Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim. In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.
It is difficult to talk about love and Islam today, as images of Islamic extremists in Iraq flood the media and the country descends further into what is already a bloody civil war. It is difficult to talk about love and Islam today, as Boko Haram continues to make headlines as they kidnap and murder more and more young Nigerian schoolchildren in the name of Islam. It is difficult to talk about love and Islam today, as a young Christian mother in Sudan is forced to give birth in solitary confinement while awaiting international intervention before she is set for execution for apostasy. It is difficult to talk about love and Islam today, as the world watches muted and bleary-eyed while already over 160,000 have been slaughtered in Syria, with the number growing by the day.
It is difficult to talk about love and Islam, today.
Let me be clear, I am not interested in pointing out all the beautiful verses of the Qur’an to combat the negativity that we see in the media. I am not interested in apologizing for terrorists, or in highlighting the plight of ‘moderates’. I am interested in talking about love – the love that brought me to Islam, the love that has kept me in Islam for 11 years.
Ramadan has arrived, with the sighting of the full moon during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. As a Muslim, someone who surrenders to God in peace, I am reminded of what brought me to the religion, and what has kept me, despite my struggles, in it. It is during this time of spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and material purification that I am reminded to reflect on why I continue to believe, and what my belief means to me.
The reason is love, and not just any love, but a compassionate, tender love.
In one of her less well known books, Moroccan scholar Dr. Fatema Mernissi discusses and translates the 14th century Sufi book, “The Garden of Lovers: The 50 Names of Love”, by Imam Ibn Qayim al-Jawziyya. Out of the 50 names, my favorite is al-Hanin, or “compassion”, the “deer of tenderness”. Dr. Mernissi explains, “Al-Hanin is a strong, bewitching inclination of the soul toward the person loved…This word is also synonymous with compassion (rahma) and misericord. In effect, it describes one of the effects of love.”
So, compassion is an effect of love.
It was a focus on compassionate love and peace that initially drew me into Islam, and it is this focus and the traditions which honor it, that have stayed with me throughout the 11 years that I have had the honor of calling myself, and often defending myself, as a Muslim.
So, why did I covert, or as my undergraduate professor Dr. Aminah McCloud aptly put it: why did I “transition my tradition” to Islam? I am constantly asked about how and why I became Muslim. To be honest, the reactions can get tiring when I drop the “M-bomb”. Usually I hear things like, “That’s weird! Why?” or “Do you have an Islamic boyfriend?” Another common response, “What did your parents say?”
As an American born and raised in Colorado, far away from any kind of true religious diversity, Islam was totally foreign to me until September 11, 2001. Regrettably, it was this tragic event that opened the eyes of many Americans of my generation and after to the word ‘Islam’ and the varieties of people who practice its traditions. But, I was raised in a household that taught respect and tolerance for those whose opinions differ from mine. It was this compassionate tolerance and love for the other that allowed me to discover my truth, Islam.
It was September 11th that prompted me, and millions of other Americans, to begin to investigate Islam. Unfortunately, I think a large portion of America is tremendously uninformed (if not tremendously misinformed), by the right-wing, vitriol-spewing pundits who have way too much airtime like Pamelar Geller and my least favorite Islamophobe of the moment, Usama Dakdok, who has claimed that “Muslims will kill your children”.
So what brought me to Islam, and why am I talking about “love and Islam”?
While an undergraduate student in Islamic World Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, I had the pleasure of meeting a beautiful, intelligent and intensely spiritual Moroccan woman whose family was Sufi. At that moment in my life, I was interested in Islam from only from an academic perspective; I had absolutely no interest, or the slightest idea, that I might become Muslim myself.
While pursuing my bachelors in Islamic studies, and with my Sufi friend to guide me, I began to study Islam and listen to recitations of Qur’an and prayers that were so beautiful they literally gave me goosebumps. I did not understand Arabic, but the words and the way in which they were recited, evoked in me a tremendous spiritual awakening. It was a profound and consuming connection with something greater, which lead to a reconnection with myself and humanity. Indeed, it was a rediscovery of love.
What I experienced was more than some ephemeral college-age intellectual or socially motivated interest in Islam – it was an ineffable feeling of compassionate love. Love for God, love for myself and love for others, and an unfounded yet simultaneously unconditional feeling of the reciprocation of this love from the universe toward me. This was, as Dr. Mernissi describes, al-Mahabba, “…the affection, the attentive tenderness and constant love”, that I had found.
According to the great 12th century Sufi scholar Ibn al-Arabi, there are three levels of knowledge. The first, being reason (ilm al-aql), which is knowledge that is self-evident. For example, you know that a table is hard because you can touch it and feel that it is hard. The second level is the knowledge of the states (al-ahwal), which can only be realized through spiritual experience. He relates, “This is like the knowledge of the sweetness of honey…the pleasure of sexual intercourse, love, ecstasy and yearning.” This knowledge cannot be proved or articulated, in a precise manner in the same way that self-evident knowledge can be. On the contrary, it is what we call faith. This experience of love that came through my transition to Islam was exactly this second form of knowledge that Ibn al-Arabi described centuries ago.
I learned to experience this love through my Sufi friend. The way she understood Islam in her own life, they way she manifested it, fundamentally touched me. The way she taught me to experience love also fundamentally changed me. She was a woman who dressed like me, talked like me, danced like me, laughed like me, but loved herself and was able to express love for others in a way that I was not accustomed to. It was true compassion that came from a distinct way of remembering God and, through the remembrance of God, finding compassion for humanity. This fountain of loving tenderness came from how she interpreted her religion. I wanted this for myself and I found it in Islam. That was my truth.
In a new take on the Orientalist tradition, the West too often equates Islam with terrorism – to the detriment of over 1.5 billion Muslims and their neighbors. While the spectacular acts of few have caused significant distress for the majority, it is during this special time of the year that I want to bring the focus back to love.
I believe that everyone has their own truth, based on their own circumstances, experiences and internal machinery. The spiritual path of experiencing love through Islam is my truth. I invite my readers to find love through their own truths and in this way we can love each other as a world community, regardless of how we define our path to truth.
Carli Pierson is currently an international research fellow at the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences (ISISC) in Siracusa, Italy. She is also a New York licensed attorney and a human rights and society contributor for the Women News Network (WNN). She received her B.A. in Islamic World Studies from DePaul University in 2006, and her juris doctorate cum laude with a concentration in international law from Nova Southeastern University's Shepard Broad Law Center, in 2012.