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Animals as Friends
Social Psychological Implications of Human–​Pet Relationships
Allen R . McConnell, E. Paige Lloyd, and Tonya M. Buchanan
People talk to them, include them in family portraits, spend time picking out the
perfect outfit for them, hunt with them, jog with them, send them to school, forgive them quickly even after they are hurt by them, turn to them on bad days for
a lift, spend thousands of dollars on them, choose places to live that are best for
them, post videos of them on the Internet, include them in their wills, confide in
them, and feel torn apart inside when they die. Although these descriptions could
easily apply to one’s family members or close friends, they are also descriptive of
many people’s relationships with animals. In our chapter, we explore the social connections people experience with pets and outline some of the social psychological
implications of human–​animal relationships.
Approximately 68% of US households have a pet (American Pet Products
Association, 2014), and people spend more than $60 billion annually on their pets
for food, medical care, supplies, and pet services (Henderson, 2013). Yet these animals are more than just ubiquitous and economically consequential, they are meaningful in people’s lives. For example, in a study conducted in our lab involving 349
college students, 244 of them reported having at least one dog (70% of the sample,
with an average of 1.43 dogs in those households) and 111 of them reported having
at least one cat (32% of the sample, with an average of 1.36 cats in those households). We also asked those people with pets to report the number of those animals
that they considered to be “family.” The vast majority of these dogs (76%) and cats
(78%) were considered to be family members.
These findings, however, are not unique to college students. Past research in our
lab on self-​concepts revealed that people spontaneously mention “pet owner” as
an important aspect of their self-​identity (McConnell, 2011), suggesting a strong
linkage between one’s pets and sense of self. We followed up on this observation
in another study, asking a community sample of 167 pet owners about how integrated their pets were in their sense of self in comparison with other meaningful
Who Are Our Friends?
entities in their lives, such as their best friends, parents, and siblings (McConnell,
Brown, Shoda, Stayton, & Martin, 2011). Although people reported feeling closest
to their best friends and parents, they reported feeling just as close to their pets as
they did to their siblings. Further, when asked to indicate how much overall support
they experience from these entities, these community members reported that they
received as much support from their pets as they did from their parents or siblings
(only best friends provided more support than pets). These findings clearly demonstrate that people feel a meaningful connection with their pets and that they experience support from pets comparable to even some of their closest blood relations.
When thinking about the friendship bonds that people form with animals, it is
surprising how little we know about this important type of social relationship. In our
view, social psychology researchers have not devoted much work to understanding many forms of social relationships beyond romantic dyads, which is surprising
because friends undoubtedly serve many key functions ranging from social support
to self-​concept development to social identification. In domains beyond mainstream social psychology (e.g., family studies, clinical and developmental psychology), there are programs of research that address issues of friendship more directly
(e.g., Campo et al., 2009; Fingerman, Hay, & Birditt, 2004). Yet, we believe there are
important insights that social psychology can offer for understanding human–​pet
relationships, and our chapter focuses on some of these connections.
Can Animals Be Friends?
In formal terms, friendship is defined as a consensual participation in a close, mutual,
dyadic relationship between peers (Nangle, Erdley, Newman, Mason, & Carpenter,
2003). Friendship can also be construed by how it is assessed, with common measures including reciprocal friendship nominations between two people (i.e., do
both individuals identify the other as a friend; Berndt, 1984) or the presence of
friendship-​related qualities between people (i.e., companionship, conflict, help and
aid, security, and closeness; Bukowski, Hoza, & Boivin, 1992). Overall, several positive features of good friendships have been identified, including prosocial behavior,
self-​esteem support, intimacy, and loyalty (Berndt & Keefe, 1995). After romantic
partners, young adults report friends as their top companions and confidants, and
friends are among their primary sources of social support (Carbery & Buhrmester,
1998). Although friendships may vary, they all involve some level of mutual knowledge and affection, and are likely to be characterized by a relatively high level of
intimacy or mutual disclosure and support (Reis & Shaver, 1988).
When thinking about pets as friends, these well-​established definitions of friendship pose interesting challenges. The inability of animals to communicate their
endorsement that a person is “their friend too” or “to engage in mutual disclosure”
means that, based on traditional definitions, determining that one’s pet is a friend is
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an inferential leap. Moreover, people often ascribe qualities and abilities to pets in
ways incompatible with their true capabilities, such as viewing “doggie kisses” as a
sign of affection rather than being an artifact of canine evolution (Horowitz, 2009).
To be clear, we are not arguing that people who view pets as friends, buddies, or
family members are wrong or crazy. Our point is that in so doing, they are engaging in some degree of psychological projection (e.g., anthropomorphism, theory of
mind) in order to make friendship with an animal possible. In fact, we would further
argue that part of the intrigue of studying human–​pet relationships is that the same
“projection processes” involved with bestowing friendship on an animal (e.g., divining intentions from behaviors, drawing inferences about intimacy and connectedness in situations filled with inherent ambiguity, trying to ascertain the rationale
underlying others’ actions) also operate for people with their human relationships
as well. For example, critical relationship forces like love and trust are inferred about
people too. This is why we believe there is an important role for social psychologists
in understanding constructed relationships such as “my cat is my friend” or “our dog
is a family member.” Processes involving expectations, anthropomorphism, theory
of mind, and integrating others into one’s sense of self are studied extensively by
social psychologists. Accordingly, understanding human–​pet relationships not only
speaks to important issues such as seeing pets as friends but also informs researchers about how we construct close relationships with people as well.
If human–​animal relationships are psychologically constructed, what is the glue?
We believe one important element is anthropomorphism, or the degree to which
people ascribe human-​like qualities to nonhuman agents, ranging from household
objects to deities to pets. Several factors increase people’s likelihood of engaging in
anthropomorphism, including having beliefs about how an agent could be viewed
as possessing human qualities, the need to explain complex events in the environment, and people’s desire to seek out social connection in general (Epley, Waytz, &
Cacioppo, 2007). For example, dog owners are more likely to say that their dog
“loves them” (an anthropomorphism) when they have relevant beliefs (e.g., I believe
that pets experience love toward their owners), are explaining complex events (e.g.,
my dog always seeks me out when I cry), and desire social connection (e.g., my partner broke up with me, and I felt lonely, and my dog cheered me up). For instance, in
one experiment (Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008), participants were either
induced to feel lonely or to feel socially connected through an initial writing exercise. Next, they were asked to describe qualities that dogs possess, with some of
them being anthropomorphic traits associated with social connection (e.g., being
considerate, sympathetic). Those who were made to feel lonely (rather than socially
connected) reported that dogs possess more of these human-​like, social connection
qualities. In other words, when lonely, people seek out sources of affiliation and are
more likely to imbue animals with the qualities necessary to foster social connection. Obviously, many owners anthropomorphize their pets even in circumstances
where they do not feel socially isolated (in part because our need for belongingness
Who Are Our Friends?
is considerable; Baumeister & Leary, 1995), but they are even more likely to do so
when they feel socially disconnected.
Some research in our lab has examined factors related to people anthropomorphizing their pets (McConnell et al., 2011). For example, when people feel that
their pets are more integrated into their sense of self (i.e., greater overlap between
their pet and their self-​concept on the inclusion of other in self scale) and when
they report that their pets provide them with more support, they anthropomorphize their pets more (i.e., describe their pet as being more sympathetic, thoughtful,
and considerate). Moreover, consistent with Epley et al. (2008), we have also found
that people anthropomorphize their pets more when they are more depressed and
when they tend to be less happy in general (McConnell et al., 2011). Overall, we
observed large amounts of anthropomorphism among our pet owners, but these
people ascribe human-​like traits to their pets more strongly when their need to be
socially connected is greater or when they feel more negative emotions.
Another factor related to seeing animals as entities capable of being friends
involves people’s theory of mind about them. When someone says things like, “my
dog knows when something is wrong with me and tries to make me feel better,”
that person presumes a relatively sophisticated theory of mind about dogs. One
way to think about the question of “what entities have minds?” is to consider any
given entity (a person, a dog, a robot) in two-​dimensional space, where one dimension is experience (has the ability to feel pain, joy, embarrassment, etc.) and the
other is agency (has the capacity to engage in self-​control, planning, communication, etc.). For example, adults may be high on both dimensions (feel a lot and have
great capacity), whereas children may be high on experience but expected to only
exhibit moderate amounts of agency (e.g., challenges with delaying gratification,
poor planning). A study conducted by Gray, Gray, and Wegner (2007) found that
people have a theory of mind for dogs comparable to babies and chimpanzees (i.e.,
high experience but lower amounts of agency). This finding is interesting, because
although dogs were ascribed less agency than adult humans, seeing dogs as relatively indistinguishable from chimpanzees in theory of mind (primate brains are,
in terms of evolution, considerably more advanced than are canine brains) suggests that people’s theory of mind for dogs may exaggerate their actual capacities
(cats and other common pets were not assessed by Gray et al.). Because of these lay
theories of mind about dogs (and probably other highly anthropomorphized pets),
people may be well equipped to extend friendship to their pets.
Friendship and Social Support Promote Health
and Well-​Being
Many positive outcomes result from a sense of interconnectedness, shared experience, unconditional support, and altruism (e.g., Buhrmester, 1996; Buhrmester
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& Furman, 1986, 1987; Sullivan, 1953). For example, the close bonds that adolescents experience with their friendships are central to having supportive relationships (Buhrmester, 1996; Chow, Roelse, Buhrmester, & Underwood, 2011;
Furman & Buhrmester, 1985), which in turn promote healthy mental and social
development (Hartup, 1993). More broadly, social connectedness and support provide benefits ranging from greater self-​esteem to longer lives. In terms of physical
and mental health, research consistently shows that quality and quantity of social
relationships are related to important outcomes such as increased enjoyment of
life, reduced cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, reduced cancer rates,
and lower mortality (Ertel, Glymour, & Berkman, 2009; Everson-​Rose & Lewis,
2005; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Rook, 1987). Similarly, feelings of loneliness predict many negative health outcomes such as hypertension (Hawkley, Masi,
Berry, & Cacioppo, 2006), poor sleep (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Berntson, et al., 2002),
diminished immune functioning (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Crawford, et al., 2002), suicidal behavior (Goldsmith, Pellmar, Kleinman, & Bunney, 2002), and depression
(Russell, Cutrona, Rose, & Yurko, 1984). Even temporary periods of social exclusion harm people’s sense of belongingness, meaningful existence, perceived control,
and self-​worth (Williams, 2007).
And when thinking about the role of friends in particular, there is considerable evidence that the social connection and support provided by friendships have
meaningful downstream consequences. Research on adolescents finds that social
inclusion and greater intimacy (i.e., mutual disclosure and support) in friendships
improves well-​being and emotional health (Almquist, Ostberg, Rostila, Edling, &
Rydgren, 2014; Kenny, Dooley, & Fitzgerald, 2013). Further, friendship attachment security (i.e., feeling that one’s friends are positive and dependable) predicts social and emotional benefits (e.g., less distress, greater self-​esteem) above
and beyond the contributions of parent–​child and romantic relationship attachments (e.g., Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Goh & Wilkinson, 2007; Trinke &
Bartholomew, 1997).
Animals Provide Benefits for People
Having now described how pets are perceived as meaningful entities possessing the
characteristics necessary for social connectedness and outlining how social support
generally benefits people, is there evidence that pets provide mental and physical benefits for their owners? The answer to this question is a resounding yes. We now summarize some of the literature showing how owner–​pet relationships are beneficial for
people and even for their pets. These benefits have been revealed for many individuals,
including children, adults, and people facing stigma and serious health challenges.
For example, children growing up with an animal companion experience a
range of social and developmental advantages, including greater self-​confidence,
Who Are Our Friends?
self-​esteem, and autonomy, compared with children without pets (Van Houtte &
Jarvis, 1995). Also, pets can serve the role of a “security blanket” for children,
encouraging exploration and confidence while simultaneously decreasing anxiety
and fearfulness (Passman, 1977; Passman & Weisberg, 1975). Relatedly, children
with a newly adopted dog showed greater confidence and improved behavior (e.g.,
less arguing, fewer tears) than children in non-​pet-​owning households (Paul &
Serpell, 1996).
Similar to children, adults also experience social support benefits from their
pets, with research indicating that pets combat feelings of stress, insecurity, loneliness, and depression (Crawford, Worsham, & Swinehart, 2006; Garrity, Stallones,
Marx, & Johnson, 1989; Siegel, 1990). For example, college-​aged pet owners
revealed greater empathy and greater interpersonal trust than non-​pet owners
(Hyde, Kurdek, & Larson, 1983). Similarly, research in our own lab found that
pet owners, compared with nonowners, had greater self-​esteem, reported greater
physical fitness and exercise activity, and tended to be less lonely (McConnell et al.,
2011). Further, we observed that pet owners had healthier personality characteristics, such as being more conscientious, being more extraverted, and having healthier
attachment styles (i.e., less fearful, less preoccupied) compared with nonowners.
Moreover, we found that people derived more well-​being benefits from their pet
relationships as the quality of their human social support was better, not worse. In
other words, the “crazy cat woman hypothesis” (i.e., the people who get the most
benefits from pets are those with poorer human social support) was not observed—​
indeed, the opposite was found (i.e., people with more healthy human social support enjoyed better social connection experiences with their pets). This is not to
say that people with poor human social support (compared with those with better
human relations) do not benefit from having animals in their lives (they most certainly do), but these findings indicate that such individuals do not receive qualitatively better benefits from their pets. Overall, among normal adult populations,
there is considerable evidence that pet ownership is associated with a variety of
positive outcomes and personality attributes that not only help maintain beneficial
human–​pet relationships but also serve these owners well in having more healthy
social connections with their fellow human beings.
In another study conducted in our lab, we tracked 29 community members
who visited an animal shelter with an interest in adopting a pet. Ultimately, 15 of
them adopted a pet (11 dogs, 4 cats), whereas the remaining 14 people did not.
We assessed these community members on a variety of measures (e.g., well-​being,
personality) at the time they visited the animal shelter, and we followed-​up with
the adopters approximately 2 months later to assess changes in well-​being and their
pet adoption experiences (e.g., pet satisfaction, degree to which they anthropomorphized their new pet). There were few factors that distinguished those who adopted
pets from those who did not (though admittedly, the sample size was small and
all of our participants elected to visit an animal shelter on their own accord and
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thus were relatively motivated to consider adopting a new animal), however, we
observed several interesting effects among those who adopted pets. For example,
pet adopters showed lower depression (comparing their levels of depressed affect
at the time they visited the shelter to the follow-​up session 2 months later) as they
anthropomorphized their pet more (r = .73, p < .04) and as they reported greater
satisfaction with their pet (r = .77, p < .03). Also, pet adopters who reported that
their pet was more included in their sense of self (i.e., their pet was more integrated
into their self-​concept) showed improved happiness following adoption over that
2-​month period (r = .69, p < .05) and greater satisfaction with their pet (r = .84,
p < .01), and they anthropomorphized their pet to a greater degree (r = .71, p < .05).
These findings indicate that the psychological glue that makes human–​animal relationships powerful (i.e., anthropomorphism) and allows one to experience a greater
social integration of the pet into one’s self-​concept was related to better outcomes
(e.g., less depression, greater pet satisfaction).
Beyond positive pets-​related experiences for children and adults, research has
investigated the benefits of pet ownership for populations who are susceptible to
feelings of loneliness or isolation. For example, among the elderly, strong pet attachment is related to less depression (Garrity et al., 1989) and in some cases to greater
happiness (Ory & Goldberg, 1983). Also, elderly people visited by volunteers
with dogs showed a dramatic increase in positive mood after only 2 weeks of these
visits, whereas the control group (visited by volunteers without a canine companion) experienced only a small increase in positive mood. With mounting evidence
that pets and animal companions reduce stress and improve mood, facilities that
may house people with chronic stress or loneliness (e.g., prisons, hospitals) have
begun using animals to provide social support (Kaminski, Pellino, & Wish, 2002;
Strimple, 2003).
Not only are pets a form of social support in their own right but also they promote socialization with people, increasing owners’ avenues for social support.
For example, Wells (2004) found that a female experimenter was more likely to
receive positive glances or engage in positive conversations when accompanied by a
Labrador Retriever than when she was alone or had another object such as a teddy
bear. Interestingly, even when using a highly trained dog to ensure that the dog itself
does not solicit attention from passers-​by, the mere presence of a dog increases positive interactions between its owner and strangers (McNicholas, & Collis, 2000).
Beyond soliciting friendly glances and conversations, findings from our lab indicate
that having a pet can also increase romantic attraction. In one study, 49 female undergraduates were presented with a series of different manipulated photographic images
of a man who was, or was not, accompanied by a dog (see Figure 10.1). Participants
read innocuous descriptions about each man (e.g., “Ted spends most weekends
working on projects around the house”), and image manipulation software allowed
us to vary whether any given scene contained a dog with each man shown. After
viewing each image and reading the short description, these women rated the man
Who Are Our Friends?
on dimensions pretested to be associated with romantic attraction (e.g., affectionate,
kind) and with nonromantic attributes (e.g., creative, happy) on 9-​point scales. As the
interaction illustrated in Figure 10.1 shows, women’s evaluations of man’s romantic
attributes, but not his nonromantic attributes, were greater when he was accompanied
by a dog than when he was presented without a dog, F(1,47) = 10.45, p < .01.
In addition to increasing social interaction and romantic attraction, the social lubricating effect of animals has also been observed for disabled or physically handicapped
individuals. For example, an observational study examined the number of friendly
glances and conversations children in wheelchairs received as a function of whether
or not a service dog was present. The children received more friendly gazes, smiles,
and conversations when service dogs were present than when the children were alone
(Mader, Hart, & Bergin, 1989), which clearly could have positive implications for
people facing stigma because of medical conditions or pejorative societal stereotypes.
Perhaps some of the best-​known research investigating the benefits of pet ownership focuses on how pets can produce concrete and meaningful health benefits. For
instance, Allen, Blascovich, Tomaka, and Kelsey (1991) asked female undergraduates to complete a stressful task (i.e., difficult mental arithmetic) in the laboratory
to obtain a baseline of their performance, and later, these women completed the
same task for a second time at home. During this follow-​up session, these women
were either accompanied by a friend, by their dog, or by no one (control condition).
Participants who completed the second stress task with their dogs displayed less
physiological reactivity (e.g., lower heart rate and blood pressure) than participants
Trait rating type
Mean rating positivity
With dog
Without dog
Presentation condition
Figure 10.1 Interaction between presentation condition and rating type, revealing that
women’s ratings of a man’s romantic attractiveness is greater when he is accompanied by a dog.
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in the other two conditions (friends or control). Critically, pets did not impede their
performance. This research suggests pets may be especially useful in times of stress
(i.e., providing support without worries of being evaluated by people), producing
measurable effects on physiological measures. Relatedly, Shiloh, Sorek, and Terkel
(2003) demonstrated that petting an animal decreases people’s anxiety in stressful
situations (i.e., being in close proximity to a tarantula spider).
Similar stress reduction effects have been observed in naturally occurring stressful life events (e.g., Havener et al., 2001; Nagengast, Baun, Megel, & Leibowitz,
1997). For instance, healthy children undergoing a physical examination exhibited
reductions in systolic arterial pressure, heart rate, and behavioral indicators of distress when a dog was present (Friedmann, Katcher, Thomas, Lynch, & Messent,
1983). Havener et al. (2001) reported similar findings involving children undergoing dental procedures, observing that children waiting for the dentist to arrive in the
presence of a dog revealed warmer skin temperatures (an indicator of relaxation),
whereas children in the control condition had colder skin temperatures (indicative
of stress).
It is worth noting that the positive effects of pets on stress management and
physiological responses are not limited to healthy individuals. In fact, the advantages of pet ownership may be more pronounced for individuals who are at greater
risk for illness or experiencing stressful life events. For example, men diagnosed
with AIDS who owned a pet reported less depression than similar men without
pets (Siegel, Angulo, Detels, Wesch, & Mullen, 1999). Further, research on elderly
Medicare patients found that seniors who owned a pet had fewer physician visits
than did patients without pets (Siegel, 1990). Moreover, dog ownership moderated the effect of stress on physician visits. In other words, patients without dogs
showed a connection between having more stressful life events and more physician
visits, whereas patients who were dog owners did not show this stress–​physician
visit correlation.
Other research indicates that pets offer value and benefits for those who are at
greater risk for cardiovascular disease or heart attack. For example, Allen (2003)
randomly assigned stockbrokers with preexisting histories of high blood pressure
to either an experimental condition where they adopted a pet (cat or dog) or to the
control condition where they did not adopt a pet. In this study, stockbrokers who
adopted a pet experienced lower blood pressure levels when under stress than their
counterparts who did not adopt a pet. Thus, for people who habitually face stress,
the benefits of pet ownership may be especially pronounced. Similarly, research has
shown that following heart attacks, pet owners are less likely to die within 1 year
compared with those who do not own pets (1% vs. 7%, respectively; Friedmann &
Thomas, 1995). Thus, in the most important outcome of all, pet ownership predicted survival.
In addition to observing the benefits of pets for people facing stress and health-​
related challenges, pets help people through therapy or can even serve as a source of
Who Are Our Friends?
therapy in their own right. For example, animals sometimes serve as guides for visually impaired people, and research indicates that guide dog owners report increased
self-╉esteem, independence, and socialization compared with similar others without
such pets (Sanders, 2000). In addition to the visually impaired, people with hearing
impairments who have guide dogs show lower anxiety, depression, isolation, and
dependence on others (Guest, Collins, & McNicholas, 2006). Dogs have also been
used to improve the lives of individuals with severe ambulatory disabilities (e.g.,
spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury). In an experimental study, Allen and
Blascovich (1996) found that patients with ambulatory disabilities who were given
a service dog showed well-╉being improvements (e.g., self-╉esteem, locus of control)
within 6 months, relative to wait-╉listed control patients. The benefits of these animals can be financial as well as medical. Specifically, Allen and Blascovich estimated
that despite the expense of purchasing and training such a dog, the patients in their
study would save approximately $60,000 over an 8-╉year period as a result of greater
personal independence and less paid assistance.
Pet therapy has also become popular with children. For hospitalized children,
pet therapy is as effective as traditional forms of play therapy, as it increases positive affect, serves as a distraction, and reduces boredom (Kaminski et al., 2002).
Another study involving postoperative children found that these young patients
reported less physical and emotional pain after receiving canine therapy (Sobo, Eng,
& Kassity-╉Krich, 2006). Moreover, pet therapy has also been used as a therapeutic
technique for autistic children, revealing that incorporating animals into therapy
improves language and socialization skills in autistic children better than more standard forms of therapy (Sams, Fortney, & Willenbring, 2006).
Human–╉Animal Relationships: Everyday Benefits
for People and for Pets
Consider the following scenario: After experiencing a horrible day at work, you
return home to find a cheerful cat or a playful puppy waiting at the door. Within
minutes, all of the stress and negativity of your day seem to melt away and your
mood seems markedly improved. Are such experiences genuine or fiction?
Research from our lab confirms that such experiences are real (McConnell et al.,
2011). In one study, college students who were pet owners came to the laboratory and completed an initial measure of social needs fulfillment (e.g., self-╉esteem,
sense of meaningful existence). Next, based on random assignment to conditions,
half of them were asked to recall a time when “they felt excluded or rejected” to
induce a social rejection experience or they were asked to recall events from the
previous day (control condition). Afterward, all participants completed a second
activity where some were asked to write about their favorite pet (pet condition),
to write about their favorite friend (friend condition), or to draw a map of campus
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(control condition). Finally, they completed the social needs measure again, and
a difference score between the two was computed, allowing us to determine how
their well-​being improved by the end of the study compared with the beginning.
As Figure 10.2 shows, participants in the control condition (white bars, who wrote
about yesterday) showed no meaningful changes in well-​being as a function of the
second activity condition. On the other hand, participants who experienced rejection but then drew a campus map (black bar, far right) felt significantly worse at the
end of the study, revealing the negative effect on their well-​being of recalling a time
in their lives when they were excluded. However, those who also experienced rejection but then got to reflect on their pet showed no drop in well-​being (black bar,
far left), and thinking about their pet was just as effective at warding off feelings of
rejection as thinking about their best friend (black bar, middle). This study provides
an experimental analog to the example noted earlier about coming home to one’s
pet after a bad day—​indeed, people’s pets can improve one’s well-​being in the wake
of negative, self-​relevant experiences.
Although we have focused primarily on the benefits for pet owners from human–​
animal interactions, it is reasonable that pets themselves may benefit from their
relationships with people too. Clearly, pets experience material benefits from their
owners, such as food, water, shelter, and medical care. However, just as petting a
dog can soothe people’s stress, can pets enjoy similar perks too? Indeed, research by
Coppola, Grandin, and Enns (2006) found evidence of this bidirectional benefit.
Specifically, they examined stray dogs that were brought into animal shelters, which
can be stressful environments for these animals. They assayed cortisol (a hormone
released in response to stress) from the saliva of dogs, half of which were provided
with human contact for approximately 45 minutes (e.g., walking, grooming, tactile
Recall task
Well-being improvement
Second activity
Figure 10.2 Following a social rejection experience (black bars), thinking about one’s pet
offsets negativity as effectively as thinking about one’s best friend.
Who Are Our Friends?
touch), while the other half of the dogs did not receive human contact. Coppola
et al. found that cortisol levels were lower in the dogs provided with human contact than in the dogs without human contact, demonstrating that interactions with
people reduced stress in these dogs within 3 days of arriving at the shelter. In a similar fashion, other research has demonstrated that stress reactions in dogs triggered
by electric shocks can be eliminated simply by having people pet the dogs after the
shocks are administered (Lynch & McCarthy, 1967). Overall, these findings indicate that pets, as well as owners, can benefit from pet–╉human interactions.
Broader Insights for Our Understanding
of Human Nature
In this chapter, we have discussed some of the implications of animal–╉human interactions, and in particular, considered the social psychological aspects of viewing
pets as friends. It is clear that animals play a very meaningful role in people’s lives,
however, the fact that a person can characterize an animal from an entirely different
species as a family member or as a friend raises a number of interesting questions
both with respect to our understanding of friends and family in the psychological
literature and to the functions that pets serve for their owners.
Most people anthropomorphize animals and perceive them as having a relatively
evolved mind, thereby allowing them to project their own social needs, identity
motivations, and societal expectations on these creatures. In particular, people
anthropomorphize animals to a greater degree when feeling socially rejected (Epley
et al., 2008), reflecting the power of belongingness needs. Moreover, people often
project abstract qualities (e.g., love, guilt, sympathy) on their pets even though
many such capacities are beyond animals’ capabilities (Horowitz, 2009). Although
viewing pets as friends is a social construction, our position is that such relationships are no less real because of it. Other socially constructed relationships, such as
people’s perceptions of their own family and their basic properties, are idiosyncratic
as well (McConnell, Shoda, Lloyd, & Skulborstad, 2015). Thus, the qualities that
people ascribe to their human friendships and relationships, such as love, support,
and trust, are inferential leaps too.
We believe that imbuing animals with relatively sophisticated capabilities (e.g.,
anthropomorphizing them) starts with critical assumptions regarding their mental
and emotional capacities. Work on theory of mind (e.g., Gray et al., 2007) has shown
that a variety of species (e.g., people, dogs, chimpanzees, frogs) vary with respect to
experience (i.e., their ability to feel) and agency (i.e., their ability to plan). In our view,
the potential of animals to provide empathy for people (i.e., qualities associated with
social anthropomorphism; e.g., Epley et al., 2008; McConnell et al., 2011) requires
viewing them as possessing a relatively strong degree of experience relative to agency
(though greater agency may equip animals with the ability to anticipate people’s
A nimal s a s Fr iend s
needs better). Thus, we would anticipate that animals viewed as greater in experience (theory of mind) will be better candidates for being viewed as possessing empathy and concern (anthropomorphism). This is not to say, however, that perceptions
of animal agency are irrelevant. For example, people who assume service animals
possess considerable agency may view support animals as more effective. Thus, we
believe that understanding how service animals are perceived to assist people (e.g.,
emotional support, helping physically challenged people navigate their environments) may start with more basic assumptions about the capabilities that people
presume that these animals possess, and this is an area that awaits future research.
In addition to understanding the implications of the basic mental and emotional
capacities that people assume animals possess, additional work is needed to understand how human–​animal interactions improve lives. In reviewing the literature, we
described a number of ways that pets enhance people’s mental and physical health.
These effects have been documented with children, with adults, and with people
facing significant health challenges. The latter findings are especially noteworthy in
that pets may very well play a role in reducing depression among people with AIDS
or in decreasing mortality among people who suffer heart attacks (Friedmann &
Thomas, 1995; Siegel et al., 1999). Although some of this evidence is correlational
in nature, there is also a compelling collection of creative experimental studies that
help establish the causal role of pets in benefiting people (e.g., Allen, 2003; Allen &
Blascovich, 1996; Epley et al., 2008; McConnell et al., 2011). For example, work
from our lab has shown that pets have implications ranging from increasing the
romantic attractiveness of potential mates (Figure 10.1) to neutralizing the negativity that results from social rejection experiences (McConnell et al., 2011). Further,
not only do human–​animal relationships appear to benefit pet owners but also even
simple human–​pet interactions produce positive consequences for animals as well
(e.g., Coppola et al., 2006).
Although the benefits of animals for children, the elderly, the emotionally distraught, and the physically impaired are well documented, other populations might
benefit from interactions with animals as well. For example, it seems likely that
socially anxious people may enjoy benefits from pet ownership in ways that help them
negotiate their anxieties. Specifically, people with social anxiety often are fearful of
interactions with other people, and they are particularly fearful of negative evaluation
or rejection (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). For socially anxious people,
animals may provide a source of affiliation that is nonevaluative and nonthreatening,
allowing them to reduce their sense of loneliness in circumstances that do not evoke
concerns about being judged. In other words, people who view pets as sources of
unconditional love may find a social companion that does not trigger concerns about
being evaluated or about being socially rejected. As noted earlier, people enjoy many
physiological and psychological benefits from pets that help them deal with anxiety,
and having a friend who is perceived to be nonjudgmental and wholly accepting may
be especially valuable to people struggling with social anxiety. Indeed, returning to
Who Are Our Friends?
our theorizing about how anthropomorphism and theory of mind underlie many of
the positive consequences produced by human–╉animal interactions, having a service animal such as a dog may offer anxious people a companion with the presumed
capacity to feel empathy (i.e., relatively greater experience) that at the same time
seems relatively incapable of judging them (i.e., relatively little agency). Although
there have not yet been systematic investigations involving the benefits of pet ownership for people who are socially anxious, the Americans with Disabilities Act
includes animals that calm a person during an anxiety attack or anxiety-╉provoking
event as “service animals” (United States Department of Justice, 2011). We believe
that additional work with populations who find social interactions challenging (e.g.,
socially anxious people, stigmatized individuals) is needed to explore how pets can
help supplement (though certainly not replace) social support for people who may
find human interactions more taxing or limited.
In sum, the socially constructed nature of human–╉pet relationships underscores
the power of expectation, beliefs about theory of mind, and social belongingness
needs in determining people’s happiness, health, and well-╉being. Animals can serve as
important resources for people in roles including friend, assistant, therapist, and family member. It is clear that when we project capabilities on animals such as theory of
mind and anthropomorphism, we empower them to provide us with significant social
support and meaning. As social resources, animals are associated with an impressive
range of positive health and well-╉being benefits. Reflecting on the nature of human–╉
pet relationships encourages psychologists to reexamine fundamental questions such
as “What is a friend?” or “What is family?” After all, if a member of a different species
can be considered a member of one’s family, perhaps the classic attributes in many
definitions of family (e.g., blood relations) fail to adequately capture the key elements
of what truly defines such a powerful in-╉group. In studying human–╉animal interactions, we not only understand more about the ways that animals impact and improve
our lives but also discover more fundamental truths about important elements of our
own humanity, including the building blocks of friendship, family, and love. Thus, it
is no wonder that people confide in their pets, take them on family vacations, and are
devastated by their deaths. When animals become friends, people’s connections with
them can be as deep and as meaningful as any other relationship in their lives.
The research contributions of Nicole M. Brown and Julie C. Konkler to this chapter
are gratefully acknowledged.
American Pet Products Association. (2014). APPA national pet owners survey 2013–╉2014. Retrieved
from http://╉www.americanpetproducts.org/╉press_╉industrytrends.asp
This is the text of a talk delivered at Oberlin College in October 2010, then printed in ISOC Focus 2/3 (2012), pp. 7-12.
Friendship and Love in Islamic Spirituality
William C. Chittick
I would have been happy to talk about “friendship” without mentioning “love” if I
could have done so. But differentiating between these two concepts is not easy in Arabic
and Persian, the two great languages of classical Islamic civilization.i
Those who know Persian might reply that dūst means “friend” and dūstī means
“friendship,” and that friendship is different from love, which is mahabbat or `ishq. This
ignores the fact that to say “I love you” in Persian you say dūstat dāram, literally, “I have
you as a friend.” Moreover, this is not a new usage—it goes back to the beginnings of the
modern Persian language. Maybudī for example, who completed a grand Persian
commentary on the Koran in the year 1126, consistently translates the Arabic verb “to
love” (hubb) with this very expression: “to have as a friend.” In other words, in Persian,
nine hundred years ago just as today, in order to say “I love you” you had to say dūstat
dāram, “I have you as a friend.”
Something similar is true for Arabic. The generic word for love in Arabic is hubb
(or mahabba). It means not only love in our meanings of the word but also friendship. It
is true that Arabic and Persian have dozens of other words that are used to indicate
various sorts of love and friendship, but in the two languages, the most inclusive and
commonly used words designate both.
Schools of Islamic Thought
Whatever word we use to talk about friendship and love, we are discussing
qualities of the human soul. By this I mean that love pertains essentially to our inner
lives, the realm of life and consciousness known as the self. No matter how many
outward signs of love and friendship there may be, they cannot be defined in terms of
behavior and activity. Once it is accepted that love and friendship pertain primarily to the
life of the soul, it should be obvious that some of the more prominent schools of Islamic
thought have little or nothing to say about them.
Probably the best known form of Islamic learning nowadays—at least the most
newsworthy—is jurisprudence, the science of the Shariah. The Shariah is the ritual and
social law derived from the Koran and the example of the Prophet. The jurists, who are
the experts in the Shariah, have nothing to say in their capacity as jurists about love and
friendship, for the simple reason that these cannot be legislated. There is no possible way
to enforce the edicts, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.”
A second major school of thought in classical Islamic civilization was Kalam or
dogmatic theology. Kalam was closely allied with jurisprudence and talked about God as
an omnipotent and somewhat tyrannical supreme legislator. Kalam could not ignore the
many mentions of love in the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet, so it defined love in
terms of lawful activity. Basically, the Kalam experts held that it is absurd to suggest that
frail, imperfect, ignorant creatures—that is, human beings—can love the transcendent
God. And it is equally absurd to suggest that the omnipotent God can relate to us in any
way other than telling us what to do. In short, according to Kalam, God’s love for us is
that he provides us with commandments, and our love for God is that we obey.
The Kalam interpretation of love does violence to the meaning of the word, so it
was often criticized by other scholars. In any case, by the time of al-Ghazālī in the
eleventh century, the Kalam experts were modifying this view of love in order to bring it
more in line with the actual experience of love as a transforming presence in the soul.ii
Two other major streams of Islamic learning—streams that developed at the same
time as jurisprudence and Kalam—paid a great deal of attention to love and friendship.
One was philosophy, whose experts followed in the footsteps of Aristotle and Plotinus.
They developed a sophisticated science of ethics and gave friendship a prominent role,
not least because it was one of Aristotle’s favorite virtues. One should keep in mind,
however, that philosophy, then as now, was an elite enterprise. Very few people actually
studied the details of philosophy or had any real idea of what the philosophers were
talking about; the same, by the way, was true of dogmatic theology.
The second stream of Islamic learning that stressed the importance of love and
friendship is commonly called “Sufism.” Sufism was, and still is, an approach to Islamic
learning that focuses on moral and spiritual perfection. Its goal is to achieve a profound
transformation in the very substance of the human soul, changing the way we see
ourselves and the world.
In contrast to both philosophy and dogmatic theology, Sufism was readily
accessible to all Muslims. The Sufi teachers wrote extensively and clearly, they founded
schools and centers of learning, and they preached in the mosques. Moreover, the
greatest poets of Islamic civilization were often Sufi teachers. The tremendous
popularity of their poetry derived largely from the fact that they sang about love—an
object of perennial human fascination. The most famous of these poets in the West,
Rumi, was a superb story-teller and one of Islam’s great spiritual teachers. Rumi’s
radiance—like that of several other Sufi poets—extended throughout the Persianate
world, which meant from the Balkans through Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and the Indian
subcontinent. Among Arabic speakers, the Egyptian Sufi poet Ibn al-Fārid, who died
when Rumi was a youth, played a similar role in highlighting love as the key to all human
and divine relationships.
The One Reality
If we want to grasp the role of love and friendship in Islamic spirituality, we need
to begin where the Sufi teachers typically began, that is, with God. Before I go down this
route, however, let me remind you that Islamic teachings are built on the Koran, which is
understood as God’s personal expression of his own reality. The Koran explains why
God created human beings and what they should do about it. If I keep on mentioning the
Koran, it is because it is the one anchor of all Islamic thought.
Both the Koran and Islamic spirituality in general take God for granted and call
everything else into question. The only certainty is that God is real. The human realm is
one of ambiguity and fog. We can never know what’s what, except in one respect: The
true reality is always present. In contrast, we ourselves are sometimes present and mostly
absent. Our existence is something new, and on any cosmic scale, it lasts but a moment.
Permanence is God’s attribute, not ours. Knowledge belongs to God, not us. Whatever
we do possess belongs to us for the time being, not essentially.
These points can be put into the language of traditional Islamic thought by saying
that the truth from which all truth derives is that the ultimate reality is the only true
reality. More simply: There is no true reality but God. This notion is expressed most
succinctly in the four Arabic words that are the primary teaching of the Koran: “(There
is) no god but God.” Everything other than God, including us, is not truly real. We are
partly real and mostly unreal. The big question is, “In what respect are we real, and in
what respect are we unreal?” Once the issue is posed in these terms, it becomes clear that
human life should aim at searching for true reality and abandoning false reality.
This leads me to my basic point: With one voice, the spiritual tradition says that
this process of reaching out for reality is called “love.” In order to understand why this
name is appropriate, we need to look at four basic issues: love as the divine reality, love
as the human image of the divine reality, the consummation of love, and the path that
leads to consummation.
Love as the Divine Reality
In many verses the Koran says that God loves certain people, and it also says that
people love God and that they love other things as well. The Koran makes clear that
between God and human beings love is mutual. The most commonly cited Koranic verse
in discussions of love makes precisely this point: “He loves them, and they love Him”
If God is the only true reality and if everything other than God is a foggy,
ambiguous mixture of reality and unreality, then God’s attributes are true and real, and
the same attributes ascribed to anything else are ambiguous and tentative. This means
that when it is said that people love, their love is tremendously watered down compared
to God’s love, and it is also easily distracted and misdirected. The Koran often alludes
to the fact that everything that people love other than God is bound to disappoint them.
The reality of God’s love as contrasted with the unreality of human love is
typically explained in terms of the formula of divine unity—“No god but God.” God
loves people, so he is a lover and his love is true and real, but not the love of anything
else. It follows that “There is no true lover but God.” We know that God is the object of
love, so “There is no true beloved but God.” In short, this is the basic position of the
Koran and Islamic spirituality concerning God and love: In reality and in the final
analysis, God alone is lover, God alone is beloved, and God alone is love.
Moreover, love is God’s eternal nature, because he does not change. This means
that God is lover and beloved outside of time and whether or not there happens to be a
universe. In his unity, God loves himself, because there is nothing else to love. The
Prophet alluded to God’s self-love in a famous saying: “God is beautiful, and He loves
beauty.” God’s beauty is eternal, so God loves himself eternally.
If all this sounds rather “self-centered”—well, yes, that is exactly the point. There
is only one true reality, one true self (as the Upanishads like to remind us). In the Koran,
when God speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush, he says, “There is no god but I.” In
other words, there is no true “I” but the divine I, there is no true self but the divine Self.
Love as the Divine Image
Once we understand that God is love and that he loves himself, we need to ask
how his love impinges on us. Why is it that the Koran says that God loves human
beings? The basic answer is that in loving his own beauty, God also loves every possible
beauty, because all possible beauty is simply a reverberation or an echo of his infinite
beauty. This means that by loving himself, God also loves the non-eternal beauties that
arise as a result of his infinite creativity. These non-eternal beauties are everything other
than God, the entire universe in all its temporal and spatial expanse. As the Koran puts it,
“He made everything that He created beautiful” (32:7). Since he loves beauty and since
everything he created is beautiful, he loves everything.
But all beauty is not created equal. The most beautiful of created things is that
which displays God’s beauty to the fullest possible degree. In several verses, the Koran
calls God’s attributes “the most beautiful names.” In an echo of the Hebrew Bible, the
Prophet said that God created Adam in His own form. The Koran itself says, “We
created the human being in the most beautiful stature” (95:4). The most beautiful stature
can only be that which reflects all the most beautiful names of God. Hence the most
beautiful of all created things is the human being, made in God’s form. This helps
explain why the Koran never says explicitly that God loves anything other than human
The basic teaching of the Koran about human beings can be summed up in two
verses. The first is, “He loves them” (5:54), that is, human beings. The second is, “He
taught Adam the names, all of them” (2:31). God loves human beings because they are
the most beautiful of all created things. When he created them in his own beautiful form,
he bestowed upon them the understanding of all the names, including his own most
beautiful names. What distinguishes human beings from other created things is not just
their perfect beauty, but also the fact that they were given the ability to recognize the
names and realities of things and thus to recognize beauty wherever they see it.
Just as God loves beauty, so also do those created in his form. Human beings
love beauty as soon as they recognize it. They were taught all the names, so they have
the capacity to recognize the beauty of everything, since every name designates some
beautiful creation. They also have the capacity to recognize all of God’s most beautiful
names and to love God in terms of each name as well as in terms of the totality of the
names—that is, inasmuch as all the names together designate God in himself.
So, God loves human beings, he created them in his own form, and he taught
them all the names. Here, however, the Koran inserts a caveat: Generally, people do not
recover their innate knowledge of all the names, nor do they act in conformity with the
beauty of God’s names and the beauty of their own form. They were created with a
beautiful stature, but they do not live up to it. To the degree that they do not live up to it,
they are ugly, and God does not love the ugly.
Here, of course, an interesting question arises: “If God loves everything, why
does he not love the ugly?” There are many answers to this question. One way to deal
with it is to say that ugliness is not really something, but rather the lack of beauty.
Another way is to distinguish between two basic kinds of love. The first kind is also
called rahma, which is typically translated as mercy or compassion. This word is an
abstract noun derived from the concrete noun rahim, which means “womb.” On the
human level, the most obvious example of merciful love is that of mothers, a point that
the Prophet made in several sayings. And mothers, of course, want their children to act
beautifully and to avoid ugliness. They praise children for being good and blame them
for being bad, without ever ceasing to love them. The second kind of divine love
responds to human beauty or the lack of it, a point I will come back to shortly.
First, however, it is important to understand what is meant by human beauty and
ugliness. These are not physical characteristics, but moral and spiritual characteristics,
which is to say that they pertain to the inner qualities of the soul. The Koran cites some
of these qualities in verses that mention various people whom God loves, such as those
who have faith, those who act with benevolence, those who trust in God, those who act
with justice. The book also mentions various ugly qualities and says explicitly that God
does not love them, such as wrongdoing, transgression, pride, and boastfulness.
In this view of human nature, God created human beings in the most beautiful
form, but he put them into a situation where their form became obscured. In order for the
innate beauty of people’s divine forms to appear fully, they need to employ their free will
to the best effect. To the extent that the beauty does appear, then God will love them—an
additional love, over and above the original creative love.
Once it is understood that people need to do something in order to become
beautiful, the question arises as to what exactly they must do. In the Koranic view,
people have forgotten their own beautiful form and the love that goes along with it. In
response to their forgetfulness, God sent the prophets, who are traditionally numbered
124,000. All prophets have the same mission: to remind people of what they have
forgotten and to teach them how to love God and to recover their own innate beauty.
Definitions of Love
Notice that I have not tried to define love. Most Islamic texts on love insist that it
cannot be defined. As for beauty, it is usually explained as “that which attracts love,” so
it also remains undefined.
Any attempt to explain love falls flat on its face. Anyone who has ever been “in
love” can appreciate this. Something essential about love is inexplicable. Instead of
trying to define it, Sufis, philosophers, and other scholars describe the qualities that are
found in lovers. Some of them call these qualities “symptoms,” comparing love to a
disease. When Rumi says that you must be a lover to understand love, he is reminding us
that love is inexplicable. When he says that he can talk about love until the Day of
Resurrection, he means that he can talk forever about its signs and symptoms.iii
Generally, those who talk about love agree that its most basic attribute is the
desire to achieve nearness. Lovers want to be together, not apart. Nearness to what you
love is happiness, distance from what you love is misery.
The goal of love, in one word, is “union,” which means coming together and
becoming one. On the physical level, “union” can mean the sexual act. Most people
know, however, that referring to sex as “love” is at best a metaphor. Real love involves a
good deal more than physical coupling.
The Koran teaches that the goal of human life is to gain nearness to God. People
are separate from God because he is one thing and they are something else. He is the
creator, they are creatures. Nonetheless, God created human beings out of love for them.
Creation means to bestow existence. God already knew he loved people before he
created them, which is to say he loved them in eternity. But that was one-sided love,
because people were not there as conscious and aware individuals. God created them so
that they could share in the joy of love. But “love,” as I said, is the desire for
togetherness and union. So, by giving human beings existence in his own form, God
gave them the desire for togetherness, union, and unity.
Notice that togetherness with God is the original state of human beings before
they existed. In the realm of pre-existence, people were potentialities, not actualities.
Once they came into existence, they began to sense the separation that permeates their
existence, so they began to desire togetherness. Separation plays an important role in all
discussions of love. Without it, there can be no desire for togetherness. The very first
line of Rumi’s epic story of love and lovers, the Mathnawī (in 25,000 couplets), begins
like this:
Listen to this flute as it complains,
telling the tale of separation.
Love is the story of separation and the quest for union. Having come into
existence as individual beings, people are now aware that they exist apart from others and
that they desire to come together, which is to say that they love. They know that they do
not have what they want and they are driven to reach for it.
But, what exactly do they want? This takes us back to the formula of unity:
“There is no true beloved but the divine beloved.” People think they want this or that. In
fact, when they love things, they are loving God’s attributes, such as beauty, generosity,
and kindness. What makes human love problematic is that people find these attributes in
things that are ephemeral. Rumi likes to say that the beauty that we perceive and love in
things and people is gold-plating. The only thing that can satisfy the human craving for
beauty is the very source of gold itself. This is why Rumi writes in a typical passage,
All the hopes, desires, loves, and affections that people have for different
things—fathers, mothers, friends, heaven, earth, gardens, palaces, knowledge,
activity, food, drink—all of these are desires for God, and these things are veils.iv
The reason that everything we love is a veil is simply that all things are creatures,
not the Creator. Created things conceal the Creator, but they also reveal God’s most
beautiful names and attributes, so they perform a valuable and necessary role in the
process of love. Rumi says, for example, that God gives us our disparate loves and
desires for the same reason that a soldier gives a wooden sword to his child. People must
learn how to love, but ultimately that means that they must learn what it is that they truly
love. The sooner they learn the difference between gold-plating and gold itself, the
sooner they can dispense with wooden swords. Rumi writes,
In man there is a love, a pain, an itch, and an urgency such that, if a
hundred thousand worlds were to become his property, he would gain no rest or
ease. These people occupy themselves totally with every kind of craft, industry,
and status; they learn astronomy, medicine, and other things, but they find no
ease, for their goal has not been attained. . . . All these pleasures and goals are
like a ladder. The rungs of a ladder are no place to take up residence and stay—
they’re for passing on. Happy is he who wakes up quickly and becomes aware!
Then the long road becomes short, and he does not waste his life on the ladder’s
The Consummation of Love
The goal of love and friendship is for the two lovers or the two friends to come
together, not to stay apart. It should be fairly obvious that this togetherness, even in
personal relationships, is not physical. Rather, it is an invisible harmony and conformity
of nature. It is an inexplicable quality that attracts two people and can be strengthened
and nurtured by appropriate activity, though there are no guarantees that it will last.
When you want to achieve togetherness with someone, one of the standard tactics
is to do things the way she or he likes them done. You give of yourself for the sake of
your friend or lover, not for your own sake. If you act for your own benefit, that is not
love for the other, it is love for yourself. If you love someone in order to gain status or
wealth or some other desirable quality, then you are the quality, not the person.
In God’s case also, when you want to be God’s friend or lover, you do what you
can to establish harmony. You do things the way your beloved wants them done.
Serving God with your own benefit in view does not deserve the name love. The desire
for togetherness demands surrender of self, because selfhood is the cause of duality and
separation. The more complete the surrender, the more complete the consummation.
In the case of the divine beloved, togetherness was the original state before we
came into existence, and it is also the final goal of love. There is a major difference,
however, between the beginning and the end. Before we became separate, we did not
know that we were together. The final consummation demands full awareness of the
reality of separation. Only then can we understand and appreciation the meaning of
In the Islamic context, it is clear that God, as the only true lover, is pure of any
ulterior motive. In other words, God is infinitely rich and gains nothing for himself by
loving others and bringing them into existence. Others receive the overflow of God’s
infinite being. They gain from him, not he from them. His love is a free gift, no strings
Putting aside all the details of how God relates to human beings, it is not too
difficult to see that the basic point in discussions of divine and human love, in Islamic
spirituality at least, is that God’s love for human beings is so unconditional that the gift
he bestows upon them is himself. He created us in his own form, and that form
embraces all of his most beautiful names. We already possess the divine beauty within
ourselves. Our craving to return to our original unity is simultaneously a craving to
return to our true selves. Our true selves are the unique divine forms that each of us
represents. From one point of view, the goal of love is to achieve togetherness with God.
From another point of view, the goal is to overcome the fragmentation of the self—the
pain, suffering, disorder, disarray, and disharmony that typify our daily existence.
Ethical Transformation in Love
Many Sufis and later theologians (like al-Ghazālī) call this dual process of
becoming one with God and integrated with one’s true self takhalluq bi akhlāq Allāh,
“becoming characterized by the character traits of God.”
God loves beauty, but he does not love ugliness, a specifically human quality
arising from the forgetfulness and self-centeredness of the human soul. If we are to be
the objects of God love, we need to discard the ugly character traits that conceal the
soul’s innate beauty. The beautiful character traits are designated by the divine names—
compassion, justice, generosity, forgiveness, and so on. The sum total of these traits is
precisely the form of God. To actualize this form is to achieve togetherness with one’s
true self, and this is simultaneously to achieve togetherness with the beautiful attributes
of God.
Notice that this discussion of human perfection as the actualization of the divine
character traits is one of the points on which Islamic spirituality intersects with
philosophy. The philosophers discuss friendship in addressing the perfection of the
practical intellect (`aql `amalī), which they contrast with the theoretical intellect (`aql
nazarī). The practical intellect applies the theoretical vision to the realm of activity, and
the principles of its practical vision they discuss as “ethics.” The Arabic word for ethics
is akhlāq, that is, “character traits,” exactly the same word used by Sufis and theologians.
So, in the philosophical discussion, friendship/love is one of the ethical traits innate to the
soul. It demands various ways of proper interaction with others, but it can only be fully
actualized when the soul achieves the intellectual perfection that is the goal of
philosophical training. One of the words the philosophers used to designate the
achievement of this goal is ta’alluh (from the same root as Allah). This word means
deiformity, that is, actualizing as one’s own the form of God. In other words, ta’alluh is
a synonym for takhalluq bi akhlāq Allāh, becoming characterized by God’s character
In short, the “friendship” that Muslim philosophers considered one of the highest
virtues of the human soul is precisely the same divine attribute as that the Sufis discussed
as the highest calling of the soul. This does not means that Sufis paid less attention to
explaining how this virtue needs to be extended to all people. Rather, the philosophers
(especially in the early period) were disinclined to talk about the virtues with explicit
reference to the Koran and the Hadith, where God is always at the center of the
discussion. Instead of talking about “God,” they much preferred words like “Necessary
Being” or “First Reality,” and by and large they avoided theological and juridical
The Path of Love
In this picture of the human situation, when people come to understand that the
real object of their love is God, they need to strive to become characterized by God’s
beautiful character traits. In order to do this, they need to follow prophetic guidance,
because the prophets teach how to love. For those whom the Koran is addressing, this
means following the prophet Muhammad, whom the Koran calls “a beautiful example”
(33:21). That his example is beautiful is enough to indicate that God loves him. Those
who follow his example can also be loved by God.
Spiritual teachers have always taught that Muhammad’s beautiful example lies
primarily in the inner qualities of his soul, which are precisely the divine character traits.
Imitating these qualities demands much more than simply obeying the rules and
following the Shariah. It means overcoming the everyday forgetfulness of the soul and
transforming its consciousness and awareness through characterization by the divine
character traits.
The Koran makes clear that people should follow Muhammad’s example to polish
and hone their love for God. Anyone can say, “I love God,” but these are empty words
until they are put into practice. The Koran explains the basic principle here in a verse
addressed to Muhammad: “Say [to the people]: ‘If you love God, follow me, and God
will love you’” (3:31). In other words, no matter how much you may think you love
God, God will not love you in return until you change ourselves, until you become
worthy of God’s love. The way to become worthy is to follow prophetic guidance.
The goal of following the guidance is explained by a famous saying of the
Prophet in which he quotes the words of God: “When My servant approaches Me
through good works, then I love him. When I love him, I am the hearing with which he
hears, the eyes with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, and the foot with
which he walks.” In other words, the practice of love on the human side attracts God’s
reciprocating love and results in union, which is the goal of love.
Notice that God’s creative love is entirely outside of our hands. In contrast, his
responsive love demands human effort for it to be achieved. Nonetheless, most authors
also add that the effort itself is a result of God’s grace, love, and mercy, because people
do not have the power to lift themselves up on their own. In any case, the basic point
here is that the initial, creative love gave us existence, but in order to benefit fully from
love, we need to do something about it.
By way of review, let me sum up my points like this: In the context of the Koran
and Islamic spirituality generally, love and friendship are a single reality. In the last
analysis, that reality is nothing other than God himself. God created the universe out of
love, and he created human beings in his own image, so love pertains to their very selves.
Human beings love by nature, and they have the potential to love God for himself, not
simply for his bounties and blessings.
The reality of love permeates existence and drives people to search and seek. For
the most part, people have forgotten what it is that they truly love, so they are constantly
disappointed in their love. The cause of human confusion is that the single reality of love
has become fragmented, and this prevents them from seeing that the whole universe is
playing out the game of love. In trying to help people see through their muddle, God
sends prophets, whose job is to teach people how to love. Only when they learn to love
by following the prophetic example can they truly love God, and as a function of love for
God, love their neighbors as well.
On love in Islamic thought generally, see Chittick, “Divine and Human Love in Islam”
(Divine Love: Perspectives from the World’s Religious Traditions, edited by Jeff Levin
and Stephen G. Post), West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2010, pp. 163-200. I
am limiting this talk to the generic words for love/friendship, Persian dūstī and Arabic
hubb (which is usually a synonym for `ishq, though the latter often connotes passionate
love). Several other words might be brought into the discussion, each of which would
add nuances and shades of meaning. For example, one of the standard ways of
translating the Koranic word walī is “friend.” God is the “friend” of the believers, and
they, or least some of them, are God’s friends. In Western-language studies the word is
often translated as “saint,” though this cannot work in the Koran, where Satan also has
“friends.” In Shi’ism, God’s true friends are the Imams, beginning with `Alī (on
friendship in terms of the word walÄ«, see Hermann Landolt, “Walāya,” Encyclopedia of
Religion [New York: MacMillan, 1987], vol. 15, pp. 316-23]. Another example of a
word that overlaps with the notion of friendship is ukhuwwa, “brotherhood.” This word
also has Koranic roots, especially the verse, “The believers indeed are brothers” (49:10).
Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) devotes one of the forty books of his magnum opus, Ihyā’ `ulūm aldīn, to the concept. See the translation by Muhtar Holland, The Duties of Brotherhood in
Islam, 2nd. edition (The Islamic Foundation, 2010).
See, for example, Joseph Norment Bell, Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1979).
See Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love (Albany: State University of New York Press,
1983), pp. 194-95 (for love’s indefinability); and p. 196, verse 2189 (for the endlessness
of explanation).
Fīhi mā fīhi, edited by B. Furūzānfar (Tehran: Amīr Kabīr, 1969), p. 35. For a different
translation of the passage, in context, see A. J. Arberry, Discourses of Rumi (London:
John Murray, 1961), p. 46.
FÄ«hi, p. 64; Discourses, p. 205.
270 words
CORE 100: Sample Reading Summary
In this short passage we meet a young man. He has a conversation about love
with the desert, the winds, and the sun. While they each seem to know about love, there
is something lacking in each of their accounts. One can see this from the beginning with
the desert, which is upset that the falcon takes away what he has created. The boy points
out that there is something unifying about love, in that the prey becomes the falcon, the
falcon the man, and the man the desert. The desert’s understanding is limited because it
focuses on individual parts without considering what connects them.
The opposite holds with the wind. The wind seems to have no limits because it
touches all things in the way that the desert does not. However, the wind does have one
limit of its own, which is that it cannot help the boy transform himself. The wind is
limited because it does not understand love. The author therefore suggests that the
seemingly limitless wind also has limitations.
Finally, we come to the sun, which claims that he learned how to love at his great
distance in the sky. He says that everything has its own specific function and destiny. In
reply, the boy asserts that the sun is wise, but does not know about love. Wisdom knows
things as they are, whereas love transforms each thing into something better than it is.
The boy’s main point throughout the passage is that love is neither unchanging nor ever
changing nor known at a distance, but a force that makes us strive to become better than
we are and thereby improve the world.

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