This month sees the 19th annual Islam Awareness Week (12-18 March) and the theme this year is ‘love’. When most people think of Islam today, it is associated with ‘tough’ qualities — ‘Shari’ah law’, statehood, justice in the face of injustice. And one doesn’t need to look around too widely to find more negative associations — with violence, repression of women and the curtailing of people’s freedoms.
Yet at its core the reality of Islam is so different; at least to most Muslims I know. Their faith, their everyday interaction with it, their focus and connection, is with the love they feel for God, and for Muhammad, the messenger of God. Emanating from this spiritual love is a tremendous worldly love that radiates and fills their life. A love for the whole of creation — the world around them, nature and humanity.
It is indeed sad that this central aspect of Islam seems to have been so underplayed, and perhaps undermined, in recent years; and this is not just from people outside of Islam. Ask some Muslims and you will only ever hear talk of injustices, this political cause, or that grievance. And too often such an attitude — whilst perhaps justified as part of a broader spiritual outlook — when on its own, distracts from the actual purpose of Islam. The Qur’an teaches us:
“…those who have attained to faith love God more than all else…” (2:165)
On this subject, perhaps one of the deepest wells in the Islamic tradition is Rabia of Basra, the 8th Century mystic. One day, people saw her running through the streets carrying a flame in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she said, “I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.”
Her love was so consuming that it left no place for hate. When she was asked if she hated Satan, Rabia replied, “my love for God has so possessed my heart that there is no room for hate.”
There are so many other reminders of this spirit in the Islamic tradition. Rumi wrote: “Love is from the infinite, and will remain until eternity / The seeker of love escapes the chains of birth and death / Tomorrow, when resurrection comes / The heart that is not in love will fail the test.”
This was not just something that pre-occupied the mystics and poets; Miskawayh, the great philosopher and ethicist, said that love is the basis of all society. He argued that human society is formed through, and to actualise, the bonds of love, friendship and companionship.
The Prophet Muhammad taught that God says, “…My servant comes even nearer to Me until I love him. When I have bestowed My love on him, I become his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his tongue with which he speaks, his hand with which he grasps, and his feet with which he walks.” (Bukhari)
So why do these teaching of Islam seem so absent from our public discourse? Why has the heart of Islam been so hidden? This is not just an esoteric concern. It has real consequences. We Muslims seem more concerned today with building mosques than building the people that will pray in those mosques; more concerned with arguing for Islam, than actually living Islam; more concerned with converting people to Islam, than showing love for people.
This is precisely why this year’s Islam Awareness Week will focus on the subject of love. Perhaps after more than two centuries of colonisation and political conflict, sectors of the Muslim world, at least at a communal level, find it difficult to emphasise love over anger. The irony is that even the road to resolving injustice must begin and end with love. If one is to tread the path of Islam one must tread it as it is, not to mould it in the image of our pain and hurt, but in the image of God.
God is love, and Islam is the serenity that comes from that love. That is not just a message for those that are not Muslims to understand, it’s a message that many Muslims themselves need to recognise.
(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 90, March 2012)