The Definition of “Belief”

For many an English speaker, “belief” simply means the acknowledgment the something is true. Thus, one can be asked, “Do you believe that God exists?” and the reply may be, “Yes.” The same person may be asked a follow up question, “Does your belief in God have any influence or ramifications upon your life, your deeds and your goals?” To this question, the same person who says he believes in God will reply, “No.” Given this common scenario, the following question must be addressed: Could this type of belief possibly be equivalent to what Islam means by, for example, “belief in Allah”?

The foundation of one’s Islam starts with what is in one’s heart and one’s beliefs. Thus, Islam has put a great emphasis on what to believe in, as shall be discussed in this chapter. At the same time, though, Islam also stresses what “belief” is supposed to be. Belief, from an Islamic perspective, cannot be something that a person claims is in his heart while it has no influence on the person’s life and behavior. On the contrary, the beliefs in the heart should be the driving force behind everything the individual does. The true and effective beliefs never remain at an abstract level but their influence is manifested on a day-to-day practical level. To take a simple example, the question of cheating and stealing is directly related to one’s overall belief system. If a person believes that these acts are morally wrong and that there is an all-knowing, just God who will hold him accountable for his deeds, he will most likely refrain from such acts. But if a person does not believe in any eternal ramifications or any day of judgment, his deciding factor may only be the chances of being caught and the severity of the punishment for those acts.

In fact, true belief does much more than make a person realize the negative or positive ramifications of an act. As a person develops in his faith and his beliefs become stronger, his faith molds the very way he looks at thing. His love for something and his hatred for something is determined by his beliefs about that thing. For example, when he recognizes that God loves something, he realizes that that thing must be wonderful and also deserving of his love. On the contrary, if God dislikes something, the individual realizes that that thing must be filled with traits that are deserving of his dislike as well.

One can take the example of smoking. Someone may believe that smoking is harmful and wrong by accepting the facts showing smoking to be harmful as true but he continues to smoke and he does not let what he recognizes to be true guide his actions. In other words, he does not submit to the truth he sees nor does he implement what it implies. His factual knowledge about smoking has not permeated into his heart such that he develops a hatred for smoking due to its evils. Hence, his recognition of the facts is not the same thing as “belief” or, in Quranic terms, imaan. Imaan necessitates that one has the willingness to submit to or enact what one recognizes to be true. In the case of true belief or Imaan, if that Imaan is strong and healthy at that moment, then it will put the feeling of hatred in the person’s heart for that act that he believes to be wrong or harmful. It will keep the person from wanting to commit that harmful act.

At the same time, it will put the love for all good deeds into his heart. Thus, Allah says, “Allah has endeared the Faith to you and has beautified it in your hearts, and has made disbelief, wickedness and disobedience hateful to you. These! They are the rightly guided ones” (49:7). Such a faith will, therefore, rule his life and it will guide him to what he should do. (If, however, his faith is weak and can be overcome by other forces in the heart, it may not have that effect.)

Therefore, true belief means that one acts in accordance with that belief. When, for example, an individual says that he believes in the angels, it means that he knows that the angels are present and that they are actually recording his deeds. This should affect him in that he will not perform those deeds that he does not want those angels to see and record.

Thus, a thorough study of the Quran and Sunnah shows that faith or Imaan has certain components. These components were summed up by the earliest scholars in their saying, “Imaan is statement and action.” Statement here includes both statement of the heart (affirmation) and statement of the tongue (verbal profession). Action includes both the actions of the heart (willingness to submit, love and so forth) and actions of the body (such as prayer and so forth).122

For the sake of clarity, over time, these two components were broken down into the three following essential components of Imaan that have also been stated by many scholars:

(1) Belief in the heart;
(2) Profession by the tongue;
(3) Performance of deeds by the physical parts of the body.

In sum, faith, meaning true and definitive belief in something, should lead to a corresponding submission to what one believes in. Otherwise, it is simply an acceptance of a fact but it is not the Islamic concept of “faith” (imaan).

Thus, Ibn Uthaimeen wrote, Imaan is the affirmation that requires acceptance and submission. If a person believes in something without acceptance and submission, that is not imaan. The evidence for that is that the polytheists [Arabs] believed in Allah’s existence and believed in Allah as the Creator, Sustainer, Giver of Life, Bringer of Death and the Manager of the Universe’s Affairs. Furthermore, one of them even accepted the messengership of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) but he was not a believer. That person was Abu Talib, the uncle of the Prophet (peace be upon him)… But that [belief in the Prophet (peace be upon him)] will not avail him whatsoever because he did not accept and submit to what the Prophet (peace be upon him) brought.123

122 Cf., Ahmad ibn Taimiya, Majmoo Fatawaa Shaikh al-Islaam ibn Taimiya (collected by Abdul Rahmaan Qaasim and his son Muhammad, no publica on informa on given), vol. 7, p. 672.

123 Muhammad ibn Uthaimeen, Sharh Hadith Jibreel Alaihi al-Salaam (Dar al-Thuraya, 1415 A.H.), pp. 4-5.