Dear readers, welcome back to the continuation of our third episode of our periodic conversations with Shaykh Hamza Karamali as part of the “Talk About Islam” series. Shaykh Hamza Karamali is the Dean of Academics at SeekersGuidance, and is one of our senior teachers.
Osama: Let’s begin by connecting this conversation to our previous one, in which we talked about the purpose of life. My first question is: Is it the purpose of our life to truly love the Divine?
Shaykh Hamza: Yes, Allah says in the Quran:
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الجِنَّ وَالاِنْسَ اِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُوْنِ
“I only created jinn and mankind so that they might worship Me.”
This worship (‘ibadah) of Allah is closely tied to the idea of loving (mahabbah) Allah.
To worship Him means to love Him, it means to know Him.
The acts of obedience that we do in order to worship Him are an expression of our love for Allah.
The purpose of our existence is to worship Allah, and this worship is adoration, and so the purpose of our existence is to love Allah but not in the way that many might imagine, and maybe this leads into your question about true love.
Osama: The ayah of the Koran that you cited specifically mentions the term worship (‘ibadah).
How are the concepts of knowing (ma’rifah) and loving (muhabbah) Allah related to worshipping (‘ibadah) Him?
Shaykh Hamza: In the Arabic language, the concept of worship (‘ibadah) is linguistically related to the concept of slavehood (‘ubudiyyah). Both of them share the triliteral root ‘ayn–ba’–dal. The relation between the two words is that worship (‘ibadah) is the expression of our slavehood to Allah.
I once heard Shaykh Abu Munir (may Allah Most High preserve him), the personal servant of the late Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri, explain that there are four kinds of slaves:
- The one who is a slave out of fear—this kind of slave worships Allah because he fears being punished in the Hellfire. He knows His Lord as someone who punishes people for not worshipping Him.
- The one who is a slave out of a hopeful desire—this kind of slave worships Allah because he hopes that Allah will reward Him with Paradise. He knows His Lord as someone who rewards people for worshipping Him. This slavehood is higher than the previous one because this kind of slave knows who Allah is better than the previous one does. Like the previous one, he knows that Allah Most High punishes people for not worshipping Him, but He also knows that His mercy outstrips His wrath and that He is someone who is kind, generous, loves to give.
- The one who is a slave out of submission—this kind of slave worships Allah out of sheer submission to Him. Like the previous two kinds of slaves, he fears the Hellfire and hopes for Paradise, but He sees them both, like everything else that exists, in the grasp of his omnipotent Lord. The omnipotence of His Lord strikes his heart before the terrors of Hellfire or the joys of Paradise because He sees the Hellfire and Paradise as manifestations of His Lord’s omnipotence. He knows that struggling against His Lord by trying to be free from Him is hopeless, so He surrenders, He submits. There is a sweetness to this submission that is not found anywhere else. Submission to God is not like submitting to another human being. Submission to God is something that we can accept because God deserves our submission. And we can see that because He doesn’t need our submission, the reward that He has promised for those who submit to Him is His pure largesse. Submission to another human being, on the other hand, is bitter because we are just as human as anyone else and there is no reason why we should submit to anyone else like us. We would only submit to someone else if they threatened us with danger or if they promised us some kind of reward. Both the danger and the reward would return to some kind of selfish motive that this other human being would have. Neither the danger nor the reward would be sincerely and genuinely for our benefit.
- The one who is a slave out of love—this kind of slave worships Allah out of love. Like the first slave, He fears the Hellfire; like the second slave, he hopes for Paradise; like the third slave, he surrenders to His Lord; but he goes beyond all of them because He sees everything in the universe as a manifestation of Allah Most High’s kindness, generosity, and love. Everything that happens in the universe, to him, is sweet. Unlike the previous kind of slave, who merely surrenders to the commands of His Lord, this kind of slave goes beyond what His Lord commands to search out everything that He loves, even if it is not obligatory. He’s propelled by love to have slavehood to His Lord. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shagouri (may Allah have mercy on him) used to say that someone who methodically fulfills his obligations to his Lord (salik) is walking to Him, but someone who is in love with His Lord is flying to Him.
This last kind of slavehood is the highest kind of slavehood. And this is how love (muhabba) is related to slavehood (‘ubudiyyah).
Love (muhabba) is also related to the idea of knowing Allah (ma’rifah), which, in turn, is also related to the idea of slavehood (‘ubudiyyah).
The Companion Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) explained the verse, “I only created jinn and mankind so that they might worship me.” as, “I only created jinn and mankind so that they might know me.” He explained worship, in other words, as knowledge of Allah Most High.
Knowing Allah (ma’rifah) means to experientially realize that He is the Master of every single atom in the universe, that He created the universe from nothing, and that He needs nothing, and that everything else needs Him. This is not just a conceptual realization in the mind, but a realization in one’s heart that pervades one’s soul. So when one knows Allah as He really is, there’s a beauty to the being of Allah that the heart perceives and falls in love with.
The Sufis have a famous saying:
مَنْ عَرَفَ نَفْسَهُ عَرَفَ رَبَّهُ
Whoever knows himself knows His Lord.
This means that whoever knows that he is a needy, indigent slave, will realize thereby that he has a Lord who doesn’t need anything, is Powerful, and everything that he has comes from His Lord.
The scholars of Sufism describe and teach that the deepest knowledge of who Allah is does not come through the mind but through the heart. He is known through realizing one’s neediness to Him. That’s the knowledge of Allah–it’s a realization. This knowledge can only exist if there is submission and slavehood, if there is a feeling of one’s neediness, and a realization of His Power, His Might, His Will, His Kindness, His Generosity, His Forgiveness, and–ultimately–His Godhood. It can only come if those things are realized in the heart.
Conceptually, slavehood (‘ubudiyyah) to Allah is different from loving (mahabbah) Allah, which is different from knowing (ma’rifah) Allah, but whenever one is there, the other two are also there, and each enriches the others. Since they are always found together, one can use them interchangeably, and one can say that the purpose of our life is to know Allah, to love Him, or to worship Him.
Osama: In simple terms, could you kindly provide working definitions for each term?
Shaykh Hamza: The scholars of tafsir define the worship of Allah as the utmost expression of lowering and humiliating oneself to the object of one’s worship. The best outward expression of it is the prostration. When we prostrate, we take the most honorable parts of our body–the face and the head–and we put them down on the ground before Allah. By doing this, we are lowering and humiliating ourselves completely before Allah. This is the essence of worship.
To a modern humanist reader, the idea of humiliating oneself before God might sound unpleasant, but it is, in fact, extremely pleasant. As I explained above, submitting to God is sweet but submitting to a human being is bitter. In the same way, humiliating oneself to God is sweet, but humiliating oneself to another human being is bitter.
When we humiliate ourselves before God, we fulfill the purpose of our existence, which is to worship Allah, and in return, Allah Most High honours us because He is the Most Generous. When we humiliate ourselves before Allah, He raises our rank. When we realize our weakness, He aids us with His Power. When we realize our ignorance, He aids us with His Knowledge.
This is worship.
As for the knowledge of Allah (ma’rifah), Ibn ‘Ajibah in his lexicon of Sufi terms, defines it as perpetually witnessing Allah with a heart that is madly in love. The “perpetual witnessing” (mushahadah) that Ibn ‘Ajiba has mentioned in his definition of love also has a definition, but the challenge with Sufi definitions is that they describe a reality that is not shared by everyone, and so as we go from definition to definition, we might find that we don’t really get anywhere. The way to understand the realities that the Sufis are defining is to undergo a spiritual development and then experience them for oneself.
Definitions work for concepts that are in the public domain, meaning concepts that can be understood by everyone regardless of their spiritual development. For example, the human being is commonly defined as a “rational animal.” We all understand the meaning of “rational” and we all understand the meaning of “animal. Therefore we all understand what a “rational animal” is and the definition of “human being” helps us understand what a human being is.
But spiritual experiences are personal experiences that are not shared by everyone. When someone who has had an experience tries to define it for someone else, the definitions will only be useful for someone who has had the same experience, or, perhaps, someone who is on the verge of having that same experience. For the rest of us, they don’t lead to a full understanding of the term that is being defined, but only an approximate understanding. This is something we should keep in mind when defining these terms.
Let’s return to the definition of the knowledge of Allah, which used the term “perpetual witnessing” of Allah (mushahadah). Elsewhere in his dictionary of Sufi terms, Ibn ‘Ajibah defines “perpetual witnessing” as the witnessing of the heart as a result of one’s indigence, which is only realised vis-a-vis Allah Most High’s being completely free of need from everything besides.
Osama: Could one potentially say that knowing Allah (realization of one’s indigence to Allah) leads one to loving Him?
Shaykh Hamza: Yes, one could understand it like that.
Osama: Now that we have gone over the distinction between the ideas of knowing, loving, and worshipping Allah, I’d like to return to the main question of this conversation: What is true love?
Shaykh Hamza: Right, so you’re asking me about what “true love” is. However, before we get into that discussion, I’m interested in knowing why you have used the adjective “true” here. It seems to imply that there is a kind of love that is false. I agree with this distinction, but I’d like to know what, in your mind, is the concept of “false love”?
Osama: Well, when I think of love, what immediately comes to mind is human love, an example of which is the kind that exists between a man and a woman. Often, however, one sees that a person may claim “love” yet still harm their “beloved.” One naturally wonders in such a situation about the genuineness and truth of such a person’s “love” for their “beloved” — this then brings up the distinction of “false love” versus “true love”.
You are probably better aware than I of the distinction that scholars make between a lustful sort of attraction to another as opposed to one that is grounded in love for the other. The lustful sort of attraction for the other often superficially adorns itself with the outward mantle of love yet is empty of its inward reality. This might explain why a person claiming love can harm their beloved; it is probably because they have mistaken lust for love.
“True love”, it seems, has the element of effacing the ego, prioritizing the happiness of the beloved over the self, and self-sacrifice, whereas “false love”, or lust in this case, is a type of aggrandizement of the ego, prioritizing the happiness of the self over the beloved, and an objectification of the other.
This is what comes to my mind when I think of the distinction between “true love” and “false love”.
Shaykh Hamza: That’s very good! The Sufis talk about human emotions. They talk about emotions like love, gratitude, envy, and anger. These emotions have been placed within us because they find their true meaning in relation to Allah.
A righteous person, like any other human being, feels love, anger, good envy (wishing for something good without wishing that it be taken away from anyone else), gratitude, but the way in which those emotions are realized for a pious person is different to the way in which they are realized for the common person. The point here is that we can understand what these emotions mean with respect to Allah if we step back for a moment to understand what they mean in relation to other human beings.
I once heard from Shaykh Abu Munir that someone came to one of the great spiritual guides of recent times to take the Sufi path from Him in order to draw close to Allah. So the spiritual guide asked him, “Have you ever loved something in your life, even if only a cat?” to which the man replied, “No.” and the spiritual guide ordered him to leave and not return until he had loved something because if someone who seeks Allah Most High doesn’t know what it means anything, then he won’t be able to learn what it means to love Allah.
One of the things that this story shows is that Allah Most High created all of our emotions within is for a great wisdom. We need all of them. Someone who is close to Allah Most High isn’t someone who is devoid of emotion. Rather, someone who is close to Allah is someone who has all of his human emotions, but attaches them to Allah Most High. His emotions are all for the sake of Allah. When that happens, our full human potential is realized, and we flower. This is how the human being finds the purpose of his existence.
Osama: So what is true love with respect to other human beings?
Shaykh Hamza: The global monoculture has done away with true love. Most of us no longer understand what it means to truly love another human being. This was, however, understood very well by the ancient Arabians, even before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace). The ancient Arabians were a people who loved poetry, and in their poetry, they loved to write about love. We’ll read some of their poetry today.
In ancient Arabian poetry, there is a kind of love that is called “the love of the tribe of Bani ‘Udhrah” (al-hubb al-‘udhri). Let’s call it, “‘Udhrian love.”
There’s a famous line in the Burda of al-Busiri towards the beginning of the poem where the author of the Burda describes what his love for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has done to him–he says that his has turned pale and that he is crying tears of blood. He has an imaginary conversation with someone who blames him for wasting his life in this kind of love, so he says to his blamer:
O you who blames me, in ‘Udhrian love, I ask you to excuse me.
But if you were fair and objective, then you would never blame me.
In other words, if you understood what I was going through, then you wouldn’t blame me, but rather, you would feel sorry for me, help me, and support me.
Osama: Could you please describe what you mean by ‘Udhrian love?
Shaykh Hamza: Bani ‘Udhra were a tribe from Yemen. Now, there is a sahih hadith in which the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said that the people of Yemen have very tender hearts. Perhaps one of the manifestations of this tenderness was the love of Bani ‘Udhra.
They say that when the men of the Bani ‘Uzrah tribe fell in love with a woman, they would wither away and die. This often happened when they were unable to marry the woman they loved because, for example, her father had accepted the proposal of some other suitor. There are stories about people from Bani ‘Udhra dying in this manner from the time of the Companions. They would become silent, not speak to anyone for a year, lie in bed, be immobile, compose poetry (often cryptic except to those who knew what they were suffering from), and, eventually, die. This long illness and death was the mark of ‘Udhrian love.
You might wonder how true love and death are related. Someone who is truly in love doesn’t want anything for himself. If there is anything that he wants for himself, then he is an impostor, he is someone making a false claim, and he is someone who has a selfish motive, he is someone who is trying to take advantage of another person.
The Sufis use imagery of human love as a metaphor to describe the love that a human being has for Allah. So they tell the story of a man who went to a woman and told her that he loved her and that he finds her very beautiful. She replied that he should turn around and look in the other direction where her sister is standing because her sister was even more beautiful than her. When the man turned around, there was no one there. When he turned back to the woman, she slapped him and told him to get lost. It turned out that there was no sister. She had only been testing the genuineness of his love.
The lesson of the story is that someone who is truly in love doesn’t even turn to look at anyone else. This goes back to the definition of knowing Allah that we just talked about–we read that someone who knows Allah Most High is perpetually witnessing Him. His witnessing is perpetual because he doesn’t turn to look at anything else.
Now, I’m just describing what the Sufis say because I find it beautiful, not because I am actually realized in any of it. Imam al-Shafi’i used to say:
أُحِبُّ الصَّالِحِيْنَ وَلَسْتُ مِنْهُمُ لَعَلِّي أَنْ أَنَالَ بِهِم شَفَاعَه
وَأَكْرَهُ مَنْ تِجَارَتُهُ المَعَاصِي وَلَوْ كُنَّا سَوَاءً فِي البِضَاعَه
I love the righteous, even though I’m not one of them,
It maybe that because of them I will find on the Day of Judgement that they will intercede for me,
I hate the one who trades in acts of disobedience
even though we trade in the same kinds of goods.
The only thing they want is the beloved, and they’ll give up everything they have–even themselves–for the beloved in order to express their love, even if it means that they wither away and die, because the point of life is the beloved and nothing else. Giving your soul out of love for the beloved is the ultimate expression of love.
The Sufis have many different definitions for love. One of these definitions is that love is when you prefer the one you love over yourself. That’s why when someone truly loves Allah, their love will reveal itself as outward obedience to Allah Most High. They will do what He has commanded and shun what He has forbidden:
تَعْصِي الإِله وَأنْتَ تُظْهِرُ حُبَّهُ هذا محالٌ في القياس بديعُ
لَوْ كانَ حُبُّكَ صَادِقاً لأَطَعْتَهُ إنَّ الْمُحِبَّ لِمَنْ يُحِبُّ مُطِيعُ
You disobey God while showing to others that you love Him,
This is something that is outrageously impossible,
If your love for Him was true, then you would have obeyed Him,
Verily, the lover is utterly obedient to the one who he loves.
If a lover hears what their beloved wants, they rush to go and do it. They prefer what their beloved wants to what they themselves want.
By the grace of Allah Most High, I haven’t listened to modern pop music for a long, long time. But sometimes when you walk into a store, there’s something playing, and when you listen to what’s being said, it’s usually about what the singer imagines to be love. The singer sings about kissing, hugging, and needing the beloved, etc. This is not true love! Love is not what you want the other person to do for you; love is when you want to do everything for the other person, and this is what ‘Udhrian love illustrates.
Nobody understood love except for the ancient Arabians, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Allah Most High chose them to be the people who would carry His final revelation all over the world.
Osama: You mentioned that the lover wants to give up everything for the Beloved, in other words, a lover has unconditional love for their beloved. Now, on this point, modern Christian philosophers like William Lane Craig, point out that Islam’s God is not as loving as the God of Christianity because the God of Islam hates disbelievers, sinners, and transgressors. People like that point out that if a human being can have such great capacity for unconditional love, of which many examples were cited in our conversation, why does the God of Islam not have such a capacity? If He did, they argue, there would be no suffering, nor would there be people who would be destined to go to the Hellfire forever and ever.
Shaykh Hamza: Someone who asks these questions is really far from being in love.
Let’s return to the example of human love, if you were to talk to a marriage prospect and tell her that they don’t really love you, and that you expect her to love you because women these days don’t love their husbands, and that if they women truly loved their husbands, then they would take care of them and listen to them (smiles) … You then go on to tell her that you were recently in a conversation with [Shaykh] Hamza who told me that the lover is the one who listens to everything that her husband says, and I won’t stand for it if you don’t listen to me and love me (laughs). What do you think she will say? She will probably say, “Go to Hell!”
Now Allah Most High is not like a human being, so you have to delete the example of your prospective wife from your mind, but if someone goes to Him and tells Him that they expect Him to love them, then Allah Most High will not just tell them, “Go to Hell!”, he will actually throw them into Hell!
The type of thinking that you have described comes from having the idea of love all wrong.
The starting point is not going to God and saying that you don’t love me, and you must do such and such thing for me. This is how this ties in with knowing Allah and worshipping Him. True love for Allah is this selfless love that is like the love of people of Banu ‘Udhra. It is a giving of oneself completely to Allah, wanting Him, and doing anything for Him.
The imagery that the Sufis use for this is a lover who is wooing his beloved. There is a woman who you are in love with, you say to her that you will do anything for her, and you want her to marry you, but she says that she’s not interested. When women say that they are not interested, this is not what they mean, what they’re really doing is that they are testing you.
Here’s a marriage tip for you: if your wife decides not to show much interest in you, it means that she wants you to chase after her. Women love to be chased after and wooed. And the act of chasing after one’s wife (or wife-to-be) and wooing her is something that Allah Most High has made natural to men.
This is why the imagery that the Sufis use for our loving Allah Most High is a that of a lover who is wooing his beloved.
There is a qasidah (poem) ascribed to Shaykh Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi (Allah have mercy on him), in which he says:
أَيُّهَا العَاشِقُ مَعْنَى حُسْنِنَا مَهْرُنَا غَالٍ لِمَنْ يَخْطِبُنَا
جَسَدٌ مُضْنَى وَرُوْحٌ فِي العَنَا وَجُفُوْنٌ لَا تَذُوْقُ الوَسَنَا
O you who are in love with our beauty, the bride price is high for the one who is proposing to us:
an emaciated body, a soul that is in longing, and eyes that will never taste sleep.
The beauty of Allah, here, is a reference to His necessary existence, the fact that He is need of no one while everyone is in need of Him.
The emaciated body, here, is a mark of ‘Udhrian love, as the lover (that’s us!) is withering away in love because of the long nights of worship and days of fasting that he knows Allah Most High loves.
The soul in longing, here, is one in difficulty and distress because it is longing for the Beloved, and because the Beloved is not coming, the soul is begging, longing, and pleading by vowing that it will do anything just to be with the Beloved.
The eyes that don’t taste sleep, here, they say that when somebody is in love like that, then they are thinking of their beloved all night and for those who are seeking Allah this finds expression in worshipping Him at night.
This is the price that we need to pay: we give something, and Allah asks for more, so we give more, and He asks for more, and we are constantly knocking at His door, and this is a test from Allah to see whether or not we truly love Him or not. If we are like that man who looked away to look at the more beautiful sister, then we are turning away from Allah, and we have shown Him that we don’t deserve to be with Him. But, if we persist, then eventually the door will be opened, and we will be with Allah. This is the ultimate quest for the seeker: to be with the beloved.
Now, going back to your question, that question is asked by someone who doesn’t deserve the love of Allah. If you were to talk to any other human being like that, they would tell you to get lost. The same applies, with greater force, to Allah.
Allah Most High says in the Qur’an:
Allah loves the godfearing. (Qur’an, 3:76)
Godfearingness entails that one protects oneself from the wrath of Allah Most High. So the love of Allah is connected with His fear. We love Him, yet we fear Him. How can you love someone that you fear?
We fear Him because He is dangerous, He can send us to the Hellfire.
We love Him because despite the fact that we deserve nothing, He still showers us with His blessings and promises us with paradise even though we don’t deserve to go there, and also because He is Beautiful so we love Him. Within this love there is a sense of undeservedness.
In the question that you cited, however, there is no sense of undeservedness. To the contrary, there is every sense of deservedness.
To summarize, the answer to this question is that it is what logicians call a “loaded question”. For example, if Allah loves us, then why is there suffering? This question assumes many things: it assumes that Allah loves us, it assumes that if He loves us then there will be no suffering, and it assumes that we don’t need to do anything, that all we need to do is sit back and wait to be loved by demanding it. All of these assumptions are false, and we don’t agree with them. We hope that Allah loves us, but we need to earn His love.
The love of Allah is not a given; it is something that needs to be earned, and so in the famous hadith of wilayah in the Forty Nawawi, Allah says:
My servant doesn’t draw closer to Me with anything more Beloved to me than the things that I have made obligatory, and He continues to draw closer to Me with non-obligatory acts until I love Him.
This hadith tells us how to be someone who Allah loves. If we want Allah Most High to love us, then we must do what He has made obligatory on us and then do even more than that. The hadith continues and then describes the experiential knowledge of Allah that comes when the love is there. That is why knowledge, love, and worship are related.
Allah created us to love Him, and He described to us how we tread that path to love Him. When we tread that path to love Him, then He loves us, but people who don’t tread that path to love Allah and turn away from Allah by being arrogant and by being at war with Him, these people Allah doesn’t love.
So does Allah love us? Well, none of us will know until we die, and if we complete our lives as people who Allah loves, then the answer is yes, and if we die as people who Allah doesn’t love, then the answer is no. That’s how we need to look at the problem.
The type of thinking in your question is a result of the Humanist and Enlightenment thought that we have talked about in our previous conversations. This type of thinking is human-centered and focused on “I, Me, My, Now, and My terms”, and somebody who does that cannot fulfill the purpose of their existence because they don’t know themselves. We saw that the one who knows himself, knows his Lord. So this person, he thinks that he is something great whereas we are not something that great; as long as someone thinks that they are someone great, then they won’t know Allah because to know Him they need to feel that they are nothing, and only then will they see that Allah is everything.
The God-centered view is not “I, Me, My, Now, and My terms”; it is “You, You, You, and You”, and when we look at the world like that, then we find the purpose of our existence.
Osama: I have some lines here in which a lover expresses his love for his beloved:
Whether you accept,
Whether you love,
with a gift,
I’ll always remain standing,
by your door,
yearning for nothing,
but a gaze.
my failings have shattered countless times,
yet I hold onto it despite it’s imperfection.
I have nothing to give,
besides this gift of which I speak:
‘tis my heart.
Now, in these lines which were inspired by a song, the writer admits his failing of not being able to express his love in just the right way, but he says that he will always keep trying and hoping that maybe one day the beloved will accept him despite his imperfection. This, it seems, is an expression of the indigence and neediness of the lover in front of the beloved. Is this the type of indigence that we want to have in front of Allah?
Shaykh Hamza: Yes, absolutely. The lines are a beautiful expression of true love, and that is exactly what we need to do in front of Allah’s door to keep on trying to show our love. The Sufis would use lines such as these to express their relationship to Allah. This goes back to what we said earlier about human emotions; the spark needs to be there through one’s relationship with other human beings, and this then gets redirected to Allah. That spark is there in these lines, and when one sees that and feels it, then one needs to come to the realization that this can truly be realized with respect to Allah.
Osama: Good actions, it seems, like the gift of which the lines speak, should not be looked at as a means that entail and justify Allah’s love. Rather, it seems that when one does good outward actions, it must be coupled with knowledge of one’s imperfection, and too with complete indigence to Allah in hope that He may accept one’s worship as an expression of one’s love and slavehood.
Often we find that we as people practicing religion, instead of viewing our actions as imperfect, and having hope in Allah that He will accept them despite their imperfection, we sometimes look upon our actions with pride.
How can we correct this?
Shaykh Hamza: Worship has an inward element (knowing and loving) and an outward element (doing something with the limbs). When we talked about knowing and loving Allah and their relation to worshipping Him, we saw that they are all related and are found together.
So what I think you are trying to describe is that when there is outward worship but the other two inward elements aren’t there, then it is not true worship — there is something that is off. It might appear to be worship but it is not.
Someone might have a long beard, they might recite Quran, they might give religious lectures, they might appear to be religious, they might tell others to be religious, they might be a religious figure, and they might be calling people to worship Allah, but, even though they are doing all of these things, it may be that they don’t know what it means to worship Allah because their actions are making them proud and causing them to look down on others. Perhaps they feel entitled, or that other people should respect them, or that they should give them deference because they feel that they are people of God. This happens, and has been happening for a long time.
Imam al-Ghazali, when he wrote his magnum opus, one of the best books ever written in Islam, Ihya ‘ulum al-din, which means, “Bringing the religious sciences back to life,” when he wrote this book, he gave it this name because he believed that people like this had caused the religious sciences to die. So somebody who studies Sacred Law or tafsir or some other religious science, but their study doesn’t humble them, nor is their studying and teaching an expression of loving Allah, then what they are doing is just an outward form without the inner reality. The people who they teach feel and see that the inner reality is missing, and they are driven away from such people. This is what happened in an extreme form to the Christian Church before the Enlightenment, as we discussed in our previous conversations. That’s why people were driven away from religion. The people of religion were people they hated and detested because they were using religion for their own selfish motives. So when a religious person uses worship and obedience for his own selfish motive in order to be high in the eyes of other people, or for him to be higher in his own mind over other people, then the worship is not there — it is outward movement but the inward reality is not there. The inward reality of worship is that it is an expression of one’s love to Allah, one is giving one’s self up for Him. So when that is missing, then something is off.
Imam Malik has a famous statement:
Whoever studies Sacred Law and doesn’t study Spirituality becomes a transgressor, whereas someone who studies Spirituality and doesn’t study Sacred Law becomes a heretic. The one who joins between them both is realized.
The person who studies Sacred Law and doesn’t study Spirituality disobeys Allah inwardly through the outward actions that he is doing that seem to be obedience, whereas the one who studies Spirituality and doesn’t study Sacred Law disobeys Allah outwardly because he doesn’t keep to the limits that Allah has set. The one who joins between them both is realized; this is what you were referring to when you spoke about “balancing” the letter and the spirit.
We need the outward form with the inner reality. That’s what the line of poetry was in reference to:
تَعْصِي الإِله وَأنْتَ تُظْهِرُ حُبَّهُ هذا محالٌ في القياس بديعُ
لَوْ كانَ حُبُّكَ صَادِقاً لأَطَعْتَهُ إنَّ الْمُحِبَّ لِمَنْ يُحِبُّ مُطِيعُ
You disobey God while showing to others that you love Him,
This is something that is outrageously impossible,
If your love for Him was true, then you would have obeyed Him,
Verily, the lover is utterly obedient to the one who he loves.
The one who has inward love has outward obedience. This means that if love is there, then the outward will be there. If the outward is not there, then it means that the love is not there inside. And if the outward is there, that doesn’t guarantee the love, but you need to take the means to bring that about as well.
Osama: Love, it seems, is more of a continuum as opposed to an attainment that one achieves. Can one ever claim to have attained unto the absolute love of the Divine?
Shaykh Hamza: I certainly don’t know the answer to that question.
Osama: We’ve established that when one inwardly knows and loves one’s beloved, then the outward sign of it is obedience, and this obedience can sometimes even make one wither away like the people of Bani ‘Udhra because of the selflessness that it entails. Related to this, the Sufis point out in their poetry that in reality Allah is both the Lover (muhibb) and the Beloved (mahbub); if this so, how does Allah’s Love manifest itself for His Beloved creation?
Shaykh Hamza: Theologically, this question is problematic because when you ask a “how” question with respect to Allah, then what you are seeking to do is understand Allah in human terms. That is why frequently, theologians, when they talk about Allah they say “bila kayf”, which means “without any modality”, which means that He doesn’t resemble anything that we have experienced.
As an example, we will see Allah in Paradise, but bila kayf, without modality, without “how”, because the meaning of the question “How?” is, “Of the things that I have experienced, which one does this resemble?” So when someone asks you, “How does honey taste?”, you say “Like sugar.”, and your response is only understood by someone who has experienced the taste of sugar, otherwise they won’t understand. So what you are trying to do is that you are giving an analogue, you are giving something similar. The answer to a “How?” question is: “Like something else.”. So with regards to Allah, the “how” is not something that we can understand with the mind.
Let’s start with theology: in the science of ‘aqidah, there are two approaches.
Allah, He says in the Quran:
Allah loves the godfearing. (Qur’an, 3:76)
What does it mean for God to love?
The theologians, they will say that the reality of love is a change that comes about in the heart. So, when you fall in love with somebody, there is a pain that you feel in the heart, there is an emotional change that happens in the heart. Then, when this emotional change happens, then it drives you to do for the beloved, for the one you love, whatever it is that they love.
There are a number of divine attributes that are described in human terms. Take, for example, His Mercy. Mercy for us is a tenderness of the heart that you feel when, for example, you see a poor man that passes by. When that happens, your heart becomes tender, and this emotional change, i.e. your heart becoming tender, drives you to put your hand in your pocket to give that poor man some money. He is also described as being Grateful (al-Shakur). You become grateful as a result of an emotional change that comes about in your heart when somebody does you a favour, and this drives you to return their favour.
When Allah is described in these terms, we subtract the emotional change aspect from the description because Allah is perfect and therefore He does not change. We interpret these things to mean the consequences, the end-result of the emotional change. So, when you love someone, then you do for them what they love. When Allah loves us, then He does for us what we would love for Him to do to us, but there is no emotional change on His part because Allah is Perfect and does not change. When Allah has Mercy on us, He fulfills our needs, but there is no emotional change. When Allah is Grateful to us, He rewards us for the good deeds that we do, but there is no emotional change.
This is what the theologians do. They are good at telling you what Allah is not. At the end, then, what you’re left with is not a lot of difference between Allah’s Love, His Gratitude, and His Mercy because all of them return to giving us things that we desire so you might as well use one name for all of them.
So what I just described was the approach of ta’weel, figurative interpretation. This is a particular type of figurative interpretation called majaz mursal, which is explained in detail by the scholars of balaghah, or Arabic eloquence.
Another approach to such names that seem to describe Him in ways that seem to imply that He resembles His creation is to start off by denying that He resembles His creation (so you deny that there is any emotional change), and to then consign the meaning to Allah Most High. You say, “Allah knows what it means; I don’t know what it means.” This is called tafwid.
The Sufis like this approach because, they say that as one comes closer to Allah, one experiences the meanings of these Names in an inexpressible way, one comes to understand the meaning of Allah’s love in an inexpressible way.
You alluded to something about Allah being the Beloved and the Lover in your question. This is how some Sufis express their experience of Allah’s Love in their poetry. What they say is that our Love for Allah transforms into a realization of our complete dependence on Allah. It transforms into a realization that the love we have in our hearts is something that Allah has created within us; it transforms into a realization of forgetting about oneself and focusing only on the Beloved; it transforms into a realization in which one loses one’s identity. So when one loses one’s identity, one forgets about oneself and focuses on Allah alone, and all one sees is Allah and His Love, and one doesn’t see oneself. The Sufis describe this experience in various lines of poetry.
I don’t have the qualification to explain these lines of poetry but that’s what they say.
Ibn al-Farid, possibly the most eloquent poet to ever talk about loving Allah Most High, described the same experience as follows.
أنتمْ فروضي ونفلي
أنتمْ حديثي وشغلي
You are my obligations and my supererogatory actions.
You are my conversations and my occupations.
يا قِبْلَتي في صَلاتي،
إذا وَقَفْتُ أُصَلّي
O my direction in my prayer
when I stand to pray:
جَمالُكُمْ نَصْبُ عَيني
إليهِ وجَّهتُ كلِّي
Your Beauty is before my eyes;
To it I direct my entire being
Osama: How are the ideas of pain and sacrifice related to the idea of love? They say that love is a painful path that demands a sacrifice of the self.
Must one necessarily face pain and sacrifice in order to attain unto love? Christians often allude to the sacrifice of Jesus when they talk about the love of God.
Shaykh Hamza: The idea of sacrifice is in us, it is not in Allah.
The Christians got it wrong because they say that God sacrificed Himself in order to show His love to us. This is completely wrong! Allah doesn’t need us. He doesn’t need to sacrifice Himself. We are the ones who need Him. He doesn’t need anything.
For Him to have a son, and the son to be God, and for that god to die is completely senseless. Who would worship a god that dies and is killed by other people? You wouldn’t feel very needy of that God. This is also ascribing a defect to Allah.
لَقَدْ كَفَرَ الَّذِيْنَ قَالُوا اِنَّ اللَّهَ ثَالِثُ الثَّلَاثَة
Those who say, “Verily, Allah is the third of the trinity,” have surely disbelieved. (Qur’an, 5:73)
There are many other verses that describe such a belief as associating partners with Allah. To hold such a belief is to ascribe defects to Allah; it’s an insult to Him.
Allah’s love for us doesn’t involve any sacrifice because for Him to sacrifice something for us would be an expression of His neediness, which is a defect for Him because it would imply some kind of human power over God.
This idea of the crucifixion, the divinity of Christ, all of these are foreign Greek pagan intrusions upon the true monotheism of Prophet Jesus Christ upon him be peace.
What we need to ask is: What do we need to do in order to show our love for God?
This does involve sacrifice.
It involves sacrifice because it entails preferring the one who we love over ourselves.
I really want to do something, but I will show God that I love Him by preferring not to do what I really want to do. You can think of that as a sacrifice.
Osama: How can a loving God be Vengeful (al-Muntaqim) to His creation, and why would He want to Abase (al-Khafid) His creation?
Shaykh Hamza: The theologians explain that Allah Most High’s names are divided into two categories: those that have an opposite, and those that don’t. Both the names that you’ve mentioned–al-Muntaqim and al-Khafid–have opposites. The opposite of al-Muntaqim–the One who “takes vengeance” (I’ll explain shortly why I’ve put the translation in quotation marks)–is al-Shakur–the One who is “intensely grateful” (again, I’ll explain shortly why I’ve put the translation in quotation marks). The opposite of al-Khafid–the One who lowers–is al-Rafi‘–the One who raises.
Examples of names that don’t have an opposite are al-Qadir–the All-Powerful–and al-Qawiyy–the Almighty. The opposites of these names are impossible for Allah Most High. For Him to be unable to do something or for Him to be weak would be a defect that conflicts with His godhood.
Names that have an opposite describe what Allah Most High does. They are descriptions of His actions. Theologians call these attributes sifat al-af‘al. Or, in other words, they are descriptions of His acts of creation. Since Allah Most High can do absolutely anything, since His actions are unconstrained by any limitation, He can do an action and its opposite: He can create and destroy; He can reward and punish; He can support and abase. The absolute freedom of Allah Most High to do anything, regardless of whether it is in our interests or against our interests, is what it means for Him to be God and for us to be His slaves. That is why we worship Him: we seek His mercy, His forgiveness, His gentleness, and we seek refuge from His wrath, His punishment, His rigor.
Names that don’t have an opposite describe who He is. They are descriptions of Allah Most High Himself, descriptions of His perfections. Theologians call these attributes sifat al-dhat. His knowledge, His power, His will, His life are all descriptions of Allah Himself.
Now, in order to answer your question, we need to note three things.
The first is that Allah Most High’s “vengeance” and His abasing His creation are both descriptions of His actions, not of Allah Most High Himself. He is, in other words, someone who “takes vengeance” and someone who abases His creation, just as He is also someone who is “intensely grateful”, and someone who honors and raises His creation. In your question, you asked, “How can a loving God be vengeful?” The way that you’ve used the adjective “vengeful” suggests that it’s a permanent attribute that describes who He is rather than an attribute of what He sometimes does. Remember that Allah Most High does whatever He wills and when He tells us that He can harm us (such as with the two names that you’ve mentioned), He is reminding us that He is God and we are His slaves, that He doesn’t need us and that we need Him, that He deserves our worship and submission and we shouldn’t approach Him with a sense of entitlement. This returns to the question about slavehood and love that we began this conversation with.
The second thing to note is that human language falls short of the majesty of Allah Most High. This returns to an earlier part of this conversation in which we asked what it means for God to love. We saw that when we say that Allah Most High has mercy, gratitude, or love, then we need to strip these words of the accompanying emotional changes. Once we do that, we have two options: we can either give the words a figurative interpretation (ta’wil) or we can consign their meaning to Allah Most High.
The same applies to Allah Most High’s “vengeance”. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi explains that “vengeance” in human beings comprises three things: (1) extreme anger, (2) a severe chastisement that is delayed (an immediate chastisement is not normally called “vengeance”), and (3) that the chastisement lead to the quenching of some kind of thirst for revenge. When we use “vengeance” with respect to Allah Most High, we need to subtract this third meaning because it is an emotional change and Allah Most High is perfect and transcendently beyond any kind of change. So we understand Allah Most High’s vengeance as a severe chastisement that does not befall immediately, but after some time, without there being any quenching of some kind of thirst for revenge. When you problematized vengeance for Allah Most High, you were assuming that it comprises the quenching of some kind of a thirst for revenge. You can now see that it doesn’t.
As for Allah Most High’s abasing His creation, recall that the meaning of worship returns to a voluntary abasement of oneself to Allah Most High. There is a general theme in the Qur’an that someone who does not voluntarily lower themselves before Allah Most High through worship in this life will be forcibly lowered before Him in the afterlife, whereas someone who does voluntarily lower themselves before Allah Most High will be raised by Allah Most High in the afterlife. This raising doesn’t just happen in the afterlife; it even happens in this life. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “No one humbles himself for the sake of Allah except that Allah Most High raises him.” (Muslim)
The third and final thing to note is that your question–“How can a loving God be …”–assumes that God loves everyone. That is a false assumption. Allah Most High says in the Qur’an, “Allah does not love those who do wrong.” (Qur’an, 3:57) He also says, “Allah does not love any vain and arrogant person.” (Qur’an, 31:18) He also says, “Allah does not love any utterly ungrateful and sinful person.” (Qur’an, 2:276) Those who receive Allah Most High’s vengeance–in the meaning that I have just described above–are those who Allah Most High does not love.
If you think about it, it should make sense that God does not love everyone–why else would He send people to the Hellfire? Would you really think it fair that a criminal who had mercilessly tortured and killed millions of other human beings should be someone who God loves and sends to Paradise?
Osama: We began our conversations with a discussion about the relevance and significance of religion; that made us realise that true religion is a path to felicity. This path to felicity, which we established as the purpose of our life in our second conversation, is the path to knowing, loving, and worshipping God. In this conversation, we’ve described what it’s like to be in true love, in other words, we’ve talked about what it means to fulfill our purpose. Now, from hereon, what do you think is the next step, where do we go from here? I would think that these discussions should spark within us the desire to know how to fulfill this purpose, and reach unto the love of the Divine.
Shaykh Hamza: Allah sent us Messengers to call us to Him, to call us to love Him, and to explain to us the way to loving Him.
When we worship Allah everyday, we pray five times a day, we recite surah al-fatihah, we praise Allah:
أَلْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ العَالَمِيْنَ
Praising Him is an expression of our love for Him.
We bring to mind His Mercy, this is again something that drives us to love Him.
مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّيْنِ اِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَاِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِيْنَ
The core of the Fatiha is asking Allah to show us the straight path.
What is the straight path? The straight path is the path of guidance.
The idea of a “path” is a common Qur’anic metaphor. I didn’t understand this metaphor until I started taking my sons on hikes in beautiful forests and canyons here in Jordan. When you enter a forest and you’re trying to find your way, then you are looking for a path to follow. What is a path? It is something that other people have walked on. It’s ground that you can see is well-trodden and then you can discern that people have walked here and it took them somewhere so you walk on the same path.
Sometimes when I go on hikes with my family, we say that we don’t need a guide and that we will figure out the way ourselves. When we do that, we often get lost because the path is sometimes not that clear. If you have a guide, the guide can show you where to go so that you don’t get lost.
Allah Most High calls His Prophets guides and He calls His Quran guidance. The Qur’an is, in other words, ia map that’s showing the way, and He calls the trajectory of our lives, the choices that we make He calls it a path, and so the guides are there to show us where to go. The path is a straight and wide path, and so it is very difficult to get lost; it is not veering this way or that; it doesn’t lead you into the bushes, and behind the trees — on such a path you can get lost.
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) came as a guide on a clear straight path, and our goal is to listen to him, to listen to revelation, to learn the beneficial religious knowledge that he brought.
Beneficial religious knowledge is knowledge that teaches us how to make choices in our lives that will help us reach the afterlife with felicity, that will help us love Allah and fulfill the purpose of our life.
The Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
I have left you on a clear, straight path, it is as clear at night as it is during the day. Nobody veers from it except somebody who is destroyed.
You have to be really bent on turning away from God to veer from the path; it is clear, the evidence is there: God exists, the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is the messenger of Allah, the path is here but we have to learn about it. That’s what the messengers came to teach us. Their teachings were preserved by the scholars who followed him.
That is why the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
العُلَمَاءُ وَرَثَةُ الأَنْبِيَاء
Scholars are the heirs of the prophets.
Prophets don’t leave behind money, dinars or dirhams, but they leave behind religious knowledge, so whoever takes religious knowledge has taken a great share.