What Is Iman?

What is Iman? Many translators render the Arabic noun “iman” in English as “belief.” This translation is an imperfect solution to a difficult problem. The difficulty here is finding a simple English equivalent to match the complexity inherent in the Arabic original. Unfortunately, misconceptions occur quite often with English and Arabic, two languages with such different histories, grammars and even worldviews that it seems whenever one translates between the two, a world of meaning is lost. One of the most tragic examples of this linguistic breakdown is the word “jihad,” which was at one time translated as “holy war,” (better translated as “struggle”)  leading to a serious misunderstanding of Islam that continues to do damage today.

Muslims themselves choose to translate “iman” as “belief,” often without realizing the potential for a misunderstanding as problematic, if not more so, than the issues surrounding “jihad.” The reason why a translation of “iman” as “belief” is so problematic is because if a Muslim thinks that when the Quran commands him or her to have “iman,” he or she need do nothing more than what is conveyed by the English “belief,” then he or she is in danger of a major dereliction of religious duty.

One way to show the distinctions between the Arabic “iman” and the English “belief” would be to do a rigorous etymological analysis of the two words. While that might be preferable in some ways, a more simple and perhaps more powerful demonstration comes by citing a single Hadith (Prophetic Tradition). Anas bin Malik relates that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him – Muslims attach this phrase to the name of Prophet Muhammad as a means of invoking blessings on him and, indirectly, on ourselves) said: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim – “Sahih al-Bukhari” is shorthand indicating that this quote is found in the authentic collection of prophetic traditions compiled by Imam Bukhari. Similarly, “Sahih Muslim,” means the quote also occurs in the authentic collection of Imam Muslim.]

If one looks at this saying from an outsider’s perspective, it probably does not make sense. What is he trying to say here? One helpful way to look at the saying is to see it as the Islamic version of the Golden Rule. Just as the Golden Rule tells people to treat others as they would like to be treated, this Hadith tells Muslims that they should want good things for their brothers and sisters just as they want good things for themselves. It is not limited to things; it also includes people and actions. So a Muslim should want his brother to find love just as he wishes to find love. But why does it say that no one believes until they achieve this generous mentality? Isn’t it possible that a man believes in God in his heart but acts miserly to others? Here Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) is making the dramatic claim that such a thing is not possible. He is arguing that if true belief has permeated a man’s heart, he cannot be miserly. This illustrates a crucial difference between Islamic “iman” and the English “belief.” In fact, this distinction is so crucial that Muslims imperil their souls if they fail to understand it. This distinction is that iman must manifest itself through action whereas belief does not necessarily have to do so.

Think about how speakers of English use forms of the word “belief.” It is such a weak and flimsy word. When someone says, “I believe you,” what he or she is really saying is “I think there’s at least a 51% chance that you are telling the truth.” Is there any connection between this belief and action? No. Imagine this conversation.

A rabid football (as in the NFL) fan from Wisconsin says, “Because of their athleticism and strong coaching, I think the Green Bay Packers are the best team in football today.”

His friend replies, “I believe you.”

Clearly the fan sees the Packers as a great team. One can say that with a high amount of confidence. But what can one say about the friend? What has he committed to by saying, “I believe”? Assuming the friend is sincere, he has agreed to the truth of the previous statement. But that’s it. He has not committed to a course of action.

That caveat, assuming the friend is sincere, says something about how carelessly English speakers throw around the word “believe.” How often does a person just say, “Okay, I believe you” just because that person wants to shut someone up? Let’s look at the example again. Isn’t it possible that this friend is really a fan of another team, maybe the Chicago Bears (bitter rivals of the Packers) and is merely saying that he believes to make the other guy stop talking? Now admittedly, one could make an accusation of over-analyzing here and perhaps that is warranted. But Muslims and people familiar with Islamic history should recognize that there is a kernel of truth here.

Think about the story of the beloved uncle of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.), Abu Talib. Almost from the moment he received the message, Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) valiantly struggled to convince his uncle to believe in Islam. Allah knows best about Abu Talib’s state and destiny, but it seems likely from historical accounts that he never accepted Islam. If “iman” were nothing more than “belief,” would Abu Talib have resisted so much? If he understood “believing” as just having a degree of confidence about the truth of a statement, it seems like extreme stubbornness for him to refuse. But perhaps Abu Talib resisted because he really understood “iman,” much more than many Muslims living today do. Because he knew that to have iman was to agree to a commitment of action, a life-changing commitment, he refused because he was not ready to transform his life so radically.

Thus having iman means committing to a program of action. A Muslim who has iman does not merely believe in Allah, he or she commits to follow the commands of Allah in every aspect of life. Iman is key to success in the religious realm, but also in other areas. Good students have a kind of iman. They believe in their success and as a result, they commit by studying regularly, attending classes, and reading textbooks. Dieters that lose significant numbers of pounds (or kilos) commit to action. They eat healthy foods and exercise every day. Also, they avoid eating fatty or sugary foods that will jeopardize their success. Iman affects not only the actions a person does, but also the actions a person avoids.

{The preceding text is part of a book I am writing about iman. I welcome feedback on this because I want to improve it before I publish it.}

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