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What is Iman (part 1)


“What is your faith?”, asked the person sitting next to me at an airport transit lounge whom I had befriended while waiting for my next flight, that was delayed by several hours. I had started a conversation with him which turned into some kind of metaphysical discussion about the purpose of human life, when he politely asked me the above question. I, in turn, asked him, “What do you mean by faith?” He replied, “You know, everybody has a faith, except, of course, atheists.” I continued, “This does not explain what is meant by faith?” To this, he gave the following explanation: A Christian’s faith is Christianity; a Jew’s faith is Judaism; a Muslim’s faith is Islam; and so on. It seemed to me that my new friend thought that he had a good deal of understanding in this matter. I interrupted, “But you are talking about religion.” He continued, “Yes, kind of—but religion is different from faith. For example, a Christian’s faith is Christianity but his religion could be Catholicism, Protestantism, etc. . .” According to my friend’s logic, then, a Muslim’s faith is Islam and his religion could be well Sunni or Shia etc. “But that is not how most Muslims think,” I told my friend; “Muslims think that their faith is Islam—which is their religion.” I then asked my friend, “What do you mean by religion?” At this point, he gave a long sermon type lecture:

“Religion is too complex to understand. It is a private matter between man and God, and your faith is your personal subjective belief in Him in whatever way you prefer. God is merciful. He is very forgiving. So, He will forgive any mistakes we humans make. It really makes us all feel very good that when we commit sins and pray and ask for forgiveness from God, He forgives. All praise be to Him who is so forgiving. When God is so generous and gracious that, whether or not we really understand the meaning of faith, or any other religious concept for that matter; and since He is going to forgive us anyway, then why bother exploring these concepts in great detail and depth. Let us keep following what our ancestors and scholars have explained. After all, they were great people and great scholars. They traveled long distances, suffered greatly in search of truth and knowledge and took extreme care to preserve and transmit that knowledge to us so that our lives become easier and successful in the sight of God. We will get all the rewards and go to heaven by simply practicing our faiths the way our forefathers told us. It is wrong to question and deviate from what they have passed on to us.”

At this point, I decided not to ask any further questions from my friend. I sensed a bit of uneasiness in him. Otherwise, I would have liked to ask: What does he mean by God’s forgiveness? By His mercy, His generosity, His graciousness, and His praise? And what is the meaning of prayer? I had first asked a simple question as to what is meant by faith. Not only did he not answer my question, several other questions entered my mind as well. I told him that I have immense respect for all the great works of all those great scholars. But they were limited by the knowledge available to them at their time. Tremendous advancements have since then been made in various branches of knowledge such as Physical, Biological, and Social Sciences and Humanities; and we can better explain the religious concepts in the light of this new knowledge—especially in the fields of anthropology, archeology, sociology, psychology, embryology, neurology, and astronomy. My friend seemed perplexed at this statement, and he commented, “What do these various fields of knowledge have to do with faith or religion?” And he repeated his earlier statement that faith is a private matter between man and God. So, my friend had completed a full circle and came back to the beginning of our conversation. I felt that explaining one concept in terms of another concept and then building a circular chain of arguments is not a satisfactory approach. I told my friend that I am not satisfied with this approach of explaining faith by using circular arguments and want to investigate it further. My friend, on the other hand said, that he is fully and completely satisfied with this approach and has a good feeling about it. At this point, an announcement was made that our flights were ready to depart. Then we parted—he on his flight, I on mine.

I kept wondering during my flight: Isn’t life like this, too? Everyone is waiting in the transit lounge called Earth for one’s flight—to the next world. But of course, there is a significant difference. Unlike the daily flights originating from different places and going to various destinations, life’s flight originates from a single source and takes us to a single destination.


One Journey Ends, Another Begins

Since I had resolved to investigate for myself the meaning of faith in depth, I turned to the most authentic source I knew: Allah’s book, the Qur’an, to find out the truth about it. Our Muslim brothers and sisters have lost interest in exploring the meanings of some of the most fundamental concepts and principles of Islam. Among such concepts is the most important one, called Iman.

As every Muslim knows (or should know), Iman is the foremost and essential requirement of Islam. Without proper Iman, one cannot become a Muslim even if one is born in a Muslim family. In fact, Iman is something which has to be (self) consciously acquired in order to become a Muslim, constantly maintained in order to remain a Muslim, and continually reinforced and fortified in order to begin the next life as a Muslim. Therefore, Iman is something which cannot (and should not) be taken for granted. (Unfortunately, many of us take it for granted.)

If Iman is so important that it is the kernel of life here and a savior in the hereafter, then it becomes necessary for each of us to find out what Iman really is. It is not right to say that I am a Muslim (and therefore I have Iman) because I was born in a Muslim family. As we will see shortly, the Qur’an (and that means Allah) does not accept this as a valid argument.

What is Iman and what is its definition in the context of Islam? We will have to explore this question in some depth (as mentioned earlier). This is a fundamental question concerning Muslims and Islam. But one thing is quite clear: A definition of Iman which contradicts any Qur’anic principle cannot be accepted as Iman in Islam, no matter where and whomsoever it may have come from. After this preamble, let us explore, first of all, the meaning of the Arabic word Iman and its definition given in the Qur’an by Allah.


Meaning and Definition of Iman

The root of the word Iman is a-m-n which means: to be calm and quiet (in one’s heart); to be protected from fear; trustworthiness and truthfulness (Taj al-Urus)Iman means to accept truthfully, to be convinced, to verify something, to rely upon or have confidence in something. Iman is usually translated in English as faith or belief, and faith in turn signifies acceptance without proof or argument, without reference to reason or thought, knowledge or insight. According to the Qur’an, Iman is conviction which is based upon reason and knowledge; a conviction that results from full mental acceptance and intellectual satisfaction; the kind of conviction that gives one a feeling of inner contentment and peace. And a Mu’min is one who accepts truth in such a way that it ensures his own peace and helps him to safeguard the peace and security of the rest of mankind. In fact, Al-Mu’min is one of the attributes of God Himself(59:23).

Allah gives a comprehensive and an objective definition of Iman in the Qur’an in Sura Al-Baqarah as:

To believe in Allah, and in the hereafter, and in Malaika(angels or Allah’s forces), and in the Book, and the Prophets.” (2:177)

[Notice that the Qur’an mentions only five components of Iman. The sixth component (Qadr), has been added later. The prevalent belief in Qadr among Muslims (which is translated as preordination, foreordination, predestination, destiny, or fate) is derived from Zoroastrian (Magian) concept. The concept of Qadr and Taqdir according to the Qur’an and Iqbal have been discussed already in a series of two articles entitled “Iqbal and Taqdir – Part I & II. For details, please refer to them.]

To deny any of the above leads one into the category of deviated ones (i.e., unbelievers):

Anyone who denies Allah, His Malaika, His books, His messengers, and the day of judgement has gone far far astray.” (4: 136)


Here again only five components have been mentioned. In the context of Iman, many use verse (2:62) and say that God has said that if Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Sabians believe in God and the hereafter and do good deeds, then they will go to Heaven.

First of all, this verse does not say that they will go to Heaven; it only says that they will have their reward (ajr) with their Rabb (Nourisher) and they will have no fear or sadness. Second, one cannot isolate this verse and ignore the rest of the other verses related to this same topic. For example, verse (2:137) says:

So if they (Christians and Jews) believe the way you (the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions) believe, then they are indeed on the right path.”

Another verse (4:47) says that it is necessary for the people of the book to believe in the Book revealed to the Prophet (PBUH) i.e. the Qur’an. Therefore, it is clear from these verses that what verse (2:62) is implying is that anyone (without any exception) can be a Mu’min no matter what his previous faith may be (including the born Muslims). But everyone has to believe in the entire Qur’an as a revealed guidance. This is what is meant by belief in God. Saying that I believe in God and not accepting his Books (including the only preserved Book of God in the original form existing in the world now, the Qur’an) as guidance for life, is in reality, not a belief in God. As a necessary corollary to this is the requirement of believing in all the Prophets and the means of message delivery, i.e., Malaika (Allah’s forces or Angels). And since Allah wants to see how well we used His gifts (of life and His Book of guidance), hence requiring us to believe in the day of judgement and accountability. This explains why it is necessary to believe in all the five components of Iman where each component has its own objective reality. This means that each of these components of Iman exists and is real just as the sun exists and is real. So, there is nothing subjective about Iman.


The Importance of Reason in Iman

The Qur’anic view of reason and its place in human life deserves careful consideration. Man has been granted a mind which enables him to think, and through the instrument of intellect, is supposed to build up a system of knowledge. Reason converts the raw data supplied by the senses into knowledge and the Qur’an assigns to reason an important role in life:

“The worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use their intellect to understand.” (8:22)

This is a graphic description of the degradation of man when he does not employ reason to his service. Such a man, the Qur’an tells us, not only lives a worthless and debased life here but also renders himself unfit for the hereafter which he enters after death:


“There are many among Jinns and human beings, who lead such a life as makes it obvious that they are meant for Hell. They have hearts wherewith they understand not, they have eyes wherewith they see not, and they have ears wherewith they hear not; they are like cattle—nay, are worse; they are the heedless.” (7:179)

This point is again emphasized in Sura Al-Furqan. The Prophet (PBUH) is addressed:


“Do you think that most of them hear or have sense? They are but as cattle—nay but they are further astray.” (25:44)

The Qur’an expects man to think and use his power of understanding in the light of the guidance provided by wahi or revelation from God. These two sources of guidance, i.e., reason and revelation, are supplementary to each other. If they are kept within their proper spheres, then there will be no conflict between them. the Prophet (PBUH) is commanded to say:


“This is my way. My invitation to you to follow Allah’s path is based on reason and insight—mine as well as of those who follow me.” (12:108)

The Qur’an challenges the opponents of Islam to produce arguments in support of their contention:


“Ask then, (O Prophet!) Bring your proofs if you are the truthful.” (2:111)

They are admonished when they argue about things of which they have no knowledge:


“Why, therefore, do you wrangle concerning that about which you have no knowledge?” (3:66)

The Qur’an asks us to refrain from arguments about which we have no knowledge:

“Do not pursue that whereof you have no knowledge. Verily, the hearing and sight and the heart, each of these will be asked.” (17:36)

It is clear from these verses that Allah puts an extraordinary emphasis on (human) reason and intellect. Those who do not use reason are called worse than animals by Allah. The revelation from Allah is meant to be used with reason and understanding in order to enlighten our minds and hearts and not to be followed blindly:

“Those who do not use their intellect, the matter remains confused to them.” (10:100)

“The blind and the seeing are not equal, nor is the darkness equal to light, nor is shadow equal to the sun’s refulgence; nor are the living equal to the dead.” (35:19-22)

“Say (O Prophet!): Are those equal; those who know and those who do not know?” (39:9)

And most important of all, Allah says that even His revelations are not to be accepted blindly. The Believers (Mu’minin) according to the Qur’an, are:


“Those who, when the revelations of their Rabb (Nourisher and Sustainer) are presented to them, do not fall thereat deaf and blind.” (25:73)

Thus, the Qur’an calls upon all human beings to apply their minds (with open minds, not with an a priori bias, prejudice or ancestral customized thoughts) to its teaching, and to strive constantly to grasp its meaning and rationale. The following commands are for everyone (and not just for the U’lemas):

“Do they not think deeply in the Qur’an?” (4:82, 47:24)

“This book (i.e., the Qur’an) has been sent down on you (O Prophet) that they may think deeply on its verses.” (38:29)

[It must be emphasized here that pondering in the translation and tafseer of the Qur’an is not equivalent to pondering in the Qur’an.]

Thus, Iman has to be individually acquired which requires that each of us consciously strive to acquire knowledge and understanding by using our own God-given gift of reason and intellect in the light of the revelation given in the Qur’an, so that Iman can enter our hearts.


Aspects of Iman

Let us list here several aspects of Iman from the Qur’an which shed light on its reality:

Iman is not to accept it with the tongue but to accept it with the heart. (2:8-9)

To accept everything which the Qur’an says as truth is Iman. (2:26)

In order to acquire Iman in Allah, it is necessary to first reject every authority other than Allah. (2:25-26)

Iman will lead human beings from darkness towards light. (2:257)

In matters of Iman, one’s profession is irrelevant. (26:111-112)

Unless Iman enters the heart, it cannot be called Iman (and consequently, one cannot call oneself Mu’min). One can only say that one has surrendered to Islam. (49:14)

Allah does not discard anyone’s Iman. (2:143)

Finally, an important aspect which must be emphasized here is that no form of force or coercion (direct or indirect, temporal or spiritual) can be used in connection with Iman. This is because it contradicts the very definition of Iman. (As we have seen, Iman is derived from a-m-n which means peace in the heart.) So any forced conversion cannot be allowed in Islam. In fact, forced Iman is no Iman at all.

The journey which I undertook in order to discover for myself the meaning of faith revealed one thing very clearly—Iman in Islam is not a (blind) faith held privately and subjectively (without any rationale or reason) between an individual and God. As we have seen, there is a clear, explicit, and objective definition of Iman given in the Qur’an and Allah has Himself explained the process of how to acquire it in various other verses related to this topic. Therefore, it is not proper (for any Muslim, at least) to say that faith is a private, subjective matter between an individual and God. Nevertheless, the maxim “faith is a private matter” is accepted as a universal truth. It seems no one thinks that any serious effort is needed to investigate its in-depth meaning and provide a proof for this oft repeated phrase. A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that those who believe in this maxim are really contradicting themselves in their daily lives. A good religious speaker greatly influences people’s thoughts and beliefs. The moment one opens one’s private belief to be influenced by others, it no longer remains private. So much so, that an accomplished religious leader can cause havoc in people’s lives to the extent that a single statement of his may cause them to give up their lives and/or take other people’s lives. Some people may say that (private) faith held firmly can not be influenced by others, but I think this is not possible.

And we know that this scenario is physically as well as psychologically impossible now in the age of the information super highway, world wide web, and the Internet. As a matter of fact, this distinction between private and public domain of human life is the product of a concept called dualism which finds no sanction anywhere in the Qur’an. Life is a unity which cannot be bifurcated into private and public parts, religious and secular parts, or material and spiritual parts. In the words of Iqbal:

“Thus the affirmation of spirit sought by Christianity would come not by the renunciation of external forces which are already permeated by the illumination of spirit, but by proper adjustment of man’s relation to these forces in view of the light received from within.

“. . .With Islam, the ideal and real [i.e. spiritual and material] are not two opposing forces which cannot be reconciled. The life of the ideal [i.e. spiritual life] consists, not in a total breach with the real [i.e. material life] which would tend to shatter the very organic wholeness of life into painful oppositions. . .

“Islam, however, faces the opposition with a view to overcome it. . .Islam, recognizing the contact of the ideal with real, says ‘yes’ to the world of matter and points the way to master it with a view to discover a basis for a realistic regulation of life.”


(Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, pages 7-8.)

Unfortunately, this is what life has become today—comprised of painful oppositions in our feelings and emotions, in our thoughts and actions—because the foundation (i.e. faith) on which the life’s superstructure is to be built as a coherent system is flawed.

Now if the foundation itself is defective, no matter how much tinkering and patch-up job is done to save the superstructure(of a society), sooner or later it is going to collapse. Many of them have collapsed already and many are on the way moving towards their final destiny.

In fact, we are all on a mission and a journey, continuously moving towards a final destination whether we realize it or not. The electrons and neurons in our bodies, the earth we inhabit, the solar system, the galaxy—from the smallest to the biggest, everything and everyone and the life in general, are all on a journey towards their goal determined by Allah.

Allah says in the Qur’an that if all the trees on the planet became pens and all its oceans became ink, the words of Allah (and the meanings contained in them) would not be exhausted (31:27, 18:109). That means we are limited by our finite capacity of knowledge and understanding. But still, Allah enjoins on every one of us (who call ourselves Muslims) to use our reason, intellect, and the up-to-date human knowledge and to directly try to understand and explore the meanings of His revelations (as noted earlier in many verses, especially verse 25:73). We will never be able to exhaust the meanings of Allah’s words but we are asked, nevertheless, to keep striving continuously. That is why it is all the more important not to give up and stop this process by saying that our great scholars of the past have already explored all there was to be explored and they have understood all there was to be understood. And we simply have to refer to them in matters of Islam. This passive approach on our part will not absolve us from our duty to ponder directly in the Qur’an as required by Allah. This requirement is for each and every generation and for all time to come.

So, with this spirit as the driving force, we will consider another important aspect of Iman called Iman-bil-Ghaib in the Qur’an (usually translated as belief in the unseen). We will venture to explore its meaning in the next part of this article where we will also explain the overall relationship of Iman with another significant concept called A’mal.

The journey continues…