Whether it is in the masjid, on the street, or online, these incidents are too numerous to count. If you haven’t heard these stories, then you haven’t been listening. Every day, time and time again, a troubled Muslim reaches out and communicates to someone, in one way or another, that they are thinking about leaving Islam. They explain that they have been in a troubled state for a while. They say that they pray and they feel nothing; that when they sin, they no longer feel guilty. They talk about how tired they are of the rules and the restrictions and being boxed in.
Every time I hear this story, I feel a deep aching in my heart. I ache because I realize that, by this time in the conversation, it is often too late. I ache because, while this person is so far removed from their Lord that they feel Islam is the root of their problems, the real problem is that they have never truly been exposed to the beauty of their deen (religion) at all. I ache most of all, though, because this is our (the community’s) fault. By failing to properly teach and explain our deen to our youth, we have failed them and set them up for disappointment and failure.
Teaching Our Ummah—Where We Have Failed
This failure begins at the very core of what we teach young and new Muslims alike. When we begin to teach our children about our deen, we focus almost exclusively on the outward actions. We teach them that they must pray, that they must make wudu (ablution), that they must grow out their beard, that they must not eat pork or drink alcohol, that they must never date, and much more. When a new Muslim makes shahadah (the testimony of faith), the mission of the community seems to inundate the new brother or sister with a torrent of rules. I have even been present for a number of shahadat that are immediately followed with people either criticizing the new Muslim’s dress or trying to teach the person how to read and write in Arabic!
Eventually, if our new Muslim brother or sister hasn’t already been driven away from the masjid (mosque) by our torrents of dos and don’ts, they eventually ask about Iman (faith) and how it differs from Islam. This discussion is possibly the most critical point in the development of a Muslim’s deen, yet the same people who had so much to say about rules before have very little to say here. The majority of the time, we refer them to Hadith Jibril. While Hadith Jibril is certainly an excellent starting place and a primer for beginning to understand this distinction, it is a Hadith that requires a greater depth of understanding to truly appreciate. If Hadith Jibril were the end-all be-all, then Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (Glorified is He) would not have bothered with the grand elaboration on this conversation that occurs all throughout the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet ﷺ, peace be upon him).
Beyond this, most Muslims can only readily cite one other passage concerning the relationship of Iman and Islam:
The bedouins say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts.” [Qur’an 49:14]
Thus, our ad-hoc shaykh reasons, Iman means “faith,” and faith will only come after you have Islam or “submit.”1
Then the conversation is turned back to dos and don’ts, and an invaluable opportunity is lost.
Islam, Iman and What We Ought to be Saying
When we have the chance to sit down with our children or a new Muslim and teach them these critical concepts, we need to be comprehensive, we need to use analogies and examples, and we cannot underestimate the value of reasoning and reflection. A conversation could go something like this:
In the Hadith Jibril, we see that Islam is described through a set of actions and Iman is described through a set of beliefs. This is why you will oftentimes see Islam translated as “submission” and Iman translated as “belief.” But these translations don’t do the terms justice.
For example, Anas bin Malik radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleases with him) relates that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself,” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]. The love described in this hadith is not a passive thing; it is in fact very active! In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) also almost always pairs a description of a believer or mu’min with an action. For example:
“But they who believe and do righteous deeds – those are the companions of Paradise; they will abide therein eternally.” [Qur’an 2:82]
“This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah – Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them […]” [Qur’an 2:2-3]
Additionally, when you look at the description of Islam in Hadith Jibril, you see that the very first act is to “witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” the witnessing of which requires not just belief, but an unwavering conviction in two of the principles of Iman (Allah’s Oneness and Messengers).
So… what does this mean? It means that your Islam and your Iman are in a mutual symbiotic relationship. An example of this is if we were to place a tree sapling and a young boy into two separate, air-tight rooms. Both the tree and the boy require certain provisions to survive: for the tree, you need sunlight, soil, and water; for the boy, he needs food, water, and affection. However, even if we provide all these necessary things, the tree and the boy will not survive while separated. Eventually, the tree will run out of carbon dioxide and the boy will run out of oxygen. To solve this problem, both the boy and the tree need to be placed into the same room. With their outside resources and each other, they can both live, grow, and develop. Our Islam and our Iman are the same way. To develop our Islam or submission requires hard work, regimentation, and focus. To develop our Iman or our utter conviction, we need sincere reflection, humility, and gratitude.
However, if we try to survive with our Islam alone and don’t combine it with Iman, we are ultimately hypocrites. Each day, we bear witness to and worship a Lord we doubt exists and we take action for a wide variety of reasons that have nothing to do with pleasing Him. If we do this, we ultimately share the ranks of those who joined Islam for political gain, for convenience, or simply because they were told to. Conversely, if we try to survive with our Iman and no Islam, we are ultimately rejecting the very Salvation we believe we’ve been given. Essentially, we are saying that while we know Allah (swt) is our Master, and we know He has sent us a Message, and we know we will be judged by how we follow that Message, we shall not follow that Message and we shall ignore our Master.
Thus, while you can build your Islam through practice and regimentation, and you can build your Iman through reflection and gratitude, either one is stunted from the start without the other. For the system to truly work, your Islam must become the Iman of your limbs, and your Iman must become the Islam of your heart. For ultimately, the greatest form of submission is the submission of your heart, and the greatest conviction is the one that emanates through your actions. Therefore, regimentation and toil alone will not do; you must also reflect, become humble, and increase in gratitude.
Ihsan and Taqwa– The Sweetness
This journey is not without its perils. While we grow in our Islam, we will most certainly be tested:
“You will surely be tested in your possessions and in yourselves. And you will surely hear from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with Allah much abuse […]” [Qur’an 3:186]
Indeed, people will witness your actions and your demeanor change, and they will not be happy. Your friends may abandon you because you no longer engage in the questionable acts they participate in or because they feel embarrassed to be around you. Your family may begin to accuse you of becoming “extreme.” Additionally, you will be tested by Allah (swt) through your possessions and by Shaytan through whisperings in your heart. This is because this life is meant as a test. The verse continues:
“[…] But if you are patient and fear Allah- indeed, that is of the matters (worthy) of determination.” [3:186]
This is where our deen truly becomes unlike any other. As we continue to carefully provide for our Islam and Iman with their necessary ingredients and as they continue to meld and grow together, our increasing level of submission and our growing conviction and faith begin to bear fruit.
These are the seeds of Taqwa growing deep within our souls. Taqwa is oftentimes described as “God-consciousness,” but it is much deeper than that. We are beings whose only true sustenance comes from Allah (swt)—the closer we are to Him, the more directly we experience Him, the more sustenance we receive and the more we feel at home. Taqwa is when we are gifted with feeling and experiencing the presence of our Lord. As we gain Taqwa, we begin to see the world for how it truly is—the blessings and Mercy of Allah become joys and splendors for us, and the sins of the world become like thorns which we see and avoid. In fact, one of the Companions of the Prophet described Taqwa as akin to walking through a path filled with thorns while trying to leave your clothing unscathed.
This is the sweetness of our religion: because of our sacrifice and because of our devotion, we begin to feel absolute peace and tranquility through our submission to Allah (swt). Not only do we feel joy and felicity as a result of our prayers, we begin to crave worship and no longer feel toil or burden from it. The joy is infectious, and it emanates from our very being. Unless your heart is covered in darkness from sin or a seal from pure arrogance, simply being around a person who has strong Taqwa is a transformative and joyful experience. This is Ihsan (excellence), and it is beautifully summarized in Hadith Jibril.
In sum, as you begin or continue your journey in search of Salvation, please remember these things. First, that you need both Islam and Iman and neither can be neglected. This means you must toil and regiment your worship as well as reflect and grow in gratitude. On your journey, there will be times when you will feel more connected to your Lord than others, and there will most certainly be tests and challenges thrown at you from all sides. However, by being patient, the greatest reward you can possibly imagine awaits on the other side, both in this life and in the Hereafter.
Having this conversation with a Muslim, no matter what the age, is a fundamental part of preparing him or her for a successful journey. All else must come secondary: just as a journey is doomed to failure without a map or destination, a person’s life journey is doomed to failure without knowing the Straight Path and their desired Destination. May Allah (swt) empower us to guide our youth and new Muslims aright, and may He guide all of us upon the Straight Path.
- This is, in fact, a dangerously incorrect interpretation of this verse. Not only is the meaning of Iman far deeper than the English term “faith,” but this particular verse was revealed in response to a group of bedouins who declared shahadah once they saw the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was about to be victorious and saw gain in becoming Muslim. As such, this verse does not dismiss the likelihood of a person having Iman before Islam or having both simultaneously. This is a critical illustration of how interpreting verses without referring to scholars can lead to perilous consequences. [Ma’arif Ul-Qur’an, Maulana Mufti Mohammad Shafi] [↩]