The word ‘love’ appeared as a noun in the Qur’an ten times – of those ten, nine were using the word hubb حبّ, as in the verse,
وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَتَّخِذُ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ أَندَاداً يُحِبُّونَهُمْ كَحُبِّ اللّهِ
And of mankind are some who take (for worship) others besides Allah as rivals (to Allah). They love them as they love Allah.
and once was using the word mahabbah, محبّة in the verse concerning Prophet Musa (peace be upon him),
أَنِ اقْذِفِيهِ فِي التَّابُوتِ فَاقْذِفِيهِ فِي الْيَمِّ فَلْيُلْقِهِ الْيَمُّ بِالسَّاحِلِ يَأْخُذْهُ عَدُوٌّ لِّي وَعَدُوٌّ لَّهُ وَأَلْقَيْتُ عَلَيْكَ مَحَبَّةً مِّنِّي وَلِتُصْنَعَ عَلَى عَيْنِي
Saying: ‘Put him (the child) into the Tabut (a box or a case or a chest) and put it into the river (Nile), then the river shall cast it up on the bank, and there, an enemy of Mine and an enemy of his shall take him.’ And I endued you with love from Me, in order that you may be brought up under My Eye,
The word hubb is the original verbal noun of the verb habba حبَّ, while the word mahabbah is what is known as the ‘masdar meemi‘ (verbal noun begining with a letter meem‘) of the same verb. As it is the original verb, it is the origin, the asl, and thus it appeared 9 times. But mahabbah only appeared once. The reason for this lies in the difference between these two words, which can be summed up in the following three points:
In the nine times in which the word hubb appeared, it was mentioned with regards the actions of man towards Allaah, or with regards instances related to life. When Allaah the Exalted used the word in reference to Himself towards one of His Creation – Musa (peace be upon him) – He used a different word (mahabbah), that was only ever used to describe His own actions, as is most befitting of His majesty.
Thus, when the love stems from mankind, the word hubb was used, but when it stems from Allaah, the word mahabbah was used.
The love that was bestowed upon Musa from Allaah settled in the soul of Musa and began to emanate from him just as light emanates from the sun, and its beautiful fragrance would attract the people to him and make them love him. Thus, Aasiyah, the wife of Fir’awn (among many others), immediately fell in love with him and requested from her husband that he not kill the baby Musa (see al-Qasas, verse 9).
But when humans show love to one another, it does not penetrate the beloved such that others then begin to love them also. This only occurs when Allaah loves His servant. Thus, it was only right to use different words to express these different types of love.
The word hubb is much more widely used than the word mahabbah. Thus, the more common word was used with a subject that is great in number (i.e. mankind), while the rare word was used with a Subject that is not (i.e. Allaah).