Understanding Islam

The Meaning of Īmān (الإيمان): Faith

The word Īmān comes from the Arabic root ‘أ-م-ن’ and has approximately seventeen derived forms that are used in the Qur’ān. the form one verb, أَمِنَ, meaning “to entrust” and “to feel secure” is used in approximately sixteen āyāt of the Qur’ān; the form four verb, ءَامَنَ, meaning “to believe” is used in approximately four hundred and seventy nine āyāt; and finally it is used once as the form eight verb ٱؤْتُمِنَ, meaning “to be entrusted”. The translation of the form one verb of the root ‘أ-م-ن’ gives insight into the inner idea of faith and how faith or believing gives a feeling of security within the heart of the individual that believes in the Word of God: “Īmān is an act of heart, a decisive giving oneself up to God and His Message and gaining peace and security and fortification against tribulation.”[1] Therefore to believe is to entrust ones soul and fate to the Will of God, and to not believe or disbelieve is to either not entrust or to refuse to entrust ones heart to the Will of God. The beginning āyāt of the Sūrah al-Baqarah, “The Cow” (سورة البقرة), āyāt two through five, state that the Qur’ān was sent by God as a book for those who believe, and lay out briefly a few key concepts in recognizing a believer within the Islamic faith:

﴾2:2﴿ This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guidance for the reverent, ﴾2:3﴿ who believe in the Unseen and perform the prayer and spend from that which We have provided them, ﴾2:4﴿ and who believe in what was sent down unto thee, and what was sent down before thee, and who are certain of the Hereafter. ﴾2:5﴿ It is they who are upon guidance from their Lord, and it is they who shall prosper.

Belief in the Unseen, with ‘Unseen’ capitalized to imply God and His angels, along with the performance of daily prayer, the belief in the Hereafter, reverence, and belief in “what was sent down to thee [the Prophet Muhammad] and before thee [the Prophet Muhammad],” mark the six Articles of Faith in the Islamic tradition. The “Oneness of God”, tawhid (توحيد) emphasizes the idea which is laid out in “The Testimony” of the Islamic faith known as the Shahadah (الشهادة‎) which states: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messanger of God,” (لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله). The concept of tawhid (توحيد) marks the first Article of Faith in Islam and is part of the belief in the Unseen. This affirmation leads to the belief in the messages of the prophets of God both past and present, as all of God’s prophets came with a message which affirmed the Oneness of God: ﴾21:24﴿ “And We sent no messenger before thee, save that We revealed unto him: ﴾21:25﴿ “Verily, there is no god but I, so worship Me!” The Qur’ān emphasizes the importance of the worship of God as the singular and only omniscient being throughout the Qur’ān and it explicitly states that God is the ‘One God’ (إِلَـٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ) in approximately eleven different āyāt.[2] In later suwar, the Qur’ān again reminds the reader of what it describes as a true believer, such as in Sūrah al-Anfāl,’The Spoils’ (سورة الأنفال), āyāt two through four, with these āyāt being similar to that of Sūrah al-Baqarah, āyāt two through five stated earlier. However, these āyāt add a powerful image of the heart when it hears the Name of God:

﴾8:2﴿ Only they are believers whose hearts quake with fear when God is mentioned, and when His signs are recited unto them they increase them in faith, and they trust in their Lord, ﴾8:3﴿ those who perform the prayer and spend from that which We have provided them. ﴾8:4﴿ It is they who truly are believers. For them are ranks in the sight of their Lord, and forgiveness and a generous provision.3

The heart (قلب) in Classical Islamic thought, is seen as the spiritual organ through which an individual is able to understand the Spiritual Truth. The heart is considered the aspect of the human being that is able to rationally perceive things, and is the primary organ used to call on the Remembrance of God, dhikr.[3] The heart of the believer is considered to be healthy, as it is illuminated by the Light of God. The heart of the believer strives in the Way of God, to reflect the perfection and beauty of the Unseen: ﴾64:11﴿ “No misfortune befalls, save by God’s Leave. And whosoever believes in God, He guides his heart. And God is Knower of all things.” It is those whose hearts that are guided by God that are content, patient, and grateful, which are regarded as righteous characteristics of the believer.

The Hadith traditions exemplify saying of the Prophet which help define faith as it relates to Islam. The definition of īmān (الإيمان) is broken down by Muhammad in the Hadith of Gabriel, where the Angel Gabriel asks the Prophet to define what it means to have faith and to believe. The Prophet Muhammad then relays to Gabriel the Articles of Faith, which are a reflection of the āyāt previously seen in Sūrah al-Baqarah, āyāt two through five:

He [Gabriel] said “Now tell me about faith.” He [Muhammad] replied, “Faith means that you have faith in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you have faith in the measuring out, both its good and its evil.”[4]

Faith in its most pure form is simply the belief in God and living in accordance with His will. It is the belief in God and His angels, following the prophetic Sunnah and performing the five daily prayers, belief in the Hereafter, having reverence, and acknowledging the Word of God in scripture, both in the Qur’ān and in the revelations which came before it. Not believing in all aspects of the Articles of Faith pulls the individuals heart farther from the pure remembrance of God. When the early followers of Islam began to spread the message of God and individuals and groups began claiming that they were believers of Islam, God sent an āyah stating to Muhammad and the Muslim community, that there was a difference between submitting to God and having faith in God:

﴾49:14﴿ The Bedouin say, “We believe.” Say, “You believe not. Rather say, ‘We have submitted,’ for belief has not yet entered your hearts. Yet if you obey God and His Messenger, He will not diminish for you aught of your deeds. Truly God is Forgiving, Merciful.

For Murata and Chittick, this āyah is an example which outlines the separation between the concepts of islām and īmān, in that one can practice in the way of God and submit, but if they do not truly believe or have faith in God and submit for reasons outside of pure belief, the individual is not truly having full belief in God.[5] The Asbāb al-Nuzul of al-Wāhīdi states that the Bedouin which the āyah addresses was of a clan called the Banu Asad ibn Khuzaymah, “They declared themselves to be believers outwardly but disbelievers inwardly.”[6] Submitting to God and having faith in God having an overlapping message in some aspects, but in reality mark two different aspects of belief in the Divine. Looking back at the Hadith of Gabriel, the Angel Gabriel calls on Muhammad to tell him about what it means to submit. The Prophet is said to have replied:

[…]“Submission means that you bear witness that there is no go but God and that Muhammad is God’s Messanger, that you should perform the ritual prayer, pay the alms tax, fast during Ramadan, and make pilgrimage to the House if you are able to God there.”[7]

Compared to the section of the Hadith of Gabriel discussed at the beginning of this chapter, one will find that the concept of islām encompasses more of the outward or physical expressions of belief, while īmān focuses on the inner aspects of belief and the individual spiritual journey of the believer. Submitting one’s self to God can be seen as the first step in the spiritual journey, but the journey itself comes with the inner knowledge of the Truth and the development of faith.

To believe then is to submit, to be grateful, to fear God, to actively seek God, and to place God at the forefront of thought and action. It is through faith that one is able to act in the Way of God and it is through faith that one is able to fulfill the pre-temporal covenant with God and return to God in Paradise. The tests of life are what inevitably display ones devotion and disposition to God, and it is how one acts in accord with faith in God that sets the believer apart from the disbeliever.

[1]Fazlur Rahman. “Some Key Ethical Concepts of the Qur’ān” The Journal of Religious Ethics Vol. 11, No. 2. 1983 pp. 171.

[2]Qur’ān 2:163, 4:171, 5:73, 6:19, 14:52, 16:22, 16:51, 18:110, 21:108, 22:34, and 41:6.

[3]Murata and Chittick, The Vision of Islam, Pp. 37-38.

[4]Ibid, Pg. xxv.

[5]Ibid, Pg 40.

[6]Alī ibn Ahmad Al-Wāhidī. Asbāb al-Nuzūl. Trans. Mokrane Guezzou. (Amman: Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2008), Pg. 158.

[7]Murata and Chittick, The Vision of Islam, Pg. xxv.

All rights to the English translations of the Qur’ān belong to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E. B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds., The Study Quran. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015.


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