Love and Compassion
There are many different Arabic words for love. They are not just synonyms, but refer to degrees of intensity as well as quality of harmony. We have the same in English, of course: There is a huge difference between fondness and passion, as there is between general liking, affection, and admiration. While the Arabic root ḥ-b-b (al-ḥubb/الحبّ) is often translated as “love,” its meaning is actually closer to the more casual “like” that we can apply to music, food, cars, and so on. The root w-d-d (al-wudd/الود) is the Qur’anic Arabic word that best captures the nature of divine love. From its various occurrences in the Qur’an, we see that this word captures a special, even sacred feeling of love and compassionate attachment.
To start with, how is it possible for people to develop these feelings for each other? We get the reason in the eighth chapter of the Qur’an, “al-Anfal.” Verse 62 explains that God empowers righteous people with the support of the believers:
وَإِن يُرِيدُوٓاْ أَن يَخۡدَعُوكَ فَإِنَّ حَسۡبَكَ ٱللَّهُۚ هُوَ ٱلَّذِىٓ أَيَّدَكَ بِنَصۡرِهِۦ وَبِٱلۡمُؤۡمِنِينَ (٦٢)
62. If they intend to deceive you—God is sufficient for you. It is He who empowered you with His support, and with the believers.
وَأَلَّفَ بَيۡنَ قُلُوبِہِمۡۚ لَوۡ أَنفَقۡتَ مَا فِى ٱلۡأَرۡضِ جَمِيعً۬ا مَّآ أَلَّفۡتَ بَيۡنَ قُلُوبِهِمۡ وَلَـٰڪِنَّ ٱللَّهَ أَلَّفَ بَيۡنَہُمۡۚ إِنَّهُ ۥ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ۬ (٦٣)
63. And He connected their hearts. Had you spent everything on earth, you would not have connected their hearts, but God connected them together. He is Mighty and Wise.
The following verse (63) flushes out who exactly the “believers” are. It explains that they are those whose hearts were connected by God. It also emphasizes that only God is capable of joining hearts in this way. But why did God connect these people, who may have no other worldly connection such as kinship or compatriotism? We have the answer in chapter 19 (Maryam):
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ وَعَمِلُواْ ٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتِ سَيَجۡعَلُ لَهُمُ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنُ وُدًّ۬ا (٩٦)
96. Those who believe and do-good deeds, al-Rahman will set love for them.
فَإِنَّمَا يَسَّرۡنَـٰهُ بِلِسَانِكَ لِتُبَشِّرَ بِهِ ٱلۡمُتَّقِينَ وَتُنذِرَ بِهِۦ قَوۡمً۬ا لُّدًّ۬ا (٩٧)
97. We made it easy on your tongue, to deliver good news to those who are aware, and to warn hostile people.
We can clearly see from verse 96 that those who believe and do-good deeds, and show their faith with action, God will set for them a loving, non-romantic attraction (wudd). This feeling can be shared between any people, no matter their personal identity or physical distance from one another, as there are no restrictions listed here, unlike when it comes to romantic attraction and intimate relationships.
Verse 97 shows that the Qur’an is like a straightforward users’ manual whose good news message is received easily for those who are aware. At the same time, the message is also a warning to those who have disdain, hostility, or negative feelings toward others (ludd)--a direct contrast to the cozy feeling mentioned in the previous verse.
The “good news” is mentioned again in chapter 42 (al-Shura), verse 23, and links it again to this type of love (mawadda):
ذَٲلِكَ ٱلَّذِى يُبَشِّرُ ٱللَّهُ عِبَادَهُ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ وَعَمِلُواْ ٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتِۗ قُل لَّآ أَسۡـَٔلُكُمۡ عَلَيۡهِ أَجۡرًا إِلَّا ٱلۡمَوَدَّةَ فِى ٱلۡقُرۡبَىٰۗ وَمَن يَقۡتَرِفۡ حَسَنَةً۬ نَّزِدۡ لَهُ ۥ فِيہَا حُسۡنًاۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ غَفُورٌ۬ شَكُورٌ (٢٣)
23. That is the good news God gives to His servants who believe and do-good deeds. Say, “I ask of you no wage for it, except love among the near of kin.” Whoever does any good, We will increase its goodness for him. God is Forgiving and Appreciative.
This verse encourages love between family and friends, or those close to you. The value of this type of love is emphasized at the end of the verse, which explains that whatever good is done for others will be rewarded in kind, only increasing.
Even though mawadda is the type of love found between spiritually-bonded strangers, it also has a home in the relationship between spouses. Chapter 30 of the Qur’an (al-Rum) describes it as an essential element of their feelings for one another:
وَمِنۡ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦۤ أَنۡ خَلَقَ لَكُم مِّنۡ أَنفُسِكُمۡ أَزۡوَٲجً۬ا لِّتَسۡكُنُوٓاْ إِلَيۡهَا وَجَعَلَ بَيۡنَڪُم مَّوَدَّةً۬ وَرَحۡمَةًۚ إِنَّ فِى ذَٲلِكَ لَأَيَـٰتٍ۬ لِّقَوۡمٍ۬ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ (٢١)
21. And of His signs of existence is that He created for you mates from among yourselves, so that you may find tranquility in them; and He set love and mercy between you. In this are signs for people who reflect.
The precious love characterized by the root w-d-d is indeed so unique that it is also part of one of the 99 names of God in the Islamic tradition, al-Wadud, as we see in chapter 85 (al-Buruj):
وَهُوَ ٱلۡغَفُورُ ٱلۡوَدُودُ (١٤)
14. And He is the Forgiving, the Loving.
It happens that God is also called by another name, al-Barr, or “the Giver of Unconditional Love,” such as in Chapter 52 (al-Tur):
إِنَّا ڪُنَّا مِن قَبۡلُ نَدۡعُوهُۖ إِنَّهُ ۥ هُوَ ٱلۡبَرُّ ٱلرَّحِيمُ (٢٨)
28. Before this, we used to call on Him. He is the great love, the Merciful.”
We see a related word in the third chapter (Al Imran) as well:
لَن تَنَالُواْ ٱلۡبِرَّ حَتَّىٰ تُنفِقُواْ مِمَّا تُحِبُّونَۚ وَمَا تُنفِقُواْ مِن شَىۡءٍ۬ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ بِهِۦ عَلِيمٌ۬ (٩٢)
92. You will not attain great love until you give of what you like. Whatever you give away, God is aware of it.
This verse speaks to the importance of acting generously for someone who wants to achieve al-birr, the state of unconditional love. It reminds us that we must be full and sincere givers of what we like (using the root ḥ-b-b). In other words, what we love for ourselves, we should love for others. Later in this chapter, a prayer asks for forgiveness and the opportunity to die in the company of those who operate from a place of unconditional love (al-abrār):
رَّبَّنَآ إِنَّنَا سَمِعۡنَا مُنَادِيً۬ا يُنَادِى لِلۡإِيمَـٰنِ أَنۡ ءَامِنُواْ بِرَبِّكُمۡ فَـَٔامَنَّاۚ رَبَّنَا فَٱغۡفِرۡ لَنَا ذُنُوبَنَا وَڪَفِّرۡ عَنَّا سَيِّـَٔاتِنَا وَتَوَفَّنَا مَعَ ٱلۡأَبۡرَارِ (١٩٣)
193. “Our Lord, we indeed heard a caller calling to the faith: `Believe in your Lord,' and we have believed. Our Lord! Forgive us our sins, and cover up our misdeeds, and make us die in the company of those with great love.”
If the best of company is also the believers mentioned and described in al-Anfal 62 and 63, as discussed above, then those best of people are those who live their lives from a place of unconditional love (al-birr) and whose hearts are linked by a love of divine origin (al-mawadda). This powerful combination calls us to strive to become our best selves by living our lives with generosity, harmony, thoughtful reflection, and of course, true love.