Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 1.1

CHAPTER ONE

FAITH

Faith in God is what draws an individual to a religion and submission is the manner in which one then follows it. Although submission is the first concept mentioned in the Hadith of Gabriel, another narration of the hadith begins with a discussion of faith,[1] and so this where we begin. Many would first think of fasting (sawm), praying (salah), or pilgrimage (hajj) when Islam is mentioned, but such practices were not fully instituted until later in the life of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. The pilgrimage was not fully reinstated until a year before his passing. The first message God gave to the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم was one of truth, the human response to which is faith. This is why the first revelations of the Qur’an speak of God, death, and the Last Day rather than fasting, pilgrimage, and zakat (alms tax). First the revelation reestablished the proper relationship between the divine and the human through faith. Then it taught the way of observing and maintaining the relationship through submission.

Iman is usually translated as either “faith” or “belief”. Although both terms are employed in this book, neither captures its true meaning. The Christian tradition speaks of “faith seeking understanding”, and these days one often hears of “blind faith”. But according to the Qur’an and Hadith, faith is an objective understanding of reality as such. It is the proper human response to truth when one lives in alignment with his or her true nature. To respond with faith to the revelation sent by God through one of His messengers is to begin the journey back towards what we truly are. All other human states of being are deviations wherein one lives below his or her God-given nature. From a Qur’anic perspective, there are only two types of deviation: disbelief (kufr) and hypocrisy (nifaq), though both have varying degrees. To recognize the truth of revelation is to awaken from the heedlessness of these lower states to the reality of God and our true selves. To live in accord with this recognition is true faith, and should be manifest on all planes of our being. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Faith is knowledge in the heart, voicing it with the tongue, and acting on it with the limbs.”[2] As knowledge must precede the voicing of it with the tongue and action with the limbs, in order for them to be efficacious, we will first discuss the nature of the heart, which is the locus of faith.

The heart is not simply a source of emotions; rather, it is the locus of consciousness, intelligence, and perception whereby the human being sees things as they truly are. This heart knowledge is what makes us human and distinguishes us from the rest of God’s creation. Right thinking thus begins with the submission of the heart to the truth. When the heart does not submit, it is blind, ignorant, sick, locked, sealed, hardened, and rusted over, as several Qur’anic verses attest:

It is not the eyes that are blind,
but blind are the hearts within the breast.
(22 : 46)

They have hearts but do not understand with them. (7 : 179)

In their hearts is an illness, so God increases them in illness. (2 : 10)

What, do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? Or are there locks upon their hearts? (47 : 24)

God has sealed their hearts. (2 : 7)

Then your hearts were hardened after that.
They are like rocks or harder.
(2 : 74)

No indeed, but what they were earning
has rusted upon their hearts.
(83 : 13)

Rather than delving into the illnesses of the heart and their many manifestations, let us look to the healthy heart; for one cannot diagnose a diseased organ without knowing its healthy state, and it is only to heal hearts and return them to this original state that any religion is revealed. As stated so clearly in the Qur’an, the Day of Judgment will only benefit those who come to God with sound hearts. In addition to faith, there are three other attributes of those with sound hearts: knowledge (‘ilm), tranquility (sakinah), and remembrance of God (dhikr). They are interconnected and present with and through each other, such that God often mentions them together:

The people of faith whose hearts are tranquil
in the remembrance of God.
Are not hearts tranquil
through the remembrance of God? 
(13 : 28)

He is the one who causes tranquility to descend
into the hearts of those with faith,
to increase their faith with faith.
(43 : 3)

Those who have faith are those whose hearts quiver
when God is remembered. 
(39 : 22)

Regarding knowledge, God states that those whose hearts He has sealed do not understand:

So He sealed their hearts
such that they do not understand. 
(9 : 87)

God also asks rhetorically,

Do they not travel in the earth?
And do they not have hearts
with which they know? 
(22 : 46)

The deepest level of faith is remembrance of God. One can have faith and still waver between remembrance and heedlessness, but if one truly remembers God, faith is ever present. As one deepens in faith and learns to reside more fully in perpetual remembrance, the heart becomes more conscious of God and more tranquil; hence God asks,

Has not the time come for the people of faith
to soften their hearts to the remembrance of God?
(57 : 13)

Those whose hearts soften allow nothing to distract them from the remembrance of God and remember Him while sitting, standing, and reclining on their sides. Indeed, those who remember are alive and aware, while those who forget are dead and ignorant. In the words of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, “The difference between the one who remembers God and the one who does not is like the difference between the living and the dead.”[3]

The sound heart is a heart that contemplates, perceives, remembers, and is at peace. This is faith, the true measure of the human being. From this perspective, there are only three types of human beings: the faithful (al-mu’minun), the disbelievers (al-kafirun) who cover their true nature, and the hypocrites (al-munafiqun) who dissimulate, feigning faith while not following its dictates. As stated in the introduction, the primary article of faith for Muslims is the profession of God’s oneness. But this has many implications. All that exists is ultimately connected to God, for God is described in the Qur’an as,

The first and the last, the outer and the inner. (57 : 1)

Therefore, all things must be understood in relation to Him. The most important of these things are those mentioned in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام: angels, books, messengers, the Last Day, and the measuring out. They are the realities one must know and with which the heart must be at peace. By understanding them, one comes to understand the way in which all of creation is connected to and dependent upon God -the true origin of all existence. Scholars of Islam have categorized these realities as follows:

  • The oneness of God (tawhid): God, the angels, and the measuring out
  • Prophecy (nubuwwah): God’s books and messengers
  • The Return (ma’ad): The Last Day and the return of the soul to God

These are three dimensions of a single message and, therefore, can only be understood in conjunction with each other. The oneness of God is the basic knowledge of divine unity that corresponds to the true nature of humans. Prophecy is the means whereby we are reminded of God’s oneness and taught to live in accord with it. The Return tells us that, though we are mortal, we have an immortal destiny and only find joy by living in accord with our true nature that existed before this world and will continue in the world to come.

The Oneness of God
The question “What is Islam?” could simply be answered by saying “the recognition of the oneness of God”. This recognition is of such importance that the only sin considered unforgivable in Islam is attributing partners to God, or associating others with God (shirk). As the Qur’an states,

Surely God does not forgive
that others be associated with Him,
but He forgives what is less than that
for whomsoever He wills.
(4 : 48)

For one who associates others with God,
God has prohibited paradise to him.
(5 : 72)

On the most outward level, recognizing the oneness of God means reciting the first testimony of faith (shahadah): “There is no deity but God”. In this vein, associating others with God is simply denying the oneness of God or worshipping false idols. The idols humans worship are many and diverse, but it is in fact our own “inner idols” that pose the greatest obstacles. In the Qur’an, God warns of those who take the passions arising from the illnesses of the heart as deities to be worshipped. Such passions arise from a wind in the breast that blows contrary to our true nature. The Arabic word for these whisperings is ahwa’ (singular form: hawa). They are whims of the moment that blow one way and another like arbitrary, illogical impulses and are best translated as “conceits” or “caprices”. In the Qur’an, God asks rhetorically,

Have you seen one who has taken
his own conceit to be his deity?
(25 : 43)

Who is more misguided
than one who follows his own conceit
without guidance from God?
(28 : 50)

It is this very tendency in the soul that causes humans to reject God’s message and messengers. Thus God asks,

So whenever there came to you a messenger
with what was not the conceit of your souls,
did you become arrogant,
repudiating some and killing others? 
(2 : 87)

Later God states,

Whenever there came to them a messenger
with what was not the conceit of their souls,
some they repudiated, others they killed.
(5 : 70)

Of the nineteen times conceit appears in the Qur’an, eighteen employ the verb “to follow”. When not following God and His messengers, we are thus following a momentary and arbitrary conceit and far from His oneness. Avoiding conceits is of such importance that God promises,

As for one who fears the station of his Lord
and restrains his soul from conceit,
surely paradise is the refuge.
(79 : 40)

Unfortunately, many who profess God’s oneness outwardly may be as guilty of following their conceits as those who do not. In this vein, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The most frightening thing that I fear for my community is associating others with God. I do not mean that they will worship the sun, the moon or idols. I mean that they will perform works for other than God with a hidden desire.”[4] This issue is of such importance that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم alluded to it in his final public address, a few days before his passing: “I fear not for you that you will associate other gods with God; but I fear for you this world, lest you seek to rival one another in worldly gains.”[5] Manifest association of others with God is thus the source of unbelief, but hidden instances of such associations are the source of hypocrisy, and until one has turned all of his or her aspirations toward God, a touch of these associations remains within the breast. To guard against this condition, one must understand not only the oneness of God Himself, but also the manner in which all things are related to God and utterly dependent upon Him; for, in the Islamic context, everything that exists is a sign of God. Failure to perceive this is a deficiency in faith and an indication of false associations:

How many a sign is there in the heavens and the earth
that they pass by, turning away from it?
Most of them have no faith in God,
and associate others with Him.
(12 : 105)

In order to understand the signs, we must first understand the overall context in which they appear. Simply put, to avoid associating others with God, one must have a correct understanding of the relationship between God and creation, between the Absolute and the relative; otherwise one may mistake the relative signs for the Absolute that they signify.


NOTES

[1] al-Bukhari, p. 27, no. 50
[2] Imam Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad b. Yazid b. Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1999 CE / 1420 AH), p. 11, no. 65
[3] al-Bukhari, p. 1145, no. 6407
[4] See al-Bukhari, p. 1173, no. 6590 for a version of this tradition
[5] Ibid.

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