by Fahim Ferdous Promi
Arguably one of the most misunderstood religions of the world, it is no secret that the Islamic faith largely remains to many a concept shrouded in mystery. Yes, we often hear many Muslims trying to reach out to their non-Muslim brethren with messages of “We Love Jesus Too!” and “Islam Means Peace” but what do Muslims really believe in – about God, about Sin, about Salvation?
Now, before we begin I must tell you that the following piece is not an expository of Islamic theology speaking for all creeds existing within the religion – the sectarian divisions and variety of schools of thought. Instead, it is a very basic yet comprehensive overview of the faith. The article shall try to answer the following questions:
- What is Islam? Who or what is a Muslim?
- What status does the creation hold in the Eyes of God?
- Who is God? What is the Islamic definition of the Divine Deity?
- What does Islam believe of Sin and Salvation?
- How does Islam deal with the question of Faith and Disbelief?
The word “Islam,” deriving from the root words “Silm,” meaning “submission,” and “Salam,” meaning “peace,” literally translates to “in peace through submission to the Will of God.” In Arabic, the doer of an action is defined by adding the prefix “mu” before the verb. In regards to this, anyone who performs the action of submitting themselves voluntarily and peacefully to the Will and Commandments of God is a “Mu-Islam” or “Muslim.” Thus, the Islamic creed proclaims every object in creation is a Muslim because every object in creation is a loyal servant of God, created to obey His Laws without transgression. The sun, the moon, the stars, the trees and the animals are all prescribed laws to follow, which they do. The laws of gravity, thermodynamics and energy conservation are three of many set in place to govern the workings of the universe, matters concerning both animate and inanimate objects. The Qur’an tells us that the courses of all these things are set in motion by God and they loyally abide by it, not possessing the ability to deny or disobey as they have rejected the burden of free-will. They wished to remain obedient to their Lord and as such they are in peace through submission to Him making them all Muslims.
This is treated as an honor. Since God is the Supreme Creator and there is none higher than He, being objects of His creation and His design is obviously the greatest of all privileges and glory. We can take into consideration the work of a well-known artist being credited highly because of the reputation of the artist. Similarly, all creation has been given dignity and value as creatures created by God as default due to His Absolute Esteem and Majesty.
All creation finds its worth in being the servant of the Master Creator. God created everything in the universe with an intention in mind, and not merely for jest as He has decreed in the Qur’an: “We have not created the Heavens and the Earth, and what is between them, merely out of vanity” [38:17], nor as a matter of play [21:16]. Instead, everything in creation is an important piece of a puzzle, a significant part of a well-oiled machine, the absence of which may cause a disastrous butterfly effect all over the pattern. In other words, all objects in creation, whether animate or inanimate, is assigned a place in a scheme of grandiose proportions, carefully knit together by the Master of the Worlds to follow their course of action as decreed by Him, and in this is great honor and value. Take for example someone working for the king of a country or the president. Whatever duty he is given, he takes great pride in it because it comes from the king or the president. Similarly, the duty prescribed for the sun, the moon, the stars, the cloud, the rains, the water, the animals and plants, fire and wind, and everything else in existence has been prescribed to them by God, King of Kings and the Most Supreme of all masters. He is Almighty and thus there is no greater honor than to serve Him. Therefore, the value of creation comes through the reputation of their Master and to ascribe other creators than the Most High God is degrading to them because that would be similar to the servant of a king being called the servant of a pauper. All creation is thus given equal dignity, value and honor of being creatures of the One and Only Almighty Creator, God.
Islam believes God is transcendent and emphasizes this point very strongly going as far as to claim God does not exist in our plane of being. The two realms are vehemently held as entirely separate from one another. Our realm is the created realm and His is the One that is Eternal like Him. He doesn’t reside on Earth nor even in Heaven. He is not of physical design and He is not constituted of matter but His Visage is inconceivable by the limited human mind. To mix God together with the created realm would be to compromise His Oneness and Uniqueness.
However, the Essence of God is immanent throughout the universe and all that exists. He is not present within the created realm physically but His Mercy abides within us all. One Name for God used in Islam is Ar-Rahman meaning Most-Merciful which emphasizes the aforementioned point. Another Name attributed to God in Islam is Al-Muqsith meaning the One Who Sustains connoting that it is the Power and Absolute Majesty of God that sustains and supports everything around us. He provides the crutch to hold up all of creation. These are only but two names out of ninety-nine in Islam describing the Divine Qualities of God through which he is present among us not physically but in an ethereal and spiritual sense. Islam claims in the Qur’an: “To God belong the East and the West; wherever you may turn, there is the Face of God” [2:115] meaning that God’s Reach is Infinite and even though physically separated in another Realm of His Own, we are always eternally within His Grasp.
Similar to Judaism and Christianity, the nature of Sin and Salvation is explained in Islam through its Creation Lore, that is, the story of the Genesis of Humankind – the Conception of Adam and Eve, or Hawwa, as she is called in Arabic. There are significant differences between the Genesis story of Judeo-Christian beliefs and Islam, as there are differences in the faiths’ ideas of Sin and Salvation. When discussing the idea of sin in Islam, Muslims do not speak of it as default human nature. In other words, being sinful is not something that is inherent in us as it was not inherent in either Adam or Eve. Instead, what happened was they were negligent and forgetful and thus they forgot or neglected God’s order as to not eat of the fruit in the Garden due to a relapse of judgment in their part thus causing them to slip for a moment and transgress God’s command. And so is defined the nature of all humankind.
When God created Adam and Eve, He appointed them to be His representatives on Earth, in other words – His caliph. So, humans were naturally created, as per Islamic beliefs, to carry out the Will of God and establish His Design on Earth through His Laws and His Commandments. Humans were thus given the duty to protect all of God’s creation and enjoin peace in the world. This was our covenant with the Lord. However, humans are also described to be weak in memory, always forgetting who they are and neglecting the natural law of submission to God as the way of fulfilling their true nature. They become oblivious and unaware of who they are and what they should be doing in this world.
Thus, humans then fall into temptation, become subservient to their own desires, passions and obsessions. However, Islam does not describe these cravings and desires to be evil by nature. They are only evil when they are pursued in excess and through unlawful means which overrides against God’s Commandments. For example, let us take eating or sexual intercourse as an example. Both of them elicit a form of hunger in humans and both require to be satisfied in order for us to be complete. Now, there are various methods of appeasing the hunger. One can eat all that is lawful, avoiding pork and alcohol and the meat of cattle or animals which have been tortured to death, and involve themselves in intercourse with partners in wedlock. This is lawful. On the other hand, one can also maim and kill another to eat or rape and pillage another for intercourse. That is when our desires lead to sin.
In Islam, God has prescribed boundaries for us not to cross and as long as our desires and cravings are pleased within these boundaries, it is not sinful. However, due to our negligent nature, we, humans, forget these boundaries that have been put in place for us and we begin to sin. As per the story of Genesis in Islam goes, Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden where they could have had all they ever desired and fulfilled their desires through those means as long as they did not eat of the fruit, this was their limit or boundary. But, they forgot God’s command and fell into sin.
Now comes the idea of Salvation in Islam. A primary difference between the Genesis story in the Bible and the Qur’an is that in the latter, Adam and Eve repent after they eat of the fruit in the Garden and their repentance is accepted by God and God forgives them. This is the notion of Salvation is Islam. God forgives as long as one repents sincerely. In the end, Islam is about struggling and striving to fulfill God’s Commandments but not perfecting it because our limited, forgetful nature makes it impossible to do so. Humans are to strive to follow the Qur’an and Sunnah to accomplish God’s Command. Humans are to strive and remember God and His Laws, and resist falling into sin and temptations, but humans cannot avoid sin completely. However, this is not a problem; this is the point. Islam is about earning God’s Mercy and Forgiveness through devotion to Him, His worship and remembrance in Man’s daily lives, not about overcoming his or her humanity.
In regards to matters of belief and disbelief, Islam does not cite blind faith to be one’s mean to approach the former and dismiss the latter. Instead, Islam encourages belief through rationality. Islam holds the idea that humans are not inherently sinful by default but rather they are negligent and forgetful in nature, disobeying God’s Laws through ill memory and overlooking the signs of God’s existence via similar methods. In other words, humans forget.
Disbelief, or the act “kufr,” in Islam, is believed to be the consequence of human beings forgetting and neglecting the obvious signs present in the universe of God’s existence. Humans see around them the natural order of things: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the moon follows shift and on comes nightfall, specific times allocated for the two and neither clash against one another. There is a harmoniously set hierarchy present among animals of the wild and even the plants. Each celestial body – the sun, the moon, the planet, the stars – are all assigned their respective orbits and one orbit is not occupied by more than one planet to cause disruption between them. The laws of gravity are put in place to hold everything down in order. The water cycle is in balance. Even in our own bodies we have the intricate detailing of the blood vessels, the bones, the muscles, the bundles of nerves, the cardiovascular system, the digestive system with its optimum pH levels and presence of natural catalysts in the form of enzymes for reactions to take place, mytochondria in cells, minutely crafted organelles, etc. and the designing of it all is so complex and efficient that Islam argues it could not have been possible without an Intelligent Designer, an Almighty Creator, One Who puts it all into motion for the benefit of us all so that we may be grateful to Him in return and worship Him. Regarding this, God, through the Qur’an, tells us in the first thirteen verses of Surah ar-Rahman:
Taught the Qur’an.
Taught him speech.
The sun and the moon move by precise calculation;
And the herbs and trees bow in adoration.
And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the Balance,
In order that ye may not transgress it.
So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the scale.
It is He Who has spread out the earth for His creatures:
Therein is fruit and date-palms, producing sheaths and spathes;
Also corn, with its leaves and stalk for fodder, and sweet-smelling plants.
Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?
Islam treats the issue of disbelief or “kufr” as a result of humans being oblivious to the signs around them. Similar to the excerpt I quoted above, the Qur’an mentions multitudes of times about the natural laws holding the universe place and asking the readers if they believe have they created it all, even their own selves, by themselves, or have they come from nothing:
“Were they created by nothing? Or were they themselves the creators?”
Islam argues that those immersed in the act of kufr, also known as the kuffar, are covering up the truth. Hence, the Arabic word “kufr” being used to describe the act which literally means “to cover up.” Islam holds the notion that these men and women, the kuffar, they see the world around them, the signs, they study them, the complex workings of it all and yet they fail to see the truth or they deny it through neglect. They are unaware of the Creator. When they see the various laws and processes of the world around them in motion, they struggle to understand the “how” and come to their various conclusions about, debate and discuss over it but they fail to comprehend the “Who.”
In doing so, the kuffar start to believe that they have full knowledge of all things and they have attained what they believe through logic and reasoning but Islam also argues that the intelligence of humans is limited and thus the knowledge they have attained is not complete. It is flawed and it has overlooked some very important details causing them to travel down the road to disbelief. Eventually, this cause the kuffar to become mushriks, that is, those who commit shirk – the act of elevating a creation to the stature of God, by attributing divinity to nature believing they are self-sustaining and godlike.
“Yet they have taken besides Him other gods who created nothing but are themselves created, and possess neither harm nor benefit for themselves, and possess no power of causing death, nor giving life, nor of raising the dead.”
Thus, they commit the ultimate sin, the greatest injustice and treason possible: they live in God’s created universe, enjoying His bountiful gifts and provisions, and then they turn away from Him, disobeying Him and worshiping His creation rather than the true Lord, Master and Creator.
In order to avoid falling into disbelief, Islam asks us to seek knowledge. In the Qur’an, God orders man to, “Read in the Name of thy Lord” [96:1]. Because through knowledge humans will begin to understand the world around them, the complexity of it and the beauty of it, the intricate engineering behind it all and only then shall men and women begin to comprehend that there is indeed an Architect Who has designed the blueprint.
The guidance to learn in the Qur’an comes from God but no-one is compelled to follow it: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” [Al-Qur’an 2:256]. Instead, humans are to hear of the Revelation in the Qur’an, study it, examine it and scrutinize it, test it as they please and inquire of it, until finally their reason leads them to faith. Islam believes this is the natural way because the same God did both, created human reason and sent down the Qur’an unto us.
Islam encourages its followers to push his intellect on towards belief through knowledge and rationality. Islam asks the followers of its creed to traverse the lands and gain understanding of our world and the universe because everywhere in this universe the same truth is to be found, for everything is of one piece in God’s Design. In this way, through using our intelligence in studying God’s Revelation, the Qur’an, and the world around us, humans are asked to shun disbelief and arrive at Imaan – Faith in God, the Truth and certain knowledge, as proclaimed in the Qur’an: “The Truth has come, and falsehood has perished” [17:81].