“Love” in the Bible and the Qur’an

Dr. Fritz Goerling

In order to compare the concepts of God in the Bible and in the Qur’an from a Chistian point of view, a good way is to start with the dominant attribute of God in the Bible, namely “Love.” “Love” in the Old Testament The God of the whole Bible is the God of Love. Already in the Old Testament God is portrayed as a loving shepherd (Ps. 23), a lover (Song of Songs), loving husband (Hosea), a loving father (Jer. 31:20) and a loving mother (Isa. 49:15), and in many other contexts where the Hebrew word for “love” ahaba is not even mentioned. The noun “love” plays a lesser role in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. This has to do with the fact that Hebrew has very few abstract nouns, apart from the fact that there are also contexts which speak about a loving action without the word ahaba being used. The self-giving component of New Testament agape love is not found in the Old Testament yet.

“Love” in the New Testament

There is an essential difference between OT ahaba and NT agape in the fact that New Testament agape love is selfgiving. This can be derived from explicit definitions in the text. In 1 John 4:8 John goes straight on from his insight that “God is love” to state how this love is expressed: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (v. 9). Similar statements are found in John 3:16, Romans 5:8 and Galatians 2:20. In the New Testament, then, God is explicitly this kind of “love” (agape). God ultimately reveals Himself in self-giving Love, in the sacrifice of His Son on the cross.
Agape is a love which loves the unworthy, even the enemy. Thus, it is more inclusive than OT ahaba. Jesus uses the word in the Sermon of the Mount when he talks about love for enemies (Mt. 5:43-47). So agape love has nothing to do with mutual attraction, liking or friendship; it is rather a matter of the will to love without distinction.

Agape is most frequent in the writings of John, the apostle of Love. In 1 John we find John’s profound insight that “God is love.” Love also figures prominently in Paul’s writings. He talks about the “God of Love” (2 Co. 13:11) and he makes his profoundest statement about the content of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13. It is also significant that agape stands at the head of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 2:22). Jesus rarely speaks about it apart from pointing out in his parables how loving God is and showing by his own life what love is.

“Love” in the Qur’an Compared with “Love” in the Bible: Conditional “love” versus unconditional love

Muslims and non-Muslims agree that nowhere in the Qur’an do we find the idea that God loves humankind unconditionally. His love is conditional. Almost invariably the Qur’an talks about Allah’s love as an expression of His approval of those who do good and obey Him. From the Christian perspective it is most significant, however, to see which are the ones whom Allah does not “love” (i. e. approve), according to the Qur’an. He does not love the sinners: the ungodly (28:77), the infidels (30:44/45), the blasphemers (42:40), the proud (57:23), the miserly (4:41/37), the corrupt (5:69/64; 28:77), the wasteful (6:142/141), the treacherous (8:60/58).

These and other passages make it clear that, according to the Qur’an, sinners are excluded from the love of Allah. This is in direct opposition to the Bible where God loves the whole world, that is, not only the godly, but also the ungodly, the wicked, and the sinner. Jesus declared, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk. 2:17). The reason for this lies in God’s agape, in His desire to save the lost. By its very nature it includes the forgiveness of sins; thus it completely shatters the legal conception of the relationship between God and human beings.

The scales versus the cross

The “love” which is expressed in the Qur’an is “approval/approbation” or “liking” or “love for human beings’ goodness.” It can be concluded that in this concept of “love” the commercial spirit of Islam is reflected, a do ut des mentality transferred from the commercial milieu in which the Qur’an was written, the founder of Islam being himself a merchant in his formative years. This mentality is then transferred to the relations between Allah and human beings.

Hence, Allah’s “love” is worlds apart from the agape love of the Father of Jesus Christ. It cannot be love which even extends to sinners, nor redeeming love nor self-giving love. Sins in the commercial world view of Islam are counted as debit, and good works as credit; the value of works is weighed. The symbol of Islam is the scales. Hence, the Qur’an does not have any doctrine of expiation. It does not know the connection between forgiveness and love, it cannot understand that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is the all-sufficient work of redemption. It even attacks Jews and Christians because they appeal to God’s love (5:18). This is not to say that Allah does not forgive; but forgiveness is an aspect of His justice as a result of which He rewards the good and punishes the sinners. However, in the Bible God forgives because He is agape love.

Also, in the Bible God loves first (The Parable of the Prodigal Son; Rom. 5:8; 1 Jn. 4:10). This is significant because it reverses the qur’anic sequence, “Allah loves us because we love Him,” by saying, “We love, because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).1 This is an important deep structure difference between the two faiths which needs to be emphasized.

Mercy versus self-giving love

The Qur’an says very little about the expression of Allah’s love for humankind. This is not surprising in view of the fact that the Qur’an denies that God gave His Son to save humankind. On the contrary, humans are asked to love Allah. But how can Muslim believers love Allah who, on the whole, is a very remote God? Allah cannot be known intimately; He does not manifest Himself in self-giving love; He does not incarnate Himself.

God’s redeeming love manifested in sending the Savior is completely alien to the Qur’an. The same is true for God’s Fatherly love manifested in the relation to the Son. Self-denial and self-sacrifice are not necessary according to the Qur’an, which emphasizes the uniqueness and omnipotence of Allah. A redeemer and mediator to effect reconciliation is not needed according to the Qur’an as a logical outflow of its concept of God. A statement like “God is love” (1 John 4:8) goes far beyond the spirit of the Qur’an. The three occasions in the Qur’an (11:92/90; 19:96; 85:14), where Allah is called al wadud (the Loving One) mean far less than one might assume. All three passages contain the idea of conditional love. In two of the occurrences where Allah is called the “Loving One,” the emphasis is rather on Allah’s „mercy“: 11:92/90, “The Merciful, the Loving”; 85:14: “The Forgiving, the Loving.”2

“Mercy” is a prominent attribute of Allah in the Qur’an but it is often subordinate to Allah’s justice. “Love” is hardly mentioned, and it is subordinate to”„mercy” or an outflow of “mercy.” The few cases where Allah is said to “love (or approve)” are a far cry from the New Testament where God not simply “loves” but is Love itself. A Christian can relate intimately to God the Father, the God of Love; but this intimacy is not possible for a Muslim in relation to Allah the “Merciful One”

  1. Woodberry, J. Dudley. 1972. „Divine Love in the Quran and the Bible”. In: Al Mushir XIV:130-131. 

  2. Gilchrist, John. 1982. The Love of God in the Qur’an and the Bible (Worthing, Sussex: Christian Publicity Organisation).