Love plays an important role in all three of the world’s major monotheistic religions. They draw this idea from their sacred scriptures.
Christians maintain that the New Testament builds upon the Jewish Tanakh/Old Testament; Muslims assert that the Qur’an is a corrective to the Jewish and Christian scriptures. How does the idea of God’s love for mankind, change as we go from Tanakh to New Testament to Qur’an, and what does that say about the correct understanding of the nature of God?
In the Old Testament, God loves his people with an everlasting and fatherly love.
Bless the Lord, my soul; and do not forget all his gifts, Who pardons all your sins, and heals all your ills…The Lord does righteous deeds, brings justice to all the oppressed…He has not dealt with us as our sins merit, nor requited us as our wrongs deserve. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him (Ps 103:3, 6, 10, 13).
It is God performing the actions here: God forgives, heals, brings justice to the oppressed, and cares for his children. His love is unconditional just as the love of a human father does not depend upon the actions of his children.
In the Psalms, David writes about how God loves us like a shepherd loves the littlest lamb (23:1, 3, 6). This is a love of complete of the lamb for the shepherd. Like a helpless infant, we can safely abandon ourselves to the comfort of our God who lovingly guides us and cares for us all the days of our lives.
Jeremiah tells us that God’s love for us began before we were even conceived in our mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5, 31:3). It began before we did, and continues despite our sins and failings. God loves us no matter what.
In the New Testament, God is Love (1 John 4:8). God first loved us, not because of anything we have done, but because it is his nature to love and it is his desire to share that love with us. Moreover, this love comes with an expectation that we will then love others, and through this love of others, God’s love will reach amazing new heights in us!
God loves us so much that he desires us all to share eternal life with him, even offering up his only son as a means of our salvation despite our sinful disobedience(John 3:16). This is the great sign of his love—“in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
God loves everyone—saints and sinners alike—with this everlasting love. And he enjoins us to imitate that kind of love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust”(Matt. 5:43-46).
What does the Qur’an say about God’s love? “If ye do love Allah, follow me: Allah will love you and forgive you your sins: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (3:31). Allah loves his people, but they must love him first. This is a deviation from what we have seen in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. One must do good deeds of righteousness in order to be loved by Allah. Other verses of this same vein are 5:14, 3:76, 9:4, 9:7, 3:148, 5:45, 49:9, and 60:8.
There is also a second sense of doing good: giving money or goods to Allah’s cause. “And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good” (2:195). Likewise, “Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity, or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon (all) men;—for Allah loves those who do good” (3:134).
We see that giving money and goods is viewed as ways of earning the love of Allah. This is different from the Christian understanding, which is that giving to others is a natural response to the love of God, not a condition to receive it in the first place.
Another way to earn Allah’s love is to be pure and clean. “Allah loves those who turn to him constantly and he loves those who keep themselves pure and clean” (2:222). This is in the context of women who have purified themselves after their period and men who avoid seeking sexual relations during that time. Such abstinence creates a condition for Allah’s love to come upon the Muslim believer.
Additionally, Allah loves those who are just and judge rightly:
If two parties among the believers fall into a quarrel, make ye peace between them: But if one of them transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then fight ye (all) against the one that transgresses until it complies with the command of Allah; but if it complies, then make peace between them with justice, and be fair: For Allah loves those who are fair (and just) (Q 49:9).
Allah loves those who, when placed in a position to be a judge, judge fairly. Qur’an 5:45 and 60:8 state similarly.
Allah loves those who trust in him and are persevering—“Allah loves those who put their trust (in him)” (3:159); “Allah loves those who are firm and steadfast” (3:146). Although trust and perseverance are good things to Christians and Jews, too, they are not a requirement for God’s love.
Allah also loves those who fight well for him. “Truly Allah loves those who fight in his cause in battle array, as if they were a solid cemented structure” (61:4).
We also read that Allah does not love numerous kinds of people:
- Unbelievers (2:276)
- The faithless (3:32; cf. 30:45).
- Wrongdoers (3:57, 140; 42:40)
- Transgressors (2:190; 5:87; 7:55)
- The arrogant ( 4:36; 16:23; 31:18; 57;23)
- The proud (4:36; 31:18; 57:23)
- The wasteful (6:141; 7:31)
- The treacherous (8:58; 22:38)
- The corrupt (5:64; 28:77)
- The boastful (28:76)
One passage of the Qurʾan even speaks of God’s “hate” (maqt) for the unbelievers (40:10).
The nature of God’s love in the Old and New Testament is the same. God knew us before we were made; he knows everything about us; he cares for us like a father for his child or a shepherd for his sheep. This love is perfect: selfless, unconditional, aimed at the good of man despite his sinfulness and unbelief. God loves man because God is love. That is powerful love.
In contrast, Allah’s love for man is conditional: it must be earned. Man must first believe and then do righteous deeds or something that pleases Allah in order for Allah to love him. This is an imperfect love, the love of a master for a slave. Allah loves those slaves who are obedient and does not love slaves who are disobedient. This imperfect, defective form of love is not compatible with divinity, which requires perfection.
This conception of the nature of Allah’s love is very different from that of the Christian Gospels, and when you speak with Muslims about your faith or when they tell you about the love of Allah, you must be sure to underline this difference.
I will give Jesus the final word:
“I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11-17).
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Luke 14:4-7).