by Asad Jaleel
Many translators render the Arabic noun “iman” in English as “belief.” This translation is an imperfect solution to a difficult problem. The difficulty here is finding a simple English equivalent to match the complexity inherent in the Arabic original. Unfortunately, misconceptions occur quite often with English and Arabic, two languages with such different histories, grammars and even worldviews, that it seems whenever one translates between the two, a world of meaning is lost. One of the most tragic examples of this linguistic breakdown is the word “jihad,” which was at one time translated as “holy war,” (better translated as “struggle”) leading to a serious misunderstanding of Islam that continues to do damage today.
Muslims themselves choose to translate iman as “belief,” often without realizing the potential for a misunderstanding as problematic, if not more so than the issues surrounding jihad. The reason for why a translation of iman as “belief” is so problematic is because if a Muslim thinks that when the Qur’an commands him or her to have iman, he or she need do nothing more than what is conveyed to them by the English “belief,” then he or she is in danger of a major dereliction of religious duty. Iman requires a deeper, more complete commitment to an idea than what speakers of English call “belief.”
One way to show the distinctions between the Arabic iman and the English “belief” would be to do a rigorous etymological analysis of the two words. While that might be preferable in some ways, a more simple and perhaps more powerful demonstration comes by citing a single hadith. Anas bin Malik relates that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) said: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]
The above hadith highlights the differences between iman and belief. A helpful way to look at the saying is to see it as the Islamic version of the Golden Rule. Just as the Golden Rule tells people to treat others as they would like to be treated, this hadith tells Muslims that they should want good things for their brothers and sisters just as they want good things for themselves. It is not limited to mere objects; it also includes people and actions. Therefore, a Muslim should want his brother to find love just as he wishes to find love. But why does it say that no one believes until they achieve this generous mentality? Isn’t it possible that a man believes in God in his heart but acts miserly to others? Here Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is making the dramatic claim that such a thing is not possible. He is arguing that if true belief has permeated a man’s heart, he cannot be miserly. This illustrates a crucial difference between Islamic iman and the English “belief.” In fact, this distinction is so crucial that Muslims imperil their souls if they fail to understand it. This distinction is that iman must manifest itself through action whereas belief does not necessarily have to do so.
Belief, as normally used in English, does not necessitate action. Think about how speakers of English use forms of the word “belief.” When someone says, “I believe you,” what he or she is really saying is “I think there’s at least a 51% chance that you are telling the truth.” Is there any connection between this belief and action? No. Imagine this conversation.
A rabid football (as in the NFL) fan from Wisconsin says, “Because of their athleticism and strong coaching, I think the Green Bay Packers are the best team in football today.” His friend replies, “I believe you.” Clearly the fan sees the Packers as a great team. One can say that with a high amount of confidence. But what can one say about the friend? What has he committed to by saying, “I believe”? Assuming the friend is sincere, he has agreed to the truth of the previous statement. But that’s it. He has not committed to a course of action.
That caveat, assuming the friend is sincere, says something about how carelessly English speakers throw around the word “believe.” How often does a person just say, “Okay, I believe you” just because that person wants to shut someone up? Let’s look at the example again. Isn’t it possible that this friend is really a fan of another team, maybe the Chicago Bears (bitter rivals of the Packers) and is merely saying that he believes to make the other guy stop talking? What if a day after “believing” that the Packers are the best team, the friend wears a Bears jersey? No one would think that he had done anything wrong. While he has contradicted himself, he has not breached any trust because we know, as speakers of English, that saying one believes something does not create a commitment.
Iman, on the other hand, does create a commitment. Iman creates an amana (the Arabic word for a trust or surety). Islamic iman creates a commitment to Allah. The commitment entails learning about Islam, practicing Islam, and teaching Islam to others.
Iman begins a life-changing process. Think about the story of the beloved uncle of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Abu Talib. Almost from the moment he received the message, Muhammad ﷺ valiantly struggled to convince his uncle to believe in Islam. Allah knows best about Abu Talib’s state and destiny, but it seems likely from historical accounts that he never accepted Islam. If iman were nothing more than “belief,” would Abu Talib have resisted so much? If he understood “believing” as just having a degree of confidence about the truth of a statement, it seems like extreme stubbornness for him to refuse. But perhaps Abu Talib resisted because he really understood iman much more than many Muslims living today do. Because he knew that to have iman was to agree to a commitment of action, a life-changing commitment, he refused because he was not ready to transform his life so radically.
Thus having iman means committing to a program of action. A Muslim who has iman does not merely believe in Allah, he or she commits to follow the commands of Allah in every aspect of life. Iman is key to success in the religious realm, but also in other areas. Good students have a kind of iman; they believe in their success and as a result, they commit by studying regularly, attending classes, and reading textbooks. Dieters that lose significant numbers of pounds (or kilos) commit to action; they eat healthy foods and exercise every day. Also, they avoid eating fatty or sugary foods that will jeopardize their success. Iman affects not only the actions a person does, but also the actions a person avoids.
Iman sounds like so much work, why would anyone be interested in it? The result of iman is aman. Aman is Arabic for safety, protection, and peace. Having iman leads a person towards peace since doubt creates fear and anxiety. Peace, whether the peace of mind of an individual or the global peace that remains an elusive dream, satisfies a need deep in the human heart.