The Quran tells us that Abraham, “whom God chose as friend” (4:125), sat down under the heavenly vault looking for his sublime God. The planet Venus appeared.
Fascinated by its beauty, Abraham said, “Behold, that’s my God!” But then Venus disappeared, and Abraham commented, “I do not love those who disappear!”
The Moon appeared. Abraham said, “Behold, that’s my God; this one is greater!” But when the Moon disappeared as well, Abraham exclaimed, “I do not love those who disappear!”
The Sun rose, and Abraham, overwhelmed by its magnificence, said, “This is my God!” But when the Sun set, Abraham said, “I do not love those who disappear!”
The moral of this story is that sublimity, beauty, greatness and magnificence are meaningless if coupled with absence. They are incomplete. They can only be completed with presence.
Why presence? Abraham makes it clear when he comments on the disappearance — or absence — of the planet Venus, the Moon and the Sun.
He does not say, “I do not worship those who disappear.” He says, “I do not love those who disappear.” Abraham is looking for love and presence as the condition of love.
In the three Abrahamic religions love is inextricably linked to faith. A prophetic oral tradition says that “None of you will believe, until he will love for his neighbour what he loves for himself.”
In the Bible, we can read that “If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hateth his brother, he is a liar. For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (John 4:20). This is not to mention the famous commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
It is saddening today to see many followers of the Abrahamic religions reduce their creeds to pure doctrine, which is actually the fruit of the love experienced by the faithful who came before them.
Many think that faith is the end of their quest and the conclusion of the road. However, in so doing they deprive themselves of the pulsating heart, the only thing that can make religion — which exists from the beginning of time — present, if not eternal.
This pulsating heart is the search of love. Without this search, religions remain imprisoned in their past, because if we are not able to actualise them through our own experience we renounce their existence in the present.
Love is the condition of faith. Only those who love can believe. God is greater than what we know. The true believer is the one who is moved by the curiosity to know even more about God and is driven in his steps by the certainty that all we can know about Him is written in his own heart.
The heart is like a stone in which a fire is dormant. If you rub it, it lights up. If you leave it alone, it dies out. The stone lights up at the contact of another stone, and so does the heart.
A person alone and isolated from others cannot know God. God cannot be known in isolation. The road to God is through the hearts of others.
Islam views the Abrahamic religions as members of the same body. If even one of them were missing, the prophetic edifice could not have been completed by the Prophet Mohamed.
This idea has always existed in Islamic tradition in different forms. In the fourth century of the Hijra, for example (10th century CE), the Muslim confraternity of the Brethren of Purity working in Basra in Iraq used a different metaphor to express the same idea, describing humanity as a sick person beset by various illnesses.
The doctor (God) prescribes different medications (religions) for different ailments, and the lack of a single medicine threatens the life of the patient (humanity).
This means that the other, in the Islamic tradition, is the companion whose presence guarantees human fulfillment and whose absence threatens human civilisation.
The writer is a professor at the Catholic University of Milan and author of Conflicting Arab Identities: Language, Tradition and Modernity.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The road to God