Posted on August 13, 2015

SELF: The Vision of Islam


Hope everyone is having a great day! We’ve been so busy since the start of Ramadan and now things are settling down a bit so we can get a much needed breather, as well as some time to finally read more!

So in an effort to try and make myself read more of the books in my ever-growing To Be Read pile I am going to do some book reviews here 🙂

In the last Self post, we discussed the broad overview of the book “The Vision of Islam” by Sachiko Murata and Wiliam Chittick, so head there if you haven’t read it yet!

As discussed there, the book conveniently divides itself into parts along the lines of the Gabriel or Jibreel hadith: Islam, Iman, Ihsan. The section on Islam is rather brief considering its considered foremost importance to most Muslims in their daily lives. Whereas the part of Iman is much, much longer 🙂

The part begins by defining exactly what the authors mean by ‘Islam’. The word has a number of meanings given in the Qur’an, which they narrow to 4 possibilities, from broadest to narrowest:

1. The submission of the whole of creation to the Creator
2. The submission of humans to Divine Revelation revealed through the Prophets (irrespective of which one)
3. The submission of humans to the Divine Qur’an as revealed to Prophet Muhammad pbuh (what most people refer to as ‘Islam’)
4. The submission of Prophet Muhammad’s followers to God’s practical instructions (the 5 pillars of Islam)

The focus of the chapter is exclusively on the fourth and narrowest meaning as given by Jibreel. As mentioned in the last post, the justification for this is the story of the bedouins who converted to Islam and told the Prophet that they had faith, in response to which the following verse was revealed:

The bedouins say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not [yet] believed; 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.”

So it focuses only on the 5 acts as approved by Jibreel: The saying of the shahada, the daily prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan, giving alms and the hajj and only on the physical acts of each of these activities, not their underlying beliefs and intentions.

These acts do not require any belief on the part of the observer, as alluded to in the verse above. These acts are given a central place in Islam, so much so that the Prophet was known to refer to them as the 5 pillars upon which the rest of the religion rests. It may seem strange that a religion with a strong emphasis on right belief and intention would build itself on acts alone, but the reasoning given is that correct belief follows from correct practice.

The authors note that Islam set out to build a society and that societies unite around common practices as much as they do around common ideas. Muslims need to not only learn what the Qur’an says, they must embody it in right action!

This was one point that I had issue with many years ago when I began thinking of whether or not the daily prayers were really compulsory once faith had set itself in the heart. Around this time I came across a book which I have since forgotten the name of, but something said in it stuck in my head: “What is the purpose of correct thinking if it does not lead to correct action?”

Their point as I understood it was that God had told us to perform certain actions. Although we may come up with reasons why such acts are compulsory, in the end we do not actually know. As such, to stop them because we feel that we have learned all we need from them, or that we now do not need to perform them is, I feel, perhaps naive and arrogant.

The book then goes on to give a very brief summary of each of the 5 pillars which I will not go into here, though there were some interesting points that stuck out to me.

Firstly is the issue of the shahada. This is the act of saying the words “I believe there is only one God and Muhammad is his Prophet and Messenger”. This is the one act that makes you a Muslim. If you say these words with an understanding of their meanings and implications, then by default you are a Muslim. Belief in the words is not required (and can never be proven) but an understanding and intention is.

This is the point, I believe, of the authors. The shahada itself is perhaps the most significant spiritual statement in Islam. But what they are referring to here is simply the uttering of the words with an understanding of them, regardless of belief in them. By saying them you become a Muslim in the eyes of Muslims, irrespective of your beliefs. What you are to God is between you and God! There are a number of hadith concerning this, such as:

Al-Miqdad bin ‘Amr Al-Kindi, who was an ally of Bani Zuhra and one of those who fought the battle of Badr together with Allah’s Apostle told him that he said to Allah’s Apostle, “Suppose I met one of the infidels and we fought, and he struck one of my hands with his sword and cut it off and then took refuge in a tree and said, “I surrender to Allah (i.e. I have become a Muslim),’ could I kill him, O Allah’s Apostle, after he had said this?” Allah’s Apostle said, “You should not kill him.”
Al-Miqdad said, “O Allah’s Apostle! But he had cut off one of my two hands, and then he had uttered those words?” Allah’s Apostle replied, “You should not kill him, for if you kill him, he would be in your position where you had been before killing him, and you would be in his position where he had been before uttering those words. » – Hadith

I found this very enlightening as I had always wondered about the significance placed on the actual saying of those words! They are simply the ritual by which someone becomes a Muslim.

The salat (daily prayers) is given special treatment in the book as it is perhaps the most outwardly unique act of Muslims. The book discusses the importance of salat along a number of lines, but fundamentally it comes down to putting aside a time for God in a social setting (as the emphasis is always on it being performed with others) with almost identical actions that leads to a purported shift in individual and collective psyches.

And I must admit it is an amazing feeling to visit anywhere in the world (almost) and just be able to join in a salat, even if you don’t know the people or the language. Salat truly does unify all Muslims in a single shared action, which is crazy!

It similarly discusses zakat (almsgiving) as purification of the money you have been given, fasting is a personal test of your commitment, and hajj is an outward journey towards God and away from the mundane everyday life.

It then goes on to discuss a potential sixth pillar according to some scholars: To struggle, or jihad. The book provides a very nice overview of the complexity of the term jihad (to struggle) in both the outward act of fighting against injustice and the inward act of fighting against our lower selves. It quotes the famous (and contentious) hadith in which the Prophet pbuh says after returning from battle: “We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” When asked what was the greater jihad: “the fight against the enemy in our own breasts.”

The book continues with the historical embodiment of Islam. It discusses briefly the formation of the Qur’an and the collection of hadith (sayings and actions of the prophet) in their historical context as well as the formation of the schools of jurisprudence (madhhab) as a response to situations that had not arisen in the Prophet’s lifetime, and thus had no readily available recommended course of action.

It discusses the role of the shariah (path of right conduct) in dictating peoples lives, and the importance of daily observance of the pillars of Islam in doing so. But as part of this discussion it mentions a saying of Ali that I had not heard before which I love:

Time is two days: A day for us and a day against us. When time is for you, give thanks to God. And when time is against you, have patience. – Imam Ali

The point of the 5 pillars is to give us guidance on how to do so.

So in summary Islam as defined by Gabriel is a set of specific actions that unite all Muslims and form the basis of more intricate beliefs and intentions upon which they and the rest of their lives should be based.

It ensures that God occupies an elevated position in people’s thoughts through many of their daily actions. The daily salat to remind people of God many times each day, the fasting to remind people to give thanks to God for his beneficence and a small appreciation for the hardship of those less fortunate, the zakat to remind us of the proper use of money for social good, etc.

And on that note, check back soon for the next part on Iman, or right belief 🙂


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  • Reply Sara August 16, 2015 at 7:12 am

    Thanks for a great post. An important reminder also that sometimes our routine actions can be mindless because we are just going through the motions and not actually engaging our soul in the process. Well a good reminder for me anyway! Thank you!

    • Reply lifeofmyheart August 16, 2015 at 7:17 am

      thanks Sara!

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