Love: An Essay

“What is love?” in the context of Sufi teachings.

“What is love?” is a question is very similar to Pilate’s question “What is truth?”[1] It cannot be answered with a simple definition. To define such an intangible concept one must venture into it’s different names, attributes, effects and how one can achieve it.  To do this, the greatest thinkers of Sufi teachings will be referred to, who have based their entire Sufi experience and teachings on Love. Ibn ‘Arabi and Rumi are most famous for their vast number of literature on the topic, both devoting their time to engulf themselves in the conceptualising of Love. Also, Rabi’ah of Basra was most famous for providing a foundation of pure devotion to God, to the extent where she decided to live a celibate life as she was wholly in love with God. Ghazali will also be referred to, and has fewer works on the topic; however his take on Love is somewhat different to the majority of Sufi figures.

There is an esoteric theory on love amongst the Sufis. One of the main foundations of the importance of cultivating Love in one’s life is the verses about love which appear in the Qur’an. “He loves them, and they love Him” (5:54) is an important verse from the Qur’an for Sufi teachings of love as it determines that it is God who loves humans first. Humans then come to love God through following His final messenger’s example and through purifying their souls. It is then that God’s love for them will increase. One can assume when reading Sufi texts that the fundamental principal of love is that the starting point is always God’s Love. Without God’s Love, people could not love God. The hadith of The Hidden Treasure[2] narrates that people would not exist without His love as God created people out of love for them.[3] It is necessary to note that in order to conceptualise Sufi love the language of the Sufi’s must be used. Recurring terms such as ‘Beloved’ and ‘lover’ are used in Sufi literature to refer to God (The Beloved) and humans (the lovers).

Satisfaction, Longing and Disinterest:

Love is to be satisfied with one’s beloved, to long for one’s beloved and to be intimate with one’s beloved. Al-Hujwiri, most famous for his work ‘Revelation of the Veiled’, states that satisfaction (rida’) relates to both Divine satisfaction with man and man’s satisfaction with God. God’s satisfaction with humans is shown through His bestowing of grace upon them and man’s satisfaction with God is shown through committing to God’s decree and carrying out God’s commands.[4] Man’s longing (shawq) ultimately means longing for his beloved, longing to see God unveiled and to be in union with the Beloved. Abu Talib, the uncle to Prophet Muhammad, states that shawq refers to the longing to see the unseen and to make visible the invisible. Finally, intimacy (uns), to the Sufi, is the close proximity to God. It is the continuous immersing into the remembrance of the Beloved and the unveiling of the Beloved’s presence. Rabi’a Basri was one of the first to stress the doctrine of love and she encapsulated all three of these stations of love. In regards to rida’ Rabi’a states that one knows they are satisfied with their Beloved ‘when his pleasure in misfortune is equal to his pleasure in prosperity.”[5] Rabi’a here means that one must be satisfied with everything about God, his Attributes and all things that he decides – including His decisions which cause pain. In regards to shawq and uns, Rabi’a states that the one who longs for his beloved would obey the one whom they love. Those who obey the true Beloved are those who seek intimacy with Him. For Rab’ia, the doctrine of love in Sufism is loving nothing other than God and longing for nothing other than God. She portrays this doctrine in a striking manner by saying what some Muslims would regard as a taboo statement. Rabi’a was reported to have said:

“I am going to light fire in Paradise and to pour water on to Hell so that both veils (i.e. hindrances to the true visions of God) may completely disappear from the pilgrims and their purpose may be sure, and the servants of God may see Him, without any object of hope or motive of fear. What if the hope of Paradise and the fear of Hell did not exist? Not one would worship his Lord or obey him.”[6]

This beautifully explains the term ‘disinterested love’. This form of love means that one should not look for reward, nor look towards relief from punishment, and should cut off every distraction from God. That is only done through accomplishing what is pleasing to God so that He may be glorified.[7] Rabi’a took every means possible to achieve this disinterested love and intimacy with God and chose to lead a celibate life for she wanted to be intimate with no other being other than God and wanted God to be her only object of love. In one of Rabi’a’s poems, she states that there are two types of love – one is selfish and one is love worthy of God. The selfish love includes similar things to which has been discussed. Selfish love is the love of God in order for His favour and for grace to be bestowed. Selfish lovers wants nothing else but their beloved, and in this case, casting away earthly desires in order to see nothing but God. The love which is worthy of God is the love whereby God shows His favour and unveils Himself, and Abu Talib states that this is the superior type of love.[8] With this information, it can be said that love is the longing for union with the beloved and it is the favour and grace shown from the beloved.

Non-existent Love:

Ibn ‘Arabi and Rumi both agree that love cannot be described. However, they do both speak of the branches of Love. Ibn ‘Arabi in particular discusses what it means to perpetuate ‘Real’ Love. Ibn ‘Arabi claims that the love between people is in actuality humans’ predisposition to love God; for all phenomena returns back to God who ‘wanted to be known’.[9] This suggests that any love for God’s self-disclosures trail back to God Himself. When speaking of disclosures, Ibn ‘Arabi categorises them into three headings; the universe, the human self and the scripture. According to Ibn ‘Arabi and majority of Sufi figures, God created humans in His form, His form being inclusive of all different attributes that He possesses. Therefore, any admiration to any of His attributes and self-disclosures is actually admiration of God. Those who do not necessarily believe in this all inclusive God as passionately as Sufi saints do are still subjected to God’s Love but, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, cannot see it for what it truly is.  Those who love God came to love Him through knowing that they came from Him and as a result of this knowledge they see things as they are.[10] It can be said then that love is looking past the obvious and recognising your true desire.

Ibn ‘Arabi expands on this concept by explaining ‘non-existent love’. He claims that the object of one’s love is always non-existent. By this he means that the object of one’s love is not necessarily a tangible object but something which cannot be seen. An example of this is saying one can state they love a person, however it is not the person that is the object of desire but it is the desire to be near to them; to achieve what they have not yet achieved. If one finds that it is actually intimacy that is the object of their love, and they still love it after having achieved their desire it can be said that love does indeed exist along with its object, contradicting what Ibn ‘Arabi says. However, he responds by stating that it is not the achievement itself that is love’s object but now it is the permanence of that achievement and frankly reminds the readers that permanence is not an existing thing. To add to love not being able to be defined, its object is not tangible.[11]

Ibn ‘Arabi also compares the term wujud to love. Wujud which, in a philosopher’s language, means existence and being and it is a word that Ibn ‘Arabi attaches to God. Its literal meaning, however, is “finding” or “to be found”. For him, wujud is both of these things. It is the objective side of reality, meaning existence and being, and it is also the subjective side of reality, meaning the reality of finding i.e. to be aware, conscious and understand. The Real Wujud however, is God. One of the similarities between love and wujud is that it cannot be defined just like love cannot be defined. In order to understand Love one must taste it for themselves and in order to understand wujud one must experience it. Another similarity is that like wujud, love in itself cannot be known and one can only learn about it by knowing its attributes. Just like the Real Wujud spoke of His many names in the Qur’an so that those reading may learn about His attributes, one can know what love is through its many different forms and names that it is given.[12] This then, could suggest a beginning of a journey into defining love.


Rumi agrees with Ibn ‘Arabi’s idea of non-existent love. Rumi describes that in contrast to directing love only towards true existence i.e. God, there are a people who believe in ‘the independent existence of various objects of desire’.[13] However, Rumi describes these objects of desire as a ‘veil’ because in reality these objects of desire are desires for God. The majority of humans will only realise they are veils when they meet their Creator in the afterlife, according to Rumi. This throbbing inherent current of desire to know God, which Rumi portrays, is also a form of need; a need to be loved and to love God.[14] Referring back to Ibn ‘Arabi’s terminology, there is no wujud but wujud; there is no existence but Existence; there is no god but God and with no coincidence, this is also the declaration of faith for Muslims.[15] In simpler words, there is no being without The Being; meaning that people are in need of God’s Love as it is the very Love which they were brought into existence. Rumi strengthens his argument by reminding his readers that if there was no need for the world, God would not have created it. If there was no need for the sun, the moon or the stars, they would not have been visibly existent. If the beggar did not need food, the beggar would not have cried out to people. Rumi then concludes that one must accept that they are needy as need is the base of all existences.[16] “Love is the want and need for something”[17]; and as the motivation for the creation of the cosmos is Love, all created things are lovers which seek one another out of need.[18]

To tie in the aforementioned properties of love Ahmed Sama’ni, known to be very knowledgeable in religious sciences, speaks of need and non-existence in a broader term; ‘Poverty’. Sama’ni states the simple notion that whoever has something has then no need for it, so that would mean God has no need as He has everything. By recognising one’s own non-existence and nothingness before God can one truly love God, and this was the secret to Adam’s love for God. According to Islamic tradition, Adam was given the eight paradises and was placed on the throne of kingship however this was not filling his need for God as he recognised his own nothingness. It was this void that, according to Sama’ni, led Adam to eat the forbidden fruit because this would mean he would be afar from God, in result growing his need for his Beloved and tasting the sweetness of longing for his Love.[19] This sort of purposeful action taken to exuberate love is reflected in Rumi’s literature as he exclaims that humans should not indulge in quenching thirst, however one should acquire it. This is to mean that one should stay needy in order not to ever be satisfied with anything other than God. Rumi gives an example of a hungry crying baby; if a baby were to think about the profit in crying then it will never be given milk. However it is the crying of an infant which gets the baby fed. Rumi then advises that people should cry out to God with need in order that they may be rewarded with an increase in love from God.[20] According to this information, Love is also accepting one’s own deformities in order to always be longing and needing perfection from their beloved.

Love and the intellect:

Rumi is also of the opinion that the intellect can only take one so far. Ibn ‘Arabi relays that to know God is a vital process to loving God[21], but Rumi believes that the intellect is what stops one from walking away from trying to comprehend God.[22] Cleverness is a friend of pride[23], and pride stops one from loving fully. It is only when one has reached a strong foundation of knowledge of God should they then divorce intellect so that one can immerse themselves in the rapturing love for God. Intellect should be divorced after a certain level as, according to Rumi, love is also to fully entrust the Beloved, and the intellect will not allow oneself to freely jump into the unknown.[24] Thus, Love is a process; and this process includes gaining knowledge of the Creator which then brings one to the next stage of Love – divorce of rationalism.

Al-Ghazali’s literature on love is scarce, however when he speaks of it he emphasises the link between love and knowledge and his take on love is rather unique in comparison to the other Sufi figures I have mentioned. Ghazali’s take on love seems to be very rationalised and he seems to be confident in answering the question, ‘What is love?’ To begin his emphasis on knowing God, Ghazali states 5 different causes of love. With much respect, a condensed version of 3 of the 5 causes shall be mentioned because Ghazali focuses on linking love with knowledge in each of these three causes. The first is the desire to continue one’s existence. This is to mean that through God’s Love, non-existence came into visible existence and the result is man’s nature to love to continue his existence – and Ghazali states that this is human’s first object of love. He also states that humans have an innate love of perfection. The things which keep man’s existence and perfection going are things like organs, children and friends. Man’s children will continue his existence after his death and knowledge of one’s own body and mind will continue his existence. Humans love their own existence, so knowledge of his own existence and a profound understanding of the Being that gave him existence is necessary. In simpler terms, one must know himself and his Creator in order to love Him. The second cause of love is the love of doing good. A person loves the being who benefits them and it is through true knowledge of God which reveals to the person that the Being, God, benefits man abundantly. Also, as man loves those who do good, it will result in loving good virtues and it does not necessarily have to benefit him. Thus the knowledge of prophets will stir up the love for God. The third cause of love is the love for a thing in itself without seeking any benefit and Ghazali adds that it is this love which is true and profound. It is from this information where one can conclude that the origin of love is knowledge as humans come to know things as they really are.[25]

From the Sufi perspective, humans come to love by knowing that they are non-existent, by knowing that they are needy, by knowing the attributes of God and knowing that all individual objects of love are indeed veils between God and creation. It is the word ‘knowing’ here that one can say love cannot be born without knowledge and knowledge cannot be born without love- as it was God who created all things; both existent and non-existent. Love also requires activeness; it is not an attitude of passivity.[26] Rumi advises his readers to seek one’s beloved. Though there is knowledge of the beloved loving the lover, the lover will not settle without wanting to please their beloved more. Rumi tells his reader to cry, Rabi’a tells her reader to be active in one’s longing for the beloved. She also stresses that it is only God that should be the object of one’s love and desire. Sufi love is ultimately a transitive relationship between a person and God; it is longing, needing and desire to see nothing other than God and it is a tunnel vision between man and God. Love is all of these things, but it can never be one thing.


[1] M. Smith (2001). Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rabi’a and Other Women Mystics in Islam. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pg. 124.

[2] ‘I was a treasure that was not known, so I loved to be known. Hence I created the creatures and I made Myself known to them, and thus they came to know Me.’ (Hadith Qudsi)

[3] W. C. Chittick (2000). Sufism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pg. 62.

[4] ‘Ali b. ‘Uthman al-Hujwiri. Kashf al-Mahjub. Tr. R. A. Nicholson (1911). London. Pg. 177

[5] Abu Talib al-Makki (1310). Qut al-Qulub. Cairo. Cited Smith, 2001. pg. 122.

[6] Shams al-Din A. Aflaki. Manaqib al-Arifin. Cited Smith, pg. 123.

[7] Smith, pp. 113-141.

[8] Ibid., pp. 126-127.

[9] Refer to footnote 1.

[10] W. C. Chittick (2005). Ibn ‘Arabi: Heir to the Prophets. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 32-33.

[11] Ibid., pp.38-39

[12] Ibid., pp.16-17

[13] W. C. Chittick (1983). The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. New York: State University of New York Press. pg. 201.

[14] Ibid., pg. 206

[15] Chittick, 2005. Pp. 39-41

[16] The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi ed. and trans. R. A. Nicholson, 8 vols. London: Luzac, 1925-1940. Cited Chittick, 1983. pg. 207.

[17] Fihi ma fihi, ed. B. Furuzanfar, Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1348/1969; A. J. Arberry (trans.), Discourses of Rumi London: John Murray, 1961. Cited Chittick, 1983. pg. 139-148

[18] The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi. Cited Chittick, 1983. pg. 209.

[19] Chittick, 2000. pp. 118-125.

[20] Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz. B. Furuzanfar ed., Kulliyyat-i Shams ya diwan-i kabir, 10 vols. Tehran: University of Tehran Press. Cited Chittick, 1983. pg. 211.

[21] Chittick, 2005. pg. 32-33

[22] Fihi ma fihi. Cited Chittick, 1983. pg. 222

[23] The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi. Cited Chittick, 1983. pg. 223

[24] Fihi ma fihi. Cited Chittick, 1983. pg. 224

[25] B. Abrahamov (2003). Divine Love in Islamic Mysticism: The Teachings of al-Ghazali and al-Dabbagh. London: RoutledgeCurzon. pp. 44-56.

[26] Ibid., pp. 84-85.

Love: An Essay

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