Belief
(īmān)

Muhammad Munir al-Hayek and Gibril Fouad Haddadd

This article comprises the following sections.

Definitions and Usage

The word īmān is an infinitive noun (maṣdar) whose agential noun (ism al-fāʿil) is muʾmin(a). Allah Most High said, It is not for any believer, man or woman (muʾmin/muʾmina), when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter, to have choice in the affair (Q 33:36). Its root ʾ-m-n denotes two meanings that are germane, trustfulness and confirmation (taṣdīq) (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs 1:133, sub ʾ-m-n): Allah Most High said, And among the People of the Book there is he who, if you entrust him (taʾmanhu) with a hundredweight, will return it to you; and among them there is he who, if you entrust him with a single coin, will not return it to you unless you constantly demand it of him (Q 3:75); and He said, as spoken by the brothers of Yūsuf when they addressed their father Yaʿqūb, upon both of them peace, but you will not believe (bi-muʾmin) us (Q 12:17). What is meant by belief (īmān) in this article, however, is the second meaning, following the definition adopted by the vast majority of Ashʿarīs and Māturīdīs (al-Bājūrī, Sharḥ Jawharat al-tawḥīd, sub v. 18) as well as “Textualists” (Atharīs) (Saffārīnī, Lawāmiʿ, 1:57, 1:403; Lawāʾiḥ, 2:277, 2:288), i.e. the bulk of Muslims. The Qurʾān uses both meanings 45 times for īmān and 536 times as verbal forms, out of a total of 811 times in which the cognates of ʾ-m-n occur, the rest being forms of the noun muʾmin, “Believer”.

Īmān can also refer to the physical enactment of what belief makes incumbent. As the major jurist and legal theorist of Egypt and Syria ʿIzz al-Dīn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. ʿAbd al-Salām al-Sulamī (577-660/1181-1262) said: “The Arabs transfer the name of the cause of fruition to its fruit, where the cause of fruition is belief and the fruit is deeds, so the name of belief is applied to deeds metaphorically” (Maʿnā al-īmān wal-islām p. 9). The Qurʾān has applied this transference and used the word īmān to refer to prayer in the verse, and never would Allah let your faith go to waste (Q 2:143) as well as to acts of obedience by the heart, the tongue, the limbs, and the body: Those only are believers (muʾminūn) whose hearts quake when Allah is mentioned, and when His signs are recited to them it increases them in faith (īmānan), and who put their trust in their Lord; who establish the prayer and spend of what We have bestowed on them (Q 8:2-3). Here, He describes acts of the heart (quaking and reliance) as well as of the limbs (establishing prayer and the remittance of zakāt,) as part of belief. Hence, when the scholars define īmān, they include in the basic meaning of confirmation the deeds that presuppose it. Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/1108) and others define īmān as comprising three things: “realization of the heart, affirmation of the tongue, and acts of the limbs in accordance therewith,” juxtaposing affirmation, which is an act of the heart, with deeds, which are acts of the limbs (Mufradāt, sub ʾ-m-n). It follows that the confirmation of something and the acts that presuppose such confirmation are inseparable, as the first is incomplete without the second. In the Qurʾān belief is paired with righteous action more than sixty times: “those who believe and do righteous deeds” (āmanū wa-ʿamilū al-ṣāliḥāt) (cf. Q 2:25, 2:82, 2:277, 3:57, 4:57, 4:122, 4:173 etc.), which shows belief and deeds to be inseparable. Early authorities—such as Saʿīd b. Jubayr (46-95/666-714), Maymūn b. Mihrān (40-117/660-735), Qatāda (d. 117/735), Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī (d. 96/715), al-Zuhrī (52?-124/672-742), Ayyūb al-Sakhtiyānī (d. 131/749), Yahyā b. Kathīr (152-234/769-849)—severely castigated those who excluded deeds from belief, such as the Murjiʾa sect. Sufyān al-Thawrī (97-161/716-778) said of those who differentiated between belief and action, “It is a newfangled view; we found the learned saying otherwise,” while al-Awzāʿī said, “Our past predecessors did not differentiate between belief and deeds.” Likewise, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (d. 101/720) wrote to ʿAdī b. ʿAdī, “Belief entails obligations, laws, limits, and ways; whoever strives to complete them has striven to complete belief, and whoever does not strive to complete them has not” (Bukhārī, Īmān, al-īman wa-qawl al-Nabī ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa-sallam: Buniya al-islām ʿalā khams). This definition refutes the Karrāmiyya and the extreme Murjiʾa sects, who held that belief is restricted to verbal utterance and has no basis in the heart or limbs. Their manifest error was rejected by scholarly consensus and refuted by the self-evident texts justifying the attribution of unbelief to the hypocrites, who are described as those who say “We believe” with their tongues, while their hearts do not believe (Q 5:41) (Ibn Rajab, Jāmiʿ 1:104; Shahrastānī, Milal p. 78; Nawawī, Sharḥ Muslim 2:181).

The Azerbaijani exegete, Ashʿarī theologian, and Shāfiʿī jurist Nāṣir al-Dīn ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar al-Bayḍāwī (d. 708?/1308?), however, resolved as the correct conclusion that since the irreducible core of belief is the heart sine qua non, it follows that its correct definition is that, strictly speaking, īmān is confirmation (taṣdīq) alone, while tending to agree with Māturīdīs that affirmation should follow as well:

Īmān, lexically, expresses confirmation (taṣdīq).... In the legal sense, it is the confirmation of what is absolutely necessary to know as part of the religion of the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, such as pure monothe­ism, Prophet­hood, resurrection and requital. It is the sum of three things: firm belief (iʿtiqād) in the truth, affirmation (taqrīr) of it, and act­ing upon its exigencies according to the vast majority of hadith scholars, the Muʿtazila and the Khawārij. Thus, whoever comes short of belief is a hypocrite; whoever comes short of affir­mation, an unbeliever; and whoever comes short of deeds, a transgres­sor by agreement. What indicates that it is confirmation alone is that Allah Most High has annexed īmān to the heart and said, As for such, He has written faith upon their hearts (Q 58:22), and whose heart is at rest with the faith (Q 16:106), but their hearts believe not (al-Māʾida 5:41), for faith has not yet entered into your hearts (Q 49:14)…. Then comes the difference of opinion whether pure confir­mation with the heart is enough—for that is the purpose—or is it indispensable to also have affirmation (iqrār) for those able to pro­vide it? The truth might be the latter; for Allah Most High has blamed the obdurate more than He has blamed the negli­gent ig­no­ramus. One who holds the opposite view may deem the blame directed at denial, not at lack of affirmation for some­one able to provide it.

Tafsīr, sub Q 2:3; cf. Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:3

Commenting on the above passage, the Konya-born Ottoman scholar ʿIṣām al-Dīn Ismāʿīl b. Muḥammad b. Muṣṭafā al-Qūnawī (d. 1195/1781)—deemed by two successive sul­tans (Muṣṭafā Khān and ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Khān) the foremost schol­ar of Constantinople in his time—said:

[Fakhr al-Islām Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. al-Ḥusayn] al-Pazdawī (d. 482/1089) in the Kashf [al-Asrār] said that affirmation expresses the heart’s content and signals confirma­tion. Hence it is a “potentially dispensable pillar” (rukn yaḥtamil al-suqūṭ).... He [Bayḍāwī] did not categorically assert it [i.e., the indispensability of affirmation], for three reasons: conflicting evidence; rebuttal of the most literal evidence with the objection he is about to mention; and the fact that the preponderant Ashʿarī position is that affirmation is not an integral of īmān.

Ḥāshiya, sub Q 2:3

Bayḍāwī’s definition is indeed that of the eponymous founder of the school, Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Ismāʿīl b. Abī Bishr Isḥāq al-Ashʿarī (260-324/874-936) (Lumaʿ, al-kalām fīl-īmān), followed by 4th and 5th-century Ashʿarīs (Ibn Fūrak, Maqālāt, pp. 152-153; Bāqillānī, Inṣāf, p. 52; Baghdādī, Uṣūl, pp. 247-248; Shīrāzī, Ishāra, p. 301 §35; Imām al-Ḥaramayn, Irshād, p. 397, al-Asmāʾ wal-aḥkām, faṣl fī maʿnā al-īmān and ʿAqīda Niẓāmiyya, pp. 257-258). Ashʿarīs who were also Hadith scholars such as Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī al-Bayhaqī al-Naysābūrī (384-458/994-1066) in al-Iʿtiqād, Zayn al-Islām Abū al-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Karīm b. Hawzān b. ʿAbd al-Mālik al-Qushayrī (376-465/986-1073) in his Rasāʾil and, most vehemently, Jalāl al-Dīn Abū al-Faḍl ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Abī Bakr al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-1505) in his supercommentary on al-Bayḍāwī entitled Nawāhid al-abkār, fol­lowed the contra position that affirmation was categorically indispensable and part of the irreducible core of belief.


The Six Pillars of Belief

Belief consists in six things which are enumerated in the famous Hadith of Jibrīl —upon him peace—as narrated in the two major Ṣaḥīḥs, in Sunan and Musnad compilations, and elsewhere, from the Commander of the Believers ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 23/644) —Allah be well-pleased with him:

As we were sitting with the Messenger of Allah—upon him blessings and peace—one day, all of a sudden a man came up to us. He wore exceedingly white clothes. His hair was jet black. There was no sign of travel on his person, yet none of us knew him. He went to sit near the Prophet, leaning his knees against his and placing his hands on his thighs. He said: “O Muḥammad, tell me about submission (islām).” The Messenger of Allah said: “Submission is that you bear witness (shahāda) that there is no deity but Allah and that Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allah; accomplish the prayer; remit the zakāt; fast during Ramadan (ṣiyām); and make the pilgrimage (Hajj)to the House if you are able to go there (cf. Q 3:97).” The man said: “You have spoken the truth!” We wondered at him: how could he be asking the Prophet and confirming him at the same time? Then he said: “Tell me about belief (īmān).” The Prophet said: “Belief is that you believe in Allah, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers (see Messengership), and the Last Day (see Hereafter); and to believe in foreordained destiny (see Divine Decree), for better or worse.” The man said: “You have spoken the truth! Now tell me about excellence (iḥsān).” The Prophet replied: “Excellence is that you worship Allah as if you were seeing Him; for if you do not see Him, He certainly sees you.”

Muslim, Īmān, bayān al-īmān wal-islām wal-iḥsān

This hadith comprises the explanation of the whole Religion, for the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—said in the end: “That questioner was none other than Jibrīl; he came to you to teach you your religion.” It specifies that belief (īmān) covers six things: belief in Allah, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Last Day, and the Foreordained Decree. A Qurʾānic verse mentions four out of these six: The Messenger believes in what has been sent down to him from His Lord, and so do the believers. Each believes in Allah, His Angels, His Scriptures, and His Messengers (Q 2:285); another verse adds a fifth pillar, belief in the Last Day: but righteous is he who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Scripture, and the Prophets (Q 2:177); Allah Most High also said, and when He decrees a thing, He but says to it “Be,” and it is (Q 2:117); and He said, Truly We have created everything by measure (Q 54:49), the last two verses alluding to decree and foreordainment.


Meaning of the Six Pillars

In legal terms, first, the meaning of “belief in Allah” is the absolute confirmation of the existence of Allah Most High, the Creator of this universe; and that He is alone, without partner.

Second, the meaning of “belief in the Angels” is the confirmation that Allah created the angels, honored slaves (cf. Q 80:16) who do not disobey the commands of Allah and who do as they are commanded (cf. Q 66:6).

Third, the meaning of “belief in the Books of Allah” is the confirmation that Allah Most High has revealed Books, among them the pages of Ibrāhīm (upon him peace), the Torah, Injīl, and Zabūr; and that they were the law of Allah before substitution and corruption marred them.

Fourth, the meaning of “belief in the Messengers” is the confirmation that Allah Most High has sent human Messengers to every people (Q 10:47) and that those Messengers are truthful and protected from error. It is, moreover, obligatory for the believer to believe in all the Messengers (cf. Q 2:136, 285; 3:84) sent by Allah (both the known and the very many who are unknown, cf. Q 40:78), twenty-five of whom are mentioned in the Qurʾān by name: Ādam, Idrīs, Nūḥ , Hūd, Ṣāliḥ, Ibrāhīm, Lūṭ , Ismāʿīl, Isḥāq, Yaʿqūb, Yūsuf, Ayyūb, Shuʿayb, Mūsā, Hārūn, Dhūl-Kifl, Dāwūd, Sulaymān, Ilyās, al-Yasaʿ, Yūnus , Zakariyyā , Yaḥyā, ʿĪsā , and Muḥammad—upon our Prophet and all of them be the best blessings and peace. Whoever denies the Prophethood or Messengership of any of the above-named has committed disbelief.

There are three more upon whose prophetic status there is disagreement: Dhūl-Qarnayn , ʿUzayr, and Luqmān. As for al-Khaḍir, he is not explicitly named in the Qurʾān, even if he is the one meant in the verse that mentions one of Our slaves (Q 18:65); likewise Yūshaʿ b. Nūn, who is referred to in His saying to his servant (Q 18:60) (Bājūrī, Sharḥ, sub v. 18).

Fifth, the meaning of “belief in the Last Day” is the confirmation that Allah Most High shall raise up the dead from their graves on that day and pass judgment on each and every one of them according to their deeds and beliefs: if one has done good he or she shall find good; and if one has done evil he or she shall find evil.

Sixth, the meaning of “belief in the Divine Decree, the good and the bad” is the belief (i) that Allah Most High already knows firstly what good or evil His servants will ever do; every act of obedience and disobedienceof theirs before they are created; which of them shall be of the dwellers of Paradise and which shall be of the dwellers of Hellfire; and all that He has prepared for them by way of reward or punishment in requital for their deeds before their creation and fashioning, having recorded and reckoned all this in His presence; and secondly that the acts of creatures run according to what is already in His knowledge and record.

Belief in the Divine foreordained Decree demands complete assent to it, because such belief remains invalid unless accompanied by contentment with whatever it brings (Ibn Rajab, Jāmiʿ al-ʿulūm wal-ḥikam 1:103). The same can be said of every article of belief.

Belief in the Decree does not contradict the fact that free will is granted to human beings: rather, Allah has given human beings free will, while He also encompasses everything in His knowledge, which includes His knowing of decisions human beings will make. The Preserved Tablet (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ) is a written decree of that knowledge, which in no way means that He has forced human beings into any decision. 


Integrality of Each and Every Pillar

Belief in all of the above pillars of the faith is an absolute requisite. Anyone who denies a single one of them is not considered a believer, since the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—specifically said in the hadith already mentioned, “Belief (īmān) is that you believe.” The fact that they are described as “pillars” is illustration enough, since a pillar is the thing on which an edifice rests, and which, if it collapses, makes the edifice collapse with it (cf. Rāghib, Mufradāt, p. 365, sub r-k-n). The noble Qurʾān describes as unbelievers  those who believed in some of the Prophets to the exclusion of others: Verily those who disbelieve in Allah and His Messengers, and seek to make distinction between Allah and His Messengers, and say, ‘We believe in some and disbelieve in others,’ and seek to choose a way in between: those in truth are the unbelievers (Q 4:150-151). That is the case, a fortiori, of anyone who believes in some pillars to the exclusion of one or more of the others.


Categories and Levels of Belief

The exegete of Ray, Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209), in his commentary of the verse Each believes in Allah, His Angels, His Scriptures, and His Messengers (Q 2:285), said that each of those four categories are absolute necessities (ḍarūrāt) of belief, each of them entailing the following levels:

I.                   Belief in Allah, the sole omniscient Creator of the world, as the foundation of all belief: His existence, His attributes, His acts, His rulings, and His Names:

1.     Belief in His existence means to know that behind everything dimensional in existence there is a Creator Who created it.

2.     Belief in His attributes covers the negatory attributes and the affirmative attributes. The former consist in the fact that He exists beyond all perspectives of compositeness (tarkīb) and is One beyond all dimension, corporeality, substance, place, indwelling, change, or need of any kind whatsoever. The latter consist in His being Living, Able, Knowing, Hearing, Seeing, and desacribed with all the attributes of majesty and perfection.

3.     Belief in His acts is to know that all other than Him are contingent in their existence and merely possible rather than self-existent, and they are all given their existence by Him, the One without beginning.

4.     Belief in His rulings is to know that they are not prompted by any causality whatsoever (ghayr muʿallala bi-ʿillatin aṣlan); their benefit all go to creatures, not to the Creator; He binds and rules as He wishes over the world; none can hold Him to anything, He forgives whomever He wishes out of His favor and He punishes whomever He wishes out of His justice, and nothing that He does can be disapproved.

II.                Belief in the angels as the means whereby Allah reveals His Messages to the Prophets entails:

1.     Belief in their existence as subtle bodies of light endowed with immense power.

2.     Knowledge that they are immune to sin (maʿṣūmūn) and devoid of arrogance, purified and absolute worshippers of their Lord and they obey Him at all times;

3.     That they are intermediaries (wasāʾit) between Allah and humankind, each group of them being in charge of one part or another of the universe;

4.     That the Books of Allah Most High reached the Messengers exclusively through the intermediary of the angels.

III.             Belief in the Books as the Divine revelation the angel appointed by Allah clenches to convey it entails:

1.     Belief in the fact that these Books are Divine revelation, not from divination, magic, satanic spells or evil spirits.

2.     Belief that none was given any power by Allah to cast any misguidance into these Books.

3.     Belief that the Qurʾān is entirely free of any alteration or tampering, including its sequencing.

4.     Belief in its comprising the decisive and unabrogable (muḥkam) as well as the ambiguous and allegorical (mutashābih), the former clarifying the nature of the latter.

IV.             Belief in the Messengers who receive the lights of revelation from the angels entails:

1.     Knowledge that they are immune to sin;

2.     and that they are superior and preferable to non-Prophets (cf. Ṭaḥāwiyya, “We hold that any single Prophet is better than all the awliyāʾ put together”).

3.     Some said they are better than the angels.

4.     Some of the Messengers are superior to others.

Tafsīr.

Al-Bājūrī (1198-1277/1784-1860) says in his commentary on Burhān al-Dīn al-Laqānī’s (d. 1041/1631) famed doctrinal primer Jawharat al-tawḥīd:

There is belief that stems from imitation (taqlīd), namely that which stems from adopting a teacher’s statement without proof. Then there is belief based on knowledge, which stems from knowledge of the articles of creed with their proofs; belief based on sight (ʿiyān), which stems from the heart’s watchfulness of Allah so that He does not disappear from it for even the glimpse of an eye; belief based on truth (ḥaqq), which stems from witnessing Allah with the heart; and belief based on reality (ḥaqīqa), which stems from one’s witnessing nothing but Allah. That is the order, from lowest to highest. Imitation is for the common public (al-ʿawāmm); knowledge for the possessors of proofs (li-aṣḥāb al-adilla); sight for the people of watchfulness—and it is named the “station of watchfulness” (maqām al-murāqaba); truth for knowers (al-ʿārifīn)—and it is named the “station of witnessing” (maqām al-mushāhada); and reality for finders (al-wāqifīn)—and it is named the “station of extinction” (maqām al-fanāʾ), as they become extinct to all else but Allah and do not witness other than Him. As for the reality of reality (ḥaqīqat al-ḥaqīqa), it belongs exclusively to the Messengers: Allah Most High has barred us from discovering it, so there is no way for us to expound it.

The validity of all but the first of the above levels is agreed upon, and each is better and nobler than the preceding one. As for the first level—belief stemming from imitation—its meaning is that one believes and holds someone else’s saying without knowing the latter’s proof. For example, when a group is told that the new moon has become visible, whoever believes without actually seeing it is an imitator (muqallid) and whoever sights the new moon himself is not. Scholars have expressed the following six divergent views as to whether—and to what extent—a muqallid is a believer:

Imitation is insufficient, i.e. invalid, in which sense the imitator is a unbeliever. This is the position of [the theologian and canonist Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Yūsuf b. ʿUmar] al-Sanūsī (d. 895/1490) in [ʿUmdat ahl al-tawfīq wal-tasdīd fī sharḥ ʿAqīdat ahl al-tawḥīd] al-Kubrā.

Imitation is insufficient and sinful in absolute terms, whether one be qualified for detailed study or not.

Imitation is sufficient, but is sinful if one is qualified for detailed study; otherwise there is no sinfulness.

Whoever imitates the Qurʾān and the conclusive Sunna, his belief is sound because of his conclusive followership, while whoever imitates anything else, his belief is invalid because those not protected from error may commit errors.

Imitation is sufficient and is not sinful in absolute terms, because detailed study is the condition of perfection; so whoever is qualified for it but does not apply it has only failed to do what is best.

The imitator’s belief is sound, and detailed study is prohibited for him—the latter being understood as being of the kind admixed with philosophy.

Sharḥ Jawharat al-tawḥīd pp. 43-44

Al-Bājūrī says, after mentioning these six positions, “The true position upon which we rely, out of all these, is the third statement” (Sharḥ Jawharat al-tawḥīd p. 44), since Allah Most High said, No soul is burdened beyond its capacity (Q 2:233, 2:286, 6:152, 7:42, 23:62). Al-Sanūsī described that position as “the inclination of a group of the Sunni Imāms” while he himself asserted the first position as being that of “most of the Sunni Imāms such as Imām al-Ḥaramayn [Ibn al-Juwaynī (419-478/1028-1085)], al-Ashʿarī (260-324/874-936), the Qāḍī [ʿIyāḍ; 471-544/1078-1149], and the Ustādh [Abū Isḥāq al-Isfarāyīnī (d. 418/1027)]… The proof is that we have been made legally responsible for knowing Allah Most High and knowing His Messengers, and the state of an imitator cannot be called knowledge” (Manhaj pp. 48-50).


The Difference between Islām, Īmān and Iḥsān

Linguistically islām denotes compliance (inqiyād) (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs 3:90, sub s-l-m). In legal matters, it specifically refers to the compliance of the tongue in uttering the testimony of faith (“There is no god but Allah and Muḥammad is His Messenger”). This is the sense in which it is meant in unqualified terms, as shown by the fact that, according to the jurists, if a man swears he will not speak to any Muslim, he breaks his oath by speaking to someone who has done no more than say the two shahādas––but not by speaking to someone who has not said them (Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, Maʿnā al-īmān p. 17). This is established by the hadith concerning the Prophet’s rebuke of Usāma b. Zayd for failing to refrain from killing an enemy combatant although the latter, at the last moment, had uttered the shahādas, which he appeared to have done simply in order to save his life (Muslim, Īmān, taḥrīm qatl al-kāfir baʿda an qāla lā ilāha illā Allāh).

The meaning of Īmān has already been discussed. As for Iḥsān, it is a higher station than Īmān. The original meaning of aḥsana is “to do something to perfection” (atqana), the intent being excellence in worshipping and servanthood.

It follows that

if Īmān is understood according to its main lexical sense of confirmation and Islām according to the two witnessings of faith exclusively, or its five underpinnings, then there is no commonality of sense between the two terms whether generally or specifically;

but if Īmān is understood as confirmation through the deeds of the limbs, then:

if Islām is understood as the two witnessings of faith or the five underpinnings, then Īmān is more general than Islām;

and if Islām is understood as compliance, in accordance with its dictionary definition, then it is more general than Īmān.

It is permissible to call a Muslim a muʾmin and vice-versa, since Allah Most High has said, O you who believe… the creed of your father Ibrāhīm; He is the one who named you Muslims aforetime (Q 22:77-78). Whenever those two terms occur together in a single context, they carry contrasting meanings; but whenever they occur independently, their meanings are interchangeable, hence scholars have observed that “whenever the two terms unite they diverge, and whenever they diverge they unite.” (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ, 1:115, Īmān, suʾāl Jibrīl ʿan al-īmān wal-islām). The two terms occur together in only one passage of the noble Qurʾān, when Allah Most High said The desert Arabs say, “We believe” (āmannā). Say: You do not believe; rather say, “We surrender” (aslamnā) (Q 49:14). Belief, in such a context and its like, differs from submission and compliance, since the meaning of We believe is “with our hearts,” while the meaning of We surrender is “with our mouths and limbs,” which Allah has emphasized with the continuation of the verse: for belief has not yet entered your hearts. This verse refers not to all desert Arabs but to a specific tribe, namely the Banū Asad (Tafsīrs of Mujāhid, Farrāʾ, Ṭabarī, Samarqandī, Thaʿlabī, etc.). They had come to the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—after some of them had told each other, “Let us go to see that man; if he is a Prophet we shall be the happiest of people through him, and if he is a king we shall live under his wing,” according to a report which al-Suyūṭī sourced to Ibn Rāhūyah, Musaddad, al-Ṭabarānī, Ibn Jarīr, and Ibn Abī Ḥātim and which he declared “fair” (ḥasan) (Durr 7:552). Thus testimony was borne to the islām of that group, as opposed to their īmān.

Furthermore, it is narrated in the two sound collections of Bukhārī and Muslim that Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ told the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace: “Messenger of Allah, what kept you from giving to so-and-so? I swear by Allah that I truly see him to be a believer!” whereupon the Prophet answered, “or a Muslim” (Bukhārī, Īmān, idhā lam yakun al-islām ʿalā al-ḥaqīqa wa-kāna ʿalā al-istislām; Muslim, Īmān, taʾalluf qalb man yukhāf ʿalā īmānih li-ḍaʿfih). The illustration the hadith provides is that the words īmān and islām, when used together in a sense of descriptive contrast, are not one and the same thing.

The above makes clear that Īmān is superior to Īslām when they are mentioned together. Furthermore, Iḥsān is superior to Īmān, witness the saying of the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—in the hadith already mentioned: “Excellence is that you worship Allah as if you were seeing Him.” Also, Imān comes in the middle position, after Islām and before Iḥsān. Finally, the noble Qurʾān explicitly states that Islām precedes Imān where Allah Most High states, as in the verse quoted above, The desert Arabs say, “We believe.” Tell [them]: “You do not believe; rather say, ‘We surrender,’ for belief has not yet entered your hearts” (Q 49:14).

As for Iḥsān, its Prophetic definition—“that you worship Allah as if you were seeing Him; for if you do not see Him, He certainly sees you”—has two meanings, as recapitulated by the Damascene Hadith master Abū al-Faraj ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Shihāb al-Dīn, known as Ibn Rajab (736-795/1335-1392), the Cairene Hadith master Shihāb al-Dīn Abū al-Faḍl Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Muḥammad Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (773-852/1372-1449), and the Damascene Imam Muḥyī al-Dīn Abū Zakariyyā Yaḥyā b. Sharaf al-Nawawī (631-676/1234-1277) in their commentaries on this hadith:

The first state is superior to the second, but if the first state is too difficult to attain then one strives to maintain the second state until one can achieve the first. The ranks of the possessors of the “station of excellence” (maqām al-iḥsān) vary according to the acuity of their spiritual insight. One of the pious early women of Islam said: “Whoever works for Allah according to witnessing is a knower (ʿārif), and whoever works for Him according to Allah’s witnessing of him is sincere (mukhliṣ),” alluding to the above-mentioned two levels.

Ibn Rajab, Jāmiʿ al-ʿulūm wal-ḥikam, 1:129

The witnessing of the Real takes over the heart of the possessor of iḥsān to the point he seems to see Him with his very eyes, which is what is expressed in the words “as if you were seeing Him,” i.e. as if you were seeing Him seeing you. The possessor of iḥsān makes himself conscious of the fact that the Real looks upon him and sees all that he does.

Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ, Īmān, suʾāl Jibrīl al-Nabiyya ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa-sallam ʿan al-īmān wal-islām wal-iḥsān

It means that you observe the manners mentioned when you see him and He sees you only for the reason that He sees you, not because you see Him; for He always sees you…. This part of the hadith is one of the truly momentous foundations of the Religion and a most imporrtant rule for all Muslims. It is the reliance of the most truthful ones, the goal of all wayfarers, the treasure of the knowers, the practice of the righteous, and i one of those succinct expressions with broad and profound meanings which the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—was granted. The people of spiritual realization have pointed out the desirability of sitting with the righteous as a way to preclude any defective traits from oneself out of respect for them and a sense of shame before them; what to say, then, of one who is aware that Allah never stops seeing him, whether in private or in public?

Nawawī in Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ, 1:146-147; cf. Sharḥ Muslim, 1:158        


Does Belief Increase and Decrease?

This is a famous point of contention between two main positions—on the one hand the early scholars of hadith, Muʿtazilīs, and Ashʿarīs, and on the other, Māturīdīs. The first side hold that belief increases and decreases, adducing evidence from both reason and transmission. Among the rational evidence they present is the argument that, if the reality of belief did not vary through increase and decrease, the belief of all the individuals of the Community—even dissolute transgressors—would be identical with that of Prophets, Angels, and the superlatively truthful (ṣiddīqūn), which is an absurd notion. Among the evidence from transmission they present, numerous explicit texts assert that belief can increase, such as the verses, those whom people told, “They have massed up against you, so fear them!” but it increased them in faith, and they said, “Allah is enough for us, and a wonderful reliance” (Q 3:173); and when His signs are recited to them, they increase them in faith (Q 8:2); and when a Sura is revealed, some of them say, “Who among you did this Sura increase in faith?” As for those who believed, it increases them in faith and they received glad tidings (Q 9:124); Allah increases those who have been guided in guidance (Q 19:76); and when the Believers saw the Confederates they said, “This is indeed what Allah and His Messenger promised us; Allah and His Messenger are truthful,” and it but increased them in faith and submission (Q 33:22); as for those that are guided, it [hearing the Qurʾān and/or the Prophet] only increases them in guidance and brings them their Godwariness (Q 47:17); and that they may add faith to their faith (Q 48:4)—and whatever can increase can also decrease.

The Māturīdīs, however, hold that belief neither increases nor decreases since it is uncountable, unlike deeds, and neither synonymous with them nor inclusive of them in its definition. This position is put forward in al-Fiqh al-akbar, attributed to the first and earliest of the four mujtahid imams whose schools have survived to our time and founder of the eponymous school, al-Nuʿmān b. Thābit b. Kāwūs al-Taymī, known as Abū Ḥanīfa (80-150/699-767), and in his authentic Risāla ilā ʿUthmān al-Battī. In the latter he holds that belief consists in confirmation (taṣdīq) and is entirely distinct and different from deeds (ʿamal), since Allah Most High has said (in 50 verses) those who believe and do good deeds, and He differentiated between the two things. Confirmation, furthermore, is either categorical or is non-existent: “If confirmation were not categorical it would amount only to conjecture (ẓann) and hesitation, which are useless in the context of doctrinal creed according to the leading scholars of the subject: as Allah Most High said, Verily, conjecture avails nothing against truth (Q 53:28)” (Qārī, Sharḥ al-Fiqh al-akbar, p. 184).

Māturīdīs understand the verses regarding increase of belief only apply to an increase in the number of the objects of belief, as the Companions sequentially believing in whatever was revealed to the Prophet when the Qurʾān was being revealed piecemeal over the course of 23 years, their belief increasing with every new revelation in that sense. Similarly, they interpret the increase of belief as referring to the believer’s increasing acts of worship and obedience rather than confirmation itself. (See Usmandī, Lubāb, §53; Khabbāzī, Hādī, §4.12; Samarqandī, Rukniyya, §96; ʿAbd Allāh al-Nasafī, Iʿtimād, §35; Taftāzānī, Sharḥ al-ʿaqā’id, §; Qārī, Minaḥ, Supplements, §26; Bayāḍī, Ishārāt, §40; Khādimī, Barīqa, difference no. 19; Badāyūnī, Muʿtaqad, §6.9; Ṣaʿīdī, Zubad, §36). One of the authoritative texts of Ashʿarī doctrine, however, does take the Māturīdī position that “belief... neither increases nor decreases, but it must be said I am a believer if Allah wills (in shā’ Allāh)” (Ibn al-Ḥājib, ʿAqīda,  p. 31). The latter doctrinal position (istithnāʾ) is discussed in the entry Believers.

According to later authorities, there is no fundamental difference between the two positions. In speaking of Īmān, the Ashʿarīs and others refer to the level of belief, which is based upon deeds, whereas the Māturīdīs focus on the essence or basis of belief, which is the core of faith and stems from inward confirmation. Hence the difference is more a matter of terminology than anything else (cf. Bājūrī, Sharḥ Jawharat al-tawḥīd p. 50-51). Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām said:

If the object of belief is one, such as affirmation of the existence of the One Creator, then there is no increase or decrease; but if the object is manifold, then there is increase and decrease according to the increase and decrease of the object of belief as in, for example, the verse And when His signs are recited to them, it increases them in faith (Q 8:2), where the belief that was added to was whatever pertained to previous revelations, so that when new revelations descended and they believed in them, their belief increased.

Maʿnā al-īmān wal-islām p. 20

The jurist Abū Sulaymān Ḥamd b. Muḥammad al-Bustī al-Khaṭṭābī (319-388/931-998) averred that perfect belief consists in three things: utterance, which neither increases nor decreases; actions, which increase and decrease; and conviction, which increases and does not decrease, since any decrease means its annulment (in Bājūrī, Sharḥ Jawharat al-tawḥīd p. 51). 


Is Belief Created?

The scholars further differed over the question whether belief was created or not, al-Ashʿarī considering that it is uncreated due to the fact that “we say that there is no state whatsoever which is devoid of belief in Allah and the affirmation of His oneness whether before the creation of creatures or after… as Allah, since pre-existence, has always been affirming His own oneness, describing himself as One, magnifying Himself and confirming Himself” (Risāla fīl-Īmān, p. 87; cf. Dāmād, Farā’id §28; Abū ʿAdhaba, Rawḍ, §4). Among Māturīdīs there are two diametrically opposed positions: the masters of Samarqand hold that belief is created (Māturīdī, Tawḥīd, khalq al-īmān; Usmandī, Lubāb, §55, al-īmān makhlūq) while those of Bukhārā, go so far as to claim that whoever holds that belief is created commits unbelief (Badāyūnī, Muʿtaqad, pp. 234-237). Jamāl al-Dīn Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Saʿīd al-Ghaznawī (d. 593/1197) admirably reconciled all positions with his resolution that as a Divine act signifying guidance and the granting of success īmān is uncreated, while as a human act signifying confirmation it is created as are all human acts (Uṣūl, p. 258 §153).


Meaning of the Branches of Faith

The term “branches of faith” refers to things that increase the believer in his or her belief, according to the position of those who hold that belief increases through good deeds. The origin of this term is the agreed-upon hadith, “Belief has sixty-odd branches and modesty is one of the branches of belief” (Bukhārī, Īmān, umūr al-īmān). The version in Muslim adds “or seventy-odd branches” and that “the highest of them is ‘There is no god but Allah’ (Lā ilāha illā Allah) and the lowest is the removal of harm from the road” (Muslim, Īmān, bayān ʿadad shuʿab al-īmān)––which indicates, according to Ibn Ḥajar, that the levels of those branches varies (Fatḥ, Īmān, umūr al-īmān). Al-Nawawī cites Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ’s statement that belief in all those branches is obligatory in general terms—that is, not in the specific details; (Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Īmān, bayān ʿadad shuʿab al-īmān).

There are a number of authoritative works on the branches of faith, including al-Minhāj by Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Ḥalīmī (d. 403/ 1013) the imam of the Shāfiʿīs in Bukhārā. The Hadith master Abū Bakr al-Bayhaqī (384-458/994-1066) followed in his tracks with his monumental Shuʿab al-īmān, published in seven volumes.

Commenting on the branches of faith, Ibn Ḥajar said:

Not all those who classified the branches of faith have adopted the same methodology…. I have summarized what they have said, namely, that these branches are offshoots of the acts of the heart, the acts of the tongue, and the acts of the body.

The acts of the heart include creeds and intentions. These comprise twenty-four traits:

(i) belief in Allah, which includes belief in His Essence and Attributes as well as the upholding of His Oneness whereby there is nothing like unto Him (Q 42:11) and the doctrine that everything other than Him is originated; and belief in (ii) His Angels, (iii) His Books, (iv) His Messengers, (v) the Decree, the good and the bad of it, and (vi) the Last Day, which includes the interrogation in the grave, resurrection and return to life, the Reckoning, the Scale of deeds, the Bridge, and Paradise and Hell; (vii) love of Allah; (viii) love and hatred for His sake; (ix) love of the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—and the doctrine of his exalted status, including invoking blessings upon him and following his Sunna; (x) sincerity, including the avoidance of self-display and hypocrisy; (xi) repentance; (xii) fear; (xiii) hope; (xiv) gratitude; (xv) faithfulness; (xvi) steadfastness; (xvii) contentment with foreordainment; (xviii) reliance [upon Allah]; (xix) mercy; (xx) humbleness, including deference to elders and mercy to youngsters; (xxi) avoiding arrogance and conceit; (xxii) avoiding jealousy; (xxiii) avoiding grudges; (xxiv) avoiding anger.

The acts of the tongue comprise seven traits:

(i) pronouncing the declaration of pure monotheism; (ii) recital of the Qurʾān; (iii) acquiring religious learning; (iv) teaching it; (v) supplication; (vi) remembrance, including asking Allah forgiveness; (vii) avoiding idle chatter.

The acts of the body comprise thirty-[nine] traits:

(a) Individual obligations cover fifteen traits: (i) physical and ritual self-purification, including the avoidance of impurities; (ii) covering one’s nakedness; (iii) prayer, both obligatory and supererogatory; (iv) charity, likewise; (v) manumission of slaves; (vi) munificence, including feeding people and honoring guests; (vii) fasting, both obligatory and supererogatory; (viii) pilgrimage, both major and minor; (ix) circumambulation; (x) seclusion in the mosque (iʿtikāf); (xi) searching out the Night of Worth (Laylat al-Qadr); (xii) fleeing for the sake of one’s religion (hijra), including emigration away from the abode of polytheism; (xiii) fulfilling vows; (xiv) observing caution with oaths [i.e. avoiding habitually swearing oaths by Allah, which should not be done except out of strict necessity]; (xv) remitting expiations.

(b) Acts related to affiliates. These are seven traits: (i) seeking virtue through marriage; (ii) meeting obligations toward dependents; (iii) observing filial piety, including avoidance of ingratitude and disobedience; (iv) the care and education of children; (v) keeping family ties; (vi) obeying one’s master(s) [if a slave]; or (vii) being gentle toward slaves [if a master].

(c) Acts related to the generality of people. These are seventeen traits: (i) meeting the requirements of leadership together with justice; (ii) holding to the community; (iii) obeying those in authority; (iv) promoting reform among people, which includes fighting against the Khawārij and rebels; (v) assisting in acts of piety, which includes enjoining right conduct and forbidding wrong; (vi) guarding borders; (vii) jihad, including joining a garrison; (viii) remitting trusts, including the payment of the fifth of the spoils of war; (ix) giving loans and repaying them; (x) honoring neighbors; (xi) excellent conduct in transactions, including garnering of lawful income only; (xii) spending wherever money rightly ought to be spent, which includes avoiding extravagance and waste; (xiii) returning greetings; (xiv) audible supplication for people when they sneeze; (xv) refraining from harming others; (xvi) avoiding idle amusement; (xvii) removal of harmful things from the road. These, then, are [seventy] traits, which however total [eighty] if we consider as discrete entries certain pairings mentioned in the list above.

Fatḥ, 1:52-53, Īmān, umūr al-īmān  


Interpretation of Texts That Negate The Belief of Certain People

A number of authentic Hadiths negate the faith of people who commit certain acts of disobedience.  This seems to imply that such individuals are in fact unbelievers. For instance:

“By Allah he does not believe! By Allah he does not believe! By Allah he does not believe!” They asked, “Who is that, O Messenger of Allah?” He replied, “He from whose evils his own neighbor is not safe.”

Bukhārī, Adab, ithm man lā yaʾmanu jāruh bawāʾiqah

“He does not believe in me who sleeps sated at night while his neighbor starves next to him, to his knowledge” as narrated by al-Bazzār in his Musnad, with a “fair” (ḥasan) chain of transmission according to al-Haythamī and Ibn Ḥajar.

Majmaʿ al-zawāʾid 8:305-306 §13554; al-Qawl al-musaddad p. 21

“An adulterer or fornicator does not commit his act while being a believer; nor does a thief commit his act while he is a believer; nor does one drink intoxicant while being a believer.”

Bukhārī, Ashriba, qawl Allāh taʿālā innamā al-khamru wal-maysiru wal-anṣābu wal-azlāmu rijs; Muslim, Īmān, bayān nuqṣān al-īmān bil-maʿāṣī

“None of you is a believer until I am more beloved to him than his parent, his child, and all people.”

Bukhārī, Īmān, ḥubb al-Rasūl min al-īmān; Muslim, Īmān, wujūb maḥabbat Rasūl Allāh

The doctrine of orthodox Sunni Muslims (Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamāʿa, literally, “The People of the Prophetic Sunna and the Congregation”) is that nothing literally entails unbelief except directly disbelieving in a pillar of the faith: “We believe that the servant of Allah does not come out of the fold of faith except through the express denial (juḥūd) of what brings him into it in the first place…. and that the major sinners (ahl al-kabāʾir) of the Community of the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, are not everlastingly in the Fire but when dying as strict monotheists (muwaḥḥidūn), even if they died unrepentant” (Ṭaḥāwī, ʿAqīda, pp. 49, 51). In opposition to this creed, the Muʿtazila and Khawārij held that belief and disobedience cannot coexist and that therefore any Muslim who dies in a state of disobedience either (i) is neither a believer nor an unbeliever but occupies a “station between the two stations” i.e. of faith and disbelief (according to the Muʿtazila), or else (ii) is an outright unbeliever and destined for Hell forever (according to the Khawārij). They cite as proof the literal meanings of the aforementioned Hadiths. The Ahl al-Sunna, however, hold that disobedience does not necessarily cancel out belief, and interpret figuratively all of the texts suggesting that certain actions remove one from the fold of believers. Al-Nawawī Al-Nawawī draws up a chapter-title in his commentary on Muslim’s Ṣaḥīḥ named “Exposition of the lack of belief as a result of transgressions, in the sense that it becomes incomplete (ʿalā irādat nafy kamālih)” in which he lists the different interpretations as follows:

The meaning is that one’s belief is not complete (lā yuʾmin al-īmāna al-tāmm). The learned have said—Allah have mercy on them: “Its meaning is that he does not believe fully; other than that, the basis of belief is present even if the attribute itself is not.”

It means that he is an unbeliever if he believes the act to be lawful. For example someone who drinks intoxicants and considers it lawful, or harms his neighbor and considers it lawful, is a unbeliever.

According to al-Ḥasan [al-Baṣrī] and Abū Jaʿfar ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-923), it means that the honorific name which adorns the believing friends of Allah is removed from such a person, who deserves a badge of shame; hence he is called a thief, a fornicator, a transgressor, or a deviant.

It is related from Ibn ʿAbbās—Allah be well-pleased with him and his father—that it means that the light of belief is removed from him.

According to al-Muhallab, his spiritual insight toward obedience of Allah is removed from him.

Al-Zuhrī’s position is that one should believe these hadiths and others like them, and let them pass just as they came without probing their meaning. He said, “Let them pass just as those before you let them pass.” In other words, one should not delve into figurative interpretations.

Al-Nawawī says, after mentioning all six meanings: “All these positions which I have mentioned in explanation of it [the annulment of belief] are possible.” Ibn Ḥajar adds another possible interpretation: “It is possible that the intended meaning is that one will not receive the reward of a believer entering Paradise at first sight, for example; or that such reports are meant to be understood as a rebuke and an admonition, without emphasis on their literal import” (Sharḥ Muslim, Īmān, bayān nuqṣān al-īmān bil-maʿāṣī ʿalā irādat nafy kamālih; Fatḥ 10:444, Adab, ithmu man lā yaʾman jāruh bawāʾiqah). 


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See also

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