Studying Īmān over Aqīdah

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The last post provides the perspective I intend when discussing the study of īmān over aqīdah here.

What aqīdah study largely denotes today is polemic debate about scholarly positions on abstract intellectual musings, usually centred around the nature of God and the unseen. It obsesses over “tradition” in a way that’s meaningless to the everyday emotional, cognitive and psychological stability all humans require. In most circles, aqīdah points are weaponised to become social markers and police batons rather than a means of inciting reverent awe of God, subservience to Him, and righteous actions for Him. Hence, it tends to inspire little more than argumentation, sectarianism, and quite ironically, a type of secularisation that places faith in the realm of the abstract rather than an inspiring, stabilising and productive lived experience.

So, (1) how does one study īmān and (2) what does exploring īmān do?

1. There are three particular aspects to studying īmān: (1) learning what īmān is, (2) exploring how to cultivate īmān, and (3) learning about the things God wants us to have īmān in.

This is NOT a linear process from 1-3, but an ongoing/perpetual process throughout life, with each point interlinked with the others. For example: God has ordained īmān in angels, but what are angels (3), what does it mean to have īmān in angels (1), and what does īmān in angels afford us (2)?

As you might recognise, aqīdah loosely fits into point (3) but because a more holistic īmānic approach is missing (points 1 and 2) the purpose of point 3 is lost and with an argumentative nature God speaks about (18:54) most fall into a mentality that induces juvenile bickering leading to a toxic state. The irony is that God cautions against this, informing us about earlier believers from the Children of Israel: “We gave them clear proof in matters [of religion]. They differed among themselves out of mutual rivalry, only after knowledge came to them…” (45:17) We often refer back to the sunnah and the early years of Islam, and everyone makes sophisticated claims. Yet their ‘aqidah’ was to simply to learn īmān and reverent subservience. As Jundub b. Abdullah reported, “We learned faith before we learned the Quran, then we learned the Quran and it strengthened our faith.” (Ibn Majah) In this way, ‘fiqh’ was practical – to seek optimum outcomes within an ethical framework, and ‘sunnah’ was Madinan social culture and civility fostered by the Prophet.

2. Īmān, first and foremost, provides humans with cognitive, emotional and psychological stability. It’s not merely what we think or affirm but something we deeply internalise that provides a lens with which to evaluate the world, and a compass guiding us in the right direction. It provides cognitive structures that helps you to intuitively evaluate everything you hear and see, builds resilience for a host of situations, and meaningfully connects you to your Creator.

“Well, surely the laity don’t have to do away with aqīdah – can’t they just do what they’re doing and incorporate īmān?”

The problem here is that:

a) Aqīdah is an aspect of the study of īmān and not the other way around – primacy lies with the latter, so to incorporate īmān into aqīdah instead of the other way around will inevitably lead to a misconceptualisation. Having an īmānic approach means you avoid being polemic and reactionary and opt for the inspirational, strengthening rabbāniyyah (godliness) and war’a (piety).

b) The aqīdah paradigm has become so entrenched that to expect change in any reasonable timeframe is simply unrealistic. For the sake of our salvation, we need to start again, differently, and at the beginning.
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Please note:

  • I acknowledge that some teach aqīdah in a way that might equate to what I mean about teaching īmān here.
  • This discussion concerns the laity and everyday faith. As such, these are thoughts that do not intend the context of training to become a theologian, or the need to study theology for academic (in both shar’ī and non-shar’ī settings) purposes. I’m talking about the teaching and learning aqīdah to be a ‘good Muslim’.

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