Is God’s Love Unconditional?

Most Christians are likely to answer this question with an emphatic “yes.” Most Muslims, on the other hand, are likely to respond with an equally clear  “no.” Despite the starkness of the Christian “yes” and the Muslim “no,” I would like to suggest that the two approaches are neither contradictory nor irreconcilable. In fact, I would like to go so far as to say that, at least on this particular issue, there is no essential conflict between the Biblical logic and the Qur’anic logic.

Before going further, I would like to set up some ground rules. First, let us agree that meanings are far more important than words. It is obvious that a particular meaning can be conveyed by a number of different words, and that any given word may act as a vehicle for several different meanings.  In any reading of the scriptures, we want to focus our attention on trying to grasp the meanings that the given texts are supposed to convey, rather than quarrel over words, names, and labels. As Shakespeare’s Juliet famously said: “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Or, as Rumi counsels us in his Masnavi, “Pass beyond (external) names and look at the (underlying) qualities, so that the qualities may show you the way to the essence.”  Indeed, Rumi frequently uses the metaphor of “bones” when referring to surface appearances, including words; in contrast, he uses the metaphor of “marrow” when referring to the realities that underlie surface appearances, including meanings. Take out the marrow, says Rumi, and let the dogs fight over the bones!

Secondly, let us assume that scriptures are entirely self-consistent. Specifically, let us agree that nothing in the New Testament contradicts anything else in the New Testament, and that, similarly, nothing in the Qur’an contradicts anything else in the Qur’an. The belief in the internal consistency of the scriptures is well established in both the Christian and Islamic traditions. This principle of non-contradiction simply means that any apparent discrepancy within either of the two scriptures must be attributed to our own faulty intellects rather than to any defect in the scriptures themselves. Practically speaking, this means that if we were to find a statement in either of these scriptures that appears to contradict another statement elsewhere in the same scripture, then, as a matter of principle, we would attempt to reconcile the two statements.  We would do so either (a) by interpreting one statement in the light of the other, or (b) by taking into account both statements with a view to transcend them in the form of a higher synthesis.

Thirdly, when trying to understand the meanings of particular passages, it would be helpful to focus on their real-world consequences. In other words, let us agree to follow what American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce has called the “pragmatic maxim.” In his 1878 essay, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Peirce said: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have.  Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” Only a few years before his death, Peirce reiterated this maxim in his 1910 essay, “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,” as follows: “the true meaning of any product of the intellect lies in whatever unitary determination it would impart to practical conduct under any and every conceivable circumstance . . .”  This means, essentially, that if two statements are going to have identical consequences on the practical conduct of those who take them to be true, then the two statements are identical in their meaning.

Having set the ground rules, let us begin by exploring the New Testament on the theme of love.  As is well-known, the most common Greek word used in the New Testament that is usually translated as “love” is αγαπη (agape), though, strictly speaking, the word mostly appears as a verb, “to love,” αγαπαω (agapao) .  This word appears in the oft-quoted verse from the Gospel of John, “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16) as well as in Jesus’ words, “But I say unto you, love your enemies . . .” (Matthew 5:44).  In the Epistle of John, we read, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8), and “. . . we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

In the New Testament, “love” is an action word; it denotes something that God does and we are supposed to do it as well, perhaps in imitation of him or as a response to his love. Since “love” is an action word, to say that “God is love” cannot possibly mean that God is a static entity or “thing” that we may label as “love.”  On the contrary, it means that God loves to such an extraordinary degree and with such great consistency and intensity that we might as well call him “Love.” This is like saying that someone acts in such an extraordinarily generous way that we might as well call that person “generosity.” Consequently, even when the word “love” is used as a noun, which is rare, the New Testament’s emphasis is on its verbal character, i.e., on love as a manner of acting, as a mode of practical conduct, as a way of being in the world.

The meaning of the word “love,” however, is still unclear. What, exactly, does it mean to love someone? As already noted, “love” indicates a particular way of acting towards the object of one’s love, i.e., the beloved. As used in the New Testament, the word “love” does not denote a feeling.  Jesus is asking us to do something, to live our lives in a certain way; he is not asking us to feel a particular emotion!

We ought to make a clear distinction between “love” and “like.” In the American culture created by Hollywood,  Hallmark cards, and the music industry, we have been conditioned to think of “love” as that warm, happy, cuddly feeling that we sometime experience in relation to another person. This, I would suggest, represents a pernicious and immoral expropriation of a powerful religious symbol for commercial purposes. In the same context, I would also suggest that “liking” is not a matter of choice; it is instinctive, involuntary, and largely springs from unconscious forces over which we have little or no control, including projections. Love, on the other hand, is a matter of conscience, deliberate decision; it’s a choice that we make or fail to make. If Jesus had said “like your enemies,” I would have found it impossible to carry out his instruction. I would have to say, “I am sorry, Jesus, but I don’t like my enemies, and I don’t think I am capable of changing my dislike for them into like.  Please ask me do something that is possible.”  Thankfully, Jesus did not say “like your enemies.” Indeed, he did not even say “like your neighbors.” And he did not ask us to do what is beyond our capacity.  He said, instead, “love . . . .” I may not like my enemies, or, indeed, my neighbors, yet it is possible for me to love them.  That’s all I am being asked: “Love others, even if you do not like them.”

Let us assume that we accept the call, and agree to love others.  In what way is this acceptance going to affect our practical conduct? If we think of love only as a feeling, then loving others does not have to have any necessary affect on how we act towards anyone. According to the “pragmatic maxim,” that would render the commandment “love your neighbor” practically meaningless. On the other hand, if this commandment is to have any meaning at all, its meaning must be found in how our acceptance of this commandment changes our practical conduct. The question that we face is not theoretical or intellectual, i.e., “what is love?” Instead, the question is ethical and practical, i.e., “how do I conduct my life so that my actions manifest love?”

A very important clue to the nature of love is found in the King James Version of the Bible. This 1611 English translation of the Bible frequently renders the Greek word agape as “charity” rather than as “love.”  Here is one example: according to the NRSV, the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13); in the King James Version, however, the verse is translated as follows: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these [is] charity.”  Since the meaning of the word “love” has become distorted in the contemporary culture, we may begin to recover its original sense by relying on the word “charity” as a valid synonym for agape. Unlike the word “love,” the word “charity” has not lost its dynamic, verbal character. We don’t think of “charity” as a feeling; we think of it as a doing. To act in a charitable way is to act benevolently towards others; it is to live in a way that does not harm other beings but, instead, helps them to meet their needs and fulfill their potentials. To be charitable is to display, through one’s behavior, goodwill towards others, as well as compassion, clemency, kindness, mercy, leniency, and so on.

But the Greek language has three other synonyms for love, one may object.  How, exactly, is agape different from eros, philia, and storge?  Eros is passionate love, usually with sensual desire and yearning for union with the beloved.  Philia denotes loyalty to friends, family, and community. Storge is the natural affection that parents feel for their children. None of these concepts come close to agape, or charity. First, agape is the kind of love in which the practitioner does not demand any extrinsic rewards, particularly from the object of his or her benevolence (though intrinsic rewards are almost always anticipated), and second, the potential zone of one’s benevolence is not limited to one’s own group, conceived as one’s children, relatives, friends, or larger community. In fact, it is precisely these two characteristics of agape that are sometimes emphasized by adding the adjective “selfless.”  Christian love, it is said, is “selfless love.” The problem with the word “selfless,” however, is that it can create the impression that the human being who practices this kind of love does not receive anything in return for his or her act of charity and benevolence.  That kind of thinking is plainly false and erroneous.

Human beings are directly motivated by their feelings, and indirectly by their needs. Whenever one or more of our needs are unmet, we experience certain unpleasant feelings. The unpleasant feelings then drive us to seek the fulfillment of our unmet needs; the fulfillment of our needs leads to the elimination of the unpleasant feelings and the generation of pleasant ones. Consider an example: the unpleasant feeling of hunger motivates us to eat; the act of eating fulfills our need for nourishment; the satisfaction of having met our need creates the pleasant feeling of satiety. The same mechanism operates in all human activities, including moral actions. When we act charitably towards another person or creature, we do not act in a strictly “selfless” way. Instead, we act out of our inherent need to be compassionate. By helping someone else meet their needs, we are simultaneously trying to meet our own needs as well.  This is precisely why charitable actions feel good. This pleasurable feeling that arises within us is a major part of what motivates us to be kind and benevolent towards others; it is the intrinsic reward we receive for acting in accordance with our true nature.  It is the immediate payoff for actuating our innate disposition. We can, perhaps, attribute “selfless love” to God, but we cannot attribute it to human beings.

In light of this discussion, it makes sense to say that the New Testament’s position on God’s love for his creatures can be understood in terms of charity, i.e., benevolence, kindness, compassion, and mercy. Consequently, to say that God loves the world is merely another way of saying that God acts towards the world in a benevolent, kind, compassionate, and merciful way. In practice, then, it makes absolutely no difference whether we say “God loves the world” or we say “God acts compassionately towards his creation” or “God is merciful.” Unless we wish to quarrel over surface appearances, there is little reason to doubt that God’s love, in this context, is indistinguishable from God’s benevolence, compassion, and mercy. Furthermore, it is patently clear from the New Testament that this character-trait or attribute of God does not discriminate, i.e., that God’s love is for everyone and everything, without any conditions, limits, or restrictions.

This is an exceedingly significant point, since, when we turn to the Islamic scriptures, we find that the Qur’an does not present God’s love as unconditional.  The act of loving is attributed only to God and to human beings, never to any other creature. According to the Qur’an, God loves those who act in certain ways, and God does not love those who act otherwise. There are fourteen verses that identify the kind of people that God loves, and another twenty-three verses that identify those that he does not love. Consequently, there is a definite sense of conditionality in relation to who God chooses to be the objects of his love. In the Qur’an, God does not love indiscriminately; he is very selective.  I will return to this point in a future essay.

In order to see how the Christian and Islamic positions are not contradictory, we need to ignore the bones and get to the marrow.  At the level of the bones, Christians are justified in saying that God’s love is unconditional and Muslims are justified in rejecting that notion; at the level of the marrow, however, it will turn out that they are both affirming the same truth.

But first, we need to know how to get to the marrow.  By asking the question “what does the Islamic scriptures say about love,” we would be confining ourselves to the level of the bones; this is because the usual Arabic words for love (hubb, muhabba, wadd, ‘ishq) do not have the same connotations as the Greek word agape. Where words divide us, the meanings would unite.  I suggest that instead of approaching the problem directly, we approach it indirectly by asking the following questions:  In the Qur’an, is there any character-trait or attribute of God regarding which God does not discriminate?  Is there anything that God bestows upon everyone and everything, without any conditions, limits, or restrictions?  What, if anything, is unconditional in God’s relationship to his creation?

All of these questions have a single answer: rahmah. The Qur’anic term rahma comes from a three-letter lexical root that Arabic shares with Hebrew.  In both languages, words derived from this root evoke the following meanings: mercy, compassion, benevolence, tenderness, kindness, affection, and, not surprisingly, womb.  The Hebrew word rachuwm (compassionate or merciful) is used several times in the Jewish Bible; for instance, “For the Lord your God is a compassionate God . . .” (Deuteronomy 4:31). The related Hebrew word racham means compassion or mercy, and also appears in the Bible; for instance, “. . . and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:14:23). In Arabic, the word rahm means womb, and, by exension, the web of relationships that come into being through the process of birth. The word rahmah, usually translated as compassion or mercy, has connotations of the loving tenderness that a mother has for her child.  Two main adjectives from this root, rahman and rahim, serve as the most often repeated names that identify God in the Qur’an: al-Rahman (the all-Merciful) and al-Rahim (the most Compassionate).  The formula bismi Allahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim (In the name of God, the all-Merciful, the most Compassionate) appears 114 times in the Qur’an.

Mercy is not only an important attribute of God, it is also a highly desirable character-trait for human beings. According to the Qur’an, the most noteworthy qualities of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, include his compassion, kindness, and leniency. After all, Muhammad was sent “as a mercy to the worlds” (21:107). To imitate his “beautiful example,” Muslims need to actualize the quality of mercy in their own personalities.

The New Testament’s use of the Greek word agape parallels the Qur’anic use of the Arabic word rahmah. Like agape, God’s rahma is unconditional; it is also very similar to the Christian notion of “grace,” since no one needs to do anything in order to earn, or deserve, God’s mercy, which is always already available to everyone, everywhere. God has declared “. . . my mercy encompasses all things . . . ” (7:156).  Commentators on the Qur’an have argued that “all things” must include God’s wrath or punishment as well; in other words, God is merciful even when he shows his wrathful side. According to a hadith qudsi, God has inscribed upon his throne the following words: “My mercy precedes my wrath.” These texts have been taken to mean that while wrath is a divine attribute that God may choose to manifest in relation to some of his creatures for a limited duration and purpose, mercy is a permanent and all-embracing attribute of his being, an attribute that he manifests in each moment. God is occasionally wrathful, but always compassionate.

There is even a Qur’anic parallel to the New Testament’s claim that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Qur’an proclaims: “Call upon God or call upon the all-Merciful, whichever of these two [names] you invoke [makes no difference, since] to him belong the most beautiful names” (17:110).  This particular verse has been taken to mean that rahma is more than just an attribute of God; it defines the very nature of God’s essence. To say that God is all-Merciful is another way of expressing our trust that reality is benevolent. Despite what may happen in the short-term, we are justified in believing that all is going to be well in the end; or, rather, that “all manners of things” are already well, if we can only see them from God’s viewpoint.

Perhaps we can now see that, at the level of words and of surface appearances, Christians and Muslims cannot agree that God’s love is unconditional. At the deeper level of meanings, however, they may appreciate that what the New Testament calls “love” is the same as what the Qur’an calls “mercy.”

9 Comments on “Is God’s Love Unconditional?

  1. salam.
    i loved this piece and how you went about making your argument. i do have a couple of questions though.
    if we are to argue that in a sense the quranic rahmah is equal to the biblical concept for love you mentioned, should not the next question be how the qur’anic muhabba, which is specific in terms of who it is directed towards, relates to this all-encompassing aspect of God’s love for His creation.
    And there is a general question as well. I understand the emphasis on the meanings associated with words, other than words by themselves, and it makes a lot of sense to me. yet, at the same time, should we also not reflect on the different form of language used (whether the words, the roots or the grammatical form) when one is used and not another. does language not in part set boundaries for interpretation, or direct it in some manner?
    lastly, could you comment more on the notion of “feelings?” I had not thought of the significance of the distinction between this fickle state of being or however one may describe it and some kind of commitment that maybe in bellah’s terms would be able to influence mood and motivation at a deep level, and what you refer to in the context of action.

  2. I really like this article. I think you have succeeded in defining the “grapes of love”.

  3. Salam Alaikum Dr. Afzaal,

    Thank you for your article – It really struck a cord with my own realizations in discussions with Christians a while back. It seems to me that the normative translation of Rahma to Mercy is quite deficient. Mercy seems to imply only the removal of some negative outcome – and thus, a ruthless dictator could be “merciful.” Nevertheless, he would never be “raheem.” On the contrary, all the human examples that the Prophet (saws) gives to describe Rahma – the woman on the battlefield looking for her child, the nurture of animals for their offspring, the prophet’s own tears that he shed for the death of a loved one, the prophet’s own kissing of his grandchildren – are all what we would describe as “love” in modern English, albeit a specific form of love. Using the term “mercy” in those situations would just be odd. It just seems that Rahma is simply not “Mercy.”
    I’ve come to really believe that we Muslims should update our arcane use of the term Mercy to that of Love and Compassion. When Christians ask whether God’s love is unconditional in Islam, why not say, “Yes!” Rahma-love is unconditional, and it is beautiful and nurturing, while Mahabba-love is reserved for those who really show them worthy in God’s sight.
    Thank you for your thoughts – I’ve just recently stumbled onto you blog and look forward to reading more!
    Adnan

  4. I have been reading Simon May’s “Love: a history”, which I highly recommend. May says that Jesus never said, “God is love”- this was St. John, and the oft quoted Corinthians line about “love is patient, always kind…”, etc was St. Paul. Jesus had very little to say about love, and when he did, it was much more in keeping with Judaic teachings.

    May argues that the unconditional love preached by Christians today is an innovation, something that arose in the 18th century as belief in God in the West was starting to errode. Medieval Christians, such as Augustine, Erasmus, Aquinas, Luther, etc did talk about God’s partiality towards some humans and not others (grace & predestination). God does like some people more than others, and humans have no way of discerning the reasons why. This was the same rationale that the Catholics used in not protecting the Jews during the Nazi regime- they were not Christians and God prefers Christians to Jews. So, it appears that the current Christian version of God’s ‘unconditional’ love may actually be a response to the secular value of equality.

    The idea of loving others as a moral imperative does come from Old Testament teachings, but I wonder if this also has a basis in pre-Judaic teachings (Hinduism, Zoroastrianism).

    • The New Testament is pretty clear on this issue, since it teaches that not everyone would enter the Kingdom of God. The doctrine of Grace is also problematic because it is usually presented (at least by Protestants) as the divine response to “faith.” Marcus Borg argues, correctly in my view, that conditional grace can no longer be called grace. In this way, “unconditional love” remains a theoretical point that makes little or no difference for the believers.

  5. Since there are “fourteen verses that identify the kind of people that God loves, and another twenty-three verses that identify those that he does not love.” it would appear that God’s love as expressed in the Quran is extremely limited and conditional but at the same time very human. That view is indeed very sad but understanding for anyone who has never personally experienced God’s love in the first place. I do not believe in a God who punishes, rewards or hand’s out favors. Institutional religion continues to present or prefer a distant entity who is unapproachable except via an intermediate. God loves ALL his people as they are not as others would have them be. It is only through his unconditional love that we can come to love him, others and ourselves.

  6. I truly enjoyed this article. I am a believer in Eesa as My Lord and Savior. I am friends with some Muslims and I have been agape loving them from the heart. I have to disagree that this love is to meet my needs. I do need to be loved but not necessarily by them. I am loved by Allāh, so why would I need love if all the love I truly need comes from Him.
    My Muslims and I discuss these things together in a friendship environments that had no reason to exist as the Quran is very clear on forming close relationships with unbelievers. I Really admire your way of expressing what agape means. I myself have been doing some Greek lately as I agree translations of the Bible are a mess. However, I think, in christianity Allah’s agape is expressed at its CORE in Romans 5:8, Allāh demonstrated his agape love for us in this, that when we were still sinners from the Greek: sinful, ἁμαρτωλός, detestable in his sight, missing the mark of what Allah approves, Christ, the Messiah DIED for us.
    It’s even funny how my Muslims and I can come so so close, Islam and Chrsitisnity can get so so close but then on this they just complete go separate ways.
    I have been reading my Quran and Allah’s love is contingent on whether or not one is a Muslim. And a Muslim is not only he who submits to Allah but one who accepts Prophet Muhammad and follows sunnah and Hadith. All that to say, I truly loved (to abuse the word even more) your article. These conversations have to happen more between us followers of Eesa as Savior and Muslims.
    If you wanna pay me a visit I’m at
    dissecting jesus.com

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