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The Gaze of Love is Something Else

Irshaad Hussain's resourceful website Islam from Inside recently published an inspiring talk by Professor William Chittick, one of the most prominent scholar of Islamic Mysticism of our time, may God accept his beautiful service. Delivered at the Carleton University, this fascinating talk explores the theme of "The Role of Love in the Qur'anic Worldview" and trust me, its one of the best discourse you can ever hear pregnant with many signposts on the path of ma'arifa (gnosis) of God and Love.

The talk centers around a ubiquitously well known verse in the Qur'an: yu Hibbu hum wa yuhibboona Hu, "He loves them, and they love Him." It's a verse which Chittick has touched upon again and again in his many works and which he turns to with a more focused intent in this particular lecture.

As I listened to the discourse, I transcribed few selections which I share here, but at the same time I strongly recommend to listen to the talk in full.The audio link is provided at the end of this post.

Professor Chittick begins his lecture by mentioning how a statement by Shams e Tabriz, the famous spiritual master of Rumi caught his attention while he was studying this enigmatic personality. Shams e Tabrizi said "Quran is Ishq-e-Nama, a Love Book".

Now most people who read the Quran, specially now a days may be don't get that expression. So William C. Chittick worked through the worldview that Shams lived in and what kind of notion allowed him to say something like that.

Shams e Tabrizi explains

Most people dont see Quran as a Book of Love. Shams e Tabrizi explains why so many people fail to understand that the Quran is the Book of Love. He says, "The flaw is that people do not look at God with the gaze of Love. They look at Him with the gaze of learning, or the gaze of science, or the gaze of philosophy. The gaze of Love is something else." According to Shams in order to see that the Quran is a Book of Love, we need to look at God with the gaze of Love; not the gaze of jurisprudence, not the gaze of engineering, not with the gaze of neurobiology.

But what exactly is Love?

For us now a days it is an emotion typically understood through the lens of biology or physiology as one of the many phenomena of human situation, a by product of biological processes or social forces. But this, from Islamic point of view, is to begin at the bottom, rather than the top. Rumi contrast the top view with the bottom view in the verse, he says, "For the elect Love is a tremendous eternal light. For the common people love is a form of sensuality."

So in the Quranic worldview Love is identical with the eternal light of God. In order to understand Love we need to begin at the top, with the Divine Reality Itself. Once we know that God is Love and then we hear that God created man in His own image, then we should be able to understand .. if we grasp the reality of Love, we might understand the role of Love in human affairs in the entire universe. 

Two Axioms of Unity
To see how Love fits into the Quranic worldview you got to go back to Quran's basic teachings. The most basic of all of these can be boiled down to two axioms, first "there is god but God"; second "Muhammad is God's Messenger." They are known as Shahada or bearing witness, the witnessing and the Shahada is the first act of muslim practice.

Now when you look at the sentence, "there is no god but God" taken on its own, its called the formula of Tawhid. Tawhid means 'asserting the Unity of God'. Its the first principal of Islamic faith.  A typical way to understand God as He presents Himself in the Quran is to place any Name of God mentioned by the Quran.

For example, the Quran says: God is Living, Alive. What does it mean?

This mean that there is nothing alive but God, there is no true life but God's Life and the life that we experience is in fact not true life. If it were true life there would be no death or deaths.

The Quran says that God is Knowing. This means no one truly knows but God. Our knowledge is infact ignorance, masquerading as knowledge. What little knowledge we may have is a gift from God. As the Quran says, "they encompass nothing of His knowledge save as He wills." The Quran says that there is no true reality but God's reality and everything other than God is derived from the Reality of God, always and forever. So that's the first axiom, Tawhid.

The second axiom is "Muhammad is God's Messenger" which also means that Quran is God's message and part of this message I remind you is that God sent Prophets to all human beings, from the time of Adam to the time of Muhammad. Adam was the first Prophet.

So the Quran provides us two basic axioms about the nature of things. First, 'no reality but Supreme Reality', second, 'human beings get access to that Reality only by the Prophetic reality and Scriptures or Messages.'

Creative Command and Religious Command
One of many ways the Quran talks about this dual perspective is in terms of two source of Divine Commandments (Amr) issued by God. The first is called the Creative Command (example, 'and God brings the universe into existence'), the second source is often called the Religious Command, by means of theis second sort of command, God issues instruction.

Example of Creative Command, 'When He desires a thing, His command is Be, and it comes into being.' This Command is eternal and its outside of time and God is always bestowing existence.

By means of the Religious Command, God issues instruction, the ten commandments for example. Notice that implicit in the notion of Religious Command is the idea of free will. The religious command is directed at those who have the capacity to accept or reject it. Those who follow the Command is called abdal or servant, servants of God.

The most obvious way in which the Creative Command differs from Religious Command, is in this question of free will. People are free to obey or disobey the Religious Command, but no  one can disobey the Creative Command. From the point of Religious Command, only those who obey are called servants. From the standpoint of the Creative Command, everything is God's servant by definition because God is constantly creating everything with the eternal word, "Be".

We have two sorts of servant in keeping with the two source of commands. First sort are Compulsory Servants, everything in the universe fits into that category. The second sorts are Voluntary Servants, who are also Compulsory Servants but in addition they freely chose to follow the Religious Commands.

The Creative Command is a direct consequence of Tawhid, there is no god but God; there is no creator but God, there is no reality but God, there is nothing that bestows being but God. The statement of tawhid explains the nature of state that God alone is truly Real and everything else is contingent. And He commands things to be and they are. The Religious Command is a direct consequence or corollary of the second half of the shahada, 'Muhammad is God's Messenger'. God's act of sending Prophets brings the Religious Command into existence.

So the Quranic Worldview distinguishes between the realm of being, which is the actual situation of all of reality and the realm of religion in which people are instructed to recognize the fact that they are in fact compulsory servants of God and people are requested to employ the freewill that they have, as little that may be, the freewill they perceive in themselves, they are requested to employ that freewill in appropriate ways, ways appropriate to their servanthood.


Let me go back to Love and show you what is the connection. In the Quranic Worldview, Love is a single reality, it has different implications depending on how we look at it. From the stand point of Tawhid, Quran's basic axiom, Love motivates the Creative Command.

Why God created universe? Out of Love.

From the standpoint of Prophecy, Love brings the Religious Command into existence. Why did God sent Prophets? Out of Love.

Now, then what exactly is Love?

First, I won't be so fool as to try to define Love, Anyone who has been in Love, knows that Love is indefinable. If its true about human love, its much more true about Divine Love. In Islamic text, almost no one  tries to define Love, because its too close to Being Itself, because its too close to Reality Itself, beyond our understanding.

Nonetheless, numerous books have been written describing the symptoms of the consequences of Love.  Its all yearning. One of the more common ways to sum up the implications of love is to say that Love is yearning for union. The point is very clear. Lovers want to be together. When you are in love, you want togetherness. As a working definition of what Love implies - its a  good one. Its often cited.

At the outset, it seems to me that Quran makes ten basic points about Love. Now the first of these I have already referred to and its simply that God Himself is identical with Love. When the Quran talks about God as Love, the words used: Wud and Hubb, both of them in theology is considered as synonyms. In the usual lists of Divine Names, the 99 Names is al-Wadud is given as a Name of God, from Wud. Al-Wadud - grammatically it means Lover and it also means Beloved. One of those Arabic forms that have both an active participle and a passive participle.

There is no Lover but God and there is none Beloved but God

So that Name which is used in the Quran means that there is no lover but God and there is none Beloved but God. Briefly, God alone is True Lover and God alone is Truly worthy of Love. Thats the basic significance of this Name. Now if we look at God in terms of Himself, as theology does all the time, to say that God is both Lover and Beloved, also means that God is identical to Love Itself.

One of the earliest arabic book of Love from theological and sufic mixed perspective its said, "the root of Love is that God is eternally described by Love. God Loves Himself, for Himself, in Himself. Here Lover, Beloved and Love are a Single thing without division for He is Unity Itself and in Unity things are not distinct."

So the most basic Quranic teachings about Love is that God is identical with Love. Given the fact that God is One, that Love is His own Love for Himself. But the moment we take the universe into existence, we have a different picture, its more complicated. The Quran refers to some of the implications, once we have the universe... in a verse which is quoted more than any other verses about Love. There are lots of verses about Love but this one is the key to much discussion. This is the verse that everyone comes back to. The verse says basically, Yu Hubbuhum, wa yuhubbuna Hu.

"He loves them and they love Him."

Four Issues
If you analyze the statement closely, the way its done in traditional text, we have four basic statements. First, 'He loves' - means God is a lover, 'He loves them', means human beings in the context of its object, are God's beloved. The third statement, 'human beings are God's lovers'; and the fourth statement is 'God is the object of their Love'. There are four issues going on here.

If we look at these four statements, are these referring to the Creative Command or are they referring the Religious Command or are they referring to the both Commands? The text maintain that they are referring to both Commands. Here it says, "He Loves them" and its God’s eternal Word. Given that God is Eternal and Unchanging,  His love for human beings are also Eternal and Unchanging.

God loves us long before we were even created. To say this however doesn't mean that human love for is eternal, because God's love for us precedes our existence. But Love, when we use that word, we have in mind usually a two way street. So God's Eternal Love motivated Him to create the universe so there would be someone to Love Him in return.

In the Quran, God's love for the universe and human beings, this Creative Love, is most often called the Rahma, Mercy, Compassion.  The basic meaning of this word Rahma, Mercy (derived from RAHM meaning Womb) is mother's love for her children. There are number of sayings of the Prophet which confirm this understanding. For example the Prophet said, 'Surely God is more merciful towards His servant than a mother is for her child.'

Notice here that this saying can be read, should be read and the reference to God’s love for all things, for all things  in the universe are God’s servants. The Quran makes this point explicitly by associating the universal servanthood of all things with the Name All Merciful, ar Rahman.

The Quran says, "there is no one in the heaven and in the earth that does not come to the All Merciful as servant." Commentaries of the Quran commonly explains that the Name All Merciful, ar Rahman designates in as much as He loves all beings without exception, whereas Ever Merciful (ar Rahim) refers to specific sort of Love. Mercy is a kind of Love, but Mercy and Love are not synonymous. The basic distinction between the two is that Love is Mutual, Mercy only goes one way. God Loves human being, human being can love Him back.

Do human beings have mercy, yes they have. It comes with the Divine Image, but it should be given others. Mercy is a quality which is due to other creatures like ourselves.

Beauty, Jamal and Husna

This verse of mutual verse that 'He loves them' - God's Love is directed specifically to human beings. In this discussion of the object of Love, typically brings in the issue of Beauty, Jamal and Husna.

Beauty like Love is impossible to define, though we all have some idea of what it means. In Islamic text Beauty is typically explained as that which attracts Love, that which is Lovable. People love things because they find them beautiful. But this not an accessory of biology or psychology but rather of direct consequence of Creative Command.

The Prophet expressed the divine root of Love in a very famous saying, "God is Beautiful and He Loves Beauty." So Beauty is there to Love in imitation of God. Now if God is Beautiful, the formula of Tawhid that there is nothing beautiful but God. When God loves, He is loving Beauty. He alone is truly Beautiful, so He is Loving His own Beauty. He loves His own Beauty first by Loving it in Itself and second by Loving it in created things as its reflected in creation. The Quran says, "God is described by the Most Beautiful Names (al-asmaul husna) ." In addressing mankind, the Quran says, "God formed you and He made your form beautiful."

When that verse of mutual love says "God loves them" - it means that God is Loving His own Beauty, reflected in the forms of human beings.

Islamic anthropology, the Islamic notion of human nature is founded on this two parallel statements, one is God Loves Beauty, the other is God Loves them, human being. God Loves human being because they encapsulate and reflect the totality of the divine beauty - that is all the perfections designated by God's Most  Beautiful Names. Human beings alone were created in God's all comprehensive Beauty. They alone were taught all the Names - according to Quran.

The verse of mutual Love says, they Love Him. The human beings Love Him. If your read this in terms of Creative Command, this means that human beings were created to be Lovers. They can not avoid being Lovers. At the same time there is no longer but God, Tawhid. So the root and source of human love is God's Love.

Rumi, among others frequently talks about  human love as the reflection of God's Love in the world. "They Love Him", this means not simply that people love by definition, but also people love God by definition.  They Can not NOT love God and they can not in fact love anything else because all others are the Signs of God, the Manifestations of God, the Creations of God. All things are manifestation of His Beauty. They are the traces and properties of His Most Beautiful Names, so when you love something, you are loving His beauty in reflected form.

If people don't recognize that 'there is no Beloved but God' and if they don't accept that they are servants of All Merciful by definition - this is simply because, as the Quran puts it, "Adam forgot". People have inherited their father's forgetfulness.

And this is precisely in Islamic view, why God sent Prophets. So this brings us to the role of Religious Command. Up until now, Love is built into the Universe, there is no escape from it. From the stand point of Creative Command, God said "Be" out of Love for creatoin. From the stand point of Religious Command, this same Love motivated God to remind people 'who they are' by sending the Prophets. And the role of the Prophets is to bring guidance so that people can recognize God and Love Him in return.

Just as God's Creative Love is identical with the all comprehensive Divine Mercy (ar Rahman), God's Guiding Love is identical with a specific kind of Mercy (ar Rahim) directed towards those who live upto to the innate Beauty of their soul.    

In terms of the Creative Command, God loves human beings unconditional. In terms of Religious Command, His Love is conditioned. The Quran refers to the conditionality of Love and this verse which is addressed to Muhammad, "Say Muhammad, if you Love God, then follow me, and God will Love you."  Although God Loves you in any case, if you want God to Love you even more, then you have to follow Muhammad.

This specific verse provides the rational for Islamic practices for the sunnah (way of the Prophet) simply because Prophet is embodied with the beautiful character traits of the divine. So the Quran says, "You have a beautiful example in God's Messenger." The fact that God's Messenger is Beautiful, is sufficient proof that God Loves Him. So Muhammad should be followed because He is God's beloved (habib Allah). If people do follow him,  they also can become worthy of God's Love. (From the talk by William C. Chittick, draft  and partial transcription)

Download the Discourse: The Role of Love in the Qur'anic Worldview

Chittick's lectures are a delight to attend as he weaves beautifully insightful tapestries of traditional Islamic thought in a very expressive manner. He also has a delightful sense of humor that comes through in his physical expressiveness and his turn of phrase.You may download the talk from the links below as highlighted:

.. Shorter Mp4 version, Only Talk
.. Longer Mp3 version, with Questions and Answers

About: Professor William C. Chittick

William C. Chittick is a leading translator and interpreter of classical Islamic philosophical and mystical texts. He is best known for his groundbreaking work on Rumi and Ibn 'Arabi, and has written extensively on the school of Ibn 'Arabi, Islamic philosophy, Shi'ism, and Islamic cosmology. Born in Milford Connecticut, Chittick finished his BA at the College of Wooster in Ohio, and then went on to complete a PhD in Persian literature at Tehran University under the supervision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr in 1974.

 "[Chittick’s] books will always remain most important milestones in the study of Islamic mystical theology." - Annemarie Schimmel, author and scholar on Islam and Sufism

".. The range and authenticity of [Chittick’s] books have no parallel in the list of English-language books on Islamic spirituality." - Frederick M. Denny, University of Colorado

. William Chittick’s life and work 
. Professor Chittick Page at Stony Brook Univesity



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Technology of the Heart: The Gaze of Love is Something Else
The Gaze of Love is Something Else
Technology of the Heart
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