The Nature of Love

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

Experiences are either agreeable and therefore desired or disagreeable and avoided. Inclination towards a desired object when deeply rooted and strong constitutes love. Knowledge and perception of the beloved is the first requisite for love which is consequently divided according to the division of the five senses each of which is inclined towards its desired object. Thus the eye apprehends beautiful forms, the ear harmonious sounds, etc. This kind of experience we share with the animals. There is, however, one more sense, peculiar to man, which delights the soul. The prophet has said: “I desire three things from your world, sweet smell, tender sex, and prayer, which is the delight of my eye”. Now prayer is neither smelt nor touched-in fact its delight is beyond the scope of the five senses and yet it has been described as the “delight of my eye”, which means the inner eye-the soul with her sixth sense. Concepts of this special sense are more beautiful and charming than sensuous objects-nay, they are more perfect and strongly attract the soul. Is it not, then, possible, that One who is not perceived by the five senses may yet be found and felt attractive by that sense and loved by the soul?

Let us now enumerate the circumstances which excite love 1. Every living being first of all loves his own self, that is to say, the desire for continuity of his existence as oppsed to annihilation is innate. This desire is augmented by the desire of the perfection of his self by means of sound body, wealth, childern, relations and friends. For all of these serve as a means to the end of the continuity of his self and therefore he cherishes love for them. Even “unselfish” love of his dear son, if probed, smacks of love for the continuity his self, because his son who is part of his self serves as a living representative of his self’s continuity.

2. The second cause is the love for one’s benefactor towards whom the heart is naturally attracted. Even if he be a stranger, a benefactor will always be loved. But it must be remembered that the benefactor is loved not for himself, but for his beneficence, the extent of which will be a dominating factor in determining the degree of love.

3. The third cause is love of beauty. It is generally supposed that beauty consists in red and white complexions, well proportioned limbs, and so forth, but we can also say “beautiful writing”, “beautiful horse”, etc. Hence beauty of an object consists in its possession of all possible befitting perfections. It will vary in proportion to the perfections attained. That writing in which all the rules of caligraphy are properly observed will be called beautiful and so on. At the same time there can be no one standard for judging the beauty of different objects. The standard for a horse cannot be the same for, say, writing or man. It must also be remembered that beauty is not connected with sensible objects only but is also related to concepts. A person is not always loved for his external beauty, but often the beauty of his knowledge or virtues attract the heart. It is not necessary that the object of such kind of love be perceived by the senses. We love our saints, imams, and prophets but we have never seen them. Our love for them is so strong that we would willingly lay down our lives for upholding their good name. If we wish to create love for them in young minds we can produce it by giving graphic accounts of their virtues. Stories of the heroes of any nation will excite love for them.

“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind”.

[2]4. The fourth cause is a sort of secret affinity between two souls, meeting and attracting each other. It is what is called “love at first sight”. This is what the prophet meant when he said “The souls had their rendezvous: Those who liked each other, then love here; those who remained strangers then do not join here”. If a believer goes to a meeting where there are a hundred manafiks (hypocrites) and one momin (faithful) he will take his seat by the side of the momin. It seems that likes are attracted by their likes. Malik bin Dinar says: Just as birds of the same feather fly together two persons having a quality common to both will join.

[2]Let us now apply these causes and find out who may be the true object of love. First, man who is directly conscious of his own self in whom the love for continuity of the self is innate, if he deeply thinks on the nature of his existence will find that he does not exist of his own self, nor are the means of the continuity of his self in his power. There is a being, self-existent, and living who created and sustains him. The Quran says: “There surely came over man a period of time when he was not a thing that could be spoken of. Surely we have created man from a small life germ uniting. We mean to try him, so we have made him hearing, seeing. Surely we have shown him the way, he may be thankful or unthankful.”[3] This contemplation will bear the fruit or love for God. For how could it be otherwise when man loves his own self which is dependent on Him, unless he be given up to the gratification of his passions and thereby forgetting his true self and his sustainer.

Secondly, if he thinks over the aim and scope of beneficence, he will find that no creature can show any purely disinterested favour to another because his motive will be either 1. praise or self-gratification for his generosity, or 2. hope of reward in the next world or divine pleasure.[4] Paradoxical though it sounds, deep insight into human nature leads us, inevitably to the conclusion that man cannot be called “benefactor”, in as much as his action is prompted by the idea of gain and barter. A true benefactor is one who in bestowing his favours has not the least idea of any sort of gain. Purely disinterested beneficence is the quality of the All-merciful Providence and hence He is the true object of love.

Thirdly, the appreciation of inward beauty, that is to say the contemplation of any attractive quality or qualities of the beloved causes a stronger and more durable love than the passionate love of the flesh. However such a beloved will still be found lacking in beauty from the standpoint of perfection because the three genders are creatures and therefore cannot be called perfect. God alone is perfect beauty—holy, independent, omnipotent, all-majesty, all-beneficent, all-merciful. With all this knowledge of His attributes we still do not know Him as He is. The prophet says: “My praise of Thee cannot be comprehensive, Thou art such as wouldst praise Thyself”.[5] Are not these attributes sufficient to evoke love for him? But beatitude is denied to the inwardly blind. They do not understand the attitude of the lovers of God towards Him. Jesus once passed by some ascetics who were reduced in body. “Why are you thus”? he said to them. And they replied “Fear of hell and hope of heaven have reduced us to this condition”. “What a pity”, rejoined Jesus, “your fear and hope is limited to creatures”. Then he went onward and saw some more devotees, and put the same question. “We are devoted to God and revere him for his love”, they replied with downcast eyes. “Ye are the saints” exclaimed Jesus, “you will have my company”.[6]

Fourthly, the affinity between two souls meeting and loving each other is a mystery, but more mysterious is the affinity between God and his loving devotee. It cannot and must not be described before the uninitiated. Suffice it to say that the souls possessing the higher qualities of beneficence, sympathy, mercy, etc. have that affinity hinted at in the following saying of the prophet: “Imitate divine attributes”. For man has been created in the image of God, nay he is, in a way, akin to Him, says the Quran. ‘And when the Lord said to the angels: Surely I am going to create a mortal from dust, so when I have made him complete, and breathed into him of My Ruh (soul). fall down making obeisance to him”.[7] It is this affinity which is pointed out in the following tradition: God said to Moses “I was sick and thou didst not visit Me”. Moses replied “O God, thou art Lord of heaven and earth: how couldst thou be sick?” God said “A certain servant of mine was sick: hadst thou visited him, thou wouldst have visited me”. Therefore our prophet Mahommed has said: “Says God: My servant seeks to be near me that I may make him my friend, and when I have made him my friend, I become his ear, his eye, his tongue.”[8] It must, however, be remembered that mystical affinity vaguely conceived leads to extremes. Some have fallen into abject anthropomorphism; others have gone so far as to believe in the airy nothings of pantheism. These are all vagaries of the imagination. whether they take the form of “Ibn Allah”, (Son of God) or “Anal Haq” (I am God).[9] They are to a great extent responsible for the evils of superstition and scepticism.

These four causes when properly understood, demonstrate that the true object of our love is God and therefore it has been enjoined: “Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind”.[10]

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Ihya IV 6.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bukhari and Muslim.
  3. Quran LXXVI 1-3.
  4. Ghazzali’s remark should not be confounded with either egoistic or universalistic hedonism. See his remark on the affinity of souls (pages 95 ff).
  5. Muslim
  6. From uncanonical sayings of Christ.
  7. Quran XXXVIII 71, 72.
  8. See Bukhari Haddis Qudsi
  9. Al Ghazzali condemns all such expressions which are called by Cardinal Newman “eccentricities of the saints.” He is aware of their liability to abuse and points out their error in a manner which six hundred years later took the form of Bishop Butler’s dictum that reason cannot abdicate its right of judging obvious improprieties in religious doctrines and persons. “Ibn Allah”, (Son of God) refers to the orthodox Christian view of Jesus. “Anal Haq” (I am the truth, i.e. God) refers to the expression of Husain bin Mansur al Hallaj, who in 309 was crucified in Bagdad for his blasphemy. The poet Hafiz says of him: “Jurmash an bud ki asrar huwaida bikard.” His crime was that he revealed the secrets
  10. St Matthew XXII 35-37. “And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him,: Master, which is the great commandment in the law? And he said unto him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” In the above passage the law referred to is Deuteronomy VI. 5, where instead of mind, the word might is used.
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).