The Nature of Iman

Presented hereunder is a discourse on the nature of Faith (Iman) as maybe extracted from several traditions, or Ahadith, of the Prophet, where he spoke about the subject.


Those who face our Qiblah have differed over the definition of Iman in different ways. A group held the opinion that Iman is the function of the heart, and nothing else. Then this group is divided into two sub-groups: one of them is that of the experts and specialists including al Ash`ari, Qadi `Abdul Jabbar, Abu Is-haq al Isfara’ini, Hussein b. al Fadl and others who maintained that Iman is the heart’s testimony, endorsing all necessarily known matters that the Prophet (saws) brought: a testimony of certitude, unconditional, based on evidences, or may be none. (`Umdatu al-Qari)

The testimony required is free of deeds (of any kind) and the addition of ‘conditional to what is necessarily known matters that the Prophet (saws) brought’ is to exclude what has been arrived at through interpretative efforts (ijtihad) such as, for example, can Allah (swt) be sighted, or not, etc.; and so, whoever denied these kind of things, may not be declared an unbeliever; and, consequently, the Iman of he who simply imitated in matters of doctrines, is also true and acceptable.

A question can arise: When the Prophet (asws) was asked by Jibril to define Iman, he answered that it was to believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, and in the Last Hour; so, on what account the above definition added the words, ‘endorsing all necessarily known matters that the Prophet (saws) brought?’ The answer is, Iman, as described by the Prophet, included belief in Books of revelation, one of which is the Qur’an, which declares that all that the Prophet brought – of the nature of beliefs – should be accepted. It said, ‘And accept whatever the Prophet gives.’

The Salaf defined Iman as a combination of three elements: testimony coming right out of the heart, endorsement with the tongue, and righteous practices with the limbs. However, the Mu`tazila maintained that whosoever gave up the obligations, whether of the nature of words or deeds, made exit out of the fold of Iman. Nonetheless, he did not enter into Kufr, but rather remained between the two modes. On the other hand, the Khawarij claimed that he who gave up an obligation, entered into Kufr. According to them, giving up any one of the various obligations, would render a person an unbeliever.

It is reported of Imam Shafe`i that his opinion about Iman was that it is testimony, endorsement and deeds; so that, he who came up without the first is a hypocrite, he who came up without the second is a kafir, while he who came up without the third is a fasiq (openly corrupt) – someone who will not remain in the Fire eternally but will eventually enter Paradise. Qur’anic verses lead us to believe that Iman is deposited in the heart. Allah (swt) said, “They… Allah has planted faith in their hearts.” He also said, “Of those who said ‘we believed,’ with their mouths, but their hearts did not believe.

A Hadith can also be cited in this connection. Usamah killed a man who cried out the two testimonies, as an excuse: He said it out of fear of death,’ the Prophet asked him, ‘Did you split his heart?’ The rule to declare that Iman as true of he who pronounced the two testimonies, whether it came from his heart or not, and declaration of disbelief of he who would not pronounce the two testimonies, despite his heart-felt belief in them, is held by those who maintained that heart-felt declaration is the prime principle.

Iman is something between a man and his Lord. Therefore, it can be in existence without endorsement by the tongue in case of a man who knew the God of Islam along with all that the faith demands, supported by evidences to that end, but died before he could find time to pronounce the two testimonies, or even one of the two (i.e. La ilahaillaAllah), or he had the time but did not pronounce the two articles of faith for some reason. Such a person is a believer in view of the Prophet’s statement: “Removed would be he from the Fire who had an atom of faith in his heart.”

How can the man in question be denied, especially when his faith was based on evidences? Apparently, this goes against the definition of Iman as held by common consensus of the great majority (who have believed that Iman is the name of heart-felt belief, the tongue’s pronouncement of that belief, and, deeds by the limbs in accord with that belief). But, the contradiction is only verbal because they disagreed over the tongue’s pronouncement whether it is an inalienable condition, or is it a fundamental principle. This is also supported by the Hadith of Jibril in which when Jibril asked the Prophet to define Iman, he said, “Iman is to believe in Allah (swt), His angels, in meeting Him, in His Messengers, and belief in Resurrection.” Later he explained to the Companions that, “This was Jibril who had come to teach the people their religion.” Obviously, Jibril had not come to confuse the people.

It is said that when it was conveyed to Abu Haneefah that some people say that believers will enter the Fire, he said, “None will enter the Fire but a believer.” He was asked, “What about the unbeliever?” He said, “That Day everyone will be a believer.” His point was that everyone will testify to the Truth that Day, which will render them believers, except that a testimony after death is rejected, or when Divine Punishment appears.

The Prophet (saws) treated him who attested belief in him, as believer in all that he had brought from Allah (swt) without engaging him in learning the evidences thereof, nor explaining the rational basis of faith in Islam. That was the method adopted by Abu Bakr (ra) who accepted the Iman of the apostates without offering them logical arguments. So too, `Umar (ra) did not, neither he nor his deputies in Iraq, demand from the people declaration of belief based on logical arguments; not even from people, such as the Zatt (Indian pagan tribes) and Nabateans – small of mind, little of understanding – who spent their lives farming and striking the earth with their shovels, repairing the streams, etc.

All this goes to prove that in matters of faith and belief, mere attestation is enough and that blind imitation is acceptable. On another point there was difference in opinion, albeit, does Iman increase or decrease? Some expressed the opinion that the declaration of faith is nothing but testimony, and attestation. Being that, it can neither increase, nor decrease. Others said that it could not decrease, since any decrease would mean, none of it would exist, but it could accept increase because Allah (swt) said, “When His revelations are recited before them, they cause increase in their Iman.”

Da’udi reported, however, that when Imam Malik was asked about decrease in faith he said, “Allah (swt) has mentioned in the Qur’an its increase but not decrease.” He added, “If it accepted decrease, it would disappear entirely.” Nonetheless, Hafiz Abu al Qasim al-La’alkaa’i has stated that the belief of the great majority of the Ahl al-Sunnah has been that Iman increases with virtuous practices and suffers decrease with evil practices. This was the opinion of such Companions as `Umar b. al Khattab, `Ali, IbnMas`ud, Mu`adh, Abu Darda’, Ibn `Abbas, Ibn `Umar, `Ammar, Abu Hurayrah, Hudhayfah, Salman, `Abdullah ibnRawaha, Abu Umamah, Jundub b. `Abdullah, `Umayr b. Habeeb, `A’isha – may Allah be pleased with them.

Among the Followers, it was also the opinion of Ka`b al-Ahbar, `Urwah, `Ata’, Ta’us, Mujahid, Ibn abi Mulaykah, Maymun b. Mahran, `Umar ibn `Abd al-`Aziz, Sa`eed ibn Jubayr, Hasan, Kitab al Iman: Ihya’, Ibn Kathir, Zuhri, Qatadah, Ayyub, Yunus, Ibn `Awn, Sulayman al-Taymi, Ibrahim al-Nakha`i, Abu al Bakhtari, `Abdul Kareem Hariri, Zayd b. al Harith, A`mash, Mansur, Hakam, Hamzah al Zayyat, Hisham b. Hassaan, Ma`qal b. `Ubaydullah al Jaziri, Muhammad b. abi Saleh, Malik b. Mighwal, Mufaddal b. Muhalhal, Abu Sa`eed al Fazari, Zaa’idah, Jarir b. `Abd al Hameed, Abu Hisham `AbdRabbih, `Abthar b. al Qasim, `Abdul Wahhab al Thaqafi, Ibn Mubarak, Is-haq b. Ibrahim, Abu `Ubayd b. Salam, Abu Muhammad al-Darimi, Al Zuhali, Muhammad b. Aslam al-Tusi, Abu Zur`ah, Abu Hatim, Abu Da’ud, Zuhayr b. Mu`awiyyah, Zaa’idah, Shu`ayb b. Harb, Isma`il b. `Ayyash, Waleed b. Muslim, Waleed b. Muhammad, Nadr b. Shumayl, and Nadhr b. Muhammad. (Al `Ayni and Nawawi)

Sahl b. Mutawakkil said, “I have met a thousand teachers who all maintained, ‘Iman is testimony and deeds put together, and that it increases and decreases.” Ya`qub b. Sufyan said the Ahl al Sunnah wa al Jama`ah of Makkah, Madinah, Basrah, Kufa and Syria held the same opinion.

`Abdul Rahman b. `Umar has stated in his ‘Kitab al-Iman’ that Imam Malik would not say that Iman also decreases because of the fear of the Khawarij using his statement for their nefarious purposes. Those who held that Iman cannot suffer decrease, felt that if it decrease, it would become something doubtful. Imam Ghazali said that these are verbal arguments because if, by Iman, the allusion is to mere testimony, then it can neither increase nor decrease. But if it is to the obedience of the commandments, then, it will accept increase and decrease. Then he added: “Obedience to the commandments increases the strength of attestation.”

Whenever it was said that Iman cannot increase or decrease, it was meant to refer to the basic meaning: viz. testimony. And whoever said it can increase or decrease was referring to the extended meaning. It has been pointed out by latter-day scholars that in either case Iman can increase or decrease because the testimony is, in ultimate analysis, but conviction; and conviction can increase or decrease. If not, then one has to suppose that the Prophet’s Iman and that of his followers was of the same level and nature, which would be absurd.

It might also be remembered that primarily Iman is testimony and Islam submission. Consequently, a man can be a Muslim in all appearance but unsubmitted inwardly; contrarily, he could be truthful inwardly, but unsubmitted outwardly. Some have thought that Islam is Iman, and Iman is Islam. They are, therefore, interchangeable terms. They go by the verse which said, “Whosoever sought a religion other than Islam will not have it accepted.” Allah said, in another place, “Surely, religion with Allah is Islam,” although from a certain point of view, the two, Iman and Islam, are two different entities. The Prophet himself treated the two as different in the famous Hadith of Jibril.

As for the question: Is Iman a creation (of Allah)? Some have said that it is Allah’s creation. However, Imam Ahmad and some Hadith scholars have thought that it is not Allah’s creation. But perhaps the best that has been said, which comes down from Al Layth al Samarqandi, that Iman consists of attestation and guidance. The attestation part is by the slave, and thus a creation, while guidance is from Allah, so uncreated. It is reported of Sufyan b. `Uyayna that he said, “Iman is testimony and righteous deeds, and it increases and decreases.” His brother Ibrahim interjected to say, “Don’t say it decreases.” Sufyan retorted angrily, “Quiet, you kid! It does decrease, until nothing is left.”

Imam Abu `Umar ibn al Salah wrote: The Prophet’s words regarding Islam, saying, “Islam is to bear witness that there is no deity save Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger, and that you establish the Prayers, pay the Zakah, fast the Ramadan, and attempt pilgrimage of the House, if you can afford the way,” and that Iman is: “That you believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, the Last Day, and you believe in Predestination: the good of it and the bad of it,” is, said Ibn Salah, to identify the fundamental of Iman, which is no other than testimony at the heart-level, and the fundamental of Islam, which is no other than apparent submission and surrender.

Actually, Islam is acceptable from the expression of the testimony. The addition of Prayers, Zakah, Hajj and Fasts has been made only to impress on their importance and that no Islam can be imagined without these, which are the signs of one’s surrender and submission. This is why the Prophet mentioned Prayers, Zakah, Fasts, Hajj, and payment of the fifth of booty, in addition to the testimony, as definition of Iman. (Nawawi)

Accordingly, the word ‘mu’min’ cannot be applied unconditionally to someone who commits major sins. An unconditional expression of a quality is applicable only to the unblemished and unadulterated quality. This explains why the Prophet said, “A thief does not commit a theft, while he is committing the theft…” Thus the word Iman comprises of what happens to be its fundamental meaning, which is, attestation at the inner self, while it also comprises of obedience to the commandments, for the whole of it work out to what is known as the submission. It follows that Iman and Islam can come together, or come separately so that every Mu’min is also a Muslim, but every Muslim is not necessarily a Mu’min too. (Ibn Salah’s note ends here) [Nawawi]

Accordingly, here we have Ibn Mulayka’s statement in Bukhari saying, “I met thirty of the Prophet’s Companions who were all fearful of hypocrisy in their own persons. None of them thought that his Iman is of the same strength as that of Jibreel and Mika’eel.” (Nawawi)

As for application of the word, Iman, on deeds, there is consensus of the scholars over this. Example of this in the Qur’an and Sunnah are more than what is thought. Allah said, “Allah was not to waste your Iman,” where Iman stands for Salah. (Nawawi)

The consensus of opinion of the Ahl al-Sunnah, the Traditionists, the Jurists and of the Muslim Philosophers is that a believer from among those who faces the Qiblah, is that he will not abide in the Fire forever who truly believes in Islam, with complete conviction, without any doubt, who pronounces the two testimonies. If he testifies to only one-half of the testimony, he is not of the people of Qiblah, unless there is some good reason for not being able to pronounce. Further, it is not necessary for him to also disown all other religions, except for him, like few deniers who believe that the Prophet’s Message was meant only for the Arabs. Such a person will have to specifically disown such a belief. The Khawarij and Mu`tazila then, who declared a sinner an unbeliever aggrandized, while the Murji’ah who claimed that sins do not adversely affect the sinner hyperbolized. (Manar al-Qari)

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