The Love of God and Its Signs

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The Love of God and Its Signs  (1921) 
by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī, translated by Syed Nawab Ali
Translated in 1921 as part of Some Religious and Moral Teachings.
The Love of God and Its Signs[1]

Love of God is the highest stage of our soul’s progress and her summum bonum. Repentance, patience, piety, and other virtues are all preliminary steps. Although rare these qualities are found in true devotees and the commonality, though devoid of them, at any rate believe in them. Love of God is not only very rare: the possibility of it is doubted, even by some Ulamas who call it simply service. For, in their opinion love exists amongst species of the same kind, but God being ultra-mundane and not of our kind, His love is an impossibility and hence the much talked of ecstatic states of the “true lovers of God” are mere delusions. As this is far from truth and impedes the progress of the soul, by spreading false notions, we shall briefly discuss the subject. First we shall quote passages from the Quran and the Hadith testifying to the existence of the love of God.

‘O you who believe, whosoever from among you turns back from his religion, then Allah will bring a people: He shall love them, and they shall love him, lowly before the believers, mightily against the unbelievers, they shall strive hard in Allah’s way and shall not fear the censure of any censurer: this is Allah’s grace, He gives it to whom He pleases and Allah is ample-giving, knowing.”[2]

“And there are some among men who take for themselves objects of worship besides Allah, whom they love. Allah and those who believe are stronger in love of Allah.”[3] These passages not only refer to the existence of the love of God but point to the difference in degree. The Prophet has taught us that the love of God is one of the conditions of faith. “None among you shall be a believer until he loves Allah and his apostle more than anything else.”[4]

True, as the Quran says “If your fathers and your sons and your brethren and your mates and your kinsfolk and property which you have acquired and trade, the dullness of which you fear, and dwellings which you like, are dearer to you than Allah and His apostle and striving in His way, then wait till Allah brings about His command, and Allah does not guide the transgressing people.”[5]

A man came to the Prophet and said: “I love thee, O Apostle of God”. “Be ready for poverty.” replied the Prophet. “And I love Allah”, said the man. “Prepare to face tribulations”[6] replied the Prophet. The following tradition is narrated by the Khalif Omar: The Prophet one day saw Masah, son of Umair coming to him with a lambskin round his loins. “Look” said the Prophet to his companions, “how God has illumined his heart’. I have seen him living in ease and well provided by his parents but now the love of Allah and His apostle has wrought a change in him.”[7]

The Prophet used to pray thus: “My God, give me thy love and the love of him who loves thee and the love of that action which will bring me nearer to thee and make thy love sweeter than cold water to the thirsty”.[8]

“Verily Allah loves those who repent and those who purify themselves.”[9] Say “If you love Allah, then follow me. Allah will love you and forgive you your faults, and Allah is forgiving, merciful”.[10] We have said before that love means yearning towards a desired object and that beneficence and beauty, whether perceived or conceived, equally attract our hearts. But in using the word love for God, no such meaning is possible as it implies imperfection. God’s love towards men is the love of His own work. Someone read the following verse of the Quran: “He loves them and they love him” in front of Shaikh Abu Said of Mohanna, who interpreted it saying: “He loves Himself because he alone exists. Surely an author who likes himself; his love is limited to his self. God’s love means the lifting the veil from the heart of His servant, so that he might gaze at Him. It also means drawing him close to Himself. Let us give an illustration. A king permits some of his slaves to approach his presence, not because he requires them but because the slaves possess or are acquiring certain qualities which are worthy of being displayed before the royal presence. This privilege, this lifting of the veil, brings us nearer to the conception of God’s love. But it must be remembered that approaching the divine presence should entirely exclude the idea of space, for then it would imply change in Him, which is absurd. Divine proximity means the attainment of godly virtues by abstaining from the promptings of the flesh and hence it implies approach from the point of view of quality and not of space. For example, two persons meet together either when both of them proceed towards each other or one is stationary and the other starts and approaches him. Again a pupil strives to come up to the level of his teacher’s knowledge, who is resting in his elevated position. His uphill journey towards knowledge keeps him restless, and he climbs higher and higher till he catches a glimpse of the halo which surrounds his master’s countenance. The nature of divine proximity resembles this inward journey of the pupil; that is, the more a man acquires insight into the nature of things, and by subjugating his passions leads the life of righteousness, the nearer will he be coming to his lord. But it must be remembered that a pupil may equal his teacher, even be greatear than he, but as regards divine proximity, no such equality is possible. God’s love means that which purifies the heart of his servant in a manner that he may be worthy of being admitted before his holy presence.

It may be asked: “How can we know that God loves a certain person?” My answer is that there are signs which bear testimony to it. The Prophet says: When God loves his servant, He sends tribulations, and when He loves him most he severs his connection from everything. Some one said to Jesus: “Why do you not buy a mule for yourself”? Jesus answered: “My God will not tolerate that I should concern myself with a mule”. Another saying of Mohammed is reported thus: When God loves any of His servants He sends tribulations, if he patiently bears them, he is favoured, and if he cheerfully faces them, he is singled out as chosen of God. Surely it is this joyous attitude of his mind whether evil befalls him or good, that is the chief sign of love. Such minds are providentially taken care of in their thoughts and deeds and in all their dealings with men. The veil is lifted and they live in wrapped communion.

As for the signs of a man’s love for God, let it be borne in mind that every body claims His love, but few really love Him. Beware of self-deception; verify your statement by introspection. Love is like a tree rooted in the ground sending its shoots above the starry heaven; its fruits are found in the heart, the tongue and the limbs of the lover-in fact his whole self is a witness to love just as smoke is a sure sign of fire burning.

Let us, then, trace the signs which are found in the true lover.

Death is a pleasure to him, for it removes the barrier of body and lets the fluttering soul free to soar and sing in the blissful abode of his beloved. Sufyan Thauri and Hafi used to say: “He who doubts dislikes death, beause a friend will never dislike meeting a friend”.[11]

A certain Sufi asked a hermit whether he wished for death, but he gave no answer. Then the Sufi said to him: “Had you been a true hermit you would have liked death. The Quran says: If the future abode with Allah is especially for you to the exclusion of the people, then invoke death if you are truthful. They will never wish it on account of what their hands have sent on before, and Allah knows the unjust”.[12] The hermit replied: “But the Prophet says: ‘Do not wish for death”. “Then you are suffering”, said the Sufi, “because acquiescence in divine decree is better than trying to escape it”.

It may be asked here: Can he who does not like death be God’s lover? Let us consider first the nature of his dislike. It is due to his attachment to the worldly objects, wife, children, and so forth, but it is possible that with this attachment, which no doubt comes in the way of his love of God there may be some inclination towards His love, because there are degrees of His love. Or it may be that his dislike is due to his feeling of unpreparedness in the path of love. He would like to love more so that he might be able to purify himself just as a lover hearing of his beloved’s arrival would like to be given some time for making preparations for a fitting reception. For these reasons if a devotee dislikes death, he can still be His lover, though of inferior type.

He should prefer, both inwardly and outwardly God’s pleasure to his desires. For he who follows the dictates of his desires is no true lover, for the true lover’s will is his beloved’s. But human nature is so constituted that such selfless beings are very rare. Patients would like to be cured but they often eat things which are injurious to their health. Similarly, a person would like to love God but very often follows his own impulses. Naaman was a sinner, who being repeatedly excused by the Prophet was at last flogged. While he was being flogged a certain person cursed him for his iniquity. “Do not curse him”, said he “he has a regard for God and his apostle”.

Experience tells us that he who loves loves the things connected with his beloved. Therefore another sure sign of God’s love is the love of his creatures who are created by and are dependent on him; for he who loves an author or poet, will he not love his work or poem? But this stage is reached when the lover’s heart is immersed in love and the more he is absorbed in Him, the more will he love His creatures, so much so that even the objects which hurt him will not be disliked by him - in fact the problem of evil is transcended in his love for him.

It may be objected here that it follows that he loves the evil-doers and sinners. But a deep insight into the nature of such love shows that he loves them as creatures of God, but at the same time hates their actions which are contrary to the command of his beloved. If this point is lost sight of, people are apt to be misguided in their love or hatred of His creatures. If they show their love towards any sinner, let it be in pure compassion, and not any sense of taking the sin lightly. Similarly their hatred should proceed from the consciousness of His stern law and justice and not from ruthless bigotry.

In one of the Hadisi-Qudsi[13] God has said: “My saints are those who cry like a child for my love, who remember me like a fearless lion at the sight of iniquities”.

A reverent attitude of mind is another sign of his love. Some hold that fear is opposed to love, but the truth is that just as the conception of beauty generates love, the knowledge of his sublime majesty produces the feeling of awe in us. Lovers meet with fears which are unknown to others.[14] There is the fear of being disregarded. There is fear of the veil being drawn down. There is the fear of their being turned away. When the Sura Hud was revealed, in which the awful doom of the wicked nations is narrated,: “Away with Samood, away with Midian,” the Prophet heaved a sigh and said: “This Sura has turned me into an old man.” He who loves His nearness will feel acutely the fear of being way from Him. There is another fear of remaining at a particular stage and not rising higher, for the ascending degrees of His nearness are infinite. A true lover is always trying to draw nearer and nearer to Him. “A thin veil covers my heart,” says the Prophet, “then I ask for His forgiveness seventy times in day and night.”[15] This means that the Prophet was always ascending the scales of his nearness, asking for His forgiveness at every stage which was found lower than the next one.

There is another fear of over confidence which slackens the efforts and mars progress. Hope with fear should be the guide of love. Some Sufis say that he who worships God without fear is liable to err and fall; he who worships him with fear turns gloomy and is cast off, but he who lovingly worships him with hope and fear is admitted by him and favoured. Therefore lovers should fear him and those who fear him should love him. Even excess of his love contains an inkling of fear: it is like salt in food. For human nature cannot bear the white heat of His love, if it is not chastened and tempered by the fear of the Lord.

Keeping love secret and giving no publicity to it is another sign of His love. For love is the beloved’s secret: it should not be revealed nor openly professed. However, if he is over-powered by the force of his love, and unwittingly and without the least dissimulation his secret is out, he is not to be blamed. Some Sufis say: He who is very often pointing towards Him is far from Him, because he feigns and makes a show of his love of Him. Zunnun[16] of Egypt once went to pay a visit to one of his brother Sufis, who was in distress, and who used to talk of his love openly. “He who feels the severity of pain inflicted by Him,” said Zunnun, “is no lover.” “He who finds no pleasure in such pain,” returned the Sufi, “is no lover.” “True,” replied Zunnun, “but I say to you that he who trumpets his love of Him is no lover.” The Sufi felt the force of Zunnun’s words and fell down prostrate before God and repented and did not talk again of his love.

It may be objected: Divine love is the highest stage, it would be better to manifest it, where is the harm? No doubt love is good and if of itself it is evident, there is no harm, but those who give themselves trouble to make it known are blameable. Let our hearts speak, let our deeds proclaim it, but not our tongue. Nay, he should always aim at making it evident before his beloved. The gospel says: “Take heed that ye do not give your alms before men to be seen: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore, when thou doest thine alms do not sound a trumpet before thee as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have the glory of men. Verily I say unto you they have their reward. But when thou doest alms let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. That thine alms may be in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. Moreover when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”[17]

The essence of religion is love; some signs of which have been enumerated above. The love of God may be of two kinds. Some love him for his bounties, others for his perfect beauty irrespective of bounties. The former love increases according to the bounties received, but the latter love is the direct result of the contemplation of his perfect attributes and is constant even in tribulations. “These are His favoured few,” says Junaid of Baghdad.[18] But there are many who pose as his lovers and with much talk of his love lack the signs of true love. They are deluded by the devil, slaves of their passions, seeking a hollow reputation, shameless hypocrites who try to deceive the omniscient Lord their creator. They are all enemies of God, whether they are revered as divines or Sufis. Sahl of Taster who used to address everyone as “Friend”, was once asked by a person the reason of his doing so, as all men could not be his friends. Sahl whispered in his ear saying: “He will either be a believer or a hypocrite; if he is a believer, he is God’s friend; if a hypocrite, the devil’s friend.”

Abu Turab Nakshabi has composed some verses describing the signs of love. Their translation is as follows:

Do not profess your love. Hearken to me: These are the signs of his love. The bitterness of tribulations is sweet to him, he is happy for he believes that everything proceeds from him; for praise or censure he cares not, the will of his beloved is his will. While his heart is burning with love his countenance is radiant with joy. He guards the secret of love with all his might, and no thought save of his beloved enters into his mind. Yahya bin Maaz Razi[19] adds some lines: “Another sign is that he is up and ready like a diver at the bank of a river; He sighs and sheds tears in the gloom of night, and day and night he appears as if fighting for the sacred cause of his love. He entrusts his whole self to his love and gladly acquiescing abides in his love.[20]

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Ihya IV 6.
  2. Quran V. 54
  3. Quran II. 165
  4. Bukhari and Muslim.
  5. Quran IX 2
  6. Tirmizi.
  7. Abu Naim
  8. Tirmizi.
  9. Quran II. 222. Repentance is the first step towards God. Comp. St. Matthew III. 2.
  10. Quran III. 30 Keeping God’s commandments revealed through his holy prophets constitutes love of Him. Comp St. John. XV. 10. “If ye keep my commandments ye shall abide in my love; even as I keep my Father’s commandments and abide in his love”.
  11. A Sufi of great renown: died at Baghdad in 840
  12. Quran II 94-95.
  13. Hadisi Qudsi is that kind of tradition in which God is himself reported to speak
  14. Comp:

        * “Let knowledge grow from more to more,
        * But more of reverence in us dwell;
        * That mind and soul, according well,
        * May make one music as before,
        * But vaster. We are fools and slight;
        * We mock thee when we do not fear;
        * But help Thy foolish ones to bear
        * Help Thy vain worlds to bear, thy light.

         Tennyson. 
    
  15. See Bukhari:
  16. Called the “father of Sufiism”. He founded a sect of Sufis in Egypt. He died in 860
  17. St. Matthew VI 1-4; 16-18.
  18. A celebrated Sufi called Syed Uttaifa (chief of the sect) He died at Baghdad in 911
  19. A theologian and Sufi of Ray in Persia. He died in 871
  20. Comp:

        * ‘Good shepherd, tell this youth what ’tis to love.
        * It is to be all made of sighs and tears;
        * It is to be all made of faith and service;
        * It is to be all made of fantasy,
        * All made of passion and all made of wishes:
        * All adoration, duty, and observance,
        * All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
        * All purity, all trial, all observance.

         Shakespeare: As you like it. Act V. 
    
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).