may eventually merge with the ocean in serenity and stability.

Only when the drop has submitted to the river, and ultimately the ocean, can it forget its ‘drop-ness’.

When the drop finally merges with the ocean, it sees through the eye of the ocean that it is the ocean.

The Good News

A man once came to the Prophet (puh) and asked him about the hereafter. The Prophet asked him, “And what have you prepared for that time?” The man replied, “Nothing, except that I love Allah and I love you.” The Prophet (puh) answered him, “You are with the ones you love.”

The guidance of Islam is the guidance of love. Our purpose as human beings is to consciously manifest Allah’s love in our lives.

I would like to share with you part of the first sermon ever given by the Prophet (puh) in Medina. This is what he had to say to his companions:

“Love that which Allah loves! Love Allah with all your hearts! Grow not weary of hearing the Word of Allah. Do not stop remembering Him. Do not let your hearts grow hard toward Him.

So, serve Allah alone, and associate with Him no other. Be ever conscious of Him. Be truthful to Allah in what you utter from your mouths. Let the Spirit of Allah be the source of love between you.”

Muslims however, are not heading this message from their Prophet. The kind of Islam that was dominant around the Middle of the 20th century and still is, was focused of rejecting the other and judging other Muslims. While the majority of Muslims were living their normal everyday life, others with petrodollars were very active spreading a narrow-minded, harsh vision of what Islam is. To them Islam is what was practiced in the 7th century, while for enlightened Muslims, Islam is how we understand the message in a 21st century context.

Today, we often hear and read much that is harsh and heartless about Islam and not enough that is loving and beautiful. There seems to be too many messages of prejudice, violence, and oppression. Yet intellectual Muslims from around the world, are working to revive critical thinking, re-examining our traditions in order to clear the sediments that accumulated over the centuries. I’m sure we will succeed and the virtue of love will be dominant again. But in order to succeed, we need the help and support of enlightened Christians and Jews. We need to learn that this planet, is our planet. We either survive together or we die together.

May Allah bless you with His love, and the love of those who love Him. May Allah fill our hearts with love toward each other’s.

[1] He who created you, formed you, and proportioned you? (82:07)

[2] This is the truth of the matter, and there is no deity but God. God is the Almighty, the Wise. (03:62)

[3] This is the Book that, without doubt, has guidance for those who are mindful of God; (02:02)

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