The Qur'an uses several words for the term "love" with different shades of meaning. If all these words -- rafah, rahmah, wudda, hub, etc. -- are translated as "love", then this word is of very frequent occurrence in the Qur'an, appearing on average about once in every 15 aya'h (communications; verses). Even the word hub, which is most commonly translated as love, occurs in application to God so frequently in the Qur'an that it is hardly justified to say that Islam knows only greatness of God, not His love.
God's Universal Love (rafah, rahmah, rabubiyyah)
The various words used in the Qur'an for God's love can be divided into two categories: those that relate to universal manifestation of divine love and those that refer to a special love reserved for the righteous.
God's love in its universal manifestation is generally referred to in the Qur'an under the terms rafah and rahmah. Rafah can be translated as compassion, kindness or pity, while rahmah is usually rendered as grace, love, blessing or mercy. About God's rahmah the Qur'an says that it encompasses all things:
My punishment I inflict upon whom I will but My rahmah embraces all things... (7:156)
O our Sustainer! You embrace all things within (Your) rahmah and knowledge. (40:7)
These verses reveal that while divine punishment is an act of God's will directed towards some purpose, love or rahmah s, as it were, His nature, His normal attitude towards men and other creatures. So it is said in 6:12, 15 that God "has enjoined upon Himself (the rule) of rahmah". It is possible to include in "all things" that are under the embrace of God's rahmah even those people who are punished, so that even divine punishment can be said to proceed in some way from rahmah. [It's through punishments and afflictions do we realize that we have crossed the natural boundaries of our existence. This, in turn, brings about a sense of awareness and self-knowledge, which in turn enables one to return to the middle and the balanced path where there is contentment and peace.]
For humans, God's rahmah and rafah are manifested, for example, in His abundant forgiveness and in the creation of the environment in which humans live, an environment that they can use to their great benefit (22:65; 30:50 etc.). They are also manifested in the revelations sent by God through His messengers (2:154; 11:17; 11:53), [as through this Divine guidance, we come to know God and the natural boundaries He has created within which there is a maximum chance for our spiritual growth].
The coming of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is especially a manifestation of God's rahmah and rafah (57:9; 6:155). He came as rahmat-al-lil-alamin (grace to all nations) and the revelation he brought is rahmah for all those who believe (10:57; 17:82 etc.).
Concrete manifestations of rahmah and rafah gives rise to two oft-repeated "names" or attributes of God: Rahman and Rahim. Both names are intensive forms derived from rahmah, signifying "Most Gracious or Compassionate", but there seems to be a difference in the shade of meaning. Rahim emphasizes divine love as it responds to man's deeds when they have occurred or his needs when they have arisen; for example, God's patience, long suffering and forgiveness given to man after he has been sinning or His responding to the prayer of a man who has been suffering. The name Rahman, on the other hand, stresses love and grace that flows from God independently of what man does, such as God's love and grace which is manifested in His creating man or sending the Prophet for humankind or in His putting some of humankind on the right path, in any of which acts human beings played absolutely no part.
Another attribute of God which relates to God's love is Rabb. This is a difficult word to translate. The cognate verb is used in 17:24 for the care that a child receives from his parents and this provides the best starting point for understanding the idea. God as Rabb is He who is ultimately responsible even for the care our parents give us and Who, of course, provides us with a great many other things which parents do not or cannot. In other words, God's whole role in bringing us into existence, in sustaining our existence and in our growth and development in various aspects, comes under the term Rabb. In English we can do justice to the term by using several such words as Sustainer, Cherisher, Developer. Rabb also includes the idea of having a just claim to the possession of a thing and of having authority over it. In this sense it can be translated as Lord.
Since all the roles that an ideal father plays in relation to his children -- providing for their material and psychological needs, giving necessary guidance to them so that they can grow up into mature adults, and assuming for these purposes authority as the master of the household -- are included in the word Rabb, the Qur'anic term includes the best of the senses in which the New Testament sometimes refers to God as Abba, Father.
But Rabb is preferable to Abba because of two reasons:
* it properly indicates that God's role as creator, supporter, provider, cherisher, guide and lord is far superior to that of a father, and
* many individuals may not have had a very good experience with their fathers -- if, for example, they were criminals, or alcoholics, or cruel, or suffer from other serious weaknesses -- and in such individuals the term "Father" may not evoke the best of images and feelings, so that instead of endearing God to them the term may contribute to blocking the development of a close relationship with Him.
God's Special Love in Islam (hub, mahabbah, wudda)
In addition to rafah, rahmah and rabb the Qur'an also uses hub, mahabbah, and wuddu to refer to God's love. In general, these words signify a more personal and warmer manifestation of divine love than do the other words we have considered above. Mahabbah of God was operative, for example in the safe upbringing of Moses among his enemies, and in His raising him to great spiritual and moral heights:
I cast over you (O Moses) the garment of love (mahabbah) from Me and (this) in order that you may be reared under My care (literally "eye") (20:39)
Hub and Wudda are available to the faithful:
On those who have faith and do good will the Most Gracious One (Rahman) bestow love (wudda)." (19:96)
Say, (O My Prophet to the people), "if you love God, follow me, (and) God will love you (hub) and forgive you your sins; for God is oft-forgiving, most merciful." (3:31)
Wudda gives rise to God's name Al-Wadud (Loving One) (11:90; 85:14).
Hub is available to those:
* who repent (2:222)
* who do good (2:195; 5:13)
* who are just (5:42; 49:9)
* who persevere in patience (3:145)
* who fight for His cause (61:4)
* who love cleanliness (61:4)
* who put their trust in Him (3:158)
and so on. But it is not available to:
* the conceited, boastful man (2:190)
* the mischievous disturbers of peace (28:77)
* the unjust (42:40)
* the extravagant (6:142)
* the supercilious (16:23)
* the transgressors (2:190)
and so on.
Thus while there is a divine love (rafah, rahmah) which embraces everything there is another, warmer, type of love (hub) that God gives to some but not to others. That God is selective in giving this warmest love is necessary idea found in every religion. It really amounts to a distinction between good and evil. If God treated everybody in a completely identical manner, regardless of his character and conduct, then the distinction between good and evil, which is essential to all religions, would become meaningless. Consequently there is no basis for the criticism by some people that the Qur'anic conception of God's love is defective because the Qur'an says that God does not love people with certain bad qualities such as unjustness, boastfulness, lawlessness.
The Qur'an does not say that God hates these people, only that He does not love them with a warm love (hub); the question of the availability of the universal type of divine love (rahmah) is left in the Qur'an open for all people in the world.
Let us note some further points about the Qur'anic concept of God's hub.
* It is clear from the Qur'anic verses referred to above that the distinguishing marks of those who received God's hub are certain qualities or traits -- trust in God, justness, patience etc. Adherence to a code of law given by Islam is not stressed in this connection.
* The Qur'an says that those who follow the Prophet receive God's hub (3:31) but it stops at this positive statement and does not say anywhere that those who do not follow the Prophet will not receive God's hub, thus leaving the possibility in principle that followers of other religions may acquire the qualities and conduct that earn man the love of God. But the Qur'an does say that those righteous believers in other faiths who accept Islam will have their portion of divine love doubled (57:28). This is because God has a special love for the Prophet Muhammad and his mission represents the primary means in our age for the realization of divine purpose in history, so that to follow him is more than to acquire faith and good qualities.
* Although a man with good qualities of heart and conduct receives divine love, he does not do so because of his qualities. For like every other good thing that happens to a man (4:79), good qualities of heart and conduct are themselves ultimately a gift from God and are not acquired by man on his own. When in numerous places the Qur'an says that God guides or admits into His own rahmah whom He Wills, the meaning is that the act that puts man on the path of God and His love is initiated by God. This idea comes out especially clearly in the following passage:
This (Qur'an) is a reminder. So let everyone who wills, take a way to the Lord. But you will not will, unless wills God. Surely, God is full of knowledge and wisdom. He admits to His rahmah who He wills; but for the wrongdoers He has prepared a grievous penalty." (76:29-31; see also 81:27-29, 42:8)
* To the extent that the Qur'an relates the reception of divine love with acquisition of certain qualities of heart and conduct (even if that relation is not of simple cause and effect), we can say that according to the Qur'an divine love is purposive, for qualities can become relevant only for serving a purpose. Thus God's love should not be thought of as simply a sentimental person-to-person relationship, but a creative force which operates to realize an End.
The Coming of the Prophet as the Supreme Act of Divine Love
One objection against the Islamic conception of God's love is that it does not present us with some great expression in history of divine love which can in turn evoke the response of love in man towards God. For example, one writer (John Gilchrist) states: "Indeed the Qur'an often appeals to that which is visible in nature as a proof of God's existence and character... But apart from this the Qur'an tells really nothing of the depth of God's love towards men outside of that which can be discovered in nature. It does not disclose any great act of love in the history of God's dealings with men which should cause the response of heartfelt love towards him in return. To put it in a nutshell, there is no definite expression of love in the the heart of God towards men in the Qur'an. No proof of deep affection towards mankind is given at all".
The writer has in mind here the Christian belief that God manifested His love by coming as a man and being sacrificed for the sins of man, and is noticing a lack in Islam of the idea of a similarly dramatic manifestation of divine love. Now while it is true that there is no place in Islam for anything like the idea of the necessity of God becoming man and being slaughtered to show His love, the idea of a great act of divine love in history, for the whole of humankind is present in Islam. In one significant verse the Qur'an presents the coming of the Prophet of Islam as just such an act:
"And We have not sent you (O Muhammad) except as an act of love (rahmah) to all the worlds." (21:107)
The love of God alluded to here -rahmah- is, as we saw above, God's universal love, one that is said in the Qur'an to embrace everything (40:7). Out of this love for His creation (or all the worlds) and in particular all humankind, God sent the Prophet Muhammad. This act is the greatest initiative of God's universal love: the Qur'an does not describe any other single divine act as "rahmah to all the worlds". The act is a perpetual one: it continues through the words of the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet. People can respond to this divine initiative by opening their hearts to the words of the Qur'an and by following the revelatory example of the Prophet.
If they do so, greater blessings will follow; in particular God will receive them in His more special, warmer love - hub or wudda (see Qur'an 3:31; 11:90 which have already been quoted above.)
This act of divine love works to reconcile all humanity with God and bind them together in a close relationship of love through the educative and inculcative effect of miraculously chosen words that are still accessible to everybody; and often a relationship built on the basis of proper education is far more secure than one based on a totally incomprehensible mystical belief founded on a myth.
According to Islam, God's love and mercy have always been available to him, from the creation of Adam through his rise to consciousness until the Last Day for humanity in this temporary, yet purposive, existence. But man can fall out in sin and when he does so he is like a person in a ditch who needs a rope to hold on to and get out. Often people are not aware that they are in a ditch of sin. But God shows His mercy and sends down His revelation, which not only makes people aware of their situation, but also provides a rope to hold on to and get out of that situation. God has been so merciful that He has been sending such revelations in all ages and among ALL nations. Our age is the final age in which He has sent the Prophet Muhammad as grace to all the worlds. In its nature the coming of the Prophet Muhammad is not different from the expressions of divine love through earlier revelations but in its scope it is the greatest such expression.
Suffering does come into the Islamic picture of prophetic work but in the following way: the primary function of the prophets is to point to "the signs of God" which enable man to turn to God; educate him and incline him towards good actions and turn him away from bad ones; and enable him to receive God's forgiveness and grace. This is a work that meets resistance from the very people whom the prophets want to lead to their Lord and to their salvation, and as a result the prophets have to struggle and suffer; some of them even had to die for their mission. Their suffering or death is for the sake of others, but it does not by itself lift the burden of people's sins. It is their whole work - teaching and example, of which patient suffering for others is a part - that has the effect of leading people to God and to salvation.
In Islam, God does not and need not become what He is not - a man - to show His love. Just as a man who loves dogs, cats or horses need not become one of these animals to show his love for them but can in other ways effectively demonstrate to them any amount of his love, so also God Almighty can and does show His great love to man without becoming man. Indeed in true love, it is essential, as it is often observed, that both partners maintain their identities. For one partner in love to try to assume the identity of the other is the sign of extreme insecurity such as is not consistent with love and for him to want the other partner to become like himself is not love of the other person but of himself. In the Islamic conception of love between man and God the two maintain their identities. Man remains fully man a created being, and God remains what He is and the love between them is not worse for that.
In Hadith, where we often find Qur'anic ideas elaborated, the personal character of the relationship between man and God is depicted forcefully in many traditions. For example:
* The Prophet is reported to have said: "The love of God for His creatures is seventy times greater than that of a mother for her child".
* "If one goes one step towards God, God comes two steps towards such a one; if one goes walking towards God, God comes running to him." [so here we see that it's the 'self' that needs to use its free will to take the initiative. This is part of its development and ascend in this existence.]
* When a sinner repents God is overjoyed. One tradition likens God's joy to that of a man who was traveling alone in a desert on a camel. He sleeps for the night and when he gets up he finds his camel missing. He searches for his beast for hours, during which time the sun warms up the desert and thirst and hunger bring the man close to extinction. Finally, he becomes exhausted and gives up the search; but just then he sees the camel walking towards him with all the water, food and other provisions. The happiness of God when a sinner returns to Him is like the happiness of this traveler at the moment when he sees his lost camel (Muslim sahih reproduced in Mishkat al-Masabih, Book IV, chap. 3).
* In another tradition God is represented as saying:
"Nothing brings men near to Me like the performance of that which I made obligatory upon them, and through supererogatory acts. My servant (i.e. man) comes even nearer to Me until I love him. When I have bestowed My love on him, I became (as if) his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his tongue with which he speaks, his hand with which he grasps, and his feet with which he walks" (al-Bukhari, Sahih, Riqaq, 38, reproduced in Mishkat al-Masabih, Book 9, chap.2).
The Qur'anic verses and prophetic traditions cited above show -- and there are many, many more such verses and traditions -- that there is no justification in the criticism that the Muslim God [and there's only one Reality, Muslims worship the same God that is the God of Adam and Abraham.] is a very remote Being, incapable of showing a warm personal love to His creatures.