A Jihad for Love: the Quest for Agape in Islam

By G. Willow Wilson - May 18, 2009

Cairo - "At the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow," wrote Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif in her 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. A Google search for "agapé" and "Islam" yields literally hundreds of 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. 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 mahabba. This is fascinating for two reasons: one, because it comes from hub - in its feminine form - meaning, love. 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 "is 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".

Thus, mahabba means 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 mahabba is service; the lover puts the beloved at the centre of the discourse, and submits to his/her demands. Author Fethullah Gulen describes mahabba 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 mahabba 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'mahabba', and reads "Say: if you do love Allah, follow me, and Allah will love you." A hadith qudsi (God's words as repeated by the Prophet Muhammad) included in the collection of hadith compiled by Imam Malik is even more explicit: "God said, 'My love [mahabbati] necessarily belongs to those who love one another [mutahabinna] for My sake, sit together for My sake, visit one another for My sake, and give generously to one another for My sake'."

Mahabba differs from agapé in one crucial respect: because serving and approaching the beloved is a form of ongoing personal struggle, mahabba is a form of jihad. A far cry from the violent and indiscriminate "small jihad" preached by militants, mahabba is a form of the greater jihad, or jihad against one's own ego.

But Ahdaf Soueif is right: at the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow. The struggle to serve God, 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 Muslim author and essayist. Her articles have appeared in publications including The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Her graphic novel CAIRO, with artist MK Perker, is available from Vertigo Comics.

This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service

more at patheos