The many words and meanings for love in Arabic are reflective of Islam's comprehensiveness and depth
by G. WILLOW WILSON
"At the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow," wrote Egyptian author Adhaf Soueif in her Booker-nominated novel, The Map of Love. She was indulging in a very beautifully written digression about Arabic grammar, comparing words derived from the same root: in this case, qalb, "heart"; and enqilab, "overthrow". At this level, where the interplay of meaning and construction is visible, Arabic becomes an extraordinary language, forcing into cooperation concepts and ideas that are entirely unrelated in English.
Despite the tremendous conceptual range and utility provided by the root-and-pattern system of the language, there is a common assumption among non-speakers that Arabic-and thus, Islam-lacks an equivalent of agapé, a Greek term used by Christians to mean the boundary-less, self-sacrificing love between believers, or between a believer and God. More passionate than filia, less explicit than eros, agapé is love stripped of expectation, in which the lover is humbled and disciplined before the beloved. Running a Google search for 'agapé' and 'Islam' yields literally hundreds of Christian sites claiming there is no such term in Arabic, and painting Islam as a cold, dispassionate religion in its absence.
Over the years, Sufi Muslims have co-opted many of the romantic Arabic words for love and made them serve an ideal very much like agapé: Rumi feels hayam for the absent Shams; al Ghazali explores 'aishq as the union between a worthy believer and a higher Beloved, Allah. The poetry of 10th and 11th-century Sufis helped inspire the troubadour culture and ideals of courtly love that flourished in the medieval kingdoms of southern France, Navarre and Aragonne; one of the positive artistic developments to arise from contact between Christian Europe and the Muslim Near East during the Crusades. But many of the greatest Sufi thinkers, including al Ghazali, were themselves influenced by Platonic, Neoplatonic and Gnostic Christian ideals of love, kept alive in the medieval Middle East by the translation of Greek, Roman and Byzantine texts into Arabic and Persian. The question remains: we know the Prophet Muhammad meant Muslims to love and serve God, but did he mean them to be in love with God-and to reflect this love and service among each other?
The answer is, simply, yes. Though it has classically been overlooked by Islam's detractors, there is a word for agapé in Arabic. It carries the same non-specific 'boundary-less' connotation as the Greek word, and is used contextually in the same way. Better yet, it is entirely original; not borrowed, adapted, or modeled on a word from another language. The Arabic word for agapé is mahubba, and it is fascinating for two reasons: one, because it comes from hub-in its feminine form. Two, because of the prefix ma. Adding the letter mim to the beginning of a word in Arabic means "one who is/does", "that which is/does", or "in a state of" the word that follows it. Junun is mad, and majnun is "one who is mad" or "in a state of madness"; baraka is a blessing, and mubarak is "one who is blessed" or "in a state of blessedness"; Islam is submission, and Muslim is "one who submits" or "in a state of submission". Thus, mahubba is quite literally 'in love', but it is rarely used in an erotic sense. It can describe either love among people or love for the divine, and is used most commonly in a spiritual context in both cases. Implicit in mahubba is service; the lover puts the beloved at the center of the discourse, and submits to his/her demands. Author Fethullah Gulen describes mahubba as "obedience, devotion and unconditional submission" to the beloved, quoting Sufi saint Rabi'a al-Adawiya's couplet, "If you were truthful in your love, you would obey Him/for a lover obeys whom he loves."
While it is, again, primarily Sufis who have propagated the ideal of mahubba over the centuries, the word and the concept have roots in mainstream Islamic tradition: verse 3:31 of the Qur'an is sometimes called 'ayat ul'mahubba', and reads "Say: if you do love Allah, follow me, and Allah will love you." Even ibn Taymiyya, one of the founders of the Wahhabi movement, said of this verse, "There can be no clearer recognition of mahubba than this, and this recognition in itself increases love for Allah. And people have discussed (at length) about mahubba: its causes, its signs, its fruits, its supports and rulings." A hadith qudsi included in the Muwatta of Imam Malik is even more explicit: "God said, 'My love [mahubbati] necessarily belongs to those who love one another [mutahubinna] for My sake, sit together for My sake, visit one another for My sake, and give generously to one another for My sake'."
Mahubba differs from agapé in one crucial respect: because serving and approaching the beloved is a form of ongoing personal struggle, mahubba is a form of jihad. A far cry from the violent and indiscriminate "small jihad" preached by militants, mahubba is a form of al-jihad al-kabir, the greater jihad, or jihad against one's own ego. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that in an age of lesser jihad mahubba has fallen out of practice and almost out of memory; it is so universally neglected that when Islam is accused of lacking a concept of divine brotherhood, few Muslims have the intellectual wherewithal to protest. But Adhaf Soueif is right: at the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow. The struggle to serve God out of love, and one another out of love, is the jihad of human potential against the jihad of violent ideology; if resurrected, it has the power to change the world.
G. WILLOW WILSON is a Cairo-based author and essayist. Her articles about modern Islam and the Middle East have appeared in publications including the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and the Canada National Post