Iman and Islam

In the last issue (Young Muslim Digest, August 2021), we have presented a very significant hadith on Iman and Islam. This is a hadith of primary importance. Many scholars, therefore, have written commentaries on it. In the last issue, we presented a few notes for its simple understanding; but the hadith requires a deeper awareness. Accordingly, we offer a selection of some of the thoughts renowned commentators have offered. We shall offer a third installment in the next issue, Allah willing. In view of the importance of the topic, we recommend that our readers read these notes several times over: Ed.

 The Hadith: Ibn Ya`mar says that the first to open his mouth over the question of Qadr was Ma`d al-Johanni in Basra. Therefore, myself and `Abdul Rahman al-Himyari headed to Makkah for pilgrimage.

“How nice it would be,” we told ourselves, “if we could come across one of the Companions of the Prophet to ask him about what these people are talking of concerning Qadr.”

It so happened that we found `Abdullah ibn `Umar in the mosque. We went to him, both from each flank, and, feeling that my companion wanted me to start the conversation, I asked: “Abu Abdul Rahman! Some people have appeared among us who study the Qur’an, seek knowledge…,” and then he (Ya`mar) mentioned some of their other (good) qualities, adding that they do not believe there is any such thing as Qadr and that the matter is ascent.

Ibn `Umar said: “If you meet these people tell them from me that I have nothing to do with them and they have nothing to do with me. And what I, `Abdullah ibn `Umar, can swear over is that were one of them to possess gold equal to mount Uhud and spent it in the way of Allah (swt), it wouldn’t be accepted of him, unless he believe in Qadr.”

Then Ibn `Umar added: “`Umar ibn al-Khattab told me that once they were with the Prophet (saws) when a man, with very white clothes on, of dark hair, appeared. He did not carry signs of travel, nor did any of us know him. He came in and sat opposite the Prophet placing his two folded knees touching those of the Prophet, and his two hands on his (own) thighs. Then he asked: ‘Muhammad! Tell me about Islam.’ The Prophet replied: ‘Islam is that you testify that there is no god save Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; and establish the Prayers, pay the Zakah, fast the Ramadan, and visit the House if you can afford the passage.’ He responded: ‘You spoke the truth.’ `Umar said: ‘The man surprised us that he asks question and then confirms the answer as true.’ Then he asked: ‘And what is Iman?’ The Prophet replied: ‘Iman is to believe in Allah, His angels, His Messengers, the Last Day, and that you believe in Qadr – its good, as well as the evil aspect.’ He responded: ‘You spoke the truth.’ Then he said: ‘Tell me about Ihsan.’ The Prophet answered: ‘Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you are seeing Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you.’ He said: ‘You spoke the truth.’ Then he asked: ‘Tell me about the Hour.’ The Prophet replied: ‘The questioned knows no more about it than the questioner.’ He said: ‘Give me its signs.’ The Prophet said: ‘That a slave-girl should give birth to her master; and you will see ill-clad, barefooted, impoverished shepherds competing in construction of tall buildings.’ At this, the man went away. Then quite some time elapsed after which the Prophet asked me, ‘`Umar, do you know who the inquirer was?’ I said: ‘Allah and His messenger know best.’ He explained: ‘That was Jibreel. He had come to teach you your religion.’”


The following is the introduction to Kitab al-Iman of Sahih Muslim by Imam Mohiuddin Abu Zakariyya Nawawi (d. 676 A.H.) This chapter deals with Iman, Islam, Ihsan and the necessity to believe in the Divine Decree, and, some reasons of disowning him who does not believe in the Divine Decree and the rightfulness of using the toughest of words against him.

Now, many scholars, both the ancients as well as the recent ones have discussed the subject of Iman considering questions such as whether it increases and decreases, or it does not, and whether deeds are part of Iman or not. I shall try to summarize what has been stated so far about these issues. Ibrahim al-Khattabi al-Busti who followed the Shafe`ee school of thought, has said in his book Ma`alim al-Sunan that many people have committed errors in these matters.

Zuhri, for instance, has said that Islam is (belief in the) kalimah and Iman refer to the deeds. He argued with the verse: “The Bedouins say we have believed. Tell them, ‘You have not yet believed. Rather you have surrendered. Iman is yet to enter your hearts.’” (49: 14) Others have argued that Islam and Iman are one and the same thing. They argue with the words of Allah: “And We saved those that were believers and We did not find in it (the town) save a single house of Muslims.” (51: 36)

Khattabi said that although much has been written on the subject from both sides, the fact remains that none of the opinions is unconditionally true. Both can only be right if they are made conditional. For, a Muslim may be a believer in certain states and not a Mu’min in certain states. In contrast a Mu’min is always a Muslim. Hence, every Mu’min is a Muslim and every Muslim is not necessarily a Mu’min.

If this is clearly understood then it should be possible for you to reconcile the apparent divergent verses of the Qur’an and Ahadith of the Prophet (saws). Further, primarily Iman is testimony and Islam surrender and submission. Now since a man may have outwardly surrendered without doing so inwardly, he will be a Muslim in all appearance, but not actually so; and conversely, a man may be inwardly truthful to faith, but outwardly not so.

With reference to the hadith that Iman has over seventy and odd branches, Khattabi has the following to say: “Iman is the technical term for something that has branches and offshoots, and which has upper and lower levels, (or grades and degrees), which are related to each other at the branch level as well as to the monolithic whole, and, essentially the term (Iman) refers to that which encompasses the whole. Hence the hadith of the Prophet (saws) which says: ‘Modesty is a branch of Iman.’ This means that there are various grades and levels of Iman and the believers can be, accordingly, variously categorized.” (This was the opinions of Khattabi).

Imam Abu Muhammad al-Husain al-Baghawi the Shafe`ee, has stated in explaining the hadith Jibra’il (the hadith, to follow later, in which Jibra’il enquired the Prophet about Iman, Islam and ihsan: Au.) that apparently the Prophet (saws) gave to what are apparent of the deeds the name of Islam and gave to what is hidden of the faith the name of Iman. But to understand his words that way is not right, for deeds are not part of Iman nor is the testimony part of Islam. Rather, the Prophet (saws) was merely giving us the details of the concept. For both are one, and it is al-deen which is the sum of both. Accordingly, he said, about Jibra’il’s visit: “That was Jibra’il. He had come to teach you your deen.” This can be corroborated by Allah’s words: “Verily the deen approved by Allah is Islam.” (3: 19) And, “I have approved of Islam as your deen.” (5: 3)

Imam Abu `Abdullah Muhammad b. Isma`il bin Muhammad b. al-Fadl al-Tamimi, the Isfahani, the Shafe`ee, has said in his book, ‘Notes on Sahih Muslim’ that linguistically Iman is testimony. Therefore, if it is testimony that is meant by Iman. In that case, it neither increases nor decreases. For testimony is indivisible. However, Iman in the Shar`ee sense (Kitab al Iman) incorporates testimony of the heart and deeds of the body. This obviously allows for increase and decrease, which is the opinion of the Ahl al-Sunnah.

The disagreement arises, none the less, in the case of a man who testifies with his heart but whose deeds contradict his testimony: should he be called a Mu’min or not? Well, in our opinion he may not be called so, in view of the hadith which says: “The adulterer is not a Mu’min while he is in the very act of adultery.”

Imam Abul Hasan `Ali b. Khalf bin Battal, the Maliki, al-Maghrabi, has said in his ‘Notes on Sahih al-Bukhari’ that the opinion of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama`ah, both the earlier ones of them as well as the latter ones is that Iman is words and deeds; and that it increases and decreases. For proof, one can quote what Imam Bukhari has stated in his Sahih, such verses of the Qur’an such as: “In order that they may increase their Iman over their Iman,” (48: 4) and, “And We increased them in their guidance,” (18: 13), and, “And those who accept the guidance, He increases them in their guidance”, (19: 76) and, “And He increases the Iman of those who have believed,” (74: 31) and, “Of whom among you did it increase in Iman?” (9: 124), and “It did not increase them but in their Iman.” (33: 22)

Ibn Battal also adds that he whose Iman does not accept increase is defective. Now, if it is said that linguistically Iman is testimony (which is not divisible), the answer then is as follows: testimony itself achieves perfection through obedience of the Shari`ah so that the more one increases good deeds, the greater perfection does his Iman attain, which is also true conversely (i.e., the more one commits sinful acts, the less perfect does his Iman becomes: Au.).

As for the bare testimony or attestation of Allah’s oneness and the Prophet’s messengership, it does not decrease. Hence, we see that Imam Malik – according to one report – did not subscribe to the view that Iman, in the sense of tasdeeq (attestation) does not undergo decrease, since if there is any decrease in attestation, it will become a doubt and cannot be called Iman. According to some other reports Imam Malik did not accept that Iman suffers decrease because he was afraid that the statement will be used by the Khawarij who believed in the apostasy of the sinners. Otherwise Imam Malik was as much with the ahl al-Sunnah in the opinion that Iman suffers decrease. This, as Abdul Razzaq has said, was the opinion of Sufyan Thawri, Malik b. Anas, `Ubaydullah ibn `Umar, Auza`ee, Ma`mar, Rashid, Ibn Jurayj, Sufyan b. `Uyayna, as also of Ibn Mas`ud, Hudhayfa, Hasan al-Basri, `Ata’, Ta`us, Mujahid, and `Abdullah ibn Mubarak.

Therefore, the sense that we derive of the term Iman with the presence of which a man may be approved of and who may be declared a friend of the believers, is for him to come up with the following three: Testimony with the heart, attestation with the tongue, and deeds with the limbs of the body. This is because there is no difference in opinion that if a person attests with his mouth and comes up with deeds matching that attestation, but the whole not taken from Allah (swt) and without the knowledge coming from Him, then he’ll not be referred to as a Mu’min. In contrast, if he has the knowledge, and lives by its dictates but refuses to acknowledge with his tongue then, he is not a Mu’min. Finally, if he testifies his belief in Allah (swt) and His Messenger, but, does not come up with the obligations of Islam then he’ll not be called a Mu’min either, even if linguistically he is referred to as a Mu’min with attestation alone; but in the eyes of the Shari`ah, no. This following the verse which says:

Indeed believers are those who, when in their presence Allah’s name is pronounced, their hearts begin to vibrate; and when His revelation is recited before them, it increases them in their faith; and it is their Lord that they place their trust – those who establish the Prayers, and expend of what We have given them: such are truly the believers.” (8: 2-4).

It will be noticed that in this verse Allah (swt) has told us that a believer is he who has these qualities. Ibn Battal has said, in answering the question whether Iman is testimony, that testimony is really only the first step of Iman. With testimony one enters into the fold of the believers, but with mere testimony he cannot be counted a believer in the fullest sense. It is the deeds that complete the faith. The philosophers have, however, said that belief does not admit of increase or decrease, for if it decreases it becomes a doubt and not belief. But the position of the ahl al-Sunnah is that it is testimony or attestation (tasdeeq) that does not admit of increase or decrease. But Iman, in the Shara`ee sense, does, with the betterment or worsening of the deeds. Truly speaking, and going one step further, we can say that it is only philosophically it is true that testimony and attestation do not admit of increase or decrease. In fact, even they do: with the presence or absence of arguments, proofs or observations. A man who ponders over things and builds up his proofs for what he testifies has a faith stronger than the one who does not use his mental faculties, but simply testifies (notwithstanding, in both cases, whether they come up with the right deeds or not: Au.).

Hence, we can say, and nobody can disagree, that the testimony (tasdeeq) of Abu Bakr was greater and more intensive than that of any one else. And hence, Imam Bukhari has reported Ibn Mulayka as saying that he met upwards of thirty of the Prophet’s Companions all of whom used to be very apprehensive of hypocrisy (Kitab al Iman). None of them claimed that he was on the same level of testimony as of Jibra’il and Mika’il. As for the application of the word Iman on deeds, and its synonymous usage, all are agreed that it is possible. Allah (swt) for instance said: “And Allah was not as such to waste away your Iman,” (2: 143), where by the term Iman it was Salah (Prayers done facing the old Qiblah: Au.) that was meant.

Further, it may also be noted that the ahl al-Sunnah are agreed that none of those that face the Qiblah (i.e. utters the right articles of faith) can be called a non-believer because of a sin or sins that he commits. Nor can he be called an unbeliever who commits innovatory acts (as-hab al-bid`ah). It is also agreed that he who denies Salah or Zakah or such other essentials of Islam commonly known by every Muslim, is not a Muslim, unless he were to be a recent Muslim, or a man from places far away from cities, and hence has no knowledge of Islam at all.

[To be Continued]

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