When I was a late teenager I had the incredible fortune of staying overseas in Nigeria for 3 months to “try and sort myself out”. I stayed with the incredibly inviting Lemu family who run the Islamic Education Trust. Nurudeen Lemu, who was doing his best to occupy me with something while I was over there doing nothing, passed me a copy of the book “The Vision of Islam” by Sachicko Murata and William Chittick.
I still remember sitting on the edge of the small dam beside their house (my favourite go to spot for contemplation of life, the universe and everything !) and reading the first few pages of the book.
The authors spoke about the introductory course on Islam that they teach in an American University, and how many Muslim students take the course thinking that it will be an easy A subject, only to be shocked at how little they understood their own faith.
In my mind I stood on my little high and mighty platform and scoffed at these Muslims who didn’t know their own faith. Not like me! I went to an Islamic school for most of my life. I was educated about my faith! I knew the 5 pillars of Islam, the 6 pillars of Iman, and about Ihsan! And when I read that the book was about the Jibreel hadith (a personal favourite of mine!), which in my mind was just about those topics just mentioned, it reconfirmed in my mind the completeness of my knowledge.
Then I began to read the book, and my confidence in my knowledge was shattered. This book more than any other opened my eyes to my faith like none other has since. The book may not be the best book on Islam, but for me it was the right book at the right time, and a book I would wholeheartedly recommend for those looking to gain a new understanding of the basis of their faith, or for others to gain an insight into this religion that I love.
The entire book is based around the famous Jibreel Hadith, in which the Angel Jibreel visits the Prophet pbuh in the form of a stranger and asks him a number of questions about his faith. The hadith is narrated as:
While we were one day sitting with the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) there appeared before us a man dressed in extremely white clothes and with very black hair. No traces of journeying were visible on him, and none of us knew him.
He sat down close by the Prophet (ﷺ) rested his knees against the knees of the Prophet (ﷺ) and placed his palms over his thighs, and said: “O Muhammad! Inform me about submission (Islam).”
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) replied: “Islam is that you should testify that there is no deity worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger (ﷺ), that you should perform salah (ritual prayer), pay the zakah, fast during Ramadan, and perform Hajj (pilgrimage) to the House (the Ka`bah at Makkah), if you can find a way to it (or find the means for making the journey to it).”
He said: “You have spoken the truth.” We were astonished at his thus questioning him (ﷺ) and then telling him that he was right, but he went on to say, “Inform me about faith (Iman).”
He (the Prophet) answered, “It is that you believe in Allah and His angels and His Books and His Messengers and in the Last Day, and that you have faith in the measuring out (qadar), both in its good and in its evil aspects.”
He said, “You have spoken the truth.” Then he (the man) said, “Inform me about doing what is beautiful (Ihsan).”
He (the Prophet) answered, “It is that you should serve Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him yet He sees you.”
He said, “Inform me about the Hour.”
He (the Prophet) said, “About that the one questioned knows no more than the questioner.”
So he said, “Well, inform me about its signs.”
He said, “They are that the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress and that you will see the barefooted ones, the naked, the destitute, the herdsmen of the sheep (competing with each other) in raising lofty buildings.”
Thereupon the man went off. I waited a while, and then he (the Prophet) said, “O `Umar, do you know who that questioner was?” I replied, “Allah and His Messenger know better.”
He said, “That was Jibreel. He came to teach you your religion (Din).”
The authors use these 3 main sections, Islam, Iman and Ihsan, as the dimensions of the religion of Islam, what the Prophet pbuh is referring to when he says “your Din” at the end of the hadith.
The authors make a compelling argument that the first dimension is just submission to the series of activities listed. It does not take into account intention or knowledge, just the obeyance of God and the Prophet in the following of said activities. An example for this is a story of some bedouins who accepted Islam and said to the Prophet that they have faith, after which the following verse was revealed:
The bedouins say, “We have faith (Iman).” Say, “You have not [yet] faith; but say [instead], ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from your deeds of anything. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”49:14
Similarly, Iman relates to a second, deeper dimension as alluded to in the ayah above. And Ihsan is yet higher still. The authors sum this up succinctly as:
“Religion is a right or correct way. The hadith of Gabriel suggests that in the Islamic understanding, religion embraces right ways of doing things, right ways of thinking and understanding, and right ways of forming the intentions that lie behind the activity. In this hadith, the Prophet gives each of the three right ways a name. Thus one could say that “submission” is religion as it pertains to acts, “faith” is religion as it pertains to thoughts, and “doing the beautiful” is religion as it pertains to intentions. These three dimensions of religion coalesce into a single reality known as Islam.” (p. xxxiii)
Sometimes I feel that we as Muslims can exclusively focus on Islam as submission in the acts, and forget about the other, equally important dimensions.
I am not in any way saying that the practices should be ignored or made insignificant – I think it is important for us to also take a step back and appreciate the wider scope of this beautiful faith as outlined so succinctly by Jibreel, and this book is fantastic at that!
The authors do a fantastic job of summarizing the religion of Islam as they believe best, and since it is an academic work is thoroughly defended and referenced, which i looove! I am really enjoying reading through this book again and I can’t think of a better time to read this book than in this beautiful month of Ramadan. As I go through each of the sections I will try and summarize the key points or just what I love in new posts.
For those interested some links to the books are here in book form and here in kindle format. These are not affiliate links, just plain normal links – Marryam and myself loooove our Kindles, so I’m glad this one has been made available in that format!
We are always on the lookout for more fantastic books so please let us know of any you recommend below 🙂