People can mean quite different things when they speak of love. For some, love means desire, passion or lust: it is often used as a byword for self-gratification. To some, love is compassion, mercy, tenderness. To others, it is soppy, sugary, gooey sentimentality. For others still, it is devotion, longing and yearning.
Then there is passionate love and platonic love. There is love between friends; love of family; love among brothers in arms; and love for the family pet.
So the answer to whether or not God loves everyone, or only certain people, is tied to what we mean by “love”. The Qur’an speaks of two types of love, as it relates to God: a general, all-encompassing love; the other, a more exclusive love. The two types of love are expressed by the following Arabic terms respectively: rahmah and hubb.
One of God’s Names is al-Wadud – “the Loving”, “the Affectionate”. He is Forgiving, the Loving, states the Qur’an [85:14] From a general perspective, God loves everyone in the sense of rahmah – His loving mercy, care, kindness and compassion. Indeed, after the two Shahadahs – the two “Testimonies” of Faith – the formula most frequently on the lips of a Muslim is the Basmalah – “In the Name of God, All-Merciful (al-Rahman), the Compassionate (al-Rahim)” – and it is with this formula that every chapter or surah of the Qur’an (excepting one) commences. The Qur’an says about God: He has prescribed mercy upon Himself. [6:12] An almost identical expression of God inscribing mercy on Himself – kataba ‘ala nafsihi’l-rahmah – is repeated again later: Your Lord has prescribed mercy upon Himself. [6:54] That no other divine attribute has been described like this in the Qur’an is indeed revealing about God’s nature.
In Arabic, rahmah is formed from the three consonants r-h-m, which have the primary meaning of “womb”. This indicates the maternal nature of God’s mercy, as it were, in that it nurtures and protects the helpless human creature in its gentle embrace. Once, on seeing a mother frantically search for her lost child and then, on finding it, clasped the babe to her chest, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘God is more merciful to His creation than that mother is to her child.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5999; Muslim, no.2754]
Muslim exegists and theologians tell us that al-Rahman is an eternal attribute of God, and circumscribes the quality of mercy inherent in, and inseparable from, the Divine Essence. Al-Rahim, on the other hand, refers to an aspect of God’s acts, signifying the manifestation of that mercy in, and its effects upon, the entire creation.1
Painting it in more picturesque terms, it has been said that al-Rahman is like the clear blue sky, calm and peaceful and full of light, that stretches over us and over all things; while al-Rahim is like the warm rays of light coming from that sky, bathing the lives of individuals and events, and animating the earth and all life upon it. The sun shines for all; the rain falls for all. The rays of God’s loving compassion, kindness and care touch everything and everyone: Muslim and non-Muslim, saint and sinner. God says in the Qur’an: My mercy embraces all things. [7:156]
Further insight into the divine mercies offers itself in the following hadith: ‘God made mercy into one-hundred parts. He withheld ninety-nine parts and sent down one part to earth. It is because of that one part that creatures show mercy to one another, such that a mare will lift her hoof over her foal, for fear she may cause it harm.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6000] In another narration: ‘God has kept back ninety-nine parts of this mercy for His worshippers on the Day of Resurrection.’ [Muslim, no.2752] Here again we find rahmah, mercy, not in the sense of forgiveness shown to someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm (although that is one of its meanings), but as lovingness, kindness, compassion and protecting care – in other words, loving mercy. Interestingly, in Aramaic and Syriac, r-h-m as a root, and rahmah its derivative, signify love, rather than mercy.
The hadith concerning ninety-nine mercies reveals to us something else about the divine rahmah, which is that the greater part of it is reserved for believers (mu’minun) in the Afterlife. Going back to the Basmalah formula, our scholars have explained that Rahman and Rahim are both intensive forms of rahmah, with a distinction between the two. The first denotes comprehensive mercy which brings things into existence, then provides, protects and cares for them. While the second denotes selective mercy reaching those who accept faith and bring the will to worship God.2 Which brings us nicely on to the second type of love:
Not withstanding other words in the Qur’an that depict love (like mahabbah, wudd, rahmah, mawaddah and also lutf), the second type of love is hubb. God, as mentioned at the start, only has love, in terms of hubb, for the believers: Upon those who believe and work righteousness, the All-Merciful shall bestow love. [19:96] In contrast to such a comforting declaration, the Qur’an says: God loves not the disbelievers. [3:32] To be clear then, God’s love in terms of rahmah is impartial, universal and unconditional, while God’s specific love in the sense of hubb is conditional on faith in Him, love of Him and acceptance of His will.
Christians, and others beside, tend to assume that since Islam advocates inna’Llaha la yuhibbu’l-kafirin – that “God does not love the disbelievers” – this says something very unbecoming about God. For how can the One true God not love His creation. But as the post hopefully shows, the assumption is wrong and rests on not recognising the distinctions between the various shades of love embedded in the Quranic language. It seems to me that if we Muslims wish ourselves and our faith to be better understood, the critical question about God’s loves, as depicted by the Qur’an, must be articulated in a far better, nuanced and broader manner. Indeed, it is the right of non-Muslims to hear such nuances; and the call to Abrahamic monotheism demands from us nothing less. Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. See: al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 1:3.
2. Consult: al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 1:74.