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The Lost Jihad: Love in Islam

To understand someone you have to "get" where they're coming from. Their background, values, their history. To appreciate the depth of the Qur'anic message also requires a lesson in the history of its creation, and its Arabic language.

A few years back I bought Adhaf Soueif's The Map of Love, a beautifully written story of British imperialism affecting a gorgeous but politically unsettled Egypt. Adhaf uses Arabic language frequently and there was one line that I liked: a love that overthrows, simply for its poetic meaning. Researching a little deeper, I found a great grammatical explanation by G. Willow Wilson, comparing this love, hubb, and Islam's definitions of love with Christianity, following Adhaf's metaphor. Read on.

“At the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow,” 
wrote Egyptian author Adhaf Soueif in her Booker-nominated novel The Map of Love. She was indulging in a very beautifully written digression about Arabic grammar, comparing words derived from the same root: in this case, qalb, ‘heart’; and enqilab, ‘overthrow’. At this level, where the interplay of meaning and construction is visible, Arabic becomes an extraordinary language, forcing into cooperation concepts and ideas that are entirely unrelated in English.

Despite the tremendous conceptual range and utility provided by the root-and-pattern system of the Arabic language, I have always been disappointed by what I believed to be the absence of an equivalent for a word I particularly admire: agape, a Greek term used by Christians to mean the boundary-less, self-sacrificing love between believers, or between a believer and God. More ardent than filia, less explicit than eros, agape is love stripped of expectation, in which the lover is humbled and disciplined before the beloved.

There are many words for ‘love’ in Arabic: hubb, the catch-all, is equivalent to the English ‘love’, which can be turned toward spouses, parents, children, favorite foods and books, favorite places. The rest, however, are implicitly romantic: ‘ishq, the union of lover and beloved; hayam, love that causes one to wander in distraction; gharam, love so intense it causes pain. The list goes on. But love that originates in spiritual bliss, in the restraint and desire to serve that it inspires; there seemed no word for it in Arabic, and without a word for it in Arabic, there seemed no place for it in Islam. Running a Google search for ‘agape’ and ‘Islam’ yields literally hundreds of Christian sites claiming as much, and painting Islam as a cold, dispassionate religion in its absence.

Over the years, Sufi Muslims have co-opted many of the romantic Arabic words for love and made them serve an ideal very like agape: Rumi feels hayam for the absent Shams; al Ghazali explores ‘ishq as the union between a worthy believer and a higher Beloved, Allah.

The poetry of 10th and 11th-century Sufis helped inspire the troubadour culture and ideals of courtly love that flourished in the medieval kingdoms of southern France, Navarre and Aragonne; one of the positive artistic developments to arise from contact between Christian Europe and the Muslim Near East during the Crusades. But many of the greatest Sufi thinkers, including al Ghazali, were themselves influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic [Gnostic Christian] ideals of love, kept alive in the medieval Middle East by the translation of Greek, Roman and Byzantine texts into Arabic and Persian.

The question remains: we know the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) meant Muslims to love and serve God, but did he mean them to be in love with God — and to reflect this love and service among each other?

Recently I revived my search for agape in Islam. This time, I met with more success: not only is there an agape-like word in Arabic, there is a word for agape itself — with the same non-specific ‘boundary-less’ connotation as the Greek word, and used contextually in the same way. Better yet, it is entirely original; not borrowed, adapted, or modeled on a word from another language.

The Arabic word for agape is mahabba, and it is fascinating for two reasons: one, because it comes from hubb — but in its feminine form. Two, because of the prefix ma. Adding the letter meem (م) to the beginning of a word in Arabic means ‘one who is/does’, ‘that which is/does’, or ‘in a state of’ the word that follows it. Junun is mad, and majnun is ‘one who is mad’ or ‘in a state of madness’; baraka is a blessing, and mubarak is ‘one who is blessed’ or ‘in a state of blessedness’; Islam is submission, and Muslim is ‘one who submits’ or ‘in a state of submission’.

Thus, mahabba is quite literally ‘in love’, but it is rarely used in an erotic sense. It can describe either love among people or love for the divine, and is used most commonly in a spiritual context in both cases. Implicit in mahabba is service; the lover puts the beloved at the center of the discourse, and submits to his/her demands. Author Fethullah Gulen describes mahabba as “obedience, devotion and unconditional submission” to the beloved, quoting Sufi saint Rabi’a al-Adawiya’s couplet,
‘If you were truthful in your love, you would obey Him/for a lover obeys whom he loves’. 
While it is, again, primarily Sufis who have propagated the ideal of mahabba over the centuries, the word and the concept have roots in mainstream Islamic tradition: verse 3:31 of the Qur’an is sometimes called ‘Ayat ul’Mahabba’, and reads,
“Say: if you do love Allah, follow me, and Allah will love you...” (Qur'an, 3:31)
Even ibn Taymiyya, said of this verse (warning: PDF, and in French), “There can be no clearer recognition of mahhaba than this, and this recognition in itself increases love for Allah. And people have discussed (at length) about mahhaba: its causes, its signs, its fruits, its supports and rulings.”

A hadith qudsi included in the Muwatta of Imam Malik is even more explicit:
“God said, ‘My love [mahabbati] necessarily belongs to those who love one another [mutahabinna] for My sake, sit together for My sake, visit one another for My sake, and give generously to one another for My sake’.”
Mahabba differs from agape in one crucial respect: because serving and approaching the beloved is a form of ongoing personal struggle, mahabba is a form of jihad. A far cry from the violent and indiscriminate ‘small jihad’ preached by militants, mahabba is a form of al jihad al kabir, the greater jihad, or jihad against one’s own ego. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that in an age of lesser jihad mahabba has fallen out of practice and almost out of memory; so universally neglected that when Islam is accused of lacking a concept of divine brotherhood, few Muslims have the intellectual wherewithal to protest.

But Adhaf Soueif is right: at the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow. The struggle to serve God out of love, and one another out of love, is the jihad of human potential against the jihad of violent ideology; if resurrected, it has the power to change the world.

From {Eteraz} *edited
Image {flickr}

Read the work of author Ahdaf Soueif

Book to buy: Why Things Matter To People, by Andrew Sayer
The Pursuit Of Happiness
Learning Sign Language
Link Love: The Quranic Arabic Corpus
My Sister's Nasiha


  1. Wow, what an eye-opening piece! Thanks so much for shairng this. My Amma is a big Sufi fan herself :-) She knows a lot of the stories;  I recently discovered that I had loved this nasheed written by Rabi'a al Adawiya, who is one of the saints that my mom recounted the story of to me recently. Here is the beautiful video, uploaded by Muslimness' own Br. Shahraiz :-) :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2Xz2HOmgPE&list=FLfkoc9HEwxzTwPuKy9N4BnA&index=32

  2. JazakAllah khair for this wonderful piece . . . Muhabbat is al-Jihad al-Kabir :) so very true :)

  3. Masha'Allah - an excellent write up on the topic of "Mahabbah" - I was just wondering if you heard of the word "to be enraptured" - "Majdhub". I guess that has the meaning of when the Divine overwhelm the servant and he becomes lost in the Divine Presence. :)


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