Over the coming weeks and months, we will be attempting to provide a series of summaries on various discussions from the thirty-sixth book of the Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, titled, ‘love, longing intimacy and contentment’ (kitāb al-maḥabba wa’l-ṣhawq wa’al-uns wa’l-riḍā). This book deals with a difficult and sometimes problematic subject: the love of God for man and of man for God. This is because one finds many early Sufis as well as dogmatic theologians who objected to the notion that there might be between God and man any sort of relation of love, as love is commonly understood.
In the early centuries of Islam, love was strictly defined as “obedience.” Any suggestion of a reciprocal relationship of love between God and man was seen to be unseemly – if not blasphemous – as well as illogical. Where God is described as “loving” (wadūd), it was generally presented as a form of compassion or mercy (raḥma). Al-wadūd was understood as the one who wishes all creatures well and accordingly favors and praises them. Mercy, however, when it comes to God’s love was sovereign and disinterested; it does not presuppose a recipient in need of mercy nor is it the result of any ‘empathy’ on God’s part. There was also a question of religious decorum where piety had its protocols; unseemly outpourings of affection were not merely examples of lèse-majestè on a cosmic scale but breaches of pious tact.
Still, the key question remains, how to reconcile a God who is transcendent with the human creature? Are there any grounds for claiming a relationship between God and humankind? Moreover, is it not true, as Ghazālī would agree, that divine existence is “real” (ḥaqīqī), while human existence is at best “figurative” (majāzī)? Nevertheless, the argument, as we shall see in a later discussion, was that human love of God cannot be relegated to being merely figurative.
Love was not the only concept that was problematic, in early Islam, “friendship” with God was unthinkable, and some, like Ja’d ibn Dirham (d. 25/743) paid the ultimate price for denying the Abraham could be “the friend of God” (khalīl Allāh).
Before Ghazālī, writings were scattered and pithy, he was, it is argued, the first to give it a compelling shape which culminated in this book, where he argues, confidently, that not only is the love of God conceivable, but there exists a reciprocal loving relationship between God and man. It was one aspect of Ghazālī’s achievement to have answered such objections; he was the first Muslim theologian and mystic to elaborate a doctrine of divine love rigorously and systematically, employing carefully structured arguments and proof based on both on tradition and reason.