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A Common Word 2

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian

Sunday, 13th January 2008

This week I want to speak about the first of the principles A Common Word identifies: love of the One God. It speaks first of Love of God in Islam, and then of Love of God as the First and Greatest Command in the Bible, beginning with what Jews call the Shema: ‘The Shema in the Book of Deuteronomy (6:4-5), a centrepiece of the Old Testament and of Jewish liturgy, says: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! / You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.’

I mustn’t misrepresent what the letter says about the love of God in Islam so I shall have to quote at some length. The letter quotes the Fatihah, which it calls the ‘greatest chapter in the Holy Qur’an’:

In the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, the All-Merciful. /
Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds. /
The Infinitely Good, the All-Merciful. /
Owner of the Day of Judgement. /
Thee we worship, and Thee we ask for help. /
Guide us upon the straight path. /
The path of those on whom is Thy Grace, not those who deserve anger nor those who are astray. (Al-Fatihah, 1:1-7)

It goes on:

The Fatihah, recited at least seventeen times daily by Muslims in the canonical prayers, reminds us of the praise and gratitude due to God for His Attributes of Infinite Goodness and All-Mercifulness, not merely for His Goodness and Mercy to us in this life but ultimately, on the Day of Judgement when it matters the most and when we hope to be forgiven for our sins. It thus ends with prayers for grace and guidance, so that we might attain—through what begins with praise and gratitude— salvation and love, for God says in the Holy Qur’an: Lo! those who believe and do good works, the Infinitely Good will appoint for them love. (Maryam, 19:96)

A little later, it explains:

Love of God in Islam is thus part of complete and total devotion to God; it is not a mere fleeting, partial emotion. … God commands in the Holy Qur’an: Say: Lo! my worship and my sacrifice and my living and my dying are for God, Lord of the Worlds. / He hath no partner. The call to be totally devoted and attached to God heart and soul, far from being a call for a mere emotion or for a mood, is in fact an injunction requiring all-embracing, constant and active love of God. It demands a love in which the innermost spiritual heart and the whole of the soul—with its intelligence, will and feeling—participate through devotion.

And it sums up:

The blessed remembrance, There is no god but God, He Alone, He hath no associate, His is the sovereignty and His is the praise and He hath power over all things, not only requires and implies that Muslims must be totally devoted to God and love Him with their whole hearts and their whole souls and all that is in them, but provides a way … - through its frequent repetition—for them to realize this love with everything they are. God says in one of the very first revelations in the Holy Qur’an: So invoke the Name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion (Al-Muzzammil, 73:8).

The letter then goes on to point out how the love of God is seen as the first and greatest commandment in the Bible. We have already seen that it quotes the Shema from the Book of Deuteronomy, but it also quotes the words of Jesus from both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels and shows that the same basic command is repeated in the Bible at least eleven times. To quote from the Gospel of Mark:

Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that [Jesus] had answered them well, asked him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” / Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. / And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

The letter comes to remarkable conclusion:

We can now perhaps understand the [Prophet Muhammad’s] words ‘The best that I have said—myself, and the prophets that came before me’ as equating the blessed formula ‘There is no god but God, He Alone, He hath no associate, His is the sovereignty and His is the praise and He hath power over all things’ precisely with the ‘First and Greatest Commandment’ to love God, with all one’s heart and soul, as found in various places in the Bible. That is to say, in other words, that the Prophet Muhammad […] was perhaps, through inspiration, restating and alluding to the Bible’s First Commandment.

This is perhaps the most fundamental challenge of the letter. Is it really true to say that the first and greatest command for Christians is to love God? And is it true that Christianity stresses the unity of God? To both questions, the answer must be a resounding ‘yes’. This is precisely what Jesus taught. And if this is so, then surely we do indeed worship the same God, and surely we each have insights about God from which the other can learn.

I do, though, have two questions Let me focus on two insights which for Christians are absolutely central. The first can be stated in the words of the First Letter of John: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’ (I Jn 4:16). These are precisely the words with which Pope Benedict chose to begin his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, before going on to speak about love of God and love of neighbour, just as A Common Word does. In Christian understanding, any love we have for God can only be a reflection of God’s love for us. When God calls upon us to love him, he is calling on us freely to respond to the love he has for us. My question to my Muslim sisters and brothers is, ‘When you speak of God as ‘the Infinitely Good, the All-Merciful’, is this, so far as you can see, the same thing as to say, ‘God is love’?

And this raises the second question. The letter of John goes on to say, ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 Jn 4:19). Any love we have for God or for our neighbour springs from the love that God has for us. If we are to obey the command to love God ‘with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’, we can only do this if God gives us that love. What we have to do is not to try harder and harder to love God – that way lies despair - but to let God give us his love. We have to remove the blockages to God’s love which can than flow back through us to God, and through us to our neighbour. In other words, we have to let the God who is love be God; we have to let the One who is love give us the gift of love. Is this teaching, I wonder, with which a faithful Muslim could agree?

It seems to me that this teaching about love shows us precisely how Christians should receive A Common Word – as a gift of love to us from our Muslim brother and sisters. And if it is given to us in love we should receive it in love. We should receive it with gratitude for the insights it offers into the ‘first and greatest commandment’; we should receive it as an invitation to a conversation in which we can together, Muslims, Jews and Christians, learn how better to obey that first and greatest commandment which is for ‘A Common Word’ from God.

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