The message of love (part 1)

In Islam, justice is tempered by love, mercy, and forgiveness.

In Islam, justice is tempered by love, mercy, and forgiveness.

This is the first of a two-part series and was originally a speech delivered by Dr John Andrew Morrow (Imam Ilyas Islam) at the 13th Annual National Muslim Congress Conference in Dallas, Texas, in the United States of America.

The Message of Love. Could there possibly be a better theme for this conference? The topic is timely, universal, and eternal. To begin, we must begin with the beginning: Allah (swt), the Mighty and Majestic. “God is love,” claim the Christians in theological error. God is not “love” because “love” is a noun, a name used to identify a person, a place or thing. However, God is not a person, a place or a thing. As Imam Ja‘far Al-Sadiq explains, He is only a thing, to bring him out of nothing; a thing like no other thing as all other things are created. [Kulayni & Saduq]

Although God is not Love, God is indeed Loving because “loving” is an adjective, a word or phrase used to describe an attribute. And how do we know God? By means of His Attributes. As we read in the Glorious Quran: “Call upon Allah, or call upon Rahman: by whatever name ye call upon Him, (it is well): for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names.” [17:110] In Islam, we do not say Allah huwa al-ḥub or “God is Love.” We do, however, say that Allah is al-Wadud, namely, “The Loving One.” As we read in the Glorious Qur’ān: “Verily, My Lord is Merciful and Loving.” [11:90] And yet again: “And He is the Forgiving and the Loving.” [85:14] As Almighty Allah (swt) glorified and exalted be He, states in a sacred saying, in Hadith Qudsi:  “I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known. Therefore, I created the creatures so that I might be known.” [Ibn ‘Arabi, Ibn al-Khaṭib, Mulla Sadra.]

The cosmos is not eternal. Only Allah is Eternal. The cosmos did not come into being by itself. Nothing can not become something. Non-existence does not will itself into existence. A void or vacuum is devoid of agency. As heartbreaking as it may be to self-centered egotistical materialists, we, human beings, were not created for ourselves: we were created for God. Everything in existence was created by God and for God. And everything that exists was created out of Divine Love.

The Hidden Treasure that is God cannot be known without existence or knowledge. Creation is the ultimate act of love. Bringing entities from non-existences into existence is the greatest act of love imaginable. The Arabic word for universe is kawn. It means “existence” or “being.” Allah brought everything into being by way of love so that He could be known.

Human beings were created in the name of Allah. In other words, we are the receptacles in which the names and attributes of God can manifest themselves fully. Human beings are permeated by the original love of the Divine Essence. If is for this reason that human beings are inclined to perfection. As Almighty Allāh explains in the Glorious Quran: “And He taught Adam the names: all of them.” [2:31]. In other words, the Asma’ Allah al-ḥusna, the Most Beautiful Names.

If Divine Love was the cause of creation, and love that brought the world into existence, it is also the law that that governs God’s relationship with creation. As Almighty Allāh decreed upon Creation: “My Mercy prevails over My Wrath.” [Muslim, Bukhari, Ibn Majah, Nasa’i] Mercy and Compassion are manifestations of love. They are the most commonly invoked attributes of the Divinity: Bismillah al-Raḥman al-Raḥim / In the Name of Allāh, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. They derive from the root ‘raham’ which means “womb,” the very symbol of love, mercy, care, affection, safety, security, and compassion.

As Almighty Allah (swt) states in the Glorious Quran: “And I did not create the jinn and humankind except to worship Me.”[51:56]

The verb in question is ‘abada / ya‘budu. It is translated into English as “to worship,” “to serve,” “to submit,” and “to obey.” When we speak of ‘ibadah, we speak of obedience, submission, and devotion to God. ‘Ibadah, in Arabic, is related to words such as ‘ubudiyyah which means servitude and slavery. The meaning that is given to ‘ibadah and ‘ubudiyyah has a profound impact on one’s worldview. Many lay Muslims believe that people exist only to submit to Allāh. In their mind, God is some sort of Divine Dictator who decreed: “Be! Now, obey me or go to hell!” In other words, we are just slaves. That is the nature of the relationship between the Creator and the created. This limited and superficial understanding of Arabic and Islam can have serious consequences: spiritually, psychologically, socially, and politically. Imagine parents who have children for one reason and one reason only: to serve them: “I made you to serve me. Now go do the dishes or I will spank you.” Imagine employers who treat their employees as servants. Imagine husbands who tell their wives: “Obey me or I will slap you.” Imagine political leaders who believe that people should obey them, out of obligation, and out of fear: “You disobey, you die.” Why is the Muslim world full of despots and dictators? Look no further. I am not disputing what the Quran says; I am disputing the misinterpretation of the Quran that is so prevalent among certain Muslims. I seek to increase understand and elevate the discourse on the basis of authoritative Islamic sources: the teachings of the Prophet (peace be upon him), the teachings of the Twelve Imams (as), the teachings of Quranic commentators, the teachings of Muslim theologians, and the teachings of spiritual authorities.

“I did not create the jinn and humankind except to worship, serve, and obey Me.” [51:56] Yes, absolutely, but what is the meaning of ‘ibadah? It is obedience. It is submission. It is servitude. It is devotion. It is humility. But those are the means. What is the goal? Worship for the sake of worship? Servitude for the sake of servitude? Slavery for the sake of slavery? No! The ultimate goal is love for Allah: absolute love for the Loving. As Almighty Allāh says in a Hadith Qudsi: “Oh Son of Adam! Serve me. Verily, I love those who serve Me.” [Shirazi] What does it mean to serve and obey God? What does it mean to worship God? It means, first and foremost, to know God. And how is it that we know God? By knowing ourselves. As the Prophet, peace and blessings of Almighty Allāh be upon him, said: “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” [Ikhwan al-Safa’, Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Sha‘rani, al-Tamimi al-Amudi, Majlisi; see also, Quran 59:19]

Almighty Allah placed potentiality in the souls of humanity. Our souls are mirrors that reflect the Divinity. If we soil our souls, cloud up the mirror, scratch the mirror or crack and shatter the mirror, we will neither see ourselves nor our origin. However, if we purify our souls, clean our mirrors, and shine our mirrors, we will witness God in us and us in God. Or, to put things into simpler terms. As mothers and fathers, we see ourselves in our children. To know God means to remember God. It means to see Allah in all things. Everything in existence is a name of Allah. Everything is a signifier that points to the Signified. The Earth is not inanimate. She is alive. She feels, she communicates, and she speaks. She bears witness against our sins. The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to pick up pebbles, smile, and share their words of divine praise with his Companions. Everything in creation is in constant adoration. As we read in the Glorious Quran: “Do you not see that Allah is exalted by whoever is within the heavens and the earth and [by] the birds with wings spread [in flight]? Each [of them] has known his [means of] prayer and exalting [Him].” [24:41]

Imam Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin evoked “the keepers of the rain, the drivers of the clouds, him at whose driving sound is heard the rolling of thunder, and the reverberating clouds swim before his driving, bolts of lighting-flash, the escorts of snow and hail, the descenders with the drops of rain when they fall, the watchers over the treasuries of the winds, those with the mountains lest they disappear, those whom Thou has taught the weights of the waters, and the measures contained by torrents and masses of rain, the angels who are Thy messengers to the people of the earth with the disliked affliction that comes down.”

The signs of Allah (swt) surround us if only we are sensitive enough to perceive them. As Almighty Allah states in the Glorious Quran: “He will show you His Signs and you will recognize them;” [27:93] “Whoever honours the symbols of Allah — indeed, it is from the piety of hearts, [22:32] and finally, “We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” [41:53] The more we witness God, the more we love God. Let me repeat that: The more we witness God, the more we love God. As we read in the Glorious Quran:“Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.” [13:28] Since the creation is subservient to the Creator, we need to recognize our servitude. There are those who deny God: they are kuffar or unbelievers. There are those who associate partners with God: they are mushrikin or polytheists. To be a Muslim means to submit and surrender to God. The attitude one takes toward God can be one of two: that of the slave, the ‘abd, or that of the servant, the ‘abid. The slave is the one who obeys the Master out of fear. The slave does not steal out of fear of punishment. The servant, however, is the one who seeks the reward of His Master. In other words, the slave fears Hell while the servant yearns for Paradise. Most human beings are slaves whether they recognize it or not and whether they accept it or not. Some human beings are servants. They recognize and accept that they are slaves; however, rather than rebel and disobey, they choose to submit and obey. They are good and diligent servants.

There are, however, believers who are not simple slaves or servants. They escape the servant/slave dichotomy. They are not motivated by fear of punishment or by the yearning for a reward. They are those who seek the pleasure of the Master. They are those who love the Master. They are those who long for the love of the Master. Among this elite, a select few who become close to the Master, like Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him), who became Khalilullah, the friend of Allah, the Prophet Muḥammad, who became Habibullah, the Beloved of Allah, and Imam Ali, who became Wali Allah or the Friend of Allah. We all begin as slaves of God. If we hear and we obey, we are good slaves. This is the bare minimum that is required of believers. All Muslims, however, should work on becoming servants of God. Rather than simply avoid damnation, they should actively seek salvation. Some, who grow spiritually, will strive to become ‘arifīn, the knowers of God, and ‘ashiqin, the lovers of God. With persistence, dedication, devotion, study, and piety, there are others who, by the will of God, and the love of God, can become awliyya’ al-salihin, the Friends of God and the Proofs of God for all creation.

Muslims have debated for over a millennium: is God transcendent or is God immanent? The jurists stressed that God was completely and utterly incomprehensible and unknowable. The mystics insisted that God was imminent and that our relationship with Him could be intimate. As always, the teachings of the Twelve Imams (peace be upon them), stress the middle ground: neither one nor the other. God is both transcendent and imminent. In matters of law, God is treated as transcendent. In matters of spirituality, God is treated as imminent. In other words, God is like a stern father and a loving mother.

Muslim theologians, however, avoid using terms such as father or mother when describing the divinity since they denote duality as opposed to divine unity. Although God is neither male nor female, Muslim theologians describe the Divinity in terms of attributes of power and beauty, namely, between feminine and masculine qualities. God, for example, is both Merciful and Wrathful, both Gentle and Severe, and both Beautiful and Majestic. Although a mother is all mercy, explains Rūmī, there is also mercy in the father’s severity for Allah’s mercy prevails over his wrath. In Islam, justice is tempered by love, mercy, and forgiveness.