Establishing the True Pillars of Islam and Eman
Having established the true pillars of Islam and Eman we can now extend our study of the differences between the two realms of faith: Islam means faith that entails belief in Allah, the Hereafter, and ‘doing what is righteous’; Eman, in contrast, pertains to faith in the truth of messenger hood, that is, divine revelations put down in heavenly scriptures and transmitted by God’s apostles, and finally in ‘doing what is fair and just’.
A Muslim-Assenter (al Muslim) can also be a Muslim-Believer (al-mu’min), but not all Muslim-Assenters are Muslim-Believers. One might, for example, believe in God, the Hereafter, and ‘doing what is righteous’ and still not believe in Muhammad’s messenger hood. However, a Muslim-Believer is, by definition and self-designation, a Muslim-Assenter too, since a believer always assents to God.
Islam or assenting is the more general type of faith. It is the universal, human religion of all people on earth. That is the reason why it is called ‘Islamic religion’ (al-din al-islami), not ‘religion of faith’ (al-din al-Emani). We also remember that God said: ‘the religion before Allah is Islam’ (al-Imran 3:19) and ‘if anyone desires a religion other than al-Islam, never will it be accepted of Him’ (al-Imran 3:85). Eman, in contrast, is a very specific term for those who follow Muhammad.
Worth mentioning is that the now antiquated terms for ‘Muslims’, for example in French (Mahométans), German (Mohammedaner), and English (Muhammedans), do in fact reflect more adequately the fact that ‘Muslim-Believers’ are the followers of Muhammad. The pejorative sense of these words, insofar as they seem to suggest that ‘Muhammedans’ worship Muhammad or think of him—analogous to how ‘Christians’ believe in ‘Christ”—as God, needs of course to be omitted.
Once it has been clarified that Muhammad is human and a prophet, the term ‘Muhammedans’ might be used again to designate Muslim-Believers. Allah has coined the term ‘believers’ ( al-mu’minun) to refer to those who believe in His Prophet. The term ‘commander of the faithful’ (amir al-mu”minin) has been specifically created for Muslim-Believers.
It was first used during the reign of Umar b. al-Khattab; note that the Caliph was not called ‘commander of the Muslims’ (amir al-muslimin). Also, the wives of the Apostle Muhammad were called ‘mothers of the believers’ (ummahat al-mu’minin) and not ‘mothers of the Muslims’! Islam is consistent with human nature (al-fitra), but Eman is not.
In other words, we are naturally disposed to believe in God and ‘do what is righteous’. The Book says: Say: “I am but a man like yourselves, (but) the inspiration has come to me, that your God is one God: whoever expects to meet his Lord, let him work righteousness, and, in the worship of his Lord, admit no one as partner. ( Al-Kahf 18:110) And your Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills… ( Al-Nahl 16:68)
The natural disposition of humans was created by God Himself. Nobody else interfered in this process of creation. That is the reason why we read: Indeed, we showed you favor before. We inspired your mother, (TaHa 20:37–38,). We also read that when the Arabs came to tell Muhammad that they had embraced Islam, God ordered Muhammad to let them know that their assent to God was not (Muhammad’s) doing but rather because of ‘God’s favor He conferred upon’ them: They think they have done you [Prophet] a favor by submitting. Say, ‘Do not consider your submission [islamakum] a favor to me; it is God who has done you a favor, by guiding you to faith, if you are truly sincere’. (Al-hujurat 49:17)
In Islam, human nature does not need instructions from heavenly scriptures, but in contrast Eman, containing ritual performances, codes of human behavior, and ethical rules, does require guidance from divine scriptures. By Allah’s grace, messengers were sent to the peoples to bring them the light of the truth and instructions on how to worship God. Now we understand why God has said, in chastising those who disbelieved in Muhammad’s messenger hood, that Islam must still be the minimum (the lowest limit) of belief that is required of them. He said: Again and again will those who disbelieve wish that they had bowed (to God’s will) in Islam [lahu kanu muslimin]. ( Al-hijr 15:2).
Piety in al-Islam means ‘to fear God as He should be feared’, while piety in al-Eman is ‘to fear God as much as you can’. We read in the Book:
O you who believe! Fear God as He should be feared, and die not except in a state of Islam. (al-imran 3:102). So fear God as much as you can; listen and obey and spend in charity for the benefit of your own soul… ( Al-Taghabun 64:16). On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear… ( Al-Baqara 2:286). We learn from 2:286 that Allah set the task of fulfilling religious obligations in accordance with the strength and ability of each believer. We know from experience that human beings differ in their abilities and that some people are more pious than others because they are given greater spiritual strength.
Such diversity, however, contradicts verse 3:102, which orders the believer to ‘fear God as He should be feared’. No allowance is given for varying degrees of piety. But a contradiction between text and reality is inconceivable. How can we solve this problem? The exact wording of the first verse provides an answer. It begins by addressing those ‘who believe’ (alladhina amanu). Given that the Book distinguishes between two kinds of faith we need to ask which of the two is meant here. The way the verse ends provides a clue. It refers to ‘a state in Islam’, that is, to those who believe in God, in the Hereafter, and in ‘doing what is righteous’.
We infer from this that these are the Muslim-Assenters and that the verse addresses only the muslimun, whereas the second verse (64:16), ‘fear God as much as you can’, is addressed to the mu’minun, the believers who believe in Muhammad. The difference is that in Islam faith needs to be rigorously implemented, whereas Eman allows different degrees of piety and spirituality. In Islam:
- a) One possesses belief in the existence of God regardless of one’s strength or abilities;
- b) It is inconceivable that one believes in God for an hour and then stops doing so in the next;
- c) It is impossible to practice falsehood or commit adultery because of a lack of strength or ability; for example, it would be frivolous if someone claimed that he did his best not to fornicate but could not help it or, even worse, that he tried very hard not to kill someone but, in the end, could not avoid it happening. We would certainly never respond to such acts by saying to the perpetrator: ‘Never mind, on no soul doth God place a burden greater than it can bear….”!
Therefore, the command to ‘fear God as He should be feared’ belongs only to the pillars of al-Islam and is part of the innate disposition of humans that guides moral behavior. This is the reason why the verse ends by saying: ‘die not except in a state of Islam’. As for the pillars of Eman, we fear God according to our strength and ability (‘On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear’). It is important to note that the previous verse, 2:285, starts with the phrase ‘The messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith [al-mu’minun]’.
In Eman, the sick believer is exempted from fasting because he is not strong enough to do so; pilgrimage is subject to the ability of the pilgrim to do the journey; jihad is no obligation for those who are unable to practice it; no alms tax is required from those who cannot afford it; and consultation is subject to historical circumstances since no absolute model is given of how to conduct it. All religious obligations of Eman are not absolute but relative and subject to historical change, and since they are not part of the human innate disposition (al-fitra) they are practiced in accordance with an individual’s strength and ability.
The overarching capital of all pillars of al-Islam is → to witness that ‘there is no god but God’ → that is, the worship of Allah (performed by the Muslim-Assenters or al-muslimun); The overarching capital of all pillars of al-Eman is → to witness that ‘Muhammad is the messenger of God’ → i.e. the obligatory rituals (performed by the Muslim-Believers or al-mu’minun). Those who jump directly into the realm of Eman without having passed the stage of Islam are called ‘hypocrites’. The Book says: When the hypocrites come to you [Prophet], they say, ‘We bear witness that you are the Messenger of God.’ God knows that you truly are His Messenger and He bears witness that the hypocrites are liars. (Al-Munafiqun 63:1,) This verse teaches us that if someone performs the ritual prayer as part of Eman, but ignores the ethical commands as part of Islam, he is a ‘hypocrite’, even if he rigidly observes the prayer times, the duty of the fast, and the hajj rite. ‘Note that human beings are worshippers of God (al-ibbad), not His slaves (al-abid).
Worshippers of God enjoy freedom of choice, on a personal as well as political level, whereas slaves of God do not enjoy such freedom. Worshippers of God are capable of implementing justice in society, whereas slaves do not have such power. What Allah demands from every human being is worship (al-ibada), not slavery. So we are His worshippers (al-ibbad ) in this world (but we are free to choose between obedience and disobedience), while in the Afterlife we will become His slaves (al-abid ), since no choice will then be left to humans.
That is why we read in verse 56 of Surat al-Dhariyyat: ‘I have only created Jinns and men, that they may serve Me.’ This should be read as: ‘human beings are worshippers of Me who obey Me so that their will is fulfilled, and they disobey Me through the freedom of their choice.’ However, this verse does not refer to the rituals of Eman, i.e., fasting, alms tax, or pilgrimage, etc.’. The topic of freedom will be discussed again.
A Moral Understanding of al-Ihsan is next.