By Dr. Terence Nichols
When Jesus was asked by a lawyer which was the greatest commandment of the law, he replied as follows: “’You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:22: 37-39). Jesus goes even further, however. We must, he says love even our enemies: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
The centrality of love in Christianity is also emphasized by Paul, who writes: “And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13).
Now, we might ask, what is love? Is it a warm emotion? Is it good intentions for the other? Does it include both love of God and neighbor? In Christianity it is the deepest attraction of the heart, and it certainly includes submission to God, and willing the good of the other. In the First Letter of John, we read: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (I John 5:3. But, as this example shows, love must be expressed in action: if the love of God is true, it will be expressed in the love of neighbor. Thus we read also in the first letter of John: “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers and sisters whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen… those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (I John 4:20-21).
Most of my readers will be familiar with the excellent document “A Common Word,” published by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in 2007. This document is an exceptional example of reaching out in dialogue to Christians. It meets Christians more than half way, so to speak, on their own ground: the love of God and the love of neighbor. “A Common Word” affirms that love of God and love of neighbor is central to Islam as well as to Christianity. It states:
Love of the neighbor is an essential and integral part of faith in God and love of God because in Islam without love of neighbor there is no true faith in God and no righteousness. The Prophet Muhammad said: “None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al-Iman, Hadith no. 13) and “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Iman, Hadith no. 45) (see www.acommonword.com.).
The Qur’an also states: "Those who spend (of that which Allah hath given them) in ease and in adversity, those who control their anger and are forgiving toward mankind; Allah loveth the good.” Quran 3:134
If love of God and neighbor is central to the teachings of both Muslims and Christians, then surely we should not hate one another or call each other infidels. Rather, as the creatures of the one God, let us witness in common to the love of the God who created us all. As Ayatollah Sistani writes: “I call upon all of you to spread the words “I love you” between all peoples and to be model citizens of your countries. Work for the safety and prosperity of countries wherever you are.”
As a Christian, I would raise two further questions. What is the source of the ongoing strife between those who worship the one God? And, where can we get the power to love those who are enemies, and who have injured or killed our family and friends?
Certainly the strife between Muslims and Christians has been exacerbated by a mindset which has stressed our differences rather that what we have in common. But I wonder if there is a deeper source. Sometimes I ask myself, if I were Satan or Iblis, how would I destroy belief in God? And the obvious answer is: I would turn the religions of God against each other, so that what was expressed was hatred, not love. Sad to say, this ploy seems to be working. But if we commit ourselves to love of God and neighbor, as “A Common Word” recommends, we can undo Satan’s strategy.
This brings me to my second question. Where can we get the strength to forgive even those who have injured or killed our family or fellow believers? The Christian and Muslim answer is that this forgiveness and love comes from God, and it is to God that we must turn, in prayer, asking for God’s grace to help us forgive old wounds, so that we may come to love one another. Only in this way can we become true worshippers of God.
Dr. Terence Nichols
Professor, Theology Department
Co-Director, Muslim Christian Dialogue Center
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.