Bismillah ir Rahman Ir Rahim
Islam and the Transformative Power of Love
by William C. Chittick
Before the modern-day obsession with social and political issues, the strand of learning often called Sufism played a major if not predominant role in all Muslim societies.
What distinguishes Sufism from other approaches to the Islamic tradition is the fact that it considers the transformation of the soul the goal of human life, while looking at dogma, ritual, and law as means to this end, not ends in themselves. (Sufism is a problematic and controversial term, but probably more adequate than “mysticism” or “esotericism”, both of which carry too much baggage to apply in any more than superficial ways to the vastly diverse assortment of teachings and practices that are directed toward spiritual transformation in the Islamic tradition).
In keeping with the worldview established by the Koran, Muslim scholars addressed three major issues: activity, understanding, and transformation.
Activity became the specialty of the jurists, the experts in the Shariah, who took it upon themselves to define right and wrong deeds. Understanding was the specialty of various schools of theology and philosophy, ranging from the dogmatic to the mystical and metaphysical.
Transformation was the specialty of spiritual guides, many but not all of whom came to be called Sufis.
If we want to choose one word to designate the process and goal of transformation, we can not do better than “love.”
To explain why this is so, I will summarize the understanding of love as it was discussed from early times.3 Specifically, I want to look at two issues that run through all the discussions, namely the ontological and moral imperatives.
The ontological imperative means that all things love by nature.
The moral imperative means that human beings, by virtue of their own specific nature, must refine and perfect their love or suffer the consequences.
Any thinking that can be called Islamic grounds itself in tawhīd, the notion of unity. Briefly, tawhīd means that all reality is utterly contingent upon the one supreme reality, called God by theologians and the Necessary Being by philosophers. What imparts a specifically Islamic color to this universal notion is the idea that Muhammad was the last in a series of 124,000 prophets sent by God.
Strict attention to unity brings us face to face with the ontological imperative:
Everything is exactly what it must be, for all things are under the control of the One. Among the many Koranic proof texts cited in support of this imperative is the verse «His only command, when He desires a thing, is to say to it “Be!”, and it comes to be» (36: 82).
Theologians called this word “Be” the creative command (al-amr al-khalqī).It is eternal, which is to say that, from the human point of view, it is re-uttered at every moment.
As a result, the universe and all things within it are constantly renewed.
Muslim scholars analyzed the role of prophets in order to clarify the implications of the moral imperative, which they frequently called the religious command (al-amr al-dīnī).
They found its first example in God’s words to Adam and Eve: «Do not approach this tree!» (2: 35). When Adam and Eve disobeyed this command, they did so in obedience to the creative command. God asked them to do one thing but made them do something else in order to show them their frailty and His forgiving nature.
«If you did not sin — Muhammad said — God would take you away and replace you with a people who do sin, and then He would forgive them».
The simultaneous presence of both the ontological and the moral imperatives sets up countless conflicts and contradictions. These have been debated by theologians, philosophers, and thinkers in most civilizations, including the Western, where scientists and theorists have also entered the fray.
The basic question boils down to this: Are we free? And if so, how free? If there is only an ontological imperative, then we should move «beyond freedom and dignity», as B. F. Skinner famously put it (Skinner 1971).
Among the one hundred twenty-some mentions of love in the Koran, two verses are usually taken as points of reference for discussions of the two imperatives.
The first, «He loves them, and they love Him» (5: 54), is interpreted primarily as an ontological imperative. It provides a starting point for meditation on why things exist. In typical explanations, the verse is understood to mean that God and man love each other by their very natures.
Given God’s eternity, this means that God loved human beings before He created them. Some scholars add that people also loved Him before they came into existence, for they were potential existents known always and forever to Him, and their very reality is defined by the fact that «they love Him». If love, as commonly described, is the desire for union, then God and man desired to come together before man ever came to exist in the world, but man was not aware of this.
Once human beings come into existence, they dwell in the actualized reality of the second half of the verse of mutual love: «They love Him». This does not mean that they must learn to love God, but rather that they do love God. They desire union with God, which is to say that they now have awareness of a longing, craving, and desire for Him, whether or not they know that He is what they love.
The specific nature of human beings is rooted in the fact that they were created in God’s image, not the image of anything else. As a result, they love God Himself, in His unity, infinity, and absoluteness. If they had been created as partial images of the divine reality, they would not love God per se, but rather what they can get from God. Loving what one can get is the defining characteristic of all non-human creatures (all of whom love in some way or another) and, indeed, of all those human beings who fail to live up to their potential as divine images.
Although we can read «they love Him» as an ontological imperative, the verse also implies a moral imperative. The human predicament becomes clear as soon as we realize that we love God whether we know it or not. All of us know that we do love, but generally we disagree on what we love and what we should love.
Human misery stems from ignorance in love. As long as people have love affairs with people, things, and ideas, their beloveds will be limited, defined, and ephemeral. Time after time they will imagine that they have filled the aching holes in their breasts, only to be disappointed. The hole is in fact infinite and can only be filled by the One Reality.
The cure for misdirected love is one-pointed focus on the True Beloved and appropriate activity.
This brings us to the second primary Koranic verse on love, which is directed at those who have understood, at whatever level, that they love the One Reality: «Say [O Muhammad!]: “If you love God, follow me, and God will love you”» (3: 31).
Here we see the rationale for Islamic praxis, all of which is based on following the Prophet’s Sunnah or exemplar. The verse also provides one of several starting points for the Islamic Logos doctrine, according to which Muhammad’s eternal reality, which is God’s beginningless knowledge of him, is the means whereby all things come into existence and go back where they came from.
Discussions of love overlap with discussions of two other divine attributes, mercy (or compassion) and beauty. Both are understood first in terms of ontology and second in terms of morality.
Theologians, for example, divide mercy into two basic sorts, general and specific. God bestows His general mercy on the entire universe. It is nothing other than His love and compassion toward all that may possibly exist, a love that brings the universe into existence and conveys everything to its own individual perfection.
As for the specific mercy, God bestows it on certain human beings, and on some of them more than others. This mercy is closely connected with the notion of human compassion and goodness. If we do not show mercy and compassion toward others, God will not bestow this particular mercy on us. As the Prophet said, «God has no mercy on those who are not merciful toward the people».
If Islamic texts distinguish between love and mercy, this is because love is mutual — two lovers desire to come together. In contrast, mercy is one-sided. God loves us and has mercy on us. We love God, but we cannot have mercy on Him, so we must extend His mercy to others.
As for beauty, on the level of the ontological imperative it designates the object of love. The lover loves the beloved because the beloved is beautiful. «God is beautiful — said the Prophet — and He loves beauty». In God’s case, God loves Himself, because He is the absolutely beautiful, and He also loves the universe, because it displays His beauty. He created the universe because He loves it, and He loves it because it is beautiful. The Koran says, «He made everything that He created beautiful» (32: 7). Addressing human beings specifically, it says, «He formed you, so He made your forms beautiful» (40: 64). Everything formed by the infinitely beautiful is beautiful and lovable.
On the level of the moral imperative, beauty designates the goal achieved by transformation, that is, ethical and spiritual perfection. God created man in His own image and made the image beautiful. The Koran speaks of God in terms of what it calls the most beautiful names, and the tradition calls these God’s character traits (akhlāq). The Arabic word here is usually translated as “ethics”, which can be described precisely as the science of discerning between ugly and beautiful character traits. In God’s case, however, all character traits are beautiful.
Many times the Koran says that God loves certain specific human individuals, such as those who act beautifully and those who trust in God. It also says that He does not love certain individuals, such as the ungrateful and the arrogant. In other words, God loves beautiful human character traits, but He does not love ugly human traits.
Theologians often called the process of actualizing love for God and achieving union with Him «becoming characterized by God’s character traits» (takhalluq bi akhlāq allāh).
The more people absorb, i.e. become characterized by, God’s beautiful character traits, the more their nature is transformed by His beauty, and the more God loves them. It was His love for beauty that gave rise to the ontological and moral imperatives in the first place — it created the realm of separation and issued the religious command — and it is this same love for beauty that drives the human quest to achieve union with Him.
In the end, human love takes back to the beginning, which is the realm of the divine unity. At this point, however, the divine image has been transformed, for it has gained awareness of itself. Before creation, God loved man and man loved Him, but human beings had no awareness of their love because they had no separate existence.
After their brief stay in this world, God continues to love them, but now they love Him back with full awareness. «He loves them, and they love Him».
If you ask, «But what about hell?», the answer is simple: Hell is a name given to the pain of separation. In the afterworld, people will understand that they were created to love the divine beauty. But, to the extent that they have failed to become characterized by God’s beautiful character traits, they will be kept back from this beauty.
Rūmī, the Muslim spokesman for love most famous in the West, summarizes the story of love in one of his prose works:
Once upon a time, all of us were fish swimming in the ocean, unaware of ourselves and the water. In its love and mercy, the ocean threw us up on dry land. Now we flip and flop, suffering the pain of separation and calling it love. We will keep on flipping and flopping until the ocean takes us back, at which point we will know that the water has always been our home.
Returning to our Lord like a flying fish – Sheikh Nazim al Haqqani: