Muslims talk a lot about how to be the perfect Muslim, far far more than they do about God’s love. I have always felt a sense of God’s love – that welling of the heart when you are in prayer or a spiritual place. That feeling no words ever seem to be able to do justice to, like your soul is coming alive with God at its very essence. So when I decided to start exploring God’s love in Islamic teaching I was shocked to find that in the main when Muslims talk of love, it is usually in the context of ‘God loves those who…’ as a way of showing how we must act for God to love us. An obsession with attaining perfection through our actions to earn the approval of God. I even found Islamic websites telling people that if they felt like God didn’t love them, then He probably didn’t! At face value Islam appears to stand in stark contrast to the modern day Christian narrative that ‘God is love’.
I became so desperate to hear more about God’s love that I started listening to Christian sermons about love because I couldn’t get what I needed from Islamic sources and it had started making me pretty depressed. Maybe this ‘love’ I thought I was feeling wasn’t real after all? This was not me doubting my faith or indeed thinking that maybe it would be better to believe that Jesus (as) had come to die on behalf of my sins. None of that entered my mind for a second. I was just so hungry to hear people talking about God’s love and instead kept finding articles saying that unless I did x,y or z, God wouldn’t love me. And I’m rubbish at perfection – the more I strive for it the more I seem to fall short. I didn’t know where else to turn.
And then just as I started to despair it struck me. The love of God the Christians were preaching about was something that is in every chapter of the Quran. The very same love that we remind ourselves of it in every single rakah of prayer when we recite surah al-fatihah. It’s just that this love has got lost in translation – quite literally.
When Christians say ‘God is love’ what they mean is, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16]. So when Christians are talking about God’s love, what they are actually talking about is God’s mercy. Infinite mercy that requires nothing more than acknowledgement that He has given it to you via belief in the death of the ‘son’.
God tells us in the Quran that He is the most merciful, the oft-merciful at the beginning of all but one chapter. He is telling us that it is the lens through which His words should be read. He tells us “do not despair of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins: He is truly the Most forgiving, the Most Merciful. Turn to your Lord, submit to Him…” [39:53-54]. In a Hadith Qudsi we are told “O son of Adam, if your sins were to reach the clouds of the sky and then you would seek My forgiveness, I would forgive you”. And “Allah has divided mercy into 100 parts, and He retained with Him 99 parts, and sent down to earth 1 part. Through this one part creatures deal with one another with compassion, so much so that an animal lifts its hoof over its young lest it should hurt it.” [Al-Bukhari].
If you look at the Arabic origins of the word translated as love, and that of mercy it becomes even clearer. Love in Arabic is defined as ‘affection’, ‘attachment’, ‘desire’, ‘friendship’. The word translated as mercy means ‘compassion’, ‘kindness’, ‘understanding’, ‘respect’, ‘sympathy’, ‘relief or saving from suffering’ (Hans Wehr Arabic Dictionary). If we think about what we mean by love, surely the latter is far more of a powerful and accurate description of what is in our hearts when we think of the love of God. To Say ‘God is mercy’ would encapsulate the Islamic understanding of God, and that mercy is the greatest love imaginable.
As Muslims I feel like we need to reclaim love as something that applies as much to our faith as it does to the Christian faith. Not only might it help us with our public image, but it might make us all feel a bit happier. We must stop this fixation on perfecting ourselves for fear of Allah withholding His love, instead seeing our character improve as a consequence of His love. You will never be the perfect son or daughter but your relationship with your mother is one of beauty because her love has mercy at the heart of it. Imagine how your relationship might look if she reminded you every day of how you fall short of perfection and therefore are not deserving of her love? That wouldn’t feel very much like love at all!
Rather than feeling guilty all the time and thinking we are unlovable because we get stuff wrong, we must realise that God loves us. He is infinitely merciful towards us and His love –His mercy – is not conditional on the perfection of our actions, but on the state of our hearts. Our beloved Prophet (as) told us even he would not enter heaven except by the grace and mercy of Allah. (Bukhari, Muslim). And so it is through our humility that we might let His love wash over us in every prayer, every dhikr, let it flow through the fibers of our being because God, Allah, is love. The greatest Love of all time.
By Hibah Al-Amal