Love from a Quranic lens: Do I love Pakistan?

Raahim Zafar

In preparation for my role as moderator in Interfaith Exchange’s very first webinar, I’ve been thinking up questions to ask the guests. Two of these guests, it so happens, will be joining us from my country of birth. With this in mind, I’ve found myself drawn in particular toward questions that draw out the root challenges Pakistan faces, particularly in relation to interfaith cohesion, but equally in areas of inquiry with more general applicability.

Playing out these questions in my mind, I imagined myself in conversation with a particularly patriotic Pakistani man. I envision him caressing the curls of his mighty moustache as I question him about Pakistan’s religious minorities and its socio-economic challenges. As my questions to this hypothetical human develop, I begin to challenge him on certain cultural practices among the general populace as well as institutional tendencies within the government. The imaginary man becomes agitated. “How can you say such a thing about your own country?” He retorts in shock. “Don’t you love Pakistan?

Of course, this imaginary man consists entirely of stereotypes. But I find it useful to have (and, when not possible, to imagine) discussions with people on every end of the political spectrum. These particular 4am thoughts brought my mind to a pertinent topic: the notion of patriotism, “loving one’s country.” So let’s answer this man’s question. Do I love Pakistan? I’m partly a linguist by training, so please excuse my pedanticism, but I must begin by asking: what does it mean “to love”?

Love can have many an object: you can love an individual, an abstract entity (like a nation), or even an idea. You can love people you’ve never met, you can love people who you’ve only heard about, you can love people who have long since passed from this world.

For simplicity, let’s use a person as our example. The question is, what exactly are the emotions we feel and the (often subconscious) thoughts we have towards someone we love? Well, unfortunately, life isn’t that simple. There are different types of people as well. You have different types of love for your parents, friends, children, partner, neighbour etc.. Languages other than English have been more precise and given each of these their own name. Clearly therefore, I have made no revolutionary observation, but when someone asks “Don’t you love your nation?” they are seeking a yes or no answer; the reality of the question being asked, however, is much vaster than what a “yes” or “no” can sufficiently convey. There is value in keeping things simple and succinct, but life is complex. When simplicity detracts from precision or becomes detrimental to the truth, it becomes oversimplification.

It is ultimately (and inherently) an issue with language. What I understand by “love,” in this context, may not be what you do. That’s why it’s so important to always define terms. We presume people will understand words exactly the same way as us, but there’s no reason they should. Their life experience and/or their reflections may cause them to understand love differently– even their conception of parental, brotherly, and romantic love will be uniquely shaped by their experiences and personal knowledge.

So let us return to the original question: what does it mean to love? If we want a universal definition we need to find some sort of commonality amongst all these different types of love. Some dictionary-based suggestions include “affection,” “attachment” and “care.” Okay. Seems we’re getting somewhere, but let’s play out a scenario in our minds.

Let’s imagine you have two children. Identical twins. When they are born, you love them the same, right? As they grow older, you continue to love them the same. One day though, one of them gets mixed up with the wrong sort of company. He initially only goes a bit off the track, but as the years progress, he spirals into becoming the sort of human being you would rather avoid were they not your child. Just imagine him as the sort of person you really don’t want to spend time with. It doesn’t have to be a criminal– though it can be. But it could equally just be somebody who is unkind, lazy, rude, stingy, never smiles, takes advantage of your good nature, doesn’t brush their teeth… You get the point. Meanwhile, the other twin is the absolute opposite of that. This one manifests values that you admire, their behaviour give you joy and they posses qualities, were they in anyone other than your child, you would respect that person, honour them, and seek their company. So, do you still love both of them the same? In fact, do you still love the nightmare child at all?

At this point, you would probably want to take a step back and explain what you mean by love. Even if you say yes to loving the child gone wayward, you would qualify your affirmation of love by saying something like “he’s still my son.” And I think that’s fair and natural. But, surely, what you feel about him is not the same as your emotions for the angelic child– that would not only be unrealistic, but unfair and unjust to the good twin.

This brings to mind a verse in the Quran. Muslims believe the Quran to be the direct speech of God who speaks, most often, using the capitalised “Royal We.” So God says:

Should We treat those who believe and do righteous deeds like corrupters in the land? Or should We treat the pious like the wicked?

Quran, 38:28

But what about the sinner? Does God not love the sinner? You see, in Arabic there’s more precision to the term “love.” A quick Google search says there are 11 words in Arabic for different types of love, but a book called “Love in the Holy Quran” goes into substantially more detail listing many more words that constitute what we, in English, simply call “love.” I consider it to be a sad case of oversimplification that English melds an ocean of human experience into a single one-size-fits-all bludgeon.

So when the Quran says “God does not love the oppressor” (3:57) or “God does not love the transgressor,” (2:190), it is talking about something other than the unconditional love which is indiscriminately available to all beings. The Arabic word for unconditional love is, unfortunately, often translated as “mercy” – but it’s so much more than that. The word is Rahmah and it comes from the same root as the word for “womb.” The Quran mentions in two places that God’s “Rahmah has encompassed everything” (7:156; 40:7).

When a mother has a child in her womb, she is providing the child protection, she is providing the child constant nourishment. For 9 months she does this, often going through great pain as part of it, but never once does she ask for anything back. Never once does she ask for rent for those nine months or for any return of any sort when the child grows up. And she continues to provide and care for the child through the early years of the child’s weakness, helplessness and beyond (which can sometimes go too far and create the “Emperor Child” – something to discuss another time).

The mother’s love for the child is a type of love that does not want. It is given free of charge. This is why I believe the word Rahmah may be better understood as a motherly sort of “unconditional love.” God’s Rahmah is something like motherly love, but taken to the max. This sort of love from God is available for everyone and everything. No-one is ever deprived of this. It encompasses everything– even hell. But because God is also Just, there is a specific type of love, a “special love” for those who also believe and do good and manifest virtue.

Human beings can also, to a lesser extent, manifest God’s qualities of universal and specific love. So, to answer the question, “Do I love my nation?” I would say that just like the mother loves her child unconditionally and provides for the child so that it may grow and prosper– in that way I also love my nation. I have a soft spot for my country, affection towards it, and I want to see it do well no matter what stage of development it is at now.

However, loving my country doesn’t mean I necessarily like the state it’s in– helping another develop and improve is part of love. I don’t necessarily condone my nation’s actions; the Quran commands Muslims to stand true to justice and fairness even if it against their own selves, their parents, or their closest loved ones (4:135). Thus, I do not inherently have an “admiration” or “special love” for my nation; I would need to see something of substance that gave me reason to admire it. At the same time, I can admire and praise certain qualities of the nation which are good and engender “specific love” but be less fond of its other aspects. And of course, a nation is a tricky subject, because it is not one monolithic entity– it is an amalgam of ideals, individuals, laws, cultural custom, political history and a whole host of other things each of which are interrelated and containing their fair share of good and bad.

So my answer is yes, I love Pakistan in the sense that I care about it and would be willing to give from my own means to help it grow in a positive direction and to be a good place to live. But that doesn’t mean I will turn a blind eye to its shortcomings; I will critique it because I love it and, where I can, I will help with my own hands to build it so that it develops in a good direction. But this whole discussion evokes another question: “What is good?” Well, that discussion is much longer and had better wait for its own article, but I’ll leave you with the words of a friend who once alluded to the idea beautifully and succinctly:

Pursuing someone’s good is not the same as pursuing their happiness.

D. Mackay

Photo Credits: Ali Hassan on

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