What is Islam?

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What is islam? What is islam all about?

Today Islam is one of largest religions in the world claiming, according to a range of estimates, 1.8 billion adherents, more than one fifth of the population of the world. Throughout history Islam has been spread to many nations of the world. In the contemporary world, the Muslims are of many races and include almost all nationalities in the world. They all agree with this simple statement “La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadu Rasul Allah” (There is no god except Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah). This simple statement of belief in One God and believing that Muhammad is His messenger is the starting point of all that is Islam. In Arabic, the word Islam derives from the consonantal root that consists of the three letters s-l-m and it means both ‘peace’ and ‘submission to the One God’. Muslim theologians have long noted the significance of this double meaning; specifically, when one submits to God, one finds peace. The term Muslim is also derived from the same root as Islam and signifies, ‘the person who submits to the One God’. The word Islam means ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’ and a Muslim is the ‘one who surrenders’ (to the will of Allah, may He be glorified and exalted), not in the sense of defeat or subjugation but in the sense of the total devotion of the heart and the mind to God and to the living of one’s life accordingly.  There is no aspect of an individual or social life that Islam does not touch and transform with regards to the human being’s responsibility to Allah. Islam is a faith that encompasses all spheres of life, social and personal. Islam provides a social and religious structure and framework that governs issues such as family life, law and order, ethics, dress and cleanliness, as well as religious rituals and observance. Islam requires all Muslims to have the belief and the responsibility of performing good deeds; all such deeds are defined by Islam. Basically, due to these beliefs and good deeds a certain righteous attitude should develop in a Muslim towards one’s own self, towards other human beings, towards other creatures and towards Allah, may He be glorified and exalted.

It is important for a new Muslim to know and recognize that Islam is the original and the primordial religion. Islam is a religion that did not commence with the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), but rather it is the last revelation in a series of revealed forms of faith that began with the very first human being and have continued over time under various names. Moreover, the new Muslim should understand that Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, conferred upon all human beings an innate nature, which in Arabic is known as fitrah. This means that we are born with an awareness of His existence, an innate knowledge that there is a non-corporeal transcendent Being, who created us and the whole of universe. It is for this very reason that any human being that embraces Islam is known as a ‘Revert’ and not as a ‘Convert’, because he or she is returning to their innate nature of recognizing and worshipping Allah, may He be glorified and exalted. Thus, Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, has since the beginning of the creation of the human being, sent us messengers and prophets to inform us and remind us of Him and His will. In all these cases, there is a similar and familiar core message that, ‘there is no god except Allah’ and that no idols, natural forces or any human being should be considered worthy of worship’. The first messenger was Adam (peace be upon him) and others followed him such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them all). Islam teaches us that there is continuity in the teachings brought to us by the messengers of God throughout history; that it was people themselves who in the course of time altered and distorted the messages left by the messengers of Allah. Therefore Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, continued to send messengers to remind people of the true teachings of their Creator; finally completing this process by sending the Prophet Muhammad as His last Messenger. The Prophet Muhammad left behind him two primary sources of Islam which may guide Muslims in their quest for peace through submission to Allah. The first is the ‘Qur’an’, which is the literal word of Allah, may He be glorified and exalted. The second is the ‘Sunnah’ (‘way of acting’ or ‘custom’) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), which is preserved in the Hadith literature (records of reports concerning the Prophet’s words, tacit approvals or disapprovals and deeds).

The religion of Islam may broadly be divided into three aspects: belief, acts of worship and spiritual conduct. This is the division between īmān (faith), islām (submission through actions[1]) and iḥsān (best conduct). An easy way to understand these three terms is to point out that, īmān deals with what Muslims believe in, islām relates to what activities Muslims perform and iḥsān concerns itself with an awareness of the divine at all times and an excellence of conduct that the Muslim should instill in himself or herself. These three terms are never seen as entirely distinct from each other and their interrelationship is indicated in the following Qurʾanic phrase, ‘those who believe and do good deeds’, which refers to the believers.  Although the terms are different they are inseparable; īmān cannot be distinct from Islām, very much like the inside and the outside of a single object are inseparable. One hadith that is often quoted to explain this example is, ‘Beware! There is a piece of flesh in the body if it becomes good (reformed) the whole body becomes good but if it is spoilt the whole body gets spoilt and that is the heart.’[2]  This has been interpreted to mean that the body refers to the Islām aspect and the heart represents the īmān aspect. The third aspect, iḥsān is also closely connected to the other two parts as the spiritual feature: it brings the additional element of continuous awareness of God’s presence to the Muslim’s faith and practice.

A constructive way to explain the relationship between the three aspects mentioned above i.e. the practices required of all Muslims (islām), the six articles of faith (īmān) and spiritual awareness of the Divine (iḥsān) is to turn to the famous tradition of Gabriel. It is narrated that one day the Angel Gabriel appeared at a gathering attended by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), disguised as a man with a handsome face, black hair and adorning a white robe. This visitor asked the Prophet to inform him about islām. The Prophet replied that Islam is what is known as the declaration of faith (shahāda); meaning, witnessing that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is His Messenger, performing the five daily prayers (salah), paying prescribed alms (zakah), observing the Ramadan fast (ṣawm) and making the pilgrimage to Mecca (ḥajj). These five deeds are known as the five pillars of Islam. Gabriel affirmed that his answer was correct. Gabriel then proceeded to ask the Prophet to tell him about faith (īmān). The Prophet answered that faith is to believe in God, His angels, His Books, His prophets, the Day of Judgment and the Divine Decree, both the good of it and the evil of it. Once again, Gabriel affirmed that the Prophet’s answer was correct. Then followed the third question, in which Gabriel asked the Prophet regarding iḥsān.  As before, the Prophet confidently replied, “That you worship Allah as if you are seeing Him, for though you don’t see Him, verily, He sees you.” After hearing this response the Angel Gabriel departed and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) informed his companions that Gabriel had come to teach them about the religion of Islam. [3]

New Muslims should recognize that īmān, islām and iḥsān are the three core aspects of their religion, that work together virtually as one. Furthermore, they are also required to know the articles of faith, or ‘creed’ (ʿaqīda, pl. ʿaqāid which are all mentioned in the Qur’an and the Hadith. In the Qur’an, the first five articles of faith are mentioned explicitly: “It is righteousness—to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers.”[4] In another place in the Qur’an, four articles are mentioned sequentially: “The Messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believes in Allah, His Angels, His Scriptures and His Messengers.”[5] As for the last article of faith, the divine decree is described in the Qur’an as follows: “Say: Nothing will happen to us except what Allah has decreed for us: He is our protector”, and “On Allah let the believers put their trust.”[6]

[1].It is important to note here that the word Islam is used to describe the individual Muslim’s response to God, as well as being the name of the religion itself.[2]. Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih, Book 2, Hadith 45.[3]. Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Hadith 1[4]. Q. 2:177. English translation of the Qur’an.[5]. Q. 2:285.[6].Q. 11:51.

Source: Islam For New Muslims An Educational Guide,Assoc. Prof. Amjad M. Hussain, Erkam Publications

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