Love: Scriptural Teachings, Practical Application and the Safe Space of the Qur’an Study Group
“Love in the Qur’an.”
Sounds simple enough.
I mean, I thought that writing this particular piece would be a cinch. Abrahamic religions preach love, I have met loving Muslims, just need to review Qur’anic and traditional Islamic teachings on Love, add a few references, and that’s a wrap, right?
What I found was so much richer than I expected that I will begin with a disclaimer – this is an article that is impossible to finish. You will be seeing here a snapshot of the wealth of knowledge in Islam about Love. All I can do is add to the injunction by our sage Hillel: “go learn” – more, that is.
Islam sees itself as the seal of the monotheistic faiths, that final stamp that brings all previous faiths together; as such, the Islamic tradition contains a wealth of information, some theological, some historical, some sociological. The fervently devout and the avowed atheist can both feel at home is studying text, prophetic traditions (ahadith), and in witnessing the love that is practiced in the Muslim community, and that they will share with you.
I begin with the Qur’an Study Group, run by Hafiz Abdullah Muhammad of London, and its seminar on Love in the Qur’an, September 2019.
The topics presented included loving one’s fellow, loving the creation as a way of increasing our love for God, the love that a Muslim should have for Muhammad(pbuh), the power of love vis a vis personal empowerment, love between believers, the psychology of love, comparison of the Golden Rule among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even the love that Muhammad(pbuh) had for certain foods and drinks that are beneficial for us.
That we got to the subject of nutrition is part of the nature of Islam, just part of its all inclusive character.
Thirty seven different words in the Qur’an denote love.
(See why this is a complex topic?)
The most common are Ahabba, Wadda and Rahmah. Ahabba and related words have the basic root H-B that also form Hubb and Mahabbah. These terms refer to love between God and people, and love of this world. This is similar to the H-V root of the Hebrew “Ahava”, whose basic meaning is to give.
Then the Qur’an brings Wadda, and related words such as Wudd and Mawaddah, which connote love between spouses and family relations. Reminds me of the Hebrew Yedid, which connotes friendship.
But the crowning glory of the terms of love is found in the word Rahmah, mercy, mentioned 339 times in the Qur’an in nine derived forms. Rahmah connotes tenderness and compassion, or riqqa, which implies kindness towards an object. Human Rahmah takes the form of compassion, God’s Rahmah takes the form of compassion and provision.
If I continue with the terms that denote love, I will not finish this article, so I will say that the thirty seven kinds of love include its “spin offs”, that is, feelings that are the result of love, including “wandering” “anguish”, “pity” even for someone that one dislikes, and even “zina” – immodesty. One who wills something strongly is also experiencing a form of love , called, iradah. This is positive love when one wills what is good for everyone, and intends to bring it about thorough gentle means. On the other hand, one who wills strongly against another’s wishes is not motivated by a healthy form of love, but by that form of iradah which is actually seduction.
The precariousness of emotions that are connected to love means that we have the ability to realign our motives and actions when we see they are out of step. Your will, iradah, may have good intent and be tied up with love, but if you find your actions meeting a lot of resistance, maybe ask yourself if your will is really for the benefit of others, or are you getting carried away by your own needs.
I like the positive ring to all of this. You have many impulses that at their root are indeed loving, they just may get out of alignment here and there, so bring them back to their correct place and all will be well.
See why I said that the avowed atheist would also enjoy learning the corpus of Islamic thought? This is great psychology, I completely forgot that I am reviewing holy writ.
Love Between People
Seems like the love most needed nowadays is that between people, so let’s start with the presentation that focused upon this subject.
When love for others is founded upon love for God, it is enduring. As I remember the Christians saying, back in the USA, “I love him in the Lord”, meaning, whether or not we get along, I want the best for him and I have compassion for him. When we love others because they are in the image of God, and because He commanded us to love, this love will endure despite disagreement or friction.
“Worship Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and be kind – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are farther away, the companion by your side, the traveller, and what your right hands possess: Allah does not love those who are self-deluding and boastful.” Qur’an 4:36
And from the ahadith: Allah would say on the Day of Judgment: “Where are those who love each other for the sake of My glory? Today I will shelter them with My shade, as there is no shade today except My shade”.” (Hadith, Muslim)
“Jibrael (Angel Gabriel) kept recommending treating neighbors with kindness to the extent that I thought he would assign a share of inheritance to them”. Sahih Bukhari and Muslim
“Whenever you prepare a broth, make a good amount by adding plenty of liquid, and give some to your neighbors” – Sahih Muslim
Love among people is connected with faith – you cannot have one without the other:
“You will not enter Paradise until you have faith and you will not have faith until you love one another. Do you want me to tell you something you can do to make you love one another? Make it a habit to greet one another with “Assalaamu Alaykum” – peace upon you”. – Sahih Muslim
“Whoever would love to be delivered from the Hellfire and entered into Paradise, thenlet him die with faith in Allah and the Last Day and let him treat the people the way he would love to be treated.” – Sahih Muslim
You will not enter Paradise until you believe and you will not believe until you love each other. Shall I show you something that, if you did, you would love each other? Spread peace between yourselves. – Sahih Muslim
One hadith illustrates a man who is visiting another. He is asked, are you returning a favor? No, the man answers. Then he is told that God loves him for extending himself for another.
“None of you will truly believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself”. – Hadith Bukhari
“Do you love Paradise? Then love for your brother what you love for yourself”. – Musnad Ahmad
Now we move from love among people to love for God’s creation:
Love for This World Inspires us to Love the Next World
Nadia’s natural warmth brought her presentation on love for the dunya (this world) very much to life. Her theme – love of God via beholding His creativity. The shape of a tiny spiraling snail parallels the shape of the greatest galaxy, the vast variety of nature, its vibrant colors, adorable animals that catch our heart, all this splendor and beauty is but a mere hint for the splendor of the afterlife, or akhira. Awe for the creation is a source of pleasure here and now, while it whets our appetite for the akhira.
“Do you not see how Allah is praised by those in Heaven and those on Earth, and even by the bird as they spread their wings? He notes the prayers and praises of all His creatures, and has knowledge of all their actions.” (An Nur 24: 41)
“If all the trees of the Earth were pens, and the sea were ink, with seven more seas to replenish it, the words of God would still not be exhausted. God is Almighty, All wise.” (Luqman 31:27)
“To mankind the love of worldly appetites is painted in glowing colors: women and children heaped-up mounds of gold and silver ,and horses with fine markings ,and livestock and fertile farmland . All this is merely the enjoyment of the life of this world. The best home coming is in the presence of Allah .” (Imran 3:14)
While keeping the afterlife in mind, the Muslim is enjoined to enjoy this world! Personally, I have noticed that religious people can sometimes forget this, so here is some encouragement:
“It is Allah who has made the Earth subservient to you, so travel through its wideness and enjoy the good sustaining things which He provides.” (Ta Ha 29:20)
We are born with nothing, so humans need to be adorned, beautified. Adornment begets affection, attraction, and love. Just as nature is adorned and beautiful, people may also adorn themselves. Clothes that loosely cover the body, favored by devout Muslims and Jews and some Christians, can be tasteful and pleasant to look upon. People need aesthetics, being religious need not amount to neglecting one’s appearance
Adornment can include dressing nicely, greeting others warmly, acting in a loving way, and being virtuous so that Allah loves us even more. Virtue is the beauty of the soul, and those that Allah particularly loves will have this love revealed on their faces, that is, others will notice this special grace, called nur in Arabic.
Love for the Prophet
Al din wahad, al shari’a muchtalifa – Qatada declared: the basic law is unified, the covenants differ. In Jewish parlance, the Seven Laws of Noah unite humanity, religions differ. As long as a religion cleaves to these Seven Laws, it is acceptable.
So Judaism and Islam are united in deen, but concerning love for the prophets, here is a subject in which Judaism and Islam differ – the Muslim is enjoined to love Muhammad more than she loves herself.
“The believers, in their love, mutual kindness, and close ties, are like one body; when any part complains, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.” (Sahih Muslim) Umar bin Al-Khattab said to the Prophet: “O Messenger of Allah! You are beloved to me than everything except my own self. The Prophet said: “No, by Him in Whose Hand my soul! You will not have complete faith till I am more beloved to you than your own self.“ Then Umar said to him: “However, now, by Allah, you are beloved to me than my own self “ The Prophet then said: “Now, O Umar, (now you are a complete believer).“ (Sahih Bukhari)
A hadith declares that you will be with whom you love on the day of judgement, and since the faithful Muslim yearns to be with Muhammad, that is where she will be on that fateful day.
When Muslims mention the name of Muhammad, they follow it with “peace be upon him” and further blessings for his welfare and that of his family. They appreciate it when non-Muslims add “peace be upon him” as well, and there is no reason why a believing Jew should refrain from this act of respect. Such a practice certainly augments a culture of respect and dignity in Islam, a characteristic to be admired.
We do not have this parallel in Judaism, of loving our prophets with this degree of intensity. It is not our custom that when we mention a prophet or forefather, that we follow his name with heaping blessings on him.
However, we do have something is common along these lines, and this is what I brought up in my presentation: one who loves God and humanity wishes to draw others to the Supreme source of Good. For the Muslim, that is through the teachings of the Qur’an, which was revealed to Muhammad, so loving Muhammad would bring one closer to the Qur’an’s teachings and therefore closer to God. For the Jew, that means encouraging another in her observance of the commandments, whether the Seven Laws of Noah or the 613 commandments of the Torah.
Sources in the Jewish tradition
Leviticus 19:18 Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.
|19:33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong.|
|19:34 The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.|
Hillel, first century BCE, was a tanna, one of the sages of the Mishna. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbos 31a relates the following story of Hillel:
“… a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai chased him away. When he came before Hillel, Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”
This seems to preach unconditional love, however we find a qualification:
Mishnah, Pirkei Avoth 1:12: “Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and bringing them near to the Torah.”
The Tanna Rabbi Akiva lived at the end of the first century CE to the beginning of the second century CE, killed by the Romans after the failed Bar Kochva revolt. He said of Leviticus 19:8 – זה כלל גדול בתורה this is a great teaching in the Torah. Both the stories concerning Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are on the level of living folklore throughout the Jewish world.
Who is one’s neighbor? Answer – every human being, according to a discussion (in the Midrash or legends on the book of Leviticus, called Sifra, chapter Kedoshim) between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai, who pointed to Genesis 5:1: This is the book of the generations of Adam; in the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him. This verse gives to the term “neighbor” its meaning as including all people as being sons of Adam, made in the image of God.
Love needs to be intense enough for one to be willing to sacrifice one’s ease, and even life, in order to serve God.
The commandment to love God is taken by the Mishnah to refer to good deeds, willingness to sacrifice one’s life rather than commit certain serious transgressions, willingness to sacrifice all one’s possessions, and being grateful to the Lord despite adversity (tractate Berachoth 9:5, tractate Sanhedrin 74a).
Kabbalistic and Hasidic sources
The Kabbalists tell us that Gd created the universe in order to experience love. Hayyim Vital, 16th century Kabbalist, in his “Sha’are Kedushah,” again emphasized that the law of love of the neighbor includes the non-Israelite as well as the Israelite.
One of the main tenets of Hasidut (Chassidic Judaism) is that everything in the universe exists only because the Creator wills it to exist. Therefore, the existence of even the most vile and wicked human beings are a manifestation of God’s will, and ultimately, their physical survival is due to that same divine energy that allows the entire creation to survive. And even though it is indeed a positive commandment to despise evil, the true tzaddik (righteous one) understands that the existence of even the most wicked human beings are in accordance with the Creator’s will. This understanding is tantamount to love, as it stems from a love of God and his ways. According to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, this is the foundation of the concept of getting to the point of being unable to tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, that is, between the evildoer and savior.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hassidut, described a two fold love – one, the link between love of God and one’s fellow, but also a level of total unconditional love:
“Love of a fellow is the first gate leading into the palace of God.”
To love a fellow is to love Gd. For “You are children unto the Lord your God” .
He also taught, based upon Deuteronomy 14:1: “Love your fellow as yourself” is an elaboration upon “And you shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5). When one loves one’s fellow one loves God, for one’s fellow contains within himself a “part of Gd above” (Job 31:2).
So there is a level of love that is completely unconditional: Israel Baal Shem Tov taught: “A soul may descend to earth and live seventy or eighty years for the sole purpose of doing a favor for another — a spiritual favor, or even a material favor.”
He also preached an unequivocal love regardless of anyone’s spiritual state. He loved the most iniquitous transgressor with the same boundless love with which he loved the greatest saint, he loved them as God loves them — as a father loves his children, regardless of who and what they are.
Now, when you give a presentation to the Qur’an Study Group, you are talking both to faithful Muslims and just about anyone else. The QSG is a welcoming forum for sharing Islamic teachings in a non-judgemental atmosphere. When I shared this concept – that loving both God and humanity means drawing people closer to God, I wondered if that sounded intolerant. Should we not accept everyone as they are? Even the Ba’al Shem Tov’s unconditional love assumes an ultimate rectification for the evildoer, so isn’t that somewhat conditional? Would a friendship with an atheist be clouded by their feeling that any minute you will pounce on the chance to encourage them in belief?
Respectful discussion, even more questions, and a safe space
The five to six hour seminar provides a wealth of information and leaves us with even more questions. The QSG is well organized, with its basic assumptions made very clear, and the list of topics available before the meeting takes place, giving participants a chance to prepare. This creates a safe space for the expression of diverse views.
I have seen similar venues devoted to religious dialogue crumble into pieces because of a lack of agreement as to the basic assumptions of the group. Because religion is so fraught with emotion, it is important to find out what assumptions are at work at such gatherings; if the assumptions and program are laid out in a vague manner, one may be walking into a situation that is more provocative than informative.
At one interfaith group I attended in the Holy Land, I felt the rug was really pulled out from under the participants with a surprise presentation of a controversial topic. Participants were not informed that this topic would be presented, and thus had no chance to prepare beforehand, either in terms of their knowledge base or in their emotional readiness. We departed in a state of strong emotion that needed to be dealt with via much follow up discussion in order to cool tempers.
I felt this was unfair. Religious discussion will challenge, and should leave you with more questions that when you began the dialogue, and that is great! There is even a place to lay out our worst, open all our wounds and confront along the lines of the most highly emotionally charged subject. There is a place for this. I can even support this – but NOT by surprise.
Part of love is respect for others, there is no need for shock value, theatrics, or the provocation of strong emotion UNLESS there is preparation before. Otherwise, it can feel like a breach of boundaries and trust.
Visit the Qur’an Study Group, note its structured, calm, poised style. Orthodox yet accepting of all views, Hafiz runs the discussion with a firm and loving hand. Once you have seen so-called peace activists end up in shouting matches in these parts (okay the middle east is not the refined, overcast United Kingdom, but still…) you appreciate the positive atmosphere of the QSG, borne by a structure that may irk the fervent who prefers dawa over discussion, and also irk those who favor charged emotion.
But all this is dry pen on paper compared to the outpouring of palpable love I experienced from the members of the QSG that visit. It turned out that the trip to the UK was a bit much for me. I needed to visit a doctor on Friday afternoon, my hostess, Sofia, insisted on accompanying me, and as the minutes ticked towards my Sabbath, I realized I would have to walk back to her home afterwards.
I bade her to return home and said I would walk home after nightfall. She insisted on staying with me, and I felt mortified because she had mentioned she had a back problem and refrained from carrying too much. Well I had my purse with me, heavy with the needs you accumulate when traveling. I said I could leave it at the doctor’s office and pick it up after nightfall on Saturday, she responded she would be glad to carry it for me, helping a People of the Book with her Sabbath will be a special privilege for her.
She was generous, I was mortified.
And more love – I was not billed for the visit. Bless the UK, God save their gracious Queen.
The QSG takes place on Saturday mornings, Sofia had been prepared to escort me for the hour walk there from her home. Wan from the efforts the day before, and a bit drained, I was in that space of being completely unable to make any decent first impression, that kind of day where you just need the mercy of everyone around you.
And that they provided.
I managed my presentation, and at the end, Hafiz asked that I give over some of it in Hebrew. When I saw this clip afterwards, which also panned the audience, I noticed that every single attendee was smiling warmly, listening to a language they did not know, and to be honest, may have had negative associations with, in light of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
That was my assumption, but one of the members told me that they listened with deep admiration, knowing that this is the sacred language of the Torah.
You should have seen the Swami dressed in bight orange, bringing teachings of Hinduism from India, he hardly needed to speak of love, he seemed Love’s embodiment, expressing such warmth and energy.
With an event across town that afternoon, several members of the QSG were happy to walk with me to the London Central Mosque near Regent’s Park. When you are in a sensitive state, as I was then, you are on extra alert for any sign of annoyance from others. Hands down, everyone who took that long walk with me, honoring a daughter of Israel on her Sabbath and feeling a privilege in helping me properly observe it, made me feel respected and protected.
One woman medical doctor smiled at me so much I started getting embarrassed, with my inability to respond with the energy she had, I just had to count on everyone’s good graces.
And it worked, because they had plenty of grace to share, and no wonder.
“Shall I not tell you who among you is most beloved to me and will be closest to me on the Day of Resurrection?” He repeated it two or three times, and they said, “Yes, O Messenger of Allah.” He said: “Those of you who are the best in attitude and character. Those who are down to earth and humble, who get along with others and with whom others feel comfortable. ” – Hadith, Ahmad ibn Hanbal