What is love? How is it to be defined? Can it be defined? Can love really be put into words? There are profounder questions still for believers, like what is love of God? And how can we nurture God’s love in our hearts? In fact, to say that this is Man’s greatest existential question would, in all likelihood, be an absolute understatement; for such is its centrality to a life of true faith.
There has been a certain reluctance on the part of classical scholars when it comes to defining love (mahabbah). It is not that they haven’t tried, but that the definitions have tended to be causes, symptoms, effects or consequences of love, instead of love itself. A general description of love as mayl or “inclination” aside, some have felt that those who’ve attempted to define love have done so in terms of their own experiential taste, or dhawq; or to the extent of their own yearning for God, or shawq.
Such hesitancy is found in Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah who, when discussing the matter of love, chooses not to give his own definition, but instead lists thirty suggestions of others; noting how they are either incomplete definitions or they are descriptive of love’s consequences. The only definition to gain near acceptance (though not quite a definition) is a rather lyrical description from a young Junayd al-Baghdadi who speaks about the self-effacement of the lover of God in the worship and service of Him.
Thus, in winding-up his attempts at defining love, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah says: ‘The Thirtieth – being the most comprehensive of what is said about it: Abu Bakr al-Kattani related that a discussion concerning love took place in Makkah (may God, exalted is He, honour it) during the pilgrimage season. The shaykhs spoke about it, with Junayd being the youngest of them. They asked him: Tell us your opinion, O Iraqi? With his head bowed and his eyes filled with tears, he said: “When the servant is effaced from himself, united in his Lord’s remembrance, renders what is due to Him, and sees Him with his heart, then his heart is set ablaze by the lights of divine awe; and his drinking from the cup of divine love is made pure and the Compeller lifts the veil of the unseen to him. So when he speaks, he speaks through God. When he utters, he utters about God. When he moves, he moves by God’s bidding. When he is resting, he rests with God. So he is for God, by God and with God!” The shaykhs burst into tears, saying: What more can be said. May God reward you, O crown of the gnostics.’1
However one defines love, at its heart is the idea of ma‘rifat al-kamal – ‘recognising perfection’. One of the great doors for man to nurture a deep and abiding love of God is appreciation of God’s acts of kindness and beneficence to His creation. ‘Hearts,’ it has been said, ‘have been created with a natural disposition to love those who do good to them.’ As this appreciation deepens, the lover is lead to a still greater door: the door of ma‘rifat al-kamal – recognition of God’s utter beauty and perfection in terms of His acts (af‘al), attributes (sifat) and essence (dhat). In one celebrated hadith, we read: ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty.’2 Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah writes:
‘The greatest way of knowing God is to know the Lord via His beauty, transcendent is He: which is how the elite from creation know Him. The rest know Him through one of His attributes, while the most perfect of them know Him by way of His perfection, awe and beauty – [while affirming that] there is nothing that even remotely resembles Him in terms of attributes. Now if, for argument’s sake, all the creation had beautiful forms, then the most beautiful of them (inwardly and outwardly), when compared to the Lord’s beauty, would be dimmer than the dimmest candlelight as compared to the blazing radiance of the sun. It suffices [to know] about His beauty that “If He were to remove the veil from His Face, the splendour of His countenance would consume His creation as far as His gaze extends.”3 It [also] suffices that every beauty, inner or outer, in this world or the Afterlife, is His handiwork. What then of the beauty of the Creator of such handiwork?’4
He also said: ‘Thus, His names are all beautiful. His attributes are all perfect. And His acts are all wise, beneficial, just and compassionate. As for the beauty of His essence and what it is like, then it is something known only to Him; no other knows it. None of His creatures possesses any knowledge of it, except that some whom He honours are given some acquaintance of it … Indeed, a servant progresses from knowledge of the divine acts, to knowing the divine attributes; and from knowledge of the divine attributes, to knowing [something about] the divine essence. Whenever he witnesses anything of the beauty of the divine acts, he infers from it the beauty of the divine attributes; and from the beauty of the divine attributes, he infers from it the beauty of the divine essence.’5
Such is the significance of ma‘rifat al-kamal, that in almost every verse of the Majestic Qur’an there is mention of God’s beautiful acts and perfect attributes. For God wants the recognition of His perfection so that it leads to the love of His very essence; that is, to the love of Him.
1. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 3:447-8.
2. Muslim, no.91.
3. As reported in Muslim, no.293.
4. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 264.
5. ibid., 265-66.