Being Muslim – “Welcome to the Reading Room”
This following excerpt is from the forthcoming book “Being Muslim”. It is suitable for those who are simply curious about Islam, newly practicing, or lifelong Muslims who would like a refresher. It assumes no background knowledge in Islam and systematically covers some of the most essentials aspects needed to begin studying the faith.
(Note: all material is copyrighted and may not be reproduced or printed without written permission by the author)
© Asad Tarsin 2010 Work In Progress – Do Not Copy or Distribute Without Permission
The Dimensions of the Religion
To better understand the final message from God to humanity, we will examine a concise yet comprehensive summary of the religion given by Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace). This took place as one of the most famous and significant historical events in Islam, one day while some of the closest Companions2(sahābah) were sitting with the messenger of God. The story is narrated by ‘Umar (may God be pleased with him), who tells us the following:
One day while we were sitting with the messenger of God there appeared before us a man whose clothes were exceedingly white and whose hair was exceedingly black; no signs of journeying were to be seen on him and none of us knew him. He walked up and sat down by the Prophet. Resting his knees against his and placing the palms of his hands on his thighs, he said, “O Muhammad, tell me about islām3”.
The messenger of God said: “Islām is to testify that there is nothing worthy of worship except God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, to perform the prayers, to pay the purifying charity, to fast in Ramadan, and to make the pilgrimage to the Sacred House if you are able to do so.”
He said, “You have spoken rightly.”And we were amazed at him asking him and saying that he had spoken rightly. He then said, “Then tell me about imān.”
He replied, “It is to believe in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and to believe in divine destiny, both the good and the evil thereof.”
He said, “You have spoken rightly.” He then said, “Then tell me about ihsān.”
The Prophet said, “It is to worship God as though you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not yet truly He sees you”.
He said, “Then tell me about the Hour4.”
The Prophet replied, “The one questioned about it knows no better than the questioner.”
He then said, “Then tell me about its signs.”
He replied, “That the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress and that you will see the barefooted, naked, destitute herdsman competing in constructing lofty buildings.”
Then [the man] left and I stayed behind for a time. Then [the messenger of God] said, “O ‘Umar, do you know who the questioner was?”
I said, “God and His messenger know best”.
He said, “He was Gabriel (Jibrīl), who came to you to teach you your religion.”
With four questions, the Archangel Gabriel (Jibrīl), upon him be peace, brought forth a summary of the foundational elements of the religion from God’s final prophet to humanity. The religion, we learn, is comprised of three elements: islām,imān, and ihsān. The fourth aspect mentioned, namely the signs of the Hour, provides us with the understanding that there is a downward trend of the human story, and thus the believing community as well. There are many such statements from Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) which indicate the moral decline of the latter days, and the consequent need for believers to hold more tightly to their principles, values, and beliefs, despite the increased difficulty in doing so.
These three elements are called the dimensions of Islam. The first of the three dimensions discussed was islām, which is presented as a sub-category within the religion itself, Islam. In Arabic, the word linguistically means “to surrender,” or “to submit.” We see from the definition laid out by Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace), that it is the dimension of our religion involving the external actions of our bodies, acts of surrender. To state the Testimony of Faith5, to pray, to fast, to pay, and to make pilgrimage are all acts we perform through the medium of our bodies. These are called the Five Pillars of Islam. We understand from them that actions of external conformity, which include ritual worship and more, are absolutely indispensable to a complete characterization of the religion.
Next, we heard about imān. In Arabic, the word linguistically means “to believe.” Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) starts his definition by using that phrase exactly: “it is to believe….” What follows is a series of beliefs that a person must affirm in order for their faith to be complete. Unlike the dimension of islām, these are not acts, but convictions of the mind which settle in the heart. We thus learn that the affirmation of realities as they truly exist is also indispensable to the characterization of the religion of Islam.
Lastly, we learn about ihsān. The word in Arabic linguistically means “to make beautiful or good.” We are told that involves the internal constitution of a believer’s heart – his spiritual state. It is the basis of your relationship with God Almighty. Here, Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) defines the dimension by telling us its very result. So, to attain a particular spiritual constitution, of complete awareness and reverence of God Almighty, is an indispensable component of the religion, the one that gives it purpose.
Each of these components speaks to an aspect of the human experience. The first is devotional acts – of the body; the second is faith– of the mind; and the third is purity – of the soul. And so Islam is a religion that speaks to every element of our humanity. It is essential to understand that these three dimensions must all simultaneously be fulfilled harmoniously in order to have a complete characterization of the religion. To neglect any one of these will lead to imbalance and misplaced emphasis, a sure path to misguided religiosity. For example, to neglect the affirmation of our beliefs would make Islam a kind of cultural tradition void of its main purpose. To neglect the external conformity to God’s commands leads to an abstract religion guided by personal whims with no arena within which to prove faith through application. And lastly, a neglect of the spiritual leads to a version of the religion that, void of reverence and love of God the Sublime, becomes rigid, cold, and legalistic. It is thus only with the complete surrender of our minds, bodies, and spirits to God that the complete vision of Islam can be realized.
2 – A companion (sing. Sahābī, pl. sahābah) is a believing Muslim who met the Prophet during his lifetime. A follower (tabi’ī) is a believer who met a companion of the Prophet. The companions are the best generation of believers overall, while the followers are the second best generation.
3 – For the purposes of the discussion presented, the Arabic terms have been retained and not translated, since their definition is the purpose of the dialogue and follows shortly thereafter.
4 – The Last Day and the Hour are other names for the Day of Judgment.
5 – Scholars explain that stating the Testimony of Faith (Shahadah) is a precondition to the other four pillars.
© Asad Tarsin 2010 Work In Progress
Do Not Copy or Distribute Without Permission