In this section, we explore the sacred emotions that illuminate the experience of worship and provide worshippers with an endless source of meaning and fulfillment. The Qur’an alludes to three core emotions that fuel the light of worship in the heart of believers.
They are the ones that call out, searching for the nearest path to their Guardian Lord, hoping in His Mercy and fearing His punishment. No doubt the punishment of your Guardian Lord is something to seriously dread. (Qur’an 17:57)
In this verse: 1) seeking nearness to God, 2) hoping in His Mercy, and 3) fearing His punishment are connected together. We can label these emotions 1) love, 2) hope, and 3) fear, respectively. Ibn al-Qayyim gives a beautiful analogy of how these three emotions come together in the heart of a worshipper.
The heart in its journey to Allah is like a bird. Love is the head while fear and hope are the two wings. When the head and both wings are sound, then the bird can take flight. If the head is removed, the bird is dead. If one of the wings is missing, then it is easy prey for every predator.
The experience of ʿibādah
emerges from a heart that possesses these three essential sacred emotions. It is an experience described as nothing short of paradise in this word. Ibn al-Qayyim said, “For certainly, there is no true blessing, pleasure, joy, or wholeness without knowing Allah and loving Him, finding peace in His remembrance, rejoicing in being close to Him, longing to meet Him. This is the paradise of this world.”
Ibn al-Qayyim also said,
The lover is in the ocean of happiness and is never separated from it until the point he is drowning in this ocean. And just as a person who has drowned cannot be separated from the water, the lover cannot be separated from his happiness...The delight of love in this world is a small preview of the pleasures of paradise in the next world, and it is the paradise of this world. The happiness of the lover is continuous even if he is struck with waves of pain from time to time. If those preoccupied with other than God knew what the people of love possessed, their hearts would break with regret.
Ibn ʿAsākir (d. 571 AH) reported: Ibrāhīm ibn Ad´ham (d. 165 AH), may Allah have mercy on him, said, “If the kings and their sons knew what we experience of spiritual pleasure and happiness, they would fight us for it with their swords.”
These descriptions convey the depth and expansion that true ʿibādah brings to the heart of a Muslim. The intensity of this experience is determined by the strength of the foundational sacred emotions found in a person’s heart. Love, hope, and fear are the drivers of worship and so the experience will only be as meaningful as the emotions underneath. We will briefly explore each of these elemental spiritual states of ʿibādah, so we can appreciate how we can excel in our worship.
We start with the most important and necessary but also the most difficult to express and understand. Love is one of the mysteries of human existence and has inspired art, wisdom, and poetry throughout the ages. Since the dawn of civilization, human beings have attempted to portray and express the bewildering and yet inescapable feeling that is love. Contained within this feeling is a dormant energy of immense power, capable of driving human beings to overcome insurmountable odds. When true love is felt, nothing can stand between a person and their beloved. It is the source of enduring strength that is necessary to bear the pain of existence.
As Ibn al-Qayyim aptly explained,
No one can define love with a definition more clear than itself...And no one can describe love with a description more clear than love itself. Humanity is only capable of speaking about its causes, means, signs, indicators, consequences, and rulings. Their definitions only revolve around the above six.
Essentially, Ibn al-Qayyim is saying that when people attempt to define love, they end up merely describing different aspects related to it, such as what causes it or what are the signs that a person is in love. Love itself is never able to be linguistically defined.
Love, as Ibn al-Qayyim explained, is the head of a person’s spiritual pursuit. Love is to the heart what blood is to the body. It is this emotion that provides fuel for every act of the soul, just as blood is the fuel for every organ in the body. A person’s ultimate beloved defines them as a person. The true purpose and meaning of a person’s life is their beloved. Love determines the intensity and context of all other emotional experiences. In other words, all other emotions are defined by love. As Ibn Taymīyah points out this even extends to hatred,
Love and desire are the root of hatred and anger, and its cause...The act of hatred in the world is only done when something opposes the beloved. If there was not something that was loved, there would be no hatred. Hatred and anger of human beings is from what opposes and goes against the beloved.
Love is the organizing principle of all other emotional experiences. It determines their quality, intensity, and context. Ibn Taymīyah explains that even hatred cannot exist without the context of love. Why else would someone feel so strongly against something, unless it threatened what they loved?
As for the other emotions, they are also intimately connected. A person fears losing their beloved, hopes to be close to their beloved, longs for their beloved, is grieved over what they have missed from their beloved, and happy about experiencing their beloved. Love determines other love as well. A person will love anything that their beloved loves and anything that brings them closer to their beloved. As we can see, love is the foundational feeling and all other emotions are branches of its tree. This is why the objective of a believer is to empty their heart of ultimate love for anything other than Allah.
And from among humankind are those who take partners beside Allah, loving them with a love that is only due to Allah. And those who believe have even stronger love for Allah. (Qur’an 2:165)
Love for others besides Allah becomes a seed that plants another tree in the heart. Negative emotional experiences, insecurities, pathological grief, and crippling anxiety are the consequence of love for other than Allah. Every negative emotion can be traced back to a root source, which is a foundational love for something else. This can be love of other people, which means a person has overinvested and developed an insecure maladaptive attachment. It could also be love of one’s own comfort and pleasure, which means a person’s ego is in control of their heart, not their spirit. Whatever it is, anything besides Allah will ultimately bring us pain and suffering in this world and the next.
Ibn Ḥazm explains that attachment to anything in this world inevitably ends in grief,
This is because at the end of all your aspirations in this world is the eventuality of grief—either your ambitions are taken away from you or you are forced to give up your goals. There is no escape from these two ends except in striving towards God.
When we attach our hearts to anything that is temporary, then it naturally produces insecurity, unhealthy fear, and anxiety as we cannot escape the reality that our beloved will leave us. Since our love determines the meaning of our life, this can become an existential crisis. The Prophet ﷺ warned us of becoming worshippers of the dollar,
Wretched is the slave of gold, silver, fine clothes, and garments. If he is given he is pleased, but if he is not given he is displeased.
When we only have the tree of pure love for Allah, our emotional experiences are all positive. The branches tower to the sky and the roots remain firm and secure.
Have you not seen that Allah has made an example of the good word like a good tree? Its roots are firmly grounded and its branches tower to the sky. (Qur’an 14:24)
While the believer still experiences fear and grief, it is in relation to Allah, which turns them into positive and productive feelings. All misdeeds and circumstances are redeemable and reconcilable. If a person fears distance from God, it pushes them to turn to Him. If a person is grieved over their sins, it pushes them to repent to Him. If a person is angry for His Sake, it pushes them to courageously bring about positive change in their surroundings. If a person loves, they are able to do so purely without the taint of self-interest which characterizes all relationships that don’t extend from a love for Allah. They are able to love a person for who they are, a creation of Allah ﷻ, rather than what needs they fulfill.
All of this is contrasted with a person fearing losing wealth or a loved one—neither of which is under their control. Grief over losing something or someone can never bring them back. Anger due to pride or ego can never be contended with except maladaptively. This type of love can never fill the hole in a person’s heart without feelings of disappointment, hurt, and betrayal.
Love is the foundation of worship as it is the feeling that connects a person to their ultimate concern in life. It is the binding force that breaks through the thickest of walls and pierces through the hardest of steel to reach the thing they love most. From the seed of love all other emotions are felt. Without it there is no human being, only an empty vessel.
We now turn to one of the wings of worship, hope. Love is the head that directs the heart in the direction of what it desires most. Hope is what carries a person to that destination. Without hope, a person would not have the strength to tread the path to their beloved. They would stay stranded, afraid to set sail for fear of the uncertainty of the horizon.
For the believer, the heart is oriented toward Allah beyond the heavens. How daring an objective for a creature full of flaws, weaknesses, and limitations? What is it about the believer that makes him believe he can possibly be in the presence of al-Quddūs (The Pure), while his heart is covered with impurities? How can he reach al-ʿAlī (The Most High), while he is in the lowest of abodes? How can he reach al-Nūr (The Light), when he can barely take the heat and illumination of the sun? How is he worthy to be in the presence of al-Ḥamīd (The Praiseworthy), while he is engulfed in sin and heedlessness? The only answer is hope. Hope in the vastness of Allah’s Mercy is the propeller that drives a person on the path toward Him. It would take a miracle for a human being to even imagine being in the presence of Allah. And yet, this miracle is witnessed every day through only Allah’s Grace. Simple acts of prayer and remembrance can elevate the spirit to the Throne of God, as it lies in prostration before al-Raḥmān (the Most Merciful).
This hope in Allah extends to all domains of our life. The sinner hopes in Allah’s Mercy. The poor person hopes in Allah’s Providence. The sick person hopes in Allah’s Cure. The oppressed person hopes in Allah’s Justice. The broken person hopes in Allah’s Strength. The lonely person hopes in Allah’s Love. The confused person hopes in Allah’s Guidance. The depressed and anxious hope in Allah’s Plan. Whatever our need in life, we hope that Allah will fulfill it.
“The future will be better for you than your past” (Qur’an 93:4) if you continue on your journey toward your beloved Allah and most ultimate of concerns. Hope carries a person into the future with an unshakeable confidence, rooted in their faith in Allah’s Grace and Might. His immense Mercy means He wants good for us, and His Might means there is no barrier to Him providing from His endless treasures.
At this point, we must clarify the important difference between hope, the wing of worship, and wishful thinking, an impulse from the devil. Hope inspires action, whereas wishful thinking is passive, inspiring only laziness and complacency. When a person believes they can reach their goal, they will increase in their efforts to reach it. Hope in Allah alone doesn’t mean a person dismisses the means Allah has placed in the world. This important clarification occurred in the time of the Prophet ﷺ.
Anas bin Mālik narrates that a man said, “O Messenger of Allah ﷺ shall I tie it (the camel) and rely upon Allah ﷻ or should I leave it loose and rely upon Allah ﷻ?” He said, “Tie it and rely upon Allah.”
ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb narrates, I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ saying: “If you all depend on Allah with due reliance, He would certainly give you provision as He gives it to birds who go forth hungry in the morning and return with full bellies at dusk.”
If a person doesn’t think they are smart enough or capable enough to accomplish a task, they are less likely to even attempt it. But if a person believes they can do it, they will approach the means to the objective with zeal and enthusiasm. This is how hope in Allah inspires action. When you believe that the outcome of whatever you are undertaking is in the Hands of Allah, you trust that your efforts will be fruitful and so you expend even more energy.
In contrast, wishful thinking is not rooted in any sincere hope in Allah. Rather, it comes from laziness and a wish for things to come to a person without having to put in effort. This ignores the means Allah has ordained for things in this world and opposes the prophetic example of proactive reliance on Allah.
Another important distinction to be made is the difference between hope in Allah and hope in oneself. Hope in Allah allows us to open ourselves up to new possibilities and to be comfortable with the uncertainty of the future.
Abū Saʿīd al-Khuḍrī narrates that The Prophet ﷺ said, “There is no Muslim that calls out to Allah ﷻ with a prayer that does not contain any wrong or breaking of familial ties except Allah ﷻ gives him one of three. Either what he asked for is hastened to him, or it is saved for the hereafter, or a calamity of similar magnitude is diverted from him.”
Abū Hurayrah narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷻ said, “Call upon Allah ﷻ while being certain of being answered, and know that Allah ﷻ does not respond to a supplication from the heart of one heedless and occupied.”
The certainty of Allah’s response and the strength of a person’s hope does not replace the uncertainty of the future. The future remains uncertain, but the believer has internalized that it is solely determined by Allah, and prefers His decision. While a person may want something in particular, hope in Allah enables them to be open to their fears and know that whatever the outcome, it was best for them.
The power of hope is what grounds us and makes us believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how bleak a person’s situation, the wing of hope tells them that the ultimate end will be theirs if they only have faith. A person who is inspired by hope in Allah raises his head from the dark abyss that lies beneath him and to the rising sun on the horizon. The pain and misery of this world is only temporary; the believer hopes for felicity and everlasting pleasure in the next. The believer hopes only in the Mercy of God and never lets go of that rope.
In contrast, popular psychology and mainstream self-help cliches encourage people to ‘believe in themselves’ and go through life with an attitude of self-sufficiency. These platitudes are dangerous as they instill false hope and confidence in a person who has no tangible reason to believe he or she is capable of changing their condition. Allah ﷻ warns the human being, “But Alas, humanity has certainly transgressed, that he sees himself as self-sufficient” (Quran, 96:6-7) He also informs us of our fundamental reality of dependency and destitution, “O humankind, you are all impoverished before Allahﷻ, and He is the Self-Sufficient, Full of Praise”(Quran, 35:15). True independence is only achieved with absolute dependence on the One who is truly Self-Sufficient, al-Ḥayy al-Qayyūm (The Perfectly Living, The Sustainer of All). Only through hope and reliance upon Allah ﷻ can a person be justifiably confident and have good reason to believe in an optimistic future.
Fear is one of the most powerful human emotions and is the driving force behind so many of our thoughts, worries, and behaviors. Ibn Ḥazm said,
I searched for a common goal amongst humankind, to which all would agree to strive for excellence. I have not found anything other than the vanquishing of anxiety.
Many view fear as a negative emotion and are often turned off from religious preaching that inspires fear through reminders of death and the hellfire. However, it must be realized that fear is a positive emotion if it motivates us to stay away from harm and to pursue what is beneficial. Fear is only harmful if it is taken to an extreme and results in a crippling paralysis. Otherwise, fear is a necessary wing of ʿibādah that sustains the flight of the heart in this world toward Allah. Fear of Allah is one of the greatest assets to a believer that gives them the strength to refrain from temptation and desire. Fear of Allah gives a person strength to maintain their values in the face of incredible resistance in this world. It enables a person to live for what they believe in and stand up for what’s right despite external pressures that may force them into hiding. If a person doesn’t fear Allah, then they will fear the people and things of this world. Fear of poverty, failure, people’s judgment, or the aggression of others can shackle a person’s heart and drive them wherever the fear goes. The shackles stop the heart from pursuing what it truly loves and wants in life. But when the light of taqwá (fearing Allah) comes to a person’s heart, the flame burns all other fears to a crisp. The shackles are broken, and the heart becomes free to pursue whatever it truly desires. These are desires from the spirit, not from the ego.
The key to only fearing Allah is to only love Allah. Love determines our fears. We fear being separated from what we want and love in life. When we love Allah, we fear being separated from Him. For a lover of Allah, the worst of punishments is being veiled from Him in the next life (Qur’an 83:15).
Separation from Allah is also feared as it brings about punishment of our bodies and souls in this life and the next. A believer knows that those close to Allah will experience His Mercy and those far from Him will be left with His Justice. Pure Justice means punishment and destruction for us all.
And if Allah ﷻ were to take humanity to account based on their oppression, He would not leave upon the earth a single creature. (Qur’an 16:61)
The verse states that if we are delivered pure justice, then we will be met with the Wrath of God. While many find this image negative, it is actually quite positive. The Wrath of God is perfect, unlike the flawed anger of human beings that leads them to transgress. The Anger of God is pure justice.
We can love and hope for closeness to Allah but the motivation of human beings fluctuates. What will push through the resistance within ourselves due to laziness and weakness? And what will overcome the resistance outside in the forms of aggression and tyranny? Fear is the most basic of instincts that activates the strongest mechanism for survival in human beings. Fear of Allah can activate within us a strength that can keep us soaring to the sky on the journey to Allah. Thus, fear of Allah ﷻ means we run to Him, not away from Him.
Balancing love, hope, and fear
The head turns to what it loves most, with a strong desire to reach what may seem impossible. The wing of hope endows the lover with the belief that what is sought is attainable. The wing of fear pushes the lover away from what the beloved despises and toward what is loved. In times of failure, hope carries the lover. In times of ease, fear keeps the lover from being complacent and indulgent. This is the heart of true worship that encompasses a person’s entire life’s journey. And for a creature as lofty and noble as the human being, endowed with intellect, consciousness, conscience, and a spirit, there is none worthy of this pursuit except Allah.