'Ashq means intense love of and fondness for perfection, beauty, or physical charm. Sufis usually call this sort of love, for example, love for the opposite sex, figurative or metaphorical love. Real love, the love of the King of eternity, is felt for His Grace and Beauty manifested on the horizon of His Perfection, and for His Perfection manifested on the horizon of His Grace and Beauty. The real, intense love felt for God is a wing of light granted to us by Him so that people can use it to reach Him. Feeling such love can also be viewed as the spirit being like a moth drawn toward the Light, the essence of existence. This intense love is the most basic and mysterious cause of the universe's creation. God has created the universe in order to be known and so that those souls awakened to truth will feel and manifest a deep interest in His Essence, Attributes and Names.
'Ashq, which the spirit feels outside the intervention of free will, cannot be controlled by the person so affected, for its real source is God, Who loves Himself in a way special to His Sacred Essence and is essentially independent of the created. In addition, it is essentially different from the love felt by the created for the created or the Creator. This sacred, essential love of God for Himself is the reason why He created the universe and why He caused humanity to appear in the world. It is also this love that manifests itself in human beings as love for God, as the most essential center of humanity's relationship with God.
'Ashq is the final step leading to God, and a lover who has reached it almost has no further steps to take. God manifested Himself first as this sacred, essential love required by His being God. I particularly avoid attributing to Him 'ashq (passion or esctatic love) in the absolute sense of the word, and prefer using the word mahabba (love).
Some tend to call this Divine Love Knowledge, as Knowledge is the first manifestation of the Absolute Divine Being, Who is infinitely exalted above having any equals or likes. Every manifestation of the Divine Being is a condescension. This first condescension is called "Knowledge," as it is God's Knowledge. It is also called "the Sacred Love" in the sense that God loves to observe and to be "observed;" or "the Tablet" as it comprehends or contains all of existence; or "the Pen," as it handles all things in existence in all their details. Jabarut (the Realm of the Transcendental Manifestation of Divine Attributes and Names) and the Truth of Ahmad (the Prophet's Name before his coming to the world) are other titles of this condescension.
Sacred Love is a mystery peculiar to the Divine Essence. Other Attributes of His are appended to or dependent on this love. It is for this reason that those who fly with the wings of 'ashq directly reach the Divine Essence and attain amazement, whereas others have to pass through the intermediate realms of the worlds of things and Names. The ways leading to God are almost beyond number. Sufism, the science of truth, contains the food, light, and other necessities travelers need for the journey, and the (spiritual) orders (tariqas) are the ports from which they set out, or the schools in which the principles of the journey are taught.
The ways to the Ultimate Truth can be divided into two main groups. The first is the way in which the wayfarer is offered or taught such principles as eating less, drinking less, sleeping less, increasing contemplation, and refraining from unnecessary social intercourse. Almost all Sufi orders are based on these practices. The main invocations recited by followers of this way are the Seven Names: There is no deity but God, God, He, the Ultimate Truth, the All-Living, the Self-Subsistent, the All-Overwhelming. By reciting these Names, one seeks to pass through the seven steps of the human self or soul: the Evil-Commanding, the Self-Condemning, the Inspired, the Serene and Peaceful or the Soul at Rest, the Soul Well-Pleased (with God), the Soul Pleasing (to God), and the Purified or Innocent Self or Soul. To these seven Names, some add such Names of Majesty as the All-Powerful, the All-Strong, the All-Compelling, the Master, and the All-Loving; others add such Names of Grace as the All-Independent, Single One; the One (having no partners or equals), the Unique One, and the Eternally Besought-of-All.
The second way is based on strict adherence to the Qur'an and the Sunna, and the encouragement of certain recitations. Those who follow this way strive to comply with the Sunna in whatever they do. Rather than reciting certain Names, they follow the methods used by God's Messenger to worship, invoke, and pray, reflect on His Acts and creatures, and mention Him with all of His Names. Joining these activities with a meticulous following of the commandments of Shari'a, they are firmly attached to their guides or teachers and abandon themselves to the tides of 'ashq and spiritual attraction toward God.
Once they have attained 'ashq and attraction, existence with its outer dimension vanishes from their sight. They are annihilated with respect to the carnal aspect of their existence and begin to feel and observe the absolute Divine Unity. At this point, they immediately come to their senses without becoming confused or going to extremes in the relationship between the Creator and the created. In such a manner do they complete their journey.
The basic principles of this second way are regular worship, love, spiritual attraction toward God, regular recitation, and the companionship of one's guide or teacher. In this context recitation, in addition to mentioning God with all of His Names, involves study or attending classes in whatever leads one to God. This is what the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, meant when he described this kind of recitation: They study together. At times, a lover finds himself or herself in the stream of joyful zeal and yearning, regarded as another dimension of 'ashq.1
O God! Guide us to what You love and are pleased with, and bestow blessing and peace on Muhammad, the one with whom You are pleased, and on his faithful Companions.
1- Muslim, "Dhikr," 11.