Love, Divine Life and the Divine in Life

Basit Koshul,
Concordia College

While their presentations differ in a variety of ways, Gottstein, Davis and Safi are engaged in a common endeavor — using scripture and the interpretation of scripture to understand/explicate the meaning of love. Offering a commentary on this discussion is not an easy task insofar as it is difficult to choose a starting point and then do adequate justice to the contribution of the three presenters. While I will explicitly use Safi’s contribution as a starting point for my discussion, the flow of the discussion will be shaped by the key points raised by Gottstein and Davis. Gottstein is primarily concerned with navigating the space between “thinking with” and “thinking of” Scripture in order to come to a meaningful understanding of the Song. Davis is primarily concerned with establishing the contribution that the Song makes within the canon of Scripture and our understanding of Scripture. I will take some of the pointers offered by Safi, thinking “with them” and “of them” as I attempt to explicate Muhammad Iqbal’s understanding of love and Divine Life. As for the sufi thinkers in general, love is inseparable from Divine Life for Iqbal. A discussion of the character of love as it is related to Divine Life, in turn, will provide the framework in which to discuss the relationship of love and the Divine in human life — suggesting that our understanding of Divine-creature love cannot be considered apart from creature-creature love (i.e. human love). The discussion will end with a suggestion that there is a reflexive relationship between the two loves where an understanding of the one leads to a better understanding of the other. Consequently, a reading of any texts regarding Divine love can serve as a mirror in which to perceive the possibilities of human love. And the study of any texts narrating the dynamics of human love can serve as a commentary on the character of Divine Love.

Love and Divine Life: Between Complete Indifference and Utter Dependence

Safi has quoted a well known hadith qudsi (a Divine saying that is not a part of the Qur’an), which has been often used by the Sufis to illustrate not only the purposefulness of Creation, but also of identifying the purpose of creation:

I was a Hidden Treasure, and I loved to be known intimately,
So I created creation, so that they may come to intimately know Me.

This saying establishes the framework within which the relationship between Allah and the created order can be analyzed. On a very fundamental level this relationship can be summed up by one word: Love. The reason Allah created creation was out of love, and the purpose of creation is that it responds in kind. This understanding of the relationship of the Divine to the created order rules out two different understandings of the Divine Life that have been advocated at different times in Muslim history — a rationalist understanding positing the radical transcendence of God and a mystical understanding positing a radical immanentism of God. At the same time it must be acknowledged that these understandings have cited credible evidence from the Islamic sources to support their positions.

Looking at the Islamic sources with a view to understanding the meaning and significance of love, one is struck by a seemingly irreconcilable polarity within the sources. On the one hand there is evidence which suggests that Allah is completely independent of and indifferent to the created order, so much so that Divine Life is completely unconnected with the created order. On the other hand there is equally compelling evidence that suggests that Allah is imminently connected to the created order, so much so that Divine Life cannot be detached from the created order. In either of these two cases, the very category of love becomes problematic, insofar as love is a relationship between two parties who are simultaneously detached from but at the same time genuinely concerned about each other. A completely transcendent God whose life is independent of and indifferent to the created order is not capable of loving. Such a God would be more akin to Aristotle’s Prime Mover, or Divine Intellect which can cause movement and think but cannot be moved or love. A completely immanent God whose life is indistinguishable from the workings of the created order is not capable of being loved, because any “love” in this case ultimately amounts to self-love and not love for an other. There is obvious room for misinterpretation of the sources if attention is fixed on only one aspect of the narrative — either the one illustrating the transcendence or the one illustrating the immanence of Allah. Such a one sided interpretation cannot adequately take into account the other side — neglecting the transcendent or immanent — and it cannot adequately establish a relationality between God and the created order.

The following paragraphs will first lay bare the textual warrants in the Islamic tradition that can be used to support either radical transcendentalism or radical immanentism. It should be mentioned in passing that both of these positions have had their advocates during course of Muslim intellectual history. The most notable proponents of radical transcendentalism have been Muslim philosophers and the rationalist theologians (the Mu’tazilites). The most notable proponents of radical immanentism have been certain sufi schools of thought advocating the doctrine of hama oost (pan-theism). The discussion will then turn to Iqbal’s understanding of the relationship of love to Divine life and the divine in life — an understanding of love that is genuinely relational.

Looking at two different ayahs, and making an inference in the context of the present discussion highlights the manner in which the Qur’an posits the radical transcendence of Allah.

Say: “And who could have prevailed with Allah in any way had it been His will to destroy the Christ, the Son of Mary, and his mother, and everyone who is on earth — all of them? For Allah’s is the dominion over the heavens and the earth and all that is between them; He creates what He wills: and God has the power to will anything!” (5:17)

While this ayah itself provides strong evidence for the transcendence of Allah, this point becomes even more compelling when this ayah is viewed in light of a more detailed description of “Christ, the Son of Mary”;

Christ, Jesus the Son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary and a spirit from Him (4:171)

In short Allah has the power to destroy both His word (Christ) and the vessel carrying the word (Mary) without His dominion being reduced in any way. The utter independence of Divine Life from earthly events/creatures can be further illustrated by citing another hadith qudsi . The Prophet (as) said that Allah said:

O humanity! If the first among you and the last among, the humans among you and the jinns among you were all like the most righteous one among you, this would not increase My dominion one single iota. O humanity! If the first among and the last among, the humans among you and the jinns among you were all like the most wicked one among you, this would not decrease My dominion one single iota.

In light of the evidence presented thus far, Allah is so far transcendent above the created order that Divine Life is utterly and completely indifferent to and independent of earthly happenings. It does not make any logical sense to discuss the issue of love with reference to a Self that is so utterly Self-Sufficient and Self-Contained that it needs no other because love is a relationship between a self and an other in which both parties are genuinely concerned about the other.

Just as the Qur’an and hadith qudsi have been used to illustrate the radically transcendent character of Allah’s relationship with the created order, these sources can be used to present evidence of a radically imminent character of Allah’s relationship with the created order. Speaking of one particular creature among the created order, and of His closeness to this creature, Allah says of the human being:

Now, verily, it is We who have created the human being, and We know what his innermost self whispers within him: for We are close to him than his jugular vein (50:16).

Using the “royal We” Allah speaks of his closeness to the one creature amongst all of creation who has the ability to put the greatest distance between the creaturely self and the Divine Self. The passage goes on to note that even if the creaturely self exercises this option and moves away from the Divine Self, the Divine Self remains close to the creature in terms of physical proximity. The Divine response to the creature’s moving away and putting a distance between the creaturely and Divine selves does not come in the form of the Divine moving away from the creature. The response of the Divine to this creaturely neglect comes in a form that further emphasizes the imminent character of Allah’s relationship with the created order — and especially of His relationship to the creaturely human being:

And do not become like those who have forgotten Allah, and in return Allah has made them forget themselves (59:19).

The Divine response to a creature putting a distance between the creaturely self and the Divine Self is that Allah makes the creature become oblivious of his/her own genuine selfhood. The fact that Allah makes the human being become oblivious of the human self when the human being becomes oblivious of the Divine Self, evidences that there is an intimate relation between the human self and the Divine Self. The character of this relation can be gleaned by looking at a hadith qudsi that speaks of Allah’s relationship with a particular type of human being. The Prophet (as) said that Allah said:

The heavens and the earth are not expansive enough to contain Me, but the heart of my loving slave contains Me.

And in another hadith qudsi:

I am as my loving slave thinks I am. I am with him when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of Him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly better than it. And if he draws near to Me a hand’s span, I draw near to him an arm’s length; and if he draws near to Me an arm’s length, I draw near to him a fathom’s length. And if he comes to me walking, I go to him running.

The fact that the heart of the loving slave is the abode of Allah, and that Allah is as His loving slave imagines Him to be, illustrate the intimacy of Divine Life and the created world. In a very specific sense, one cannot speak of Divine Life apart from the events/creatures in the created order — and especially one creature among creation, the human being. Pantheistic thought has the made the mistake of positing that the type of relationship that God has with a particular creature among his creation (i.e. His “loving slave”) characterizes His relationship with creation in general. Genuine love is not possible if God has no existence apart from the created order. In that case all “love” would be nothing more than self-love and thereby not love by definition because love establishes a relationship between two mutually concerned parties. In short neither a radically transcendent understanding of God nor a radically imminent understanding of God can adequately account for the fact that God’s act of creating the world is an act of love.

The hadith qudsi cited by Safi, states that Allah created creation in order to fulfill a personal, loving desire “to be intimately known”. This feeling of loving desire was infinite in a very specific sense, because God is infinite in a very specific sense. Using the philosophical term “Ultimate Ego” to refer to God, Iqbal notes:

The Ultimate Ego is, therefore, neither infinite in the sense of spatial infinity nor finite in the sense of space-bound human ego whose body closes him off in reference to other egos. The infinity of the Ultimate Ego consists in the infinite inner possibilities of His creative activity of which the universe, as known to us, is only a partial expression. In one word God’s infinity is intensive, not extensive (Iqbal, 52).

It was the overflowing of an infinitely intense love that led to the event of creation. Using a variety of Qur’anic ayaat to illustrate his point, Iqbal posits that God’s creative act which flowed out of his intense love is part and parcel of not only self-revelation on God’s part, but also self-actualization:

The perfection of the Creative Self consists, not in a mechanistically conceived immobility as Aristotle may have led Ibn Hazm [Averroes] to think. It consists in the vaster basis of His creative activity and the infinite scope of His creative vision. God’s life is self-revelation, not the pursuit of an ideal to be reached. The ‘not-yet’ of man does mean pursuit and may mean failure; the ‘not-yet’ of God means unfailing realization of the infinite creative possibilities of His being which retains its wholeness throughout the entire process (Iqbal, 48).

The created universe is the actualization of an eternally present inner, latent potential of Divine Life, which came to be actualized/realized through a personal act of will on God’s part. Consequently, the created universe cannot be considered apart from — and even less — over and against, Divine Life. In short, the presence of created, living (and non-living) beings are a manifestation of the self-affirmation of the concrete, personal, particular Ultimate Ego:

Now to live is to possess a definite outline, a concrete individuality. It is in the concrete individuality, manifested in the countless varieties of living forms that the Ultimate Ego reveals the infinite wealth of His Being (Iqbal, 70).

Looking at Iqbal’s comments on the character of the Divine Life in light of Qur’anic and hadith texts, the relationship between love and Divine Life can be summed up under the categories of self-revelation, self-actualization, and self-affirmation.

Once the world is created, love does remain central to Divine Life, but it takes on certain characteristics that it did not have prior to the event of creation. The following couplet by Iqbal illustrates the fact that love remains central to Divine Life after the event of creation:

Love is the breath of Gabriel, Love is the heart of Muhammad
Love is the messenger of God, Love is the speech of God.

The novel characteristics that love takes on after the event of creation are due to the fact that Allah chooses to create a special creature, the human being, whom He appoints as His delegate/viceroy on earth: “And recall when your Lord said to the angels: ‘Lo! I am about to place a viceroy on the earth’…” (2:30). The difference between those individual who decide to accept the charge that has been given to them by Allah (i.e. the believers) and those who chose to reject this charge (i.e. the disbelievers), is identified by the Qur’an in these words:

Yet among humanity are some who take unto themselves (objects of worship which they set as) rivals to Allah, loving them with a love like (that which is the due) of Allah (alone) — those who believe are ever stauncher in the love for Allah (2:165).

Being Allah’s viceroy and having staunch love for the One who has made him/her so, the human being is charged with the responsibility of revealing, actualizing and affirming the Divine in the world, in a very specific way. The fact that the human being is charged with a responsibility and that this responsibility is ultimately rooted in a loving relationship is illustrated in the following ayah:

O you who believe! Whoso of you turns his back on his religion, (know that in his stead) Allah will bring a people whom He loves and who love Him, humble towards the believers, stern towards the disbelievers, striving in the way of Allah, and fearing not the blame of any blamer. Such is the grace of Allah which He gives unto whom He will. Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing (5:54).

The phrase “striving in the way of Allah” or “making jihad in the way of Allah” is the process by which the Divine is revealed, actualized and affirmed in the world. Though the dynamics have changed after the event of creation, love remains central to Divine Life in a different yet related manner than it was central to Divine Life prior to the event of creation. Prior to the event of creation there was infinitely intense loving desire on the part of God for self-revelation, self-actualization and self-affirmation. After the event of creation a new element enters the picture, in the form of a human being, who is charged with the responsibility of revealing, actualizing and affirming the Divine in the world.

Love and the Divine in Life

Given the fact that love is at the very center of Divine Life, encountering/experiencing love in the world is an encounter/experience of the Divine in human life. The foregoing discussion has identified self-revelation, self-actualization and self-affirmation as the defining characteristics of Divine love. Considering these characteristics apart from Divine Life allows us to gain better insight into the place of love in human life — or the Divine in life. While these characteristics will be part of love as it manifests itself in human relations, there will be something different about human love for the simple reason that it is human love and not Divine love. In other words human love will have characteristics that are neither exactly the same as, nor completely different from, the characteristics of Divine love: the characteristics of human love will be related to, but also distinct from, the characteristics of Divine love.

While self-revelation is a basic characteristic of Divine love, adequate perception and recognition of the other is a basic characteristic of human loving. On a very basic level, Frankl posits that it is only the eyes of a lover that are capable of recognizing and appreciating the essential characteristics (or selfhood) of the beloved:

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person…(Frankl, 116)

In the absence of love human beings cannot adequately appreciate the essential qualities that characterize the other. Frankl goes on to note that love is more than the lover loving the beloved because the lover recognizes and appreciates certain (beautiful) characteristics that the beloved displays. Love goes beyond the recognition and appreciation of what the beloved displays, and intuits (or “sees”) the hidden potential that the beloved unconsciously possesses. Speaking of what the lover sees in the beloved, beyond what is displayed:

and even more, he [the lover] sees that which is potential in him [the beloved], which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized (Frankl, 116).

In short, love is not merely loving the beloved for what he/she is, but loving the beloved for what he/she can be. The realization that the beloved has latent potentialities waiting to be actualized provides the lover with a chance to practically demonstrate that his/her love is true. Whereas degenerate love will use the beloved (as he/she is) for self-gratification and self-aggrandizement, true love will be the catalyst that will inspire the beloved to recognize and actualize the hidden potentialities and become more than he/she is (or thinks possible):

Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he [the lover] makes these potentialities come true (Frankl, 116).

Whereas Divine love initially manifested itself in the from of self-actualization of God’s own latent potentialities, human love manifests itself in the form of helping the beloved other to actualize her own potentialities.

Frankl’s description of love as being a mode of not only recognizing the essential character of a person, but as a means of recognizing the hidden potentialities of a person and thereby assisting the person in becoming more than he/she is suggests that love is indispensable for growth to take place. Peirce affirms this point in emphatic terms by positing that love is the genuine evolutionary agency in the universe. Given Frankl’s description of love, it is easy to understand Peirce’s position. There can be no genuine growth in the absence of a loving relationship. Only the one who loves can relate to the beloved not merely because of what the beloved is but what the beloved has the potential to become. And it is only the one who is loved who can come to see, through the discerning eyes of the lover, the latent potentialities within and undertake the efforts to actualize them. It is the reflexive relationship between the lover and beloved that makes growth possible. The lover’s discerning eyes note the latent potential in the beloved and help the beloved to actualize those potentialities; the beloved in turn becomes more capable of discerning latent potentials in the lover that he/she could not see before, thus returning the favor. A vibrant, living loving relationship capable of even further growth is not ultimately based on attraction to beauty that is displayed/noticed, but an attraction to potential that is latent/hidden:

growth comes only from love, from — I will not say self- sacrifice , but from the ardent impulse to fulfill another’s highest impulse (Peirce, 269).

Peirce notes that the possibility exists that the lovers grow apart as a result of the process of growth, but in the final analysis:

The movement of love is circular, at one and the same impulse projecting creations into independency and drawing them into harmony (Peirce, 269).

This may appear to be circular or counterfactual reasoning for one not familiar with scriptural wisdom. Peirce acknowledges that it is difficult to understand the statement as it is presented above, but the difficulty can be easily resolved by casting a loving eye on a well-known, oft-repeated scriptural saying. For Peirce the fore-cited statement about the circularity of love,

is fully summed up in the simple formula we call the Golden Rule. This does not, of course, say, Do everything possible to gratify the egoistic impulses of others, but it says, Sacrifice your own perfection to the perfectionment of your neighbor (Peirce, 269).

This reading of the Golden Rule through loving eyes suggests that risk is inherently woven into a relationship based on love. In a loving relationship both the lover and the beloved take risks. The fact that love requires the lover to risk what he/she has so that the beloved has an opportunity to gain what he/she does not have entails an obvious risk on part of the lover. If the beloved fails in the efforts to actualize latent potentialities in spite of the efforts and the sacrifices of the lover, the lover would have sacrificed (or loved) for naught. Love makes a demand on the beloved to trust the judgment of the lover and open the self up to both the gaze and judgment of the lover. It is only by opening oneself up, and making oneself vulnerable, that it becomes possible for a new self to emerge as a result of the actualization of latent potentialities. Here the beloved takes a risk when trusting the judgment of the lover, because it may be the case that the judgment is mistaken and the beloved would have opened him/herself up for naught.

The fact that both parties undertake risk in a loving relationship logically entails that courage is necessary on the part of both parties in order to maintain the relationship. Tillich sees risk and courage as ultimately being two sides of the same coin — faith. Tillich notes that “ultimate concern is ultimate risk and ultimate courage” (Tillich, 18). But since “faith is the sate of being ultimately concerned” (Tillich, 1), risk and courage come together in the state of faith. Even if we take the “ultimate” out of the picture, any concern entails risk and courage, consequently all concern entails a degree of faith. To the degree that love is a concern that one has for the other, it carries with it an irreducible element of faith. It is faith in the other that sustains a loving relationship. While self-affirmation is one of the defining characteristics of Divine Love, faith (the affirmation of an other) is a defining characteristic of human love. Even though faith is part of love, it does not encompass love nor can it be reduced to love. One can say that while love is an intense feeling/attitude that relates a self to the other, it is faith that sustains this feeling/attitude through the extension of time and space. Consequently, one cannot speak of an extensive loving relationship (i.e. one that extends across the expanse of space and time) in the absence of faith. It is by means of faith that a loving relationship is maintained in the face of the vagaries of time and distances of space.

The foregoing discussion can be summed up as follows. In terms of the relationship between love and Divine Life the main characteristics are: self-revelation, self-actualization and self-affirmation. In terms of the relationship of love to human life (or love as the Divine in life) the main characteristics are: recognition/appreciation of the (beloved) other, supporting the (beloved) other so that the other can actualize his/her latent potential, and affirming the (beloved) other by having faith in him/her. Putting the summary in chart form, the following picture emerges:

Love and Divine Life Love as the Divine in human life
Self-Revelation Recognizing/appreciating an other: DESIRING/LONGING for the beloved
Self-Actualization Recognizing/actualizing an other’s potential: SACRIFICE for the beloved
Self-Affirmation Recognizing/affirming an other: FAITH in the beloved
Love and Infinite Intensity Love and Infinite Extensity

The introductory paragraph to the present section noted that an exploration of love in human life, in light of the conclusions suggested by an exploration of love and Divine Life will reveal that human love is neither the same as, nor completely different from Divine Love. But the summary chart above contradicts this earlier suggestion because it clearly illustrates Divine Love and love in human life are polar opposites. (A different line of argument could have been adopted to produce a summary chart that illustrated that Divine Love and love in human life are exactly the same, thereby presenting the contradiction in a different light.) A sound intellect, informed by sensual experience and loving eyes will easily resolve the apparent contradiction between the suggestion made in the introduction and the summary chart presented in the conclusion. The most sophisticated and sound logical demonstration will not suffice to reconcile the apparent contradiction for an intellect habituated to abstract thought, but divorced from loving, sensual experience.

In light of these insights, should we think of the Song of Songs as a narrative about Divine Love or human love? (Davis) Should we approach the Song of Songs from the perspective of thinking “with scripture” or “thinking of” scripture? (Gottstein) Does love entail self-revelation, self-actualization, and self-affirmation or does it entail longing, sacrifice and faith in/for an other? In the face of these questions two types of silences are possible: a) a silence that is the result of an intuitive/loving grasp of the answer, but chooses to remain silent until the question is posed in more concrete, and contextual terms, and b) a silence that is the result of cognitive perplexity and frustration rooted in repeated failures to satisfactorily respond to contentless, hypothetical, dichotomous abstractions. In their own particular ways, Safi, Davis, and Gottstein have demonstrated the methodological necessity of loving eyes in order to even begin to do adequate justice to a text in one’s hand or topic in one’s head.


Frankl. V. (1984) Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Simon and Schuster: New York, New York)

Iqbal, M. (1996) The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Institute of Islamic Culture: Lahore, Pakistan)

Peirce, C.S. (1998) Chance, Love, Logic: Philosophical Essays (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, Nebraska)

Tillich, P. (1997) Dynamics of Faith (Harper Torchbooks: New York, NY)

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning