Love for Allah: An Exercise in Honest Dialogue

Ida Zilio-Grandi FAITH Magazine January-February 2008

 “A common word between us and you” is the title of a long, learned and beautiful letter which 138 Sunni and Shiite Islamic leaders have recently sent to the major representatives of Christian churches. Whether committed Muslim or committed Christian, the reader is presented with central themes common to our monotheistic creeds- in particular that sentiment of love which such a religious person fosters for God, and which is also orientated towards one’s neighbour.
To re-discover and reaffirm a fundamental agreement between these monotheistic “ways” is important and urgent because, as the letter affirms, “without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.”
Love of Neighbour

From amongst the richness of this letter, I would want to highlight the commandment to “love for the benefit of your brother what you love for the benefit of yourself”, the golden rule of love according to the Muslim tradition, which is explored in Part II. As the letter points out, the rule itself does not figure in the Qur’an but rather in the sunna. This is the record of sayings and actions of the Prophet of Islam remembered by the most reliable of witnesses and in a somewhat general manner put to paper two centuries after the Qur’anic preaching. It provides an example of faith and behaviour which the Muslim hopes to imitate. In particular the golden rule appears at the head of two canonical recollections - in both cases inside the Book of theFaith[1] -those of Bukhari (d. 256 of the hegira/870 AD) and of Muslim Ibn Al-Hajjaj (d. 261/875). This gives the rule a position of preeminence in authoritative Islamic literature.
The parallelism most probably witnesses to something which had been a cultural norm. The respected expert on Islam Ignaz Goldziher said, more than a century ago, that the main elements of the traditional Islamic literature offer us numerous examples of the straightforward reception of Christian insight on the part of the founders of Islam: “Islam considered Christianity a religion from which it was able to borrow something”, particularly in the field of wise sayings[2]

Love of God more fundamental

As has been said this commandment does not appear in the Qur’an. The Book of Islam, in a manner which is similar to Old and New Testament literature, prefers to insist upon a love which is logically prior to the love which is between human beings, that is the love of God and for God. And when the Sacred Book of Islam considers love between human creatures, it presents this phenomenon in a particular manner. In the Surah of the Family of Imran, for example, God puts believers on guard against those who do not return their love, that is unbelievers amongst the People of the Book, Jews and Christians. In the same Surah, man’s love towards sons and women is seen as possessive and compared with love towards pleasure and riches (cf.Qur’an, respectively 3,119 and 14). And in the Surah ofJoseph, the love which the wife of the Egyptian fosters for Joseph is the source of derision and scandal, it is a love which goes astray, is lustful and false (12,23-32).

In general according to the Qur’an to love, and not to love, is one of the great perogatives of God. The man who loves is often described negatively. Such a man loves ephemeral earthly riches, idols, blindness of the heart or evil; or he loves to be praised for that which he has not himself achieved.

Man’s love makes himself good, notwithstanding the merits of reciprocity, only if it is orientated to God and to Islam: “O you who believe!”, it is said in the Surah of the Mensa, “if any from among you turn back from his Faith, soon will Allah produce a people whom he will love, as they will love him.”
Turning to the Tradition of the Prophet, the Sunna, it also confers ultimate value on the love towards God and towards the Book of the Faith. It is true that this literature, when compared to the Qur’an is more attentive to the love which creatures offer one for another. It is also true that such love is orientated first of all towards Mohammed, and must be “in God”. For example, Bukhari writes,

“there are three things in which man finds the sweetness of the faith; that God and his prophet may be for him more loved than anyone else; that in loving the human being one does not love him unless in God"[3].

The same author cites, as part of the faith, love for anyone who may be loved by God and thus by Gabriel and all those in paradise.[4] It is evident that in this literature to love the prophet or him who is loved by God and the angels and the blessed equates, in the ultimate analysis, to love for God.

Articulated in numerous manners, the call is always the same; to love God, and, it needs to be emphasised, to love God according to Islam. Instead to love man, man in general, is a resultant phenomenon, a second instance permitted only in the context of love for God and “in God”. The message of the Sunna does not then contradict the Qur’anic message. Instead it confirms many verses of the Book which ultimately refer to God all the types of love.

Love for neighbour is love for the benefit of your neighbour

One more observation; whilst Christian doctrine prescribes loving our neighbour as we love ourselves, Muslim doctrine prescribes loving for the benefit of ones brother (an yuhibba li-akhi-hi) that which one loves for the benefit of oneself. The Islamic formulation of the golden rule is not motivated by linguistic exigencies or the syntax of the Arabic language, its emphasis is intentional: Love not the other but for the benefit of the other that which...”. The object of love is beyond the man because, in a unique manner, it rests in God.
As the eminent medieval theologian Ghazali (d. 505/1111) wrote, God alone is He who merits love; and the love of man for himself is orientated directly to God from the moment that the existence of each man comes from God.[5]

Loving Neighbour and Loving God

But who is it for the benefit of whom one must love that which one loves for the benefit of oneself?
Tirmidhi (d.278/899), another great collector of prophetic sayings and actions which are understood as canonical, records at once that “if you love for the benefit of people that which you love for the benefit of yourself you are a Muslim”. And the brother for the benefit of whom you love is a Muslim. According to the literature of Tradition - not that different from New Testament literature - fraternity is first of all linked to confessionality; many sayings record that the brother of a Muslim is a Muslim, that the brother of the believer is a believer; they are brothers in the religion of God and in his Book, or else in the covenant of the Prophet Muhammad, and that, when they pray, even slaves are one’s brothers.[6]

The Qur’an itself declares that “believers are all brothers” (49,10), that “He put harmony in your hearts, and through His grace you have become brothers” (3,102-103).
In the vast majority of texts the call of fraternal love is understood in this confessional sense. Ghazali, exploring the sins of the heart and of envy, writes:

“the creature does not arrive at true faith as long as he does not love for the benefit of other Muslims that which he loves for the benefit of himself; moreover, it is necessary that it be a sharing in good and bad fortunes. Muslims are like a unified building where each part is connected to another. They are like a unified body in which, if one member suffers, the rest of the body also suffers."[7]

The golden rule according to Islam can then be re-stated in this manner; love the Lord and love His Word according to the Qur’an, and your love towards God, in other words your faith, will be of benefit to yourself and equally of benefit to all Muslims.

Does it not awaken wonder that such a rule, very clearly marked by themes of confessionality, may become in turn, on the part of Islam, an invitation to conversion. The prominent Baghdadian Ahmad Ibn Al-Munajjin (9th-10th century AD) wrote to the Christian Qusta Ibn Luqa, at the conclusion of a letter on the truth of Islam, “I brought to fulfilment some good advice for you: I loved for your benefit that which I have loved for mine. Fear Allah, to whom you are going and return to the truth which is the most worthy thing for you to return to.”

As I hope is evident, none of the above meant to reduce or dispute the cultural significance, much less the real orientation towards peace of “A Common Word”. Rather we want to counter the modern tendency to make grand utterances which, whilst often a valid part of dialogue, use scriptural texts uprooted willy-nilly from their cultural context. A key example would be concerning the la ikrah fi al-din, the celebrated “let there be no compulsion in religion” contained in the Surah of the Heifer (2,256). It is cited amongst other places in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Islam issued in 1981 on the initiative of the Islamic Council of Europe, by Pope Benedict XVI in his lecture at the University of Regensburg, and then in thefollowing Open Letter to him from authoritative Muslim theologians and jurists. The Qur’anic word was appearing everywhere without appropriate contextualisation whether semantic, historical or concerning authoritative Qur’anic exegesis across a long history. Cultural specificity is relevant even concerning the teachings of revealed religions.

What can one conclude for the dialogue? Louis Massignon wrote that success does not reside in searching for a common measure and common denominators: “in order to find convergence we must search for that which is most authentic concerning the originality of each religion.” Whatever else, achieving the re-reading of scripture, word for word, without cultural prejudice, is now very important.

Translated from the original Italian by the Editor.

[1] “Book of the Faith” is the title of one of the first chapters in the two Sunna collections.
[2] Cfr. The Hadth and the New Testament, in Muslim Studies, vol. II, London 1967 (=Muhammedanishe Studien, Halle 1890), pp. 346-362, above all 346-350; Neutestamentliche
Elemente in der Traditionsliteratur des Islâm (in “Oriens Christianus”, 1902, pp. 330-337; Gesammelte Schriften, vol. IV, Hildesheim 1968).
[3] For this saying and others cf. AJ. Wensinck, Concordance et indices de la Tradition musulmane, Leiden 1936, vol. I, p. 110 (s.v îmân); see also M. Fakhry, Ethical Theories
in Islam, Leiden - New-York - Köln 1994, p. 24; A. Benabdellah, L’Islâm et la morale universelle, Rabat 1996, p. 44.  
[4] Cf. again Wensinck, Concordance, cit, vol. I, p. 408 (s.v. hubb).
[5] Il ravvivamento delle scienze religiose, trad. it. in Scritti scelti, a cura di L. Veccia Vaglieri e R. Rubinacci, Torino 1970, pp. 525-540.
[6] L’inizio della Retta Guida, trad. it. di G. Celentano, 2a ed. Trieste 1989, p. 94.
[7] Cf. S. Kh. Samir, I. Zilio-Grandi, Una corrispondenza islamo-cristiana sull’origine divina dell’Islam, Torino 2003, coll. PCAC, 8).

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