The Nature of Iman

We’re living in a time when secular humanism is on the rise and gaining ground even among people who would otherwise consider themselves to be religious. One of the implications of the rise of secular humanism is the wide spread misunderstanding that good deeds or virtuous behavior is something that is independent of faith and that there is no correlation that exists between the two. Unfortunately, we see many Muslims now being influenced by this notion as well. So we would like to spend sometime looking through some of the aspects related to the nature and characteristics of faith.

Islam and Iman

In the famous tradition of the Prophet which is known as Hadith of Jibreel (AS), Jibreel (AS) came to the Prophet in form of a person and asked him about Islam. The Prophet (SAW) replied:

Al-Islamu an tashhada alla ilaha illalahu wa anna muhammadar rasulullahi wa tuqeemas salata wa tu’tiyaz zakata wa tasooma ramadaana wa tahujjal bayta inistata’ta ilayhi sabeela

Islam is that you witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and establish the prayer, and give the zakah, and fast Ramadan, and perform the Hajj of the House if you are able to take a way to it. 

He then asked about Iman to which the Prophet (SAW) replied:

An tu’mina billahi wa malaaikatihi wa kutubihi wa rusulihi wal yawmil aakhiri wa tu’mina bil qadri khayrihi wa sharihi

That you believe in Allah, His angels, His scriptures, His messengers, and the Last Day and that you believe in Decree, the good of it and the bad of it.

Our scholars have mentioned that when Iman and Islam are mentioned separately, then they are synonymous. They both refer to the affirmation of the heart and the actions of the limbs. But when Islam and Iman are mentioned in the same context, Islam refers to actions and Iman refers to the affirmation of the heart. And this is in line with the tradition of the Prophet wherein while performing the janazah he used to say:

Allahumma man ahyaytahu minna fa ahyahu ‘alal islam wa man tawaffaytahu minna fataffahu ‘alal iman

O Allah, whomever of us you make to live, let him live in Islam and whomever of us you make to die, let him die in Iman.

Because deeds are done by the limbs, which one is only able to do while alive. Then at death, nothing remains but the heart’s affirmation.

Righteousness – An Islamic Definition

Now one may ask whether or not there is a correlation between faith and a person’s ability to do virtuous deeds. And as per the Quran and the Prophet (SAW), there is a very strong connection between the two. As Allah says in the verse commonly referred to as ‘Aayatul Birr’ or the ‘Verse of Righteousness’:

Laysa albirra an tuwalloo wujoohakum qibala almashriqi waalmaghribi walakinna albirra man amana biAllahi waalyawmi alakhiri waalmalaikati waalkitabi waalnnabiyyeena waata almala AAala hubbihi thawee alqurba waalyatama waalmasakeena waibna alssabeeli…

It is not righteousness that you turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah fearing.

Also, Abu Hurairah (RA) has reported that the messenger of Allah (SAW) said:

Iman has sixty odd or seventy odd branches. The uppermost of all these is the Testimony of Faith: `La ilaha illallah’ (there is no true god except Allah) while the least of them is the removal of harmful object from the road. And shyness is a branch of Iman.

Implications of Our Faith

The question that is relevant to us is what should be the implication of our belief on our actions and our practices? How does our belief in Allah and on the Day of Judgment and His Messengers and His Books change our behavior and attitude in our lives? We should understand that these are not superficial manifestations of the religion; these form the foundations of our faith and they have a profound impact on how we perceive and go on to spend our lives in this world.

Take the example of the five daily prayers, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. So if a person is praying five times a day his prayer should be connected to certain ethical outcomes. When it is divorced from those outcomes, it means something is wrong with the prayer. So Allah says:

Innasalata tanha a’nil fahshai wal munkar.

Indeed the prayer wards off indecency and lewdness.

If we are praying regularly and yet we continue to be indecent and lewd people then something is wrong with our prayer. Similarly, our affirmation of the articles of faith should manifest itself in our actions and behavior. So when Allah (SWT) describes the characteristics of a person who rejects the belief in the Day of Judgment, what does He say:

Ara’aytal ladhi yukazzibu bid-deen…

Have you seen him who denies the Recompense? That is he who repulses the orphan (harshly). And urges not the feeding of al-Miskeen (the poor).

Building on Five Pillars & Articles of Faith

Our affirmation of the articles of faith should manifest itself in our actions and behavior and if they are not, then something is wrong in our understanding of the articles of faith.

Now the articles of faith that we mentioned, they form the foundation of our Iman and we know that a foundation has to have something built on top of it. Some of us never build anything on this foundation and because nothing is built on this foundation, when you look out over that particular Islamic landscape, you don’t see anything. If you only have a foundation of a house, you won’t see it from a distance. And we want something that can be seen. We want to build edifices whose beauty can be appreciated by people.

The same line of thought can be applied to Islam. When Rasulullah (SAW) said:

Buniyal Islamu ‘ala khams

Islam is built on five things

And he went on to describe the five pillars of Islam. These five pillars are absolutely indispensable to build Islam but as the hadith says Islam is built ON the five pillars. Some people think they got the five pillars so they could now stop. That’s the beginning. Now whether they are sufficient for paradise is a separate question. They may be sufficient for paradise but if we want to do things that we have to do in terms of manifesting Islam and letting people see its beauty in the society at a time when a lot of people are muddying it up. It’s just like we’re looking at a clear stream of water and then we notice these scoundrels with sticks who are stirring up the mud and muddying up the water. We need to do a lot of work to clear out the stream so it can flow and the beauty of the water and what’s in the water and what it reveals along its bed can be manifested.

Increase & Decrease in Iman

The nature of Iman is such that it does not stay constant and continues to change.

Al-Imanu yazidu wa yanqus

Iman increases and decreases.

Qalati alaAArabu amanna qul lam tuminoo walakin qooloo aslamna walamma yadkhuli aleemanu fee quloobikum wain tuteeAAoo Allaha warasoolahu la yalitkum min aAAmalikum shayan inna Allaha ghafoorun raheemun

The desert Arabs say, “We believe.” Say, “You have no faith; but you (only) say, ‘We have submitted our wills to Allah,’ For not yet has Faith entered your hearts. But if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not belittle any of your deeds: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Trials & Tribulations

Now when a person makes a claim of having faith, Allah (SWT) mentions that he tests that person to see whether that claim is true or not as Allah says in the Quran:

Walanabluwannakum bishayin mina alkhawfi waaljooAAi wanaqsin mina alamwali waalanfusi waalththamarati wabashshiris sabireen

Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere.

Ahasiba alnnasu an yutrakoo an yaqooloo amanna wahum la yuftanoon. Walaqad fatanna allatheena min qablihim falayaAAlamanna Allahu allatheena sadaqoo walayaAAlamanna alkathibeen.

Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, “We believe”, and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.

An instance of this is found in the tradition of Khabbab bin Arat (RA), which has been related by Bukhari. He says, “During the time when we had become sick of our persecution by the mushriks, one day I saw the Holy Prophet sitting in the shade of the wall of the Ka`bah. I went up to him and said, `O Messenger of Allah, don’t you pray for us!’ Hearing this his face became red and he said, `The believers who have gone before you had been subjected to even greater persecutions. Some one of them was made to sit in a ditch in the earth and was sawed into two pieces from head to foot. Someone’s joints were rubbed with iron combs so as to withhold him from the Faith. By God, this Mission will be accomplished and the time is not far when a person will travel without apprehension from San`a’ to Hadramaut and there will be none but Allah Whom he will fear.”

Another example of the trials afflicted at the scholars is that of the episode in history which is referred to as the Mihna which took place starting 218 A.H. It involved testing particular individuals concerning their view of whether the Qur’an is created or not. All parties agreed that the Qur’an is the unadulterated speech of God. The issue was whether the Qur’an is the created (al-Ma’mun’s position) or the uncreated speech of God. The response of the interrogees was not without consequences. Measures were taken against those who rejected the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an, including dismissal from public office, imprisonment, and even flogging. The Mihna was continued after al-Ma’mun’s death under his successors al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq, and was ended in 861 by al-Ma’mun’s nephew al-Mutawakkil.

Now just to clarify the issue from the outset may seem to be pretty trivial but its implications would have been grave because created things by their very nature are temporal and therefore mortal. When we consider Quran to be a creation of Allah, the natural implication of this is that the message of Quran will be considered to be applicable to only a specific period of time. And this could be used by the political authorities in power to manipulate the message of the Quran and its understanding.

Another of these examples is that of Imam Malik who lived in Medina. During the time when the Abbasids took over the khilafa from banu Umayyah, there was a generation of people who had taken an oath of allegiance with banu Umayyah but now banu Umayyah had technically been usurped by bani Abbas. And people were being forced to relinquish their baiyyah and to take baiyyah with the Abbasid khilafah. There was an issue in Imam Malik’s fiqh and which relates to the Mukrah, somebody who is forced. Imam Malik was of the opinion that anybody forced to divorce his wife, that divorce was invalid because he was not content about it and was forced to do it. So Imam Malik used to give fatwa for that. Now the rulers here realized that by analogical reasoning, people were saying this baiyyah was not really valid because we were forced to relinquish our first baiyyah. And so technically we still owe allegiance who we gave an oath of allegiance to before, which was banu Umayyah.

So the governor of Medina told Imam Malik threatening him not to give this fatwa. So the khalifa sent what they now call mukhaberaat, sent somebody into the majlis and he asked Imam Malik “what do you say about a person who is forced to divorce his wife. Imam Malik knew what was going on but he was a faqih and he feared Allah so he said it is not valid. They go report this to the authorities who then came and took Imam Malik and they beat him. And then they put him on a donkey to take him through the streets of Medina as a punishment and humiliation. And Imam Malik, while on the donkey was saying to the people:

Man ‘arafani faqad ‘arafani wa man lam ya’rifi fa ana Malik ibn Anas. talaaqal mukrah lagh’u

Those who know me know who I am and those who don’t know me I’m Malik ibn Anas and I say that forced divorce is invalid.

So he stood by his belief despite the fact that he was being beaten and threatened for doing that.

Another example of this was during the Mongol invasion. When the Mongol hoards swept through the heartlands of Islam, what did they leave in their wake? Pyramids of skulls; they razed some of the most beautiful cities of history, all the cities of Central Asia, Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand. Razed beautiful tiled buildings, gardens, libraries, depositories of some of the richest learning in human history. What happened in Baghdad, they say that the Tigris ran black with the ink flowing off the pages of the books that were dumped into Tigris. People being massacred left and right.

Imagine if you woke up after the Mongol hoards had swept through your village, everything is burnt, and everything is razed to the ground. You see a pile of skulls, one or two survivors and you have to stand up and get on with your life. They had the spiritual strength not only to do that, to get on with their lives with their dignity intact, not resulting to desperate measures and tactics and in two generations what happened? Those Mongol hoards converted to Islam. What kind of people do you think did that? They weren’t shallow people. They were people who had deep spiritual strength, they had patience, they had reliance on God, they had trust in God, and they had confidence in God’s wisdom. They had the ability to make the best of a bad situation; to continue to articulate their faith so those people who conquered them looked at them for a source of strength and guidance for themselves.

We pray to Allah that he strengthens our faith and protects us from all sorts of calamities and tribulations. We pray to Allah that under the current economic crisis, all those who have been affected to any extent, May Allah remove their difficulty and make them steadfast.


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