Skip to main content
Love in Sufi Poetry
May 1, 2012

The enduring resonance of the poetry of thirteenth-century Islamic poet, Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, extends across cultures and through the centuries of time. Perhaps, the popularity of Rumi could be attributed to the profusion of descriptions of love in his poetry, for as Rumi, himself, remarked, "One can discuss it forever and never exhaust it." Love has a very important meaning in Islam, and for Rumi and other practitioners of the Sufi tradition, "Love totally dominates and determines the Sufi's inward and psychological states." How do Sufis understand love? How does their poetry reflect love as a spiritual teaching?

The best place to begin this discussion is with the Qur'an. There are numerous verses that mention love, but whenever the word love is used "the quality is always ascribed to God and human beings, and nothing else; and God's love is always directed at human beings." Not only does this mean that the relationship between God and human beings is unique, but love defines that unique relationship. In the verses that mention love for God, the Qur'an makes two important points. Firstly, God wants people to love him, and secondly, their love for God follows upon His love for them. The verse of the Qur'an most cited for this is "...whom He loves, and who love Him" (5:54). The inferences that Sufi mystics have drawn from this verse is that love cannot be learned, it is the result of divine grace, and the initiative comes from God. This feeling of God's desire "to love and to be loved" inspired Rumi to suggest:

Not a single lover would seek union if the beloved were not seeking it.

The message of the Qur'an compelled Muslims to understand their relationship with God as one requiring reciprocated love. Sufi poets then searched for a vocabulary to describe their love for God, including words not found in the Qur'an or Hadiths.

In the early period of Sufism "the majority of teachings on love are contained in poems and brief statements that focus upon the human love for God, wherein there is always a duality between the human lover and the Divine Beloved." This developed into a trend within Sufi thought in which "all aspects of creation and spiritual aspiration are presented in an imaginal language fired by love." An important development in this trend was the use of the word for passionate love, ishq, rather than the more accepted vocabulary of the Qur'an. The Qur'anic terms for love are hubb and mahabba that describe the measured affection of God. Ishq came into the lexicon of Sufi poetry to describe "the essential desire for God and the love of God as an essential attribute, which fills the heart of the mystic." Using the word ishq in a religious context means that:

Love is no longer merely an expression of gratitude for the blessings of God; it is no longer content with rigorous asceticism and meticulous ritual observance. It becomes an absolute necessity, entailing neither enjoyment nor alleviation, but intensifying as the reciprocity of the lover and the loved comes into effect.

By redefining their love for God as ishq, the early Sufi poets extended their vocabulary, and by doing this they could more accurately describe their inner response to the revelation of the Qur'an. The recognition of two types of love is expressed by Rabia in the following quatrain:

Two loves I give thee, love that yearns.
And love because thy due is love.
My yearning, my remembrance turns
To Thee, nor lets it from thee rove.

Here, Rabia identifies the spontaneous love for God she feels within herself – and the dutiful love she is obliged to give to God in the performance of her religious responsibilities. As Chittick wrote, "Love pertains to the experiential dimension of Sufism, not the theoretical; it must be experienced to be understood." Sufism connects experiential knowledge to the belief that "nothing is dearer to God than that man loves him." A mystic and poet who lived in Anatolia in the same period as Rumi, Yunus Emre, described the intensifying experience of love for God:

Your love has wrested me away from me
You're the one I need, you're the one I crave.
Day and night I burn, gripped by agony,
You're the one I need, you're the one I crave.
For Yunus Emre, "love is the most powerful of everything."

When love for God is described in terms of passion then the language of romantic love is readily accessible to be adapted as the metaphoric language of the spiritual journey. In Sufi poetry there is a convention of the spiritual supplicant being called the lover of God, while God is referred to as the Beloved. Throughout Sufi poetry we read verses that elaborate ideas about the relationship of the lover and the Beloved. A good example of this is seen in this verse by Rumi:

Lovers share a sacred decree –
to seek the Beloved.
They roll head over heels
rushing toward the Beautiful One
like a torrent of water.

Here God has two titles, the Beloved and the Beautiful One, but this poem could easily be read as secular love poetry. In this verse Rumi includes the beliefs that the impetus to love comes from God, as it is a sacred decree, and doing so is as unstoppable as the rush of water.

Another poem of Rumi that can be read as secular love poetry uses less recognizable references to God:

In one sweet moment
She burst from my heart.
There we sat on the floor,
drinking ruby wine.
Trapped by her beauty,
I saw and I touched –
My whole face became eyes,
All my eyes became hands.

Through the use of the conventional poetic symbols of his era, for example, drinking wine as a symbol for spiritual intoxication, the poet again express both secular and spiritual meanings simultaneously. As one of the translators of the above piece comments in his introduction to the selection of Rumi's poems:

Nothing with Rumi can be taken literally: One must always be aware of the meaning behind the meaning, and the veils behind veils.

The translator Jonathon Star, says that Rumi, like other Sufi poets, at "the deepest level" of his poetry "tells only one story: the soul's search for the Beloved."

For Rumi, passionate love, ishq, has two expressions. The first is love in the material world, "like the love between male and female", and the second is the "real love," which is the "love felt toward God." These couplets of Rumi's explain how the poet signified both aspects of ishq:

Love is the attribute of God, who has no need of anyone. To be in love with other than Him is metaphorical love.
Love, be it real or metaphorical,
Ultimately takes humans to God.

These two couplets express two fundamental beliefs of Sufism. In the first couplet we read that love is an attribute of God – as stated in the Qur'an. In the second we see that love "takes humans to God."

While the Qur'an shows that love is an attribute of God, for many adherents of the Sufi tradition love is God's most important attribute because for the spiritual journey of the wayfarer, love provides the path that takes them to reunion with God. In Rumi's "spiritual masterpiece," the Masnavi, the poet seeks to show that "God is known primarily through love." The significance given to love in this part of the Islamic tradition has allowed some to suggest simply that "God is Love." However, it is important to note that love is not the only attribute of God:

...He is Mercy, Knowledge, Life, Power and Will. He possesses all these qualities; His Being is the same as their Being; but we may not say that God is Mercy and nothing else, or that He is Knowledge and nothing else... He possesses all His Attributes absolutely, yet in His Essence He is beyond them all.

More than a generation before Rumi the mystic Farid al-Din Attar (d.1220) wrote a variation of the shahada (testimony of faith) as la ilaha illa ishq – No God but Love. In his Divan Rumi shows that he did not believe God could be defined as such. In fact, this excerpt from the Divan could be commenting on the above phrase of Attar:

Others call Thee Love, but I call Thee the Sultan of Love – oh Thou who are beyond the concept of this or that, do not go without me!

Rumi's poetry not only shows that God cannot be defined but He can only be described with symbol, metaphor or analogy, which eventually also proves to be inadequate:

All of these are symbols – I mean that the other
world keeps coming into this world.
Like cream hidden in the soul of milk, No place
keeps coming into this place.
Like intellect concealed in blood and skin, the
Traceless keeps entering into traces.
And from beyond the intellect, beautiful Love
comes dragging its skirts, a cup of wine in its hand.
And from beyond Love, that Indescribable One
who can only be called "That" keeps coming.

In this piece of sublime verse Rumi uses analogy to communicate a sense of God. We also see an explanation of the variance of love and intellect, but most importantly, embedded in the poetry, Rumi presents the difference between love as an attribute of God, and "the Indescribable One who can only be called 'That'" which is God.

As we saw in one of the couplets quoted above, Rumi believed that love, "real or metaphorical, ultimately takes humans to God." The journey to reunion with God was made by "constant purification and, in exchange, qualification with God's attributes." For the Sufi mystic, "the qualities of the Beloved enter in the place of the qualities of the lover." This is a heightened sense of jihad, when jihad is thought of as "the personal struggle against one's own shortcomings that is required of all Muslims so that they can perfect their submission."

For the Sufi mystic, however, the demand of reunion with God was to "qualify yourself with the qualities of God," which was achieved by constant mental struggle to exchange the base qualities of the mystic for the praiseworthy qualities by which God has described himself in the Qur'anic revelation. The Mevlevi Sufi, Sefik Can, suggests this is achieved when "The goal of the Sufi mystic is to understand and love The One who has created humankind." The connection of love to reunion with God is explained when Sefik Can says "In the Sufi tradition, love is described as annihilation in the Beloved." Again, the poetry of Rumi makes a vivid representation of this teaching:

Love came and it made me empty.
Love came and it filled me with the Beloved.
It became the blood in my body
It became my arms and my legs.
It became everything!
Now all I have is a name,
The rest belongs to the Beloved.

The verse describes the progressive, experiential knowledge of love. First came abandonment of the ego. Then, came submission whereby one no longer acts according to the ego, but in submission to the Beloved who now becomes "... his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks..." as in the well-known hadith qudsi. The Sufi understanding of the annihilation of the self in the Beloved can be regarded as an expression of the ultimate understanding of tawhid – asserting God's unity. Annemarie Schimmel suggests that "to declare that God is One is the goal of religious life for the Muslim in general and the Sufi in particular." An elaboration of this idea leads to the assertion that only God has real existence and hence only God has the right to say "I," for "God is the only true subject."

It is the tawhid that underpins the expression of love in Sufi poetry because "the true lover sees everything as pertaining to his beloved." This is a teaching that Rumi sought to convey in the Masnavi-ye Ma'navi, for he intended

... to coax out of his readers the misapprehension that the world is made up of a multitude of separate selves apart from God and into the knowledge that all reality subsists only in relation to God.

It is a state of mind whereby "the poets recognized God everywhere," as Annemarie Schimmel said, citing the verse of the Qur'an that inspired this awareness: "Withersoever ye turn, there is the face of God" (Surah 2/109). Two couplets quoted by Schimmel use the above-mentioned symbolism of wine to begin their explanation of tawhid:

The glass is all and the wine is naught,
Or the glass is naught and the wine is all –
but the vocabulary of religion concludes the realization:
That all that is, is He indeed:
Soul and loved one and heart and creed.

Because "love is desire and need," it is stated that God, at the level of His attributes, created the world because He desired (or "loved") to be known. Furthermore, God's love for the Prophet is evident in this saying, "But for thee I would not have made the celestial spheres." Ultimately, God's desire to be revealed through the prophets and the saints "was the motivating force in His creation of the universe," and all the world's forms, movements and activities result from that original love. On this Rumi wrote:

The creatures are set in motion by Love, Love by Eternity-without-beginning; the wind dances because of the spheres, the trees because of the wind.

When we use the metaphor of the spiritual journey, we know from Sufi poetry that love is the vehicle par excellence for the traveller.


  • Can, Sefik. 2005. The Fundamentals of Rumi's Thought: A Mevlevi Sufi Perspective. Translated by Cuneyt Eroglu and Zeki Saritoprak, New Jersey: The Light Inc.
  • Chittick, William C. 1983. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Lumbard, J.E.B. 2007. "From Hubb to Ishq: The Development of Love in Early Sufism." Journal of Islamic Studies, 18:3, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Murata, S. and Chittick, W.C. 1994. The Vision of Islam, London: I.B. TAURIS.
  • Rumi. 1992. A Garden Beyond Paradise: The Mystical Poetry of Rumi, translated by Jonathon Star and Shahram Shiva, New York: Bantam Books.
  • Rumi. 2006. Spiritual Verses: The First Book of the Masnavi-ye Ma'navi, translated by Alan Williams, London: Penguin,.
  • Schimmel, A. 1975. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Schimmel, A. 1982. As Through a Veil, Mystical Poetry in Islam. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • von Donzel, E., Lewis, B., and Pellat, C. (eds). 1978. The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, Vol. 4, Leidin, Netherlands: E.J. Brill.
  • Yunus Emre, trans. Turgut Durduran. Accessed 17/5/08.