It is common today to hear people talk about a God of love, often connected with the idea that all religions teach about a God of love. In a recent panel Q&A, I was asked “Can we call Allah a God of love?” My brief answer was no, since he is not portrayed that way in the Qur’an. For example, in the book God of Justice: A Study in the Ethical Doctrine of the Qur’an, Daud Rahbar, the late Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religions at Boston University, argues that the primary motivation for ethics given by the Qur’an is fear of God’s stern justice.
Though it is common to see fear as the essential motive for ethical behavior in Islam, it is uncommon to see that fear directed towards stern justice. “It is a fact well-recognized in scientific scholarship that Fear of God is the dominant sentiment in Qur’anic morality. But that the roots of this sentiment are in God’s stern justice and not in the preponderant malignance of the arbitrary will of a capricious sovereign is a fact scarcely recognized” (5). Thus, Rahbar sets out to demonstrate that the conception of God in the Qur’an is not of a capricious God but of a God who enacts certain justice.
Though I am unconvinced that Rahbar conclusively destroys the idea of a capricious God in Islam, I did find his discussion on the absence of love in the Qur’an and the prominence of love in the Bible fascinating.
Nowhere [in the Qur’an] do we find the idea that God loves mankind. God’s love is conditional (172).
In Christianity Love becomes the essential motive principle of virtuous conduct. Why? The answer is simple. In Christianity God is, before anything else, the Father. His Love transencds His Justice. In Qur’anic thought Fear of God becomes the essential motive-principle of virtuous conduct. Why?… The answer to why fear-motive prevails in the Qur’an is that Qur’an’s God is, before anything else, a strict judge. His justice is unrelaxing. He will forgive none but those who believe in Him and obey commandments….
The relationship of love…is a reciprocal one. The Qur’an never enjoins love for God. This is because God Himself loves only the strictly pious. To love God one must presuppose that God is reciprocating the sentiment. And to presuppose that is to presume that one is perfectly pious. Such presumption the Qur’an never allows. Even the most virtuous men as prophets are constantly reminded that they are sinful creatures who must ask forgiveness of smallest sins whether they are aware of them or not. Side by side with such a conception of God’s unrelaxing justice love for God would certainly be out of place (179-80).
In the Bible [the] central notion is God’s Fatherhood and his love for mankind. And so it is love between man and God on which all Christian morality rests… In the Qur’an the corresponding central notion is God’s strict justice. And so on fear of God’s strict justice of the judgement day depends the fulfilling of the law and the whole moral value of Qur’anic duty (223–4).
I agree that love is a central notion in the Bible, but I disagree that the Christian God’s love transcends His justice. Rather, His love leads Him to remain just while providing a way for unjust sinners to become just in His sight. God makes believers perfectly just. That’s why the Christian God performed the greatest act of love possible, and Christians in turn love God.
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)