Submission, Faith, and Beauty – Introduction

The Religion of Islam

Joseph E. Lumbard

Zaytuna Institute

Dedicated to the hearts in search of the divine truth.
May God guide you with grace along the path.


Invocations

An invocation of God’s blessings and peace for the Prophet Muhammad:
“Peace and blessings of God be upon him.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon a prophet:
“Peace be upon him.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon two prophets:
“Peace be upon them.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon more than two prophets:
“Peace be upon them.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon a female companion of the Prophet:
“May God be pleased with her.”

An invocation of God’s peace upon a male companion of the Prophet:
“May God be pleased with him.”


INTRODUCTION

Islam is nothing new. It is a reaffirmation of the one truth that has always been and will never cease to be -there is no deity but God- la ilaha illa llah. This is the axis for not only the religion, but for the whole existence. To know and live this reality is the birthright of every human being. It brings peace, contentment, and nobility. Passionate predilections, conceits, and ignorance can, however, blind us to the truth, such that we become forgetful and heedless, putting vanity and falsity in its place. Despite the transgressions of human beings, reminders of this truth were periodically sent to humankind through the infinite mercy of God. These reminders were sent in the form of messengers or prophets who brought the revelations through which we are again reminded that truth is one, that all is created through this truth, and that our joy, contentment, and salvation lie in living in accord with this truth. This truth is encapsulated in the first half of the testimony of faith spoken by Muslims: “I testify that there is no deity but God” (ash-hadu an la ilaha illa llah).

In many English-speaking societies, this truth is often misunderstood and mistaken for a type of paganism, largely due to a simple linguistic barrier. Muslims most often refer to God using the Arabic name Allah, which is a proper noun that designates the incomparable creator of the heavens and earth. Many non-Arabic speaking people mistakenly assume that Allah is the name of a deity who is distinct from the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Christianity, simply because they hear the word “Allah” used instead of the word “God”. This false assumption is refuted by the fact that both Arab Jews and Arab Christians also refer to God as Allah. The name Allah is the Arabic equivalent for God, and both terms can be interchanged synonymously. Because this book was prepared for readers versed in the English language, the word “God” will be used throughout except where Arabic terminology is specifically required.

The word Islam can be translated into English as “submission”. Contrary to the negative connotations of the word in common English usage, the meaning of submission as it pertains to Islam is “the act of recognizing the oneness of God” (tawhid). This submission is most often thought of as an act of bearing witness that there is no deity but God, although this is only its most elementary manifestation. To bear witness with one’s tongue and mind to God’s oneness is but the first step toward inner unification, wherein the dispersed elements of the soul are unified in the drive to realize the immutable truth and live in accord with it.

People who practice the religion of Islam are known as Muslims. The word Muslim can be translated into English as “one who submits”. Muslims believe that the last of God’s revelations to humanity is the Qur’an, which was revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel عليه السلام to the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم over a twenty-three year period (610 – 632 CE). Belief in the Prophet Muhammad’s status as a prophet (and by extension, the soundness of the revelation of the Qur’an) is affirmed in the second half of the testimony of faith: “and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God” (wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah). For Muslims, the text of the Qur’an is the eternal and immutable word of God that has been preserved in its original form and language for over fourteen hundred years.

One Message, Many Messengers
The Qur’an was sent by God to remind humanity of the unifying truth of God’s oneness, and Muslims believe that this same truth was conveyed to every Prophet that came before the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. God tells us in the Qur’an,

And We never sent a messenger before you,
save that We revealed to him, saying,
“There is no deity but I, so worship Me.” (21 : 25)

God specifically addresses Moses عليه السلام: I am God! There is no deity but I. So worship Me (20 : 14). The Prophets Noah, Hud, Salih, and Shu’ayb عليه السلام said to their people in different lands and different ages,

O my people! Worship God!
You have no other deity but Him. (7 : 59, 7 : 65, 7 : 73, 7 : 85)

It is a fundamental principle of the Qur’an that every human collectivity has been sent a prophet. This principle is reinforced by the following verses:

And We have sent to every people a messenger,
that they may worship God.
(16 : 32)

And for every people there is a messenger.
When their messenger comes,
they are judged with equity and are not wronged
. (10 : 48)

Every human collectivity throughout history has thus been sent a reminder of God’s oneness. In this vein, every previous revelation is seen as a path of submission to the will of God. For God presents Islam as a way of life, not as a particular creed. Regarding Abraham عليه السلام, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God tells us,

Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian,
rather he was one who submitted. 
(3 : 95)

In another passage, Abraham and his son Ishmael عليه السلام, pray that they themselves submit and that those who follow them be a submitting nation (2 : 127 – 128). A few verses later, the Prophet Jacob عليه السلام, addresses his sons as follows:

O my sons, God has chosen the way for you.
So do not die but that you are those who submitted
. (2 : 132)

In the next chapter, the apostles say to Jesus عليه السلام,

We are the helpers of God! We believe!
Bear witness that we are those who submitted
. (3 : 52)

The whole of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is thus seen as different ways in which human beings have submitted to God throughout history. Thus the Qur’an tells us of Jews and Christians,

And when the Qur’an is recited to them, they say,
“We believe in it. Truly it is the truth from our Lord.
Truly before it 
[was revealed] we were those who submitted” (28 : 52)

The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The prophets are half brothers: their mothers differ, and their way (deen) is one.”[1] The word deen, translated here as “way”, is usually translated as “religion”, but it actually conveys much more. It is an entire way of life with all the rules and regulations pertaining thereto, as in the words of Jacob عليه السلام cited in the previous paragraph, and in what is believed by some scholars to be the very last verse of the Qur’an to be revealed:

Today I have perfected your way for you
and have completed My blessings upon you,
and I have approved for you submitting as a way.
(5 : 3)

The Arabic root for deen is closely related to dayn, which means “debt” or “the repayment of a debt”. In this sense, deen indicates the manner in which human beings repay their debt to God, to whom they owe their entire existence. The most important verse for understanding the universal nature of this term states,

God has laid down for you as a way
that with which He charged Noah,
and what We have revealed to you,
and that with which We charged
Abraham, Moses and Jesus:
“Establish the way, and scatter not regarding it”.
(42 : 13)

In Qur’anic language, “the way” refers to both the recognition of the oneness of God and the submission to God and His messengers. This is considered the “right way” to live. As the Prophet Joseph عليه السلام says in the Qur’an,

Judgment belongs only to God.
He has commanded that you worship none but Him.
That is the right way, but most people do not know.
(12 : 40)

The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم and the Message of Islam
While the reality of the way that each messenger has taught is one, the forms differ. The way of submission revealed through the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is contained in the Qur’an and in his Sunnah (prophetic tradition). The Qur’an states,

You have an excellent example in the Messenger of God. (33 : 21)

When asked about the Prophet Muhammad’s character, his wife ‘A’isha رضي الله عنها said: “His character was the Qur’an.” The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is thus seen as the living embodiment of the message he delivered. From the beginning of his prophetic mission in the year 610 CE until today, all who follow the message he brought have seen in his words and actions the archetype of a life lived in full submission to the one God. The Prophet Muhammad’s function as God’s Messenger is inimitable, but in his daily life he confronted the opportunities, challenges, joys and hardships that befall any human being. He was an orphan, shepherd, merchant, husband,father, grandfather, warrior, general, politician, and more. He suffered great poverty and experienced great wealth. In the year 622, he was forced to emigrate because of persecution, and in the year 630, he returned as a triumphant hero. But in all of these modes he remained submissive to and mindful of the one God. The well-preserved record of his actions, sayings, and even tacit approvals provides a model for how we can too conduct ourselves with submission and mindfulness at every turn. To live in accord with the prophetic model is thus to live with continuous recognition of the oneness of God, wherein all the diverse elements of one’s life and being rotate around the eternal truth, unified in perpetual submission.

The effort to record and preserve the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is among the most remarkable achievements of human history. Scholars of many lands developed extensive sciences to safeguard the authenticity of this record and the manner of implementing it in the lives of Muslims from Arabia to Spain, India, China, and beyond. Altogether these accounts are known as the Hadith, and each individual account is a hadith. They contain information regarding everything from faith and the afterlife to family relations and rules of taxation and inheritance. Although the Hadith are second to the Qur’an in authority, they are far greater in quantity. The Qur’an is contained in a single book, but the hadith fill many volumes. Very often it is through the Hadith that one is able to understand the Qur’an. For example, the Qur’an instructs us to pray, but the Hadith tell us when to pray and how to pray. The Qur’an enjoins Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but it is the specific teachings of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم that tell us how to perform the pilgrimage in a manner that is acceptable to God. Together, the Qur’an and Hadith are the cornerstones upon which the whole of Islam is built.

A few hadith are considered succinct summaries of the entire religion, touching upon every aspect of belief and practice. One that is commonly cited in this regard is known as the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام. It is transmitted by one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest companions, the second caliph (Muslim leader) after him, Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه. This hadith came from a time towards the end of the Prophet’s life:

One day when we were sitting with the Messenger of God صلى الله عليه وسلم, a man with very white clothing and jet black hair came up to us. No mark of travel was visible upon him, and none of us recognized him. Sitting down before the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, leaning his knees against his, and placing his hands upon his thighs, he said, “Tell me, Muhammad, about submitting.” He replied, “Submitting is that you bear witness that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, that you perform the ritual prayer, pay the alms tax, fast during Ramadan, and make pilgrimage to the House if you are able.” The man said, “You are right.” We were surprised at his questioning him and then declaring that he was right. The man said, “Now tell us about faith.” He replied, “Faith is that you have faith in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you have faith in the measuring out, both its good and its evil.” Remarking that he was right, he then said, “Now tell me about beautifying.” He replied, “To beautify is to worship God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He nonetheless sees you.” The the man said, “Tell me about the Hour.” The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم replied, “Regarding that, the one questioned knows no more than the questioner.” The man said, “Then tell me about its marks.” He said, “The slave will give birth to her mistress, and you will see the barefoot, naked, destitute shepherds vying in erecting tall buildings.” Then the man went away. After I had waited for a long time, the Prophet said to me, “Do you know who the questioner was Umar?” I replied, “God and His Messenger know best.” He said, “He was Gabriel. He came to teach you your religion.”[2]

The remainder of this book is based upon this hadith. It is divided into four sections dealing with each of the elements mentioned: submitting or submission (islam), faith or belief (iman), beautification (ihsan), and the End of Time (also known as the Hour). From one perspective, submission, faith, and beautification are the three fundamental dimensions of the submitting way; they complement and complete each other. They are envisioned as three partially overlapping circles, and the place where all three circles overlap is the ideal that all Muslims strive to attain. One who embodies all three in their fullest depth and breadth is closer to living as a true human being in what the Qur’an refers to as the true nature (fitrah). This true nature is our original state before God and the innate disposition of all human beings.

The fitrah referred to above is the innate disposition of all human beings. People hold the full awareness of the oneness of God in their innermost core, but the darkness of the world veils them from its light. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Every child is born in the true nature. Then its parents make it a Christian, a Jew, or a Zoroastrian.”[3] This does not mean that all the previous religions are invalid, but rather that insofar as they have been corrupted, they no longer serve to bring about the state of submission that all prophets have practiced and taught.[4] The practice of Islam is susceptible to the same corruptions as previous dispensations, but it is up to the community of scholars to address and resolve these corruptions, renewing the religion for each generation. When not corrupt, all the various ways revealed by God are the means by which we can return to our true nature:

Set your face to the religion as one with primordial faith,
the true nature established by God,
according to which He brought people forth.
There is no changing the creation of God.
That is the right way, but most people do not know.
Turn to Him and revere Him,
perform the prayer, and be not of those
who associate others with Him.
(30 : 30)

From this perspective, the human being is not a fallen being in need of redemption but rather a forgetful being who must be reminded of God and of his own nature. It is said, “Who knows himself, knows his Lord.”[5] The Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام proposes that we return to the knowledge of God and ourselves by living in faith and submission and doing things beautifully.

All of the difficulties that confront humanity arise from an imbalance between the three dimensions of submission, faith, and beautification; for example, trying to beautify things without submitting is the height of vanity. trying to submit without beauty gives rise to the dry legalism of strident puritanical movements. Without submission, faith becomes blind ideology. And without beauty, faith becomes a corpus of vague ideologies, and the earnest teachings of all scriptures are reduced to empty slogans. Unfortunately, the forgetful, obstinate, and passionate human soul allows these dimensions to gradually grow apart on both the individual and societal levels. As this process reaches its nadir, the signs of the final hour alluded to at the end of the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام appear. Such times are referred to as trials (fitan, plural of fitna) in the Hadith literature. These trials will take many forms but will have a common root cause -forgetfulness and heedlessness. From an Islamic perspective, the only way to withstand such trials is to live a life that integrates submission, faith, and beauty. For even if the world is moving away from the fullness of the divine message, each individual can live it in his or her own life to the extent that he or she is able; this we should never fail to do.


Notes

[1] Imam Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad b. Isma’il al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2005 CE / 1426 AH), p. 610, no. 3443
[2] Imam Abu al-Husayn Muslim b. al-Hajjaj al-Qushayri al-Nisaburi, Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al’Arabi, 2000 CE / 1420 AH), p. 65, no. 8
[3] al-Bukhari, p. 240, no. 1385
[4] Editors’ note: According to some scholars, the position that all aspects of previous religions are not invalid is affirmed by the Qur’an and Sunnah. God mentions in the Qur’an, concerning judgments on the basis of the Jewish and Christians scriptures, Let the People of the Gospel judge by what God has revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by what God has revealed, they are rebellious profligate (5 : 50). In this and related verses (5 : 47 – 49) God affirms the validity of judgments issued on the basis of the scriptures present with the Jewish and Christian communities during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. Scholars who hold that the law of the communities who preceded the community of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is a valid source of law for the Muslim community, usher these verses as proof for that position. In the Sunnah, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم accepted the judgment of the Torah (Deuteronomy 20 : 12, as issued by Sa’d b. Mu’adh, against the Jewish tribe Bani Qurayzah. The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم described that judgment as “the judgment of God from above the seven heavens.” See Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1994 / 1415), 3 : 181. These and similar narrations support the idea that there is validity in the previous religions. Surely God knows best.
[5] This expression is often attributed to the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم with the wording “One who knows himself will know his Lord.” There is, however, no firm evidence to justify such attribution. Al-Sama’ni attributes it to Yahya b. Mu’adh al-Razi. For a discussion of this expression, see Isma’il b. Muhammad al-‘Ajluni, Kashf al-khafa’ (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1933 CE / 1302 AH), 2 : 262, no. 2532.

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