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Love in Religions The cutting-edge issue

The following is an abridged version of Hujjatul-Islam Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali‘s speech, delivered at the “International Consultation on ‘Love in Religions’: The Cutting-Edge Issues" at the University of Oxford. Dr Shomali was one of three Muslims from among 18 scholars and lecturers from British and American universities

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

I am grateful to God for giving me the opportunity to be with you and I am grateful to the organisers for having invited me.

What I want to share with you is a few points on Love, especially some points which I have been reflecting on during the last few years that, in my opinion, need to be worked upon. These have a pastoral and spiritual character and are not just theoretical.
As we know and have heard from the Muslim scholars, the concept of love and all related topics are important and central to Islamic theology, philosophy, mysticism and spirituality. For example, when we talk about the reason for creation, we have a well-known divine saying where God says: “I was a hidden treasure; I loved to be known. Hence I created the world so that I would be known”. This means that God has created people so that He is known by them. We also have a verse in the Qur’an where God says: “I have not created humans or Jinns, except to serve me”. This is further supported by hadith from the sixth Imam of the Shi‘a, Imam Jafar Sadiq(a) where ‘to serve me’ is also explained as  ‘to know me’. Therefore, the love for God, Irfan and spirituality are deeply rooted in the philosophy of creation.
Muslim philosophers and mystics such as Ibn Sina or Ibn Arabi have introduced an important idea (theory) which is called Sarayn al-‘ishq. The central concept is that everything in this creation has love and understanding; even things that we think are non-living beings. According to this understanding, even a piece of wood has love. This is very much in line with the Quranic idea that everything in this world glorifies God. Therefore ‘love’ becomes a very important concept upon which many spiritual masters set their spiritual direction.
There are different ways to get closer to God, but perhaps the easiest and the most fruitful one is through love. Naturally, the starting point is the love for God.  This means one has to act in a way to develop one’s love for God. We have a hadith, authenticated in many collections, in which God said to Moses(a): “Make me loveable to my people”. So Moses asked how? God replied, “by reminding them of my blessings and my bounties upon them”.
In almost every book on Islamic spirituality, especially from the Shi‘a perspective, you find a hadith called ‘qurb-i nawafil’   in which God says, “my servants never become closer to me by doing anything which is more lovable to me than performing their obligatory actions and then after that constantly by doing recommended actions. After making sure that they have performed their obligatory actions then they keep coming closer to me by performing the recommended actions”.

 

“By the One who has my life in His hand, if you want to enter heaven you have to have faith, but if you want to have faith you have to love each other for the sake of God.”
Prophet Muhammad(s)

These actions are extra, and one could do these voluntary acts, like charity work or helping people, in addition to giving one’s obligatory alms. The hadith continues with God adding: “till I love him”. This is a special love. God loves everybody, but with respect to many people, God has also reservations. For example, God says to those who are lazy, I love you but I am not happy with your laziness.  However, with respect to those mentioned in this hadith, God loves them, full stop. The hadith continues underlining this special  love by saying: “when I love him, I become the ear by which he hears, I become the eye by which he sees, I become his hands by which he holds…” ending with: “whenever he calls me, I answer. Whenever he asks me for something I grant.”
So this is the way to develop a love for God, which is reciprocated by God in a very special way. What is important here is that we cannot develop a love for God unless we develop ‘love for the sake of God.’ This is where, unfortunately, many people get it wrong. People think they can focus on God and love Him, without giving much attention to His creation. The Qur’an and hadith tell us that love for God is not enough, as it should lead to love for the sake of God. There is a hadith from the Prophet which says: “By the One who has my life in His hand, if you want to enter heaven you have to have faith, but if you want to have faith you have to love each other for the sake of God.”
I always remind myself and my friends that loving God is not really a very difficult thing. You really have to be a very naive person not to love God. Loving God does not need art, education or intelligence. It is the most natural thing for us to love God and to know what God is and what God loves. The challenge is to love for the sake of God.
If I say I am a lover of God only, this is the most natural thing to me, but if I manage to say, I love for the sake of God, then that is an achievement because we believe everything is a sign of God. A bird, an insect, a drop of water, every leaf are manifestations of God and signs of God and have the signature of God. So in the process of personal development, one has to reach this stage of loving everything for the sake of God.
When reflecting on my own spirituality or of my community or of humanity as a whole, I have noticed a few problems that I think we need to clarify.
One is that it seems we have two kinds of love for God. One is very destructive. Most religious people have a destructive love for God. We have what I call a ‘possessive love’ for God. We love God in the sense that we want to have a monopoly over Him. I love God as I love my car. No one has a right to my car unless I give them my permission.
The real love for God is that we do not take God as an object of our belonging; instead, we should be possessed by God. Instead of bringing God to a tribal, sectarian or a personal level, one should try to rise towards God. Instead of limiting God and putting our ego and opinions forward in His name we should say God wants us to serve humanity. Why? Because the way God looks at us is different to the way we look at others. So there are these two different kinds of love – one is very destructive and another very productive. If we only converse or socialise with people similar to ourselves, for example with our Muslim or Christian brothers, this is a problem. If we tend to gain personal benefit from our actions, this is a problem. If we are happy helping anyone who is working for God then that is a sign of hope. God does not choose as His friend someone who has an ego or someone who has an exclusivist approach towards people. If we want to be a servant of God, then we have to be a servant of all God’s creation. This, in my opinion, is our challenge.
The second point is that there is not enough emphasis on our need to love.  We mostly talk about our need for love, but we, as human beings, need to love too. If we don’t love, we are going to suffocate and die. We have to emphasise in our education, the need for loving as without it, we cannot grow as human beings.

The third point is that sometimes people, for example, a mother says that she does not get enough love from her family although she gives all her love and attention to them and that she feels drained. It got me thinking why people who do bad things don’t feel drained but those who do good deeds feel drained. Why do those who hate not feel this way?
I think the problem here is again the way we look at love. We think, by loving, we lose. Therefore we think “how much love can I give?”  We say we are using up all our love but in fact, the more you love the more generous you become. This is another area that we have to work on.
The last point is how to merge our love for others, and by others, I mean people with completely different backgrounds to us, with our understanding of our own identity. I think in the greater part of the world today, our understanding of our identity is exclusive. For example, if Muslims and Christians live in a village, it would be very difficult to explain what we mean by saying what Muslim identity is, so it is easier to say, not to be Christian. What does it mean to be a Christian? Just not to be Muslim. This is the way we are educated. Most of the time we talk about what we are not and who we should not associate with, rather than saying what we are, what we are capable of and what are our common grounds. This is the wrong attitude as we, in fact, should be proud of who we are, but not at the cost of excluding others.

 

 

 

 

 

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