In the Qur’an God speaks about faith/imaan from various perspectives. One that is highly relevant to the ways in which we identify faith and the faithful today lies in the Qur’an (49:14), where God distinguishes between ‘Muslim’ as a political identity and those who truly believe.
The desert Arabs say, ‘We have faith.’ Tell them, ‘You do not have faith. What you should say instead is, “We have submitted,” for faith has not yet entered your hearts.’ If you obey God and His Messenger, He will not diminish any of your deeds: He is most forgiving and most merciful.
The verse was revealed in regards to those who would offer nominal shows of membership but had no actual commitment to faith. These Arabs had attempted to claim to be true patriots to the Prophet’s polity – those deeply committed to God, what He had revealed, and the interests of the believers, but in fact they were mere citizens who lacked true belief but attached themselves to the polity and took on a political identity for worldly interests. Not only does God make the distinction clear in this verse, He commanded the Prophet to inform them that social/political identification with nominal outward markers is very different to being a true believer who internalises what God wants, is committed to how He wants it, and towards whom other believers should have deep fraternal bonds. Of course, many of us will staunchly claim we have imaan (faith), so this brings me to the next point.
One thing I’ve often found is that people confuse the principle of believing in God with imaan in the Qur’anic sense. A defensive retort tends to be, “But how can you say someone doesn’t believe if they accept God?!”
Say: God speaks truth so follow the way (millah) of Abraham, a Hanif, and he was never an idolator.
Firstly, I fully hold they accept the existence of God, but that is theism and not the Abrahamic monotheism (Hanifiyyah) God wants of us. What’s the difference? The first is to believe in a higher power which is what people of various religions also do. What distinguishes the believers is that they do so in a particular way. According to what God tells us, imaan is to conceive of God and approach Him in the way Abraham did so, and to manifest subservience to Him as taught by His final messenger, Muhammad.
Secondly, which we frequently hear, is that if I say: “I’m not a ‘practicing’ Muslim” where I accept there is a higher power and it stops there, or “I don’t pray, and fast, and…etc” (as opposed to missing a prayer), what I’m saying is that I identify with Islam out of political or social interests but that I’m not committed to the true Abrahamic tradition which is the actual manifestation of true subservience that God commands; it’s a political interest because society identifies me as such by virtue of name and/or skin colour so I’m forced to, and the social aspect usually comes down to cultural inheritance or membership of a social group. Likewise, asserting that the difference between a Muslim and those of other faiths is that I believe in Allah doesn’t make it any less a mere claim to theism, or any more Islamic, it just makes it a theism articulated in Arabic – Christian Arabs (and many of those who live in Muslim majority countries) also use exactly the same term for God. And quite obviously, the specific nature of a religion is the way one believes in God and how that is practically manifested. Speaking in the western context, I have no doubt that most Muslims are theists (although I have actually met people who call themselves Muslims but don’t even believe in God!), but the quandary remains that many lack a heart-felt commitment to the ways of Abraham because they have little idea of what those ways are, or even that God has ordained such a thing. For many people, Islam manifests as a superstitious set of beliefs, or affirming a number of supernatural entities they were taught about during their upbringing.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people won’t fall short of being everything God expects but that’s another matter. Here I’m differentiating between saying “Yeah I believe in God” (as theism) and a commitment to the Abrahamic creed which consists of belief, an attitude towards God and the world around us, and consequent actions, all of which God expounds quite clearly in the Quran. However, there are many scenarios that ought to compel us to sympathise with why some might not see any great value in ‘practicing’. Either they see the whole thing as some cultural inheritance that doesn’t need to be taken too seriously, or there just isn’t any strong justificatory basis for what’s being advocated – and that’s putting aside the unconvincing nature of the insipid things they’re taught as being the markers of ‘practice’. It has been my experience that even those who ‘practice’ often harbour doubts but hastily put them aside, uncomfortably living with dissonance-inducing beliefs because there aren’t any (better) alternatives available to them. I don’t think such people have lost their way or that they’re sinful for not submitting, that’d be far too a simplistic way to look at it, for as al-Shafi’i put it, ‘the heart cannot settle on what does not resonate with the intellect.’
So what am I suggesting?
I advocate that many of us (Muslim and non-Muslim), who sincerely seek God in the way He would like, need to start at the beginning for a renewed journey to God. For many, it will be particularly distinct from the Islam they know or have inherited, for others there won’t be many differences in what they do, but being introduced to meaning and substance will mean that their entire outlook and philosophy towards God and subservience to Him will positively evolve.
It is a reasoned and coherent message unlike the one many have now, enlightening and soul-soothing, which uncomplicatedly leads to paradise. There is no need for a ‘leap of faith’ – no gaps we wander through blindly, nor is it confusing due to there being so many variant opinions out there. Ultimately, the ways of Abraham as God articulates in the Qur’an resonates both with the mind and the heart, offering an overarching approach and holistic method to gain godly intuitions, an outlook free from confusing modern isms and schisms, and emotional and psychological stamina to deal with life’s challenges.