Shifting the center of Islam from law to love

Challenging the common understanding that Islam is a law-oriented religion, Dr Haidar Bagir, one of the most senior and influential Indonesian Muslim intellectuals, delivered his presentation at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum on September 13, 2017, calling for a renewed understanding of Islam as a religion of love.

Bagir criticized those who have included Islam in the group of law (nomos)-oriented religions, placed in contrast to Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism among others in the group of love (eros)-oriented religions. “If we study Islam from the Sufi point of view,” he stated, “we will find that Islam is a religion of love.”

To support this thesis, Bagir started with three hadith which, he said, are usually quoted in almost any book of Sufism on God’s love. First is the hadith known as the hadith of treasure (hadith al-kanz) in which God said, “I was a hidden treasure. I loved to be known, so I created the creations in order for me to be known.” In this hadith, God uses the word “love” (hubb) to explain God’s motive of creating creations.

Second is the hadith known as the hadith of Gabriel/Jibril in which Gabriel asked the Prophet Muhammad about what ihsān is. The Prophet then answered that ihsān is “you worship God as if you see Him and if you do not see Him, you believe that He sees you” (an ta’buda-Llāh ka`annaka tarāhu wain lam takun tarāhu fainnahu yarāka)—this is the hadith that, Bagir said, constitutes the foundation of tasawwuf or Islamic mysticism.

With regard to this second hadith, Bagir stated that the great Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240 CE) had a different way of reading the hadith. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the hadith does not  read “wain lam takun tarāhu” but “wain lam takun tarahu”. The only difference is only in the word “tarahu” which is with alif in the commonly read version (تراه) and without alif (تره) in Ibn ‘Arabi’s reading. The latter version would mean not “if you do not see Him” but rather “if you extinct/annihilate yourself, you will see Him”. This would eventually be the basis of the Sufi concept of fanāor self-annihilation.

Third is the hadith in which the Prophet said, “Love is my principle” (al-hubb asāsi), cited in Ihyā’ ‘Ulūmiddīn (The Revival of Religious Sciences) by the Sunni Sufi Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE).

These are in the hadith. What about in the Quran? Bagir pointed to the very statement all devout Muslims recite before reading the Quran or doing any good action: i.e. “In the name of Allah the Most Beneficent, the Most Compassionate.” This verse is the core of the Quran.

Bagir further talked about how God’s names/attributes are described in the Quran. The 99 names of God, which are mentioned in or derived from the Quran, can be divided into two groups: the tremendous names (jalāliyyah) and the fascinating names (jamāliyyah)—reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s understanding of God as mysterium tremendum et fascinans. According to a research that collects all Quranic verses pertaining to God’s 99 names, Quranic verses mentioning God’s fascinating names are five times more than those mentioning God’s tremendous names. One of those 99, namely God as the Vengeful (al-Muntaqim) is hardly mentioned in the Quran (it is referred to in the Quran three times in a different term, i.e. with the phrase u intiqām, “All-Able of retribution”), while there are around a hundred Quranic verses in which God referred to as the Most Forgiving. God says, “My mercy encompasses everything” (Q 7:156). In a hadith qudsi, God says, “My compassion subjugates my anger.” A hadith reported by al-Bukhari stated that this sentence, in one version or another, is written in the throne (‘arsh) of God. The word ‘arsh in the Quran should therefore be understood as symbolizing God’s compassion rather than His power as commonly associated.

Bagir subsequently talked about the concept of hell in the Quran. He argued that the Quranic word that is usually translated as torment (i.e. ‘aẓāb) in hell is actually more reflective of God’s compassion. There is not any Quranic verse stating that the ‘aẓāb in hell is eternal. “The hell is eternal, but the ‘aẓāb is not,” said Bagir. The phrase “khālidīna fīhā abadan” (“they—the people of hell—will be in it forever”) in the Quran doesn’t mean that the ‘aẓāb in hell is eternal, for the pronoun in fīhā (“in it”) is a feminine pronoun and as such doesn’t refer to ‘aẓāb which is masculine but to an-nār (hell) which is feminine. Besides, if we read Quranic verses, namely Q 30:21-23, we will find the word aḥqābā (أحقابا), which means “for ages”, which means that transgressors will be placed in hell for a long period, not forever.  

Furthermore, by tracing its etymological roots, the word aẓāb means “a pain inflicted by wiping”. In Arabic, however, the root word of ‘aẓāb (عذاب) is made of three letters (ع –  ذ – ب) from which another word is derived, namely ‘aẓīb (عذيب), which means “sweetness that refreshes”. Bagir argued that God’s choice to use the word ‘aẓāb for punishment in hell (again, usually translated as “torment”) is reflective of God’s act of compassion for sinners. Q 55: 43-45 reads: “This is the hell which the sinners deny. In its midst and in the midst of boiling hot water will they wander round! Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?” From the Sufi perspective, these verses explain that the hell is part of God’s favors, not wrath: ‘Aẓāb (a pain) is exercised for you to obtain aẓīb (sweetness).

During the Q&A session, a participant asked about how to deal with Muslim extremists who commit violence by claiming to act in the name of love. Bagir answered that there will be diverse interpretations of love in Islam. However, it is the intention that will make a difference. Any act committed out of hate will not result in the same way as that out of love, including war. Islam is not a pacifict religion; it wages war but in a highly limited condition, that is, first, it is only for the sake of self-defense and, second, all other peaceful means have been exercised but failing. To illustrate how war is waged out of love, Bagir told the story of Qasem Soleimani, a Sufi warrior, who said to his enemy, “If you kill me, and I become a martyr (shahid), then I swear to use my intercession (shafā’ah) to God to ask Him to forgive you.” Bagir insisted that having love doesn’t mean that we cannot punish an evildoer. We can, but the punishment has to be conducted out of love for the evildoer and for society in order to release them from this evil.

Another participant asked how love is measured. Bagir answered with the golden rule-like hadith, which said “a person is not really a believer until he loves for his brothers what he loves for himself.” That is the least expression of love. But in the Quran, Bagir further explained, there is the concept of īthār, which is you sacrifice things you really need for yourself for the good of others. The word  īthār was used to refer to what the people of Medina (Ansar) did to give shelters and needs to the Muslim immigrants (Muhajirun) from Mecca. Love is measured among others by how much you give. “I’m 60 years old now, and I think I’m old enough to give some advice to couples here: if your relation with your spouse is full of demands, that is not love. So see for yourself, do you have a love relationship or transactional relationship?”


Listen to the audio record of this Wednesday Forum with Dr Haidar Bagir on Youtube below:




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