The God of Love by amina wadud


amina 2014 - croppedI admit I had the fortune of loving my father, the late Reverend Teasley, and feeling loved by him.  I also date my fascination with the divine back to my father.  There are many ways this fascination could have taken shape, but for me it led to the experience of religious diversity as an element of the global community of human beings that has never abated.

Like others, you might ask: if I feel so akin to diversity, why am I a devotee to only one of them: Islam? Some question this by way of offense to Islam. Others are genuinely curious. This curiosity takes two forms.  Either they are interested in my personal location within Islam, as in why are you Muslim? Or they are interested in why stop my quest for diversity and get stuck where I am clearly busy detangling the manifestations of Islam from their patriarchal moorings?

My answer is quite simple. Islamic thought brought me peace of mind, especially about the greater workings of the universe and my tiny, tiny part within it.  Islamic thought gave me the language to understand (a/my) reality.  Quite a handy facility if you think about how long humans have pondered the great existential questions: Who am I; Why am I here; and What is the purpose of life?

No, I will not pretend to answers here.

I am pretty wedded to those who say it is the quest itself that brings answers. Life is a journey of inquiry. If you cease to inquire of life, I would contend life ends.  You may not stop breathing, but that without meaning, life is not worth much.  I even concede that some human beings are content with simpler answers to these questions (than perhaps would satisfy me). Their lives are no less meaningful. We are all different, and people have different levels of satisfaction in their quest. From a whole slew of levels, my own quest is legitimate for me because I am who I am and not you, or some else.

Instead, this blog is about a recent reading of a critical examination of my exegetical work on the Qur’an from a female-centered perspective.  While the details of this critical examination are exhaustive (and exhausting), one thing came to my mind in reading it: how privileged I am to have been raised by a loving father who believed in and dedicated his short life to a God of love. Since this was long before I knew about Islam, and then after spending quality time practicing Buddhism—with no-God, my idea about God is not so narrow.

In my writings and public speaking, I reflect this personal perspective and experience by using multiple words about the Sacred, the Divine, the Ultimate, God/Goddess/Allah.  I definitely use them interchangeably and none gets (me) stuck in any one attribute. All terms point beyond themselves as symbols in the human symbol-making systems, language.

This problem was addressed extensively in Islamic discourses known as Kalam: the relationship between the Ultimate and language systems. It was also never resolved once and for all, like the answers for those existential questions. I like that. I still grapple with it.  If language is all we have to consider our notions of the divine, are we perhaps stuck in an endless cyclone of possibilities? Yes.  Absolutely. To embrace that, is an act of faith, critical for those who hold any merit to the relationship between human reasoning and understanding or knowing the Divine, in the first place.

There is, however one aspect (Arabic sifah: description or attribute) of God, that I have a particular affinity to; and that is Love.  I chose the name Wadud to reflect that sifah: Al-Wadud, The Loving.  As I said, I was born into this notion of God through my father, a Christian, who was also a loving father, a man of God. A man with such moral consistency I never had to deal with the endless layers of hypocrisy that seems to have befallen every “religion” practiced by humankind. (I had to deal with that much later in my life…)

Since the idea of God as Love impacts my total experience of God, and my rational thinking about God, at times I encounter my Muslim brothers and sisters who have no trust or experience with this aspect but have a more severe idea about God and find that severity impacts everything they do and think, including way they analyze texts, contexts, Islam and Islamic thought.

In Islamic cosmology, there are 99 attributes or sifat.  Some are Jalal, about God’s absolute-ness; and some are Jamal, about God’s intimate connection to creation.  Omniscient, Sublime, Powerful, Forgiving, Loving, Compassionate, are examples. Some people, I guess, have no capacity to see or experience certain attributes of the Jamal type because they are stuck in a very severe God-idea.  This impacts the way they read divine communication or revelation.  Since it can only reach humans through a human communication medium, that is language, some readers can only see the REAL God when the texts takes on the severe qualities.

Although the Qur’anic revelation, for example, spans the breath of the attributes and more, some cannot read it when the texts take on compassion and intimate divine qualities.  Such readers consider these verses only tangential, circumstantial, and even insignificant: not “God-like” enough.  Why else would they then pin meaning to only one side of God, the side that more closely reflects their own tendency towards the severe?  I admit, I read through Love and Compassion like Sufis or Muslim mystics have across the long path of Islam.

So when it seems that I prioritize these passages, I do so, on purpose. I am not blinded by my reading, I am guided by it.  I do not overlook the existence of more severe language acts in the Qur’an but I am not confined to those to such an end as to throw out the baby with the bath water. I accept that they are there but I decline to let them rule my way of being in the world.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

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Categories: General, God-talk, Islam

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21 replies

  1. Great post. The proponents of severity would do well to reflect on why ar-Rahman ar-Rahim (the Compassionate, the Merciful) figures so centrally in the Fatiha.

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  2. I am touched that you and I brought the God who is love with us from Christianity to two very different places. For me, it was my grandmothers and my mother who were the most loving figures in my life, so it was an easy transition for me to Goddess as loving. Alice Walker is another who learned that God is love in church.

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  3. Amina, this is a beautiful explanation of your choice to focus on love: love of the Divine for us, our love for the Divine, and ideally our love for human beings. May there be more love in the world!

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  4. Thanks, Amina, interesting your unresolved thoughts on Kalam, “the relationship between the Ultimate and language systems.” Language has far more mystery to it I think than we realize. It is able to abstract and yet it points beyond itself to the actual reality it names. Likewise the first line of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” has always delighted some intuition in my subconscious as regards the true nature of the Ultimate. Zen Buddhism is atheistic and yet, a form of “deity” or “love” is present very gently as the Dharma, the Word, the natural teachings of the way permeating all creation.

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    • some things are ineffable, but still as language-using creatures, we seem inclined to grapple with ultimate meaning through those particular symbols. And when you know more than one language, and are immersed in the cultures that use them, it is so easy to see, how it is the grappling with meaning that COUNTS most, and not the particular symbolic forms,

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  5. Wonderful post, Amina…love hearing about people’s quests or journeys as they struggle with the “ultimate.” Am curious what you think about “communicating” with the Divine in a medium other than language. You write, “Since it [divine communication] can only reach humans through a human communication medium, that is language, some readers can only see the REAL God when the texts takes on the severe qualities.” Language “rocks” as far as I’m concerned; however, what about music, dance, painting, and sculpture, for example, as a means of communication?

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    • This was mostly in response to a critical review of my response to a “sacred text”.. So how language CAN bring us close or move us away.

      But of course, the Divine is Poly-Communicable.. to/with/from

      I love to hear the birds sing praise when the sun rises
      To hear the leaves unfold in the early morning while deep in the forest
      To smell the rain
      To touch the ocean..

      ALL of our senses communicate with and receive communication from the Ultimate

      Likewise, EVERY form of intentional expression/devotion TOWARDS the Ultimate are equal in some respects.

      In these body-forms, I confess I am especially fond of sacred dance: when I am the leaf or the rain.

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  6. How wonderful that love lies at the heart of creation, and can be experienced through many avenues. A Christian (Anglican) priest for 30 years, I still long to convey that love to so many who do not know it. Thank you, Amina, for offering your words.
    Karen Dukes

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    • yes, and some times,we must convey SILENTLY for them to get it, don’t you think? It is like the Matta in Vipassana.. we simply close our eyes and visualize specific persons and finally humanity at large, then FOCUS on the love enough for us all!

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  7. Beautiful post! It reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother after my first wedding. I asked her how she liked our non-traditional ceremony, and she sadly said, “it was beautiful, but there was no mention of God.” I replied, “mom, we referenced Love throughout the ceremony, and to us Love is God.” With that she understood.

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  8. ”… FOCUS on the love enough for us all”

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  9. Amina, your words explaining “language” in this way will bring great light and joy to many souls, thank you.

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  10. Right on: I am not blinded by my reading, I am guided by it.

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  11. What i understand, “adal” i.e. balance is of key importance in Islam as is in everything God have created… whenever we fail to keep that balance, chaos follows.
    Glad to have read this post … I remember as a child whenever I read a part of Quran that described the punishments of Hell, my grandfather always said, “Allah is what you think Him to be. if you think that He is loving and merciful, you will indeed find him kind. But if you will think of him as harsh, you will find him pitiless”

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  12. Alhamdulillah Dearest Amina!
    Mas’hallah!
    Indeed God is Love, and if we know Love then we know God.
    I found myself questioning the other side of your equation regarding readers of Quran.
    Like those who are stuck in being unable to see the Jamal as Divine, I myself have a problem with the Jalal.
    This heart yearns for the gentleness…the softness…the compassion of a God of Love….a Mother God…a God who nurtures and sustains and covers faults and comforts pain…
    Perhaps we all do, but the patriarchal system has minimized these attributes as less powerful, less important maybe ….because they are more subtle.
    But what of those of us like myself who only look for God in the Latif? In the mothers? In the Sweetness?
    What makes the Jalal unattractive…to me, at least…is the confusion of the Jalal of human limitation with the Jalal of the Divine.
    The most loving thing a parent can do for a child is to be Firm and disciplined when the child needs structure….indeed to be soft and yielding when a child requires discipline can do just as much harm as being harsh when a child requires reassurance.
    But the key appears to be in the intention…
    If the parent is Aware and focused completely on the needs of the child, as Allah is on Their creation, then there can be no question that even the apparent harshness of discipline will be motivated by love…
    So whether that love is meted out by a kiss or a slap on the behind, its effect is ultimately sweet.
    But when the parent is under the control of the nafs, then ego is mistaken for love….this is where the human Jalal can be confused with the Divine, as it is impossible for the Divine Jalal to be controlled by any limited force….
    So, in effect, the sweetness of Allahs Jalal is just the same as the sweetness of Their Jamal.
    …..all the same…id take a kiss over a red behind any day! 😜

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  13. Preach Mi Hermana! because your preaching comes from the heart and is heard here in this distant land in the end of the world. Thanks for cheering the spirit of this awkward, stubborn and unruly woman. Hugs

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