In light of the march of roses and hearts that have been stampeding the streets, I’ve been thinking a lot about love. But not just any kind of love–Divine Love. Sure, today is Valentine’s Day, but the last I checked there was no Saint Valentine in Islam or an Eid ul-Hob. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate Love as an everyday affair.
Saint Valentine’s Day is named after several Christian martyrs named Valentine, a holiday established by a pope 500 years after the death of the Jesus (as). Nothing is known about the actual Saint Valentine whose feast was commonly celebrated on February 14th except his name and that he was buried on February 14th. It is unclear whether this holiday celebrates several “saints” or just one, but what is clear is that this holiday was removed from the Catholic calendar of saints by Pope Paul VI in 1969 because of so many discrepancies. Though Valentine’s Day is still considered permitted for religious observance among Catholics to celebrate the acts of a man unknown to everyone but Allah, it is clear that the holiday was further hijacked in the Middle Ages by English author Geoffrey Chaucer, who associated the day with romantic love as the tradition of courtly love flourished. And that’s how hearts, roses, and that winged cherub named Cupid entered the picture.
Now…where do you see any Islamic reference in that history? Yet, there are two Muslim countries that have a holiday of affection, not to mention many Muslims around the world celebrating Valentine’s Day. There’s an Egyptian Love Day (Eid el-Hob el-Masri) and a very ancient Sepandarmazgan or Esfandegan in Iran, which both share in the superficiality of the notion of spending one day in sharing affection with loved ones. But why make up a holiday for this? Instead why can’t we show our loved ones how much we care everyday? Most importantly, why not spend some of that same loving energy put into celebrating the many variations of Valentine’s Day on Al Wadud, The Loving-Kind, who always spends His Love on us?
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed writes in her introduction to her memoir Love in a Headscarf, “Love has been lost to our generation, diluted to ravishing and romance. […] We have shackled love by limiting its reign to the arena of candlelit meals and moonlit walks. […] The likelihood of a Muslim talking about Love in public is small. But like most societies and cultures, Muslims are obsessed with it. In fact, Muslim men and women spend a large proportion of their time wondering where on earth to find a partner. Finding that special someone is so critical to the fabric of Muslim existence, that almost everyone is involved—parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, Imams, even neighbours. […] The search for love is a journey to find many different things. It is the search for a partner and companion, for the excitement of romance. It is also the search for a cherisher, for someone to nurture or someone to be nurtured by. It is a search for meaning, for the knowledge that you have achieved something, for a momentary acknowledgement or for immortality of your name. Love can be the name of the escape from the physical into the spiritual or from the mental into the carnal. The search for love is a resolute journey: to find out what it means to be human, and to share that humanity” (pp. xi-xiii).
Love is what we make it out to be. We choose to limit it or expand it. So much of the wisdom in Shelina’s introduction comes from her word choice. So instead of celebrating superficial holidays that aren’t a part of our sunnah, what I am proposing here is that we celebrate Allah, the Loving-Kind, Al Wadud, who always showers us with affection and love. We take Allah as our Partner and Companion, our Cherisher and Nurturer, Our Meaning—and we acknowledge Him and the Immortality of His Name—because His Love, in Essence, is the Only One worth celebrating. We love others through His Love.
You know, it has been said by the scholars of the past that love is the highest station. To do things out of love for Allah, rather than fear or hope, is said to be of the mark of success in this life. So I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of Allah’s name, Al Wadud—The Loving-Kind. In his treatise, The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God (al maqsad al-asna fi sharh asma’Allah al-husna) (as translated by David B. Burrell and Nazih Daher, Islamic Texts Society, 2004), which I admittedly never read before, Al Ghazali says it is not enough to simply hear, understand, and believe in the names of Allah. That only requires the basic capabilities of hearing, language, and faith. This is a low and deficient rank that could be shared by any creature with a limited knowledge of language and ears, i.e. animals. Ghazali writes that it is better to share in the meanings of the Names of Allah and draw close to Him through them. We must long to possess the attributes to grow closer to the Truth, and become more similar to angels in the possession of such noble characteristics. To not long for these attributes, and indeed Allah, signifies a disease: inadequate knowledge or one’s heart being distracted by the longing and absorption of another love. We must empty our hearts of desiring anything but Allah. We must adorn ourselves with beauty and the best qualities that we can master as humanly possible by imitating His Attributes. This is how one obtains proximity to Allah. The desire to seek perfection is man’s goal, and part of that is conquering our more animalistic tendencies and elevating ourselves to the level of angels who are filled with His Light (pp.30-34). Ghazali says, “[…] A man cannot understand anything unless he has in him something corresponding to it” (p. 40). To understand even a speck of who Allah is, we must try to inculcate aspects of His Attributes within ourselves. Allah’s Names are so important to know…I mean, really know, that on the authority of the Messenger of Allah (saws) given in an account by Abu Hurayrah (ra), “Whoever enumerates them will enter Paradise.” (Muslim)
Ghazali was inspired by two hadiths in writing his treatise on the Asma ul Husna. He writes that the Messenger of Allah (saws) also said:
“You should be characterized by the characteristics of Allah, Most High.”
“Given that Allah is characterized by the ninety-nine [names], whoever is characterized by one of them enters paradise.” (see ibn Hanbal’s al-Mughni and Haythami’s Majma al-zawaid)
Allah’s name, Al Wadud, the Loving-Kind, means He desires and does good for all even if that good isn’t reciprocated. Al Wadud is the epitome of Unconditional Love. In the Qur’an, its meaning is linked to His being Merciful and Forgiving (see surahs 11:90 and 85:14). He bestows favor and praise from the outset. He intends our well-being. He transcends all that we know about love and mercy. To embody this characteristic, we must desire for every creature what we desire for ourselves. The even higher attribute is to prefer the desires of others over ourselves. Shaykh Muhammad Higab, from Al-Azhar, wrote in Al asma’Allah al Husna (published under the title God’s Attributes by Dar El-Manar, Cairo, Egypt, 1997): “The perfection of that behaviour in man is that he should not be restrained from affection and love by anger, hatred, or envy. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, […] once advised ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib with these words: ‘If you desire to be before even the angels, remain friendly to the one who has denied you, give to the one who has deprived you and forgive the one who has dealt unjustly with you.’ In Ghazali’s rendering, the advice to Ali (ra) is: “If you want to take precedence over those who are close to Allah, then be reconciled with those who broke with you, give to the ones who excluded you, and forgive the ones who wronged you.” (See Ahmed ibn Hanbal’s Al Mughni) Our task here is to embody an altruism and goodness impenetrable by others’ actions—it is to be constant in love. That is the perfection of the virtue of Love.
In a well-known hadith qudsi on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (ra), the Messenger of Allah (saws) said:
“Allah (mighty and sublime be He) said:
Whosoever shows enmity to someone devoted to Me, I shall be at war with him. My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him, and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it. I do not hesitate about anything as much as I hesitate about [seizing] the soul of My faithful servant: he hates death and I hate hurting him.“(Bukhari)
Allah loves us regardless, but He loves us more when we show more love. In the above hadith, Allah tells us that He gifts those He loves with aspects of His Own Noble Qualities. This is ihsan, a beautiful and excellent quality to have in a human being. In the hadith of the angel Jibreel (as), the Prophet (saws) stated, “[Ihsan is] to worship Allah as though you see Him, and if you cannot see Him, then indeed He sees you” (Bukhari and Muslim). Fear is important, but the basis of our relationship with Allah should be love. In the following Hadith Qudsi, Allah explicates the nature of our relationship with Him:
“Myself, Mankind and Jinn are in a great serious state. I create them, then they worship other gods that they make for themselves; I bless them with my bounties, then they thank someone else for what I sent them; My Mercy descends to them while their evil deeds ascend to Me; I endear them with my gifts even though I have no need for any of them while they alienate themselves from Me with their sins even though they are desperate for My help.
Whoever returns to Me, I accept him no matter how far he is; and whoever turns away from Me, I approach him and call on him. Whoever leaves a sin for my sake, I reward him with many gifts and whoever seeks to please Me, I seek to please him. Whoever acknowledges My Will and Power in whatever he does, I make the iron bend for his sake. My dear people are those who are with Me (i.e. whoever would like to be with Me, let him supplicate to Me and remember Me). Whoever thanks Me, I grant him more blessings; whoever obeys Me, I raise him and endear him more. Whoever disobeys Me, I keep the doors of My Mercy open for him; if he returns to Me, I bestow him with My Love since I love those who repent and purify themselves for My Sake. If he does not repent, I still treat him by putting them in hardship to purify him.
Whoever favors Me over others, I favor them over others. I reward every single good deed ten times over or seven hundred times over to countless times over. I count every single bad deed as one unless the person repents and ask for My Forgiveness in which case I forgive even that one. I take into account any little good deed and I forgive even major sins. My Mercy supersedes My Anger; My Tolerance supersedes My Blame; My Forgiveness supersedes My Punishment as I am more merciful with My slaves than a mother with her child.” (See Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziya’s Madarij As-Saalikeen)
So let’s favor Allah over others, and not just today either—that’d be the start of a whole new holiday and there are only two holidays in Islam! Tell your loved ones how much you love them everyday–get those chocolates and flowers out just because. Tomorrow, let alone the rest of today is not promised to us. The Prophet (saws) told us, “Exchange gifts, and you’ll grow in love of one another.” (Bukhari and others). He also said, in another hadith qudsi on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (ra):
“Allah will say on the Day of Resurrection:
‘Where are those who love one another through My glory? Today I shall give them shade in My shade, it being a day when there is no shade but My shade.'” (Bukhari and Malik).
I wrote in a previous post, “When we love someone or something, we hasten to be with it. We rush through errands and chores for that love’s company. And love requires work–quality time, gifts, words of affection… I know I personally need to work on the way I show my love to Allah. How much quality time do I devote to The One who is always there for me? What gifts from my being do I genuinely offer without hesitation or thoughtlessness? What words of affection do I say to my Rabb, The All-Hearing? We will never be able to enumerate the favors of Al Wadud. Shouldn’t we also make it hard for ourselves to enumerate our sincere acts of worship towards Him?” There is no better time than the present to rekindle that feeling of being in love with Allah…with Islam…and with the sunnah of rasulAllah (saws). So today treat yourself to a copy of Book 36 (Volume 4) of Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum Al-Din (Revival of Religious Sciences), entitled Love, Longing, Intimacy and Contentment. There is an English Translation forthcoming by E. Ormsby inshAllah, but I have it as Love and Attachment translated by Fazlul Karim (Bilal Books, Mubai, India).
And if you still need feel the need to curl up with something romantic during your Valentine’s Day withdrawal, check out Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s Love in a Headscarf or Umm Juwayriyah’s The Size of a Mustard Seed, both of which I reviewed here. Finally, if you still can’t break the urge to celebrate something this week, perhaps it is more beneficial for your soul to remember the birth of Allah’s beloved, the last Prophet (saws), whose birthday anniversary is dawn on Tuesday. Curling up with a book on his life (seerah) and saying salawat on him (asws)–a practice we should do everyday–is a lovely way to remedy a hardened heart that needs a little rekindling of love for Allah’s most loved servant.