Divine Love: Islamic Literature and the Path to God

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The very heart of the Islamic tradition is love; no other word adequately captures the quest for transformation that lies at this tradition’s center. So argues esteemed professor of medieval Islam William C. Chittick in this survey of the extensive Arabic and Persian literature on topics ranging from the Qur’an up through the twelfth century. Bringing to light extensive foundational Persian sources never before presented, Chittick draws on more than a thousand pages of newly translated material to depict the rich prose literature at the center of Islamic thought.

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Editorial Reviews

H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad
“Chittick is arguably the best scholar and translator of Classical Islamic Mysticism (Sufism) the Western World has ever produced. His books are sheer gold. But this latest work is a masterwork studded with unique spiritual gems on love.”—H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, author of Love in the Holy Qur’an
Stephen G. Post
“This masterpiece is the finest scholarly study of love in Islam ever produced.  Chittick’s brilliant theo-philosophical analysis encompasses all the great Islamic thinkers and offers an urgent message not just for historians of religion, but for all Muslims and for those of every faith tradition.”—Stephen G. Post, Stony Brook University
David Burrell
“Rendering a vast Arabic and Persian repertoire into lucid English allows William Chittick to display how central love is in the Islamic tradition.  Persian masters Maybudi and Sam’ânî open worlds of poetic theological reflection, detailing the origin of love, a life of love, and the goal of love.”—David Burrell, University of Notre Dame
Omid Safi
“A profound addition to our understanding of Sufism.  It will be yet another long-standing contribution in the magnificent career of William Chittick, and another confirmation of his status as one of the very leading scholars of Sufism today.”—Omid Safi, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
James W. Morris
“The classic Sufi poets of divine and human love—Rumi, Hafez, Attar and others—are by now familiar figures. William Chittick’s book beautifully introduces the earlier Persian (and Arabic) prose writers on love who provide the background for that love-poetry, and whose “theology of love” shaped the popular understanding of Islam through the centuries.”—James W. Morris, Boston College
Choice - Outstanding Academic Title
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 in the Religion Category.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300185959
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 6/10/2013
  • Pages: 520
  • Sales rank: 485,115
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

William C. Chittick, professor of religious studies at Stony Brook University, is a leading translator and interpreter of classical Islamic texts.  His books include The Sufi Path of Love and In Search of the Lost Heart.  He lives in Mount Sinai, NY.

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Read an Excerpt

Divine Love

Islamic Literature and the Path to God

By William C. Chittick


Copyright © 2013 William C. Chittick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18595-9



The Theological Context

By theology, I mean discussion of the divine reality and its relationship with the universe. During the formative period of Islamic thought, up until around the eleventh century, theologians could be classified into three broad schools of thought, which historians have typically called Kalam (dogmatic, scholastic, or dialectical theology), Sufism or mysticism, and philosophy. At least from the time of Muhammad Ghazali, the categories started to break down as authors tended more and more to combine the approaches.

Those theologians who addressed the issue of love did so in the context of various terminological givens, such as the notion of unity; the depiction of God as Essence, attributes (or names), and acts; and the complementarity of divine attributes. Part of what distinguishes the approach of those with Sufi leanings from that of the Kalam experts is the stress on the human side of the divine-human relationship.

Generally speaking, experts in Kalam insisted on God's utter transcendence and downplayed any suggestion of immanence. By doing so, they obscured the fact that the human perception and reception of God are intimately bound up with human nature. Trying to avoid anthropomorphism, they sought refuge in the abstrusities of rational thought and avoided the imagery and symbolism of the Qur'an and the Hadith, especially when these depicted God in blatantly human terms. A good portion of the writing of Ibn al-'Arabi addresses this allergy of Kalam to taking the Qur'an at face value. He advises the Kalam experts to stop explaining away the apparent meaning of the verses and to open up their souls to God's disclosure of Himself in forms and symbols. He does not deny the necessity of the abstracting power of rationality (reason, in his view, is one of the two eyes of the heart), but he wants people to give equal time to imagination and symbolism.

Theologians who stressed the centrality of love in the human-divine relationship often talked about dry issues of theological discourse, but tended to avoid the abstractions and tedious argumentation favored by Kalam and philosophy and instead tied the discussion back to Qur'anic symbolism and the everyday experience of the human soul. The fact that they focused on love shows that they were writing with the goal of bringing humans and God together, not keeping them apart. Rational analysis, as Ibn al-'Arabi never tires of reminding his readers, drives God from the soul and leaves seekers bereft of the object they should be seeking. Kalam experts advised those who would like to love God that He is far, far beyond pitiful human attempts to grasp Him in their embrace. Ibn al-'Arabi and others like him never forgot that it is God's very otherness, the fact that He utterly transcends every notion of transcendence, that puts Him in the midst of the human soul and opens it up to love.

In one of my favorite passages contrasting the abstract theorizing of the rational thinkers with the scriptural imagery and symbolism embraced by lovers, Ibn al-'Arabi offers the following observation. Notice that he is referring to a famous divine saying about the creation of the universe. In its most common version, it reads: "I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be recognized, so I created the creatures so that they might recognize Me." He is also referring to the Hadith of Gabriel, in which the Prophet defines ihsan, "doing the beautiful," as "worshiping God as if you see Him." As we will see, this definition of ihsan is central to the general understanding of the path to God. Notice also that Ibn al-'Arabi uses the word Shariah (shari'a) in its broadest sense, that is, revealed religion. This becomes clear when he pluralizes it in the first paragraph, meaning all the religions sent by God.

By God, were it not for the Shariah that came with the divine report-giving, no one would recognize God! Had we remained with our rational proofs—which, in the opinion of the rational thinkers, demonstrate the knowledge that God's Essence is "not like this" and "not like that"—no created thing would ever have loved Him. But the divine reports have come in the tongues of the Shariahs, saying that "He is like this" and "He is like that" and mentioning things whose outward meanings are contradicted by rational proofs.

He made us love Him through these positive attributes. Then, having set down the relationships and established the causes and kinship that bring about love, He said, "Nothing is as His likeness" [42:11].

Thus He affirmed the causes that bring about love, even if rational proofs deny them. This is the meaning of His words, "I created the creatures and made Myself recognized to them, so they came to recognize Me." They recognize God only by means of what He reported about Himself: His love for us, His mercy toward us, His clemency, His tenderness, His loving-kindness, His descent into limitation so that we may conceive of Him in images and place Him before our eyes in our hearts, our kiblah, and our imagination, such that it is "as if" we see Him. Or rather, we do indeed see Him within ourselves, for we have come to recognize Him by His making Himself recognized, not by our own rational consideration.

(al-Futuhat al-makkiyya 2:326)


A good deal of the secondary literature on love in Islamic civilization investigates writings on profane love, which make relatively little reference to the Qur'an and the Hadith, preferring instead to address the trials and tribulations of human lovers, especially as they were celebrated in Arabic poetry from earliest times. In contrast, books on divine love are rooted explicitly or implicitly in the Qur'anic worldview (though in the case of early philosophers, that basis may not be obvious). Failure to grasp the givens of the discussion will make it diffi cult to see the ground on which the authors were standing. Let me then summarize the basic standpoint of the texts.

The most concise expression of the Islamic worldview is found in the Shahadah (shahada), the formula of bearing witness: "I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is God's messenger." This statement gives us three primary issues, each of which is discussed throughout the Qur'an: First, there are those who bear witness to the message, that is, human beings. Second, there is God, who sends the message. Third, there are the Messenger and the message, the intermediaries between God and man. More simply, we have human beings, Ultimate Reality, and the tie that binds them together; or lovers, the Beloved, and love.

These three issues are the foundation upon which most religious traditions are built, what ever the language used to express them. They become Islamic when those who speak of them take the truth of the Qur'an for granted and pose the issues in its terms. To say that they take the Qur'an as true, however, does not mean that they think its meaning is always clear. Any survey of Islamic literature will show that the question of how to interpret the message has always been hotly debated. I have already alluded to the fact that Qur'an commentators like Maybudi and Qushayri, not to mention the great Fakhr al-Din Razi (d. 1209), frequently offer several interpretations for any given verse. The plethora of Qur'an commentaries throughout history provides a great variety of readings and standpoints. Ibn al-'Arabi goes so far as to assert that every interpretation of the Qur'an for which a case can be made on the basis of the Arabic language was in fact intended by God, who knew from the outset every possible interpretation of His speech.

The Shahadah acknowledges the existence of man, asserts that God is the reality beyond all, and adds that this reality communicates itself by means of the Messenger. But who exactly is man, what exactly is God, and what precisely does the message say? Uttering the Shahadah before two witnesses is the minimal definition of being a Muslim. The act provides orientation, but it is simply the first step in a lifelong process. Understanding the implications of the utterance is the goal of Islamic scholarship.

Theologians often speak of God's message as having three basic principles: tawhid, or the assertion of God's unity; prophecy (nubuwwa), or the explication of the nature of the intermediaries between God and man; and the Return (ma'ad), or the final encounter, when human beings go back to their Origin (mabda'). The relationship between Origin and Return became a vital discussion in both philosophy and Sufism, though the experts in Kalam paid relatively little attention to it. Many scholars described the two together as "the circle of existence" (da'irat al-wujud), beginning with God, descending into creation and manifestation, and ascending back to God. The force that drives this process was frequently called love. Most discussions of divine love look at the universe as love's fruit, and the human return to God as its final goal.

The first formula of the Shahadah, "(There is) no god but God," is called kalimat al-tawhid, the sentence voicing (God's) unity. The basic meaning of the word tawhid is to say one. Islamic theology in all forms makes tawhid the foundational axiom for discussion of God, the universe, and man. Implications of tawhid can quickly be discerned with the help of the formula. It means that there is no true god but the Eternal God, nothing truly one but the Eternal One, nothing truly alive but the Living, nothing truly knowing but the Omniscient, nothing truly powerful but the Omnipotent, nothing truly loving but the Loving. Each of God's most beautiful names (al-asma' al-husna) can be inserted into the formula to throw light on the Divine Reality.

Tawhid is a statement about God per se, the Ultimate Reality as such, without regard to the universe, time, or history. At first glance, it provides a static picture: the one God is the true reality, and all positive qualities of existence—life, love, creativity, consciousness, compassion, forgiveness, justice—are true and real in Him alone. At second glance, it contains an implicit dynamism, for the True Reality brings the universe into existence, sustains all things moment by moment, and takes each of them back to its final home. Everything comes from God, is constantly supported by Him, and returns to Him. Things come and go, originate and return, descend and ascend. All are driven by love.

The second formula of the Shahadah, "Muhammad is God's messenger," brings up the issue of the human role in creation. Given our innate intelligence, awareness, and moral sense, what should we do with ourselves? The brief answer: God in His love and mercy recognizes our inability to figure out who we are and what we should be doing about it, so He provides guidance to show us how to live in conformity with our true selves. We will return to God whether we want to or not, so the wisest course is to prepare for the encounter. As Plato pointed out, philosophy—love of wisdom—is preparing oneself for death, and the Muslim philosophers, like Muslims generally, took wisdom to heart. There is none truly wise, after all, but God. To love God is to love wisdom, and wisdom demands activity appropriate for returning to the Origin.

In His gentleness and kindness, God would like us to return in a manner congenial to our natures. So He sends messengers with good news and warning. The good news is that if we follow God's guidance, we will put ourselves in harmony with His mercy. The bad news is that if we do not follow His guidance, we will diverge from what is required by mercy and expose ourselves to mercy's complement, wrath.

In sum, the two formulae of the Shahadah have clear implications on two basic levels: The first formula points to the way things actually are (that is, tawhid), and the second to the way human beings ought to be (that is, in harmony with God's mercy and wisdom).

From the standpoint of tawhid, everything is exactly as it must be, so good and evil do not enter the picture. There is no reality but the True Reality, and all things come into being to be precisely what they are.

From the standpoint of those who receive the revealed messages, some things are good and some bad, some better and some worse. Left to ourselves, we do not have sufficient resources to sort things out—hence, the need for merciful guidance. The whole enterprise of modernity, of course, rejects this principle out of hand. It is claimed that we do indeed have the resources, in the form of science, technology, ideology, and so on, and that we can and must reconfigure the world in keeping with our own understanding of how things ought to be.

The obvious distinction between the way things are and the way things ought to be, or the ontological imperative and the moral imperative, has always been discussed by religionists, philosophers, politicians, and theoreticians of all sorts. It lies behind all human endeavor, all attempts to understand and to change. It props up theories of evolution, progress, and every sort of ideology. In the Abrahamic traditions, it has appeared in the endless debates over predestination and free will, in the Indian traditions in analyses of the workings of karma, and in China in the vexing issue of the human ability to upset the mandate of Heaven. In modern times, we tend rather to talk of natural laws as opposed to moral laws, or nature versus nurture.

Muslim thinkers conceptualized the distinction between what is and what ought to be in many different ways. Commonly, they distinguished between two divine commands (amr). The first command expresses the truth of tawhid—there is no reality but the True Reality, so all apparent reality is utterly subservient to the True Reality. Everything follows this command, which is called the creative command (al-amr al-khalqi) or the engendering command (al-amr altakwini). Its most salient characteristic is that it cannot be disobeyed. Many Qur'anic verses are cited in support, such as "His only command, when He desires a thing, is to say to it 'Be!,' and it comes to be" (36:82).

God desires the universe to be what it is, and the proof is that the universe is what it is. He said Be! and it has come to be. Be! is His eternal word, which is to say that it is outside time. It has temporal repercussions as soon as it brings the universe into existence. From the standpoint of our own immersion in the constantly changing realm of time, God is uttering Be! without beginning and end. All things other than God—whatever these may be, in this world or the next, in any world whatsoever-come into existence in obedience and subservience to this command: "None is there in the heavens and the earth that comes not to the All-Merciful as a servant" (19:93). Notice that this verse associates all things with the All-Merciful (rahman), one of the quasi-synonyms of the name Loving (wadud). Without the motherly quality of love and mercy, there would be no creation.

When we switch our focus to the second formula of the Shahadah, we see that it allows for human freedom. God issues a whole series of commands by means of prophets (nabi) and messengers (rasul). These Qur'anic terms are broad enough to embrace avatars, buddhas, and sages, for "Every community has a messenger" (10:47). The salient characteristic of prophetic commands is that people are free to obey or disobey them. Thus, God commands Muslims to perform the ritual prayers, fast during Ramadan, pay the alms tax, avoid pork, act with charity, deal with people justly, and so on, but He does not coerce them to do so. If He did, they would be angels, not humans.

Viewed as a whole, God's commands and prohibitions are called the religious command (al-amr al-dini), since they establish religion (din), one example of which came to be known as Islam. They are also called the prescriptive command (al-amr al-taklifi), because they prescribe guidelines for activity and life.

If we acknowledge the universality of prophecy as taught by the Qur'an, it is clear that there have been many religious commands. What remained debatable for Muslim scholars is who exactly was a prophet and to what extent any given prophecy remained valid at that point, or at any point, in human history. There has never been any consensus on these issues.

In short, the two commands—creative and religious—are clear corollaries of the two formulae of the Shahadah. First, God does as He wills, because there is no god but He, and no one can say a word about it. Second, He sends prophets to address what ever mea sure of freedom people do in fact have. They can choose among alternatives, and their choices will have repercussions. The way they live their lives will shape their destinies, not only in this world but also in the next.

Excerpted from Divine Love by William C. Chittick. Copyright © 2013 by William C. Chittick. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr....................     vii     

Preface....................     xi     

List of Abbreviations....................     xxvii     

A Note on Format....................     xxix     

Part One The Origin of Love....................          

ONE The Theological Context....................     3     

TWO The Story of Love....................     41     

THREE Spiritual Psychology....................     105     

Part Two The Life of Love....................          

FOUR The Search....................     149     

FIVE The Path....................     195     

SIX The States of the Travelers....................     238     

Part Three The Goal of Love....................          

SEVEN The Reality of Love....................     279     

EIGHT The Suffering of Love....................     339     

NINE The Realization of Tawhid....................     381     

Notes....................     439     

Bibliography....................     443     

Index of Qur'anic Verses....................     449     

Index of Hadiths and Sayings....................     461     

Index of Names and Terms....................     467     

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