Exploring the Theme of Mystical Love

By Muin Afnani

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #102
Bosch Baha'i School: Santa Cruz, California, USA
May 18–22, 2011
(see list of papers from #102)

    The theme of Love is one of the fundamental concepts in Sufism. From the fifth/eleventh century onward, when the focus of Sufism turns gradually from asceticism to speculative mysticism, the concept of love assumes a central role in the Sufi texts. For example, Ahmad Ghazzali (d. 528/1126) devotes his Savanih, a treatise in Persian, to the theme of love. After him, several other Sufi authors follow his lead. His student, Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani (d. 533/1131) spends chapter six of his Tamhidat, consisting of about fifty pages, on the concept of love. Attar (d. 623/1221) writes about love as one of the seven valleys of search in the Mantiq al-Tayr. The theme of love finds its highest expression in the writings of Ibn al-Arabi and Rumi, the two most famous masters of Sufism. However, in spite of the fact that countless pages of Sufi literature have been devoted to this topic the mystics have generally professed their inability fully to describe true love and its relations. Ibn al-Arabi provides the following statement about love in al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Openings):
    Whosoever defines love has not realized true love, and whosoever has not drunk a sip from the chalice of love has not recognized it, and whosoever claims that he has fully drunk from that chalice has not known true love, because love is a type of wine that does not satiate any one.1
    On the one hand, love is a reality that is manifest everywhere. Without love, and the force of attraction emanating from it, existence would not be conceivable. On the other hand, the true meaning of love is infinitely hidden. In this sense, much like the concept of existence (wujud), love cannot be defined or described.

    The theme of love is expressed extensively in two schools of Sufi thought, viz., the school represented by Ibn al-Arabi and his students, and the one represented by Rumi and his followers. A few words on the etymology of love might be useful. The English word "love" has been used to translate several Arabic words that although their meanings overlap could also imply different concepts to the reader in the original language. Chapter 178 of al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya is on the recognition (marifa) of the station of love. At the beginning of this long chapter, Ibn al-Arabi mentions that the station (maqam) of love could be referred to by four different names or titles. 2 The first word mentioned is hubb, which is the root and original word for love, and also means affection and attachment. The second title for love is wadd, which means affection and amity. One of its derivatives is a divine name, al-wadud, the friendly and always loving. The third word is ishq, which implies the extreme of love and union between lover and beloved. The word ishq is said to have been derived from the name of a plant called ashaqah, which apparently grows on a tree and draws water and food from it, thereby weakening the tree, and at times destroying it. The fourth title is hawa, which means a sudden affection or surge of passion. It also implies the exertion of the will to reach the beloved.

    Two of these four names, viz., hubb and ishq, and their derivatives have been used more often in the Arabic and Persian Sufi texts dealing with the theme of love. While the word hubb and its various derivatives occur in many verses in the Quran, the same is not true of ishq. In fact some Muslim scholars have written that the use of the word ishq in reference to God is inappropriate. For example, Shaykh Ahmad Ahsai in his Sharh al-Ziyara says that it is the practice of the "people of error" to use the word ishq in relation to God. 3 Yet, the Sufi literature has made abundant use of the word ishq, and its derivatives, and the distinction between the two is not always clear.

    Many Sufis have expressed the idea that the cause or motive for creation was the love of God. According to this notion, the basis of creation is love and beauty.

    In the Baha'i Writings love has been expressed as the underlying theme for Baha'i theology and Baha'i teachings. Baha'u'llah quotes the Islamic tradition which states that the motive for creation of man and the cosmos was the love of God. We shall explore some of the concepts related to the theme of mystical love in the works of a few of the masters of Sufi thought, and in the Baha'i Writings.

      1 Ibn al-Arabi, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, Dar Sadir, Beirut, Vol. II, p. 12.

      2 Ibn al-Arabi, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, Dar Sadir, Beirut, Vol. II, p. 323.

      3 Shaykh Ahmad Ahsai, Sharh al-Ziyara al-Jamia al-Kabira, Vol. I, Beirut, 1999, p. 207.

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