The Quranic Meaning of Iman


The root of the word “Iman” is a-m-n which means: to be calm and quiet (in one’s heart); to be protected from fear; trustworthiness, and truthfulness [Taj-al-Urus]. Iman means to accept truthfully, to be convinced, and to verify something, to rely upon or have confidence in something. Iman is usually translated in English as faith or belief, and faith in turn signifies acceptance without proof or argument, without reference to reason or thought, knowledge or insight. According to the Qur’an, Iman is conviction which is based upon reason and knowledge; a conviction that results from full mental acceptance and intellectual satisfaction; the kind of conviction that gives one a feeling of inner contentment and peace. And a Mu’min is one who accepts truth in such a way that it ensures his own peace and helps him to safeguard the peace and security of the rest of humankind. In fact, Al-Mu’min is one of the attributes of Allah Himself (59:23). Allah gives a comprehensive and an objective definition of Iman in the Qur’an: “To believe in Allah, and in the hereafter, and in Malaika (angels or Allah’s forces), and in the Book, and the Prophets.” (2:177)

The Importance of Reason in Iman

The Qur’anic view of reason and its place in human life deserves careful consideration. Man has been granted a mind which enables him to think, and through the instrument of intellect, is supposed to build up a system of knowledge. Reason converts the raw data supplied by the senses into knowledge and the Qur’an assigns to reason an important role in life:

إِنَّ شَرَّ الدَّوَابِّ عِندَ اللَّـهِ الصُّمُّ الْبُكْمُ الَّذِينَ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ

Verily, the vilest of all creatures in the sight of God are those deaf, those dumb ones who do not use their reason. (8:22) [Asad]

This is a graphic description of the degradation of man when he does not employ reason to his service. Such a man, the Qur’an tells us, not only lives a worthless and debased life here but also renders himself unfit for the hereafter which he enters after death:

وَلَقَدْ ذَرَأْنَا لِجَهَنَّمَ كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الْجِنِّ وَالْإِنسِ ۖ لَهُمْ قُلُوبٌ لَّا يَفْقَهُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ أَعْيُنٌ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ آذَانٌ لَّا يَسْمَعُونَ بِهَا ۚ أُولَـٰئِكَ كَالْأَنْعَامِ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَلُّ ۚ أُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْغَافِلُونَ

“Many are the Jinns and men we have made for Hell: They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle,- nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning). (7:179) [Yusuf Ali]

This point is again emphasized in Sura Al-Furqan. The Prophet (PBUH) is addressed:

أَمْ تَحْسَبُ أَنَّ أَكْثَرَهُمْ يَسْمَعُونَ أَوْ يَعْقِلُونَ ۚ إِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا كَالْأَنْعَامِ ۖ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَلُّ سَبِيلًا

Or dost thou think that most of them listen [to thy message] and use their reason? Nay, they are but like cattle - nay, they are even less conscious of the right way! (25:44) [Asad]

The Qur’an expects man to think and use his power of understanding in the light of the guidance provided by wa‘hi or revelation from Allah. These two sources of guidance, i.e., reason and revelation, are supplementary to each other. If they are kept within their proper spheres, then there will be no conflict between them. The Prophet (PBUH) is commanded to say:

قُلْ هَـٰذِهِ سَبِيلِي أَدْعُو إِلَى اللَّـهِ ۚ عَلَىٰ بَصِيرَةٍ أَنَا وَمَنِ اتَّبَعَنِي

Say [O Prophet]: “This is my way: Resting upon conscious insight accessible to reason, I am calling [you all] unto God - I and they who follow me.” (12:108) [Asad]

It is clear from these verses that Allah puts an extraordinary emphasis on (human) reason and intellect. Those who do not use reason are called worse than animals by Allah. The revelation from Allah is meant to be used with reason and understanding in order to enlighten our minds and hearts and not to be followed blindly:

قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Say: “Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know?” (39:9) [Yusuf Ali]

And most important of all, Allah says that even His revelations are not to be accepted blindly. The Believers (Mu’minin) according to the Qur’an are:

وَالَّذِينَ إِذَا ذُكِّرُوا بِآيَاتِ رَبِّهِمْ لَمْ يَخِرُّوا عَلَيْهَا صُمًّا وَعُمْيَانًا

“And who, whenever they are reminded of their Sustainer’s messages, do not throw themselves upon them [as if] deaf and blind.” (25:73) [Asad]

Thus, the Qur’an calls upon all human beings to apply their minds (with open minds, not with an a priori bias, prejudice or ancestral customized thoughts) to its teaching, and to strive constantly to grasp its meaning and rationale. The following commands are for everyone (and not just for the scholars):

أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ

“Will they not, then, try to understand this Qur’an?” (4:82, 47:24) [Asad]

كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِّيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

“(This is) a Book (the Quran) which We have sent down to you, full of blessings that they may ponder over its Verses, and that men of understanding may remember.” (38:29) [Hilali & Khan]

Thus, Iman has to be individually acquired which requires that each of us consciously strive to acquire knowledge and understanding by using our own God-given gift of reason and intellect in the light of the revelation given in the Qur’an, so that Iman can enter our hearts.

Characteristics of Iman

Here is list of several characteristics of Iman from the Qur’an which shed some further light on its reality:

Iman is not to accept it with the tongue but to accept it with the heart. (2:8-9)

To accept everything which the Qur’an says as truth is Iman. (2:26)

In order to acquire Iman in Allah, it is necessary to first reject every authority other than Allah. (2:25-26)

Iman will lead human beings from darkness towards light. (2:257)

In matters of Iman, one’s profession is irrelevant. (26:111-112)

Unless Iman enters the heart, it cannot be called Iman. One can only say that one has surrendered to Islam. (49:14)

Allah does not discard anyone’s Iman. (2:143)

Finally, an important aspect which must be emphasized here is that no form of force or coercion (direct or indirect, temporal or spiritual) can be used in connection with Iman. This is because it contradicts the very definition of Iman. (As we have seen, Iman is derived from a-m-n which means peace in the heart.) So any forced conversion cannot be allowed in Islam. In fact, forced Iman is no Iman at all.

Therefore, Iman in Islam is not a (blind) faith held privately and subjectively (without any rationale or reason) between an individual and God. As we have seen, there is a clear, explicit, and objective definition of Iman given in the Qur’an and Allah has Himself explained the process of how to acquire it in various other verses related to this topic. Therefore, it is not proper (for any Muslim, at least) to say that faith is a private, subjective matter between an individual and God. Nevertheless, the maxim “faith is a private matter” is accepted as a universal truth. It seems no one thinks that any serious effort is needed to investigate its in-depth meaning and provide a proof for this oft repeated phrase. A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that those who believe in this maxim are really contradicting themselves in their daily lives. A good religious speaker greatly influences people’s thoughts and beliefs. The moment one opens one’s private belief to be influenced by others, it no longer remains private. So much so, that an accomplished religious leader can cause havoc in people’s lives to the extent that a single statement of his may cause them to give up their lives and/or take other people’s lives.

And we know that this scenario is physically as well as psychologically impossible now in the age of the information super highway, World Wide Web, and the Internet. As a matter of fact, this distinction between private and public domain of human life is the product of a concept called dualism which finds no sanction anywhere in the Qur’an. Life is a unity which cannot be bifurcated into private and public parts, religious and secular parts, or material and spiritual parts. In the words of Iqbal:

“Thus the affirmation of spirit sought by Christianity would come not by the renunciation of external forces which are already permeated by the illumination of spirit, but by proper adjustment of man’s relation to these forces in view of the light received from within.

“. . .With Islam, the ideal and real [i.e. spiritual and material] are not two opposing forces which cannot be reconciled. The life of the ideal [i.e. spiritual life] consists, not in a total breach with the real [i.e. material life] which would tend to shatter the very organic wholeness of life into painful oppositions. . .

“Islam, however, faces the opposition with a view to overcome it. . .Islam, recognizing the contact of the ideal with real, says ‘yes’ to the world of matter and points the way to master it with a view to discover a basis for a realistic regulation of life.” [Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, pages 7-8]

Unfortunately, this is what life has become today—comprised of painful oppositions in our feelings and emotions, in our thoughts and actions—because the foundation (i.e. Iman) on which the life’s superstructure is to be built as a coherent system is flawed.

Now if the foundation itself is defective, no matter how much tinkering and patch-up job is done to save the superstructure (of a society), sooner or later it is going to collapse. Many of them have collapsed already and many are on the way moving towards their final destiny.

In fact, we are all on a mission and a journey, continuously moving towards a final destination whether we realize it or not. The electrons and neurons in our bodies, the earth we inhabit, the solar system, the galaxy—from the smallest to the biggest, everything and everyone and life in general, are all on a journey towards their goal determined by Allah.

Allah says in the Qur’an that if all the trees on the planet became pens and all its oceans became ink, the words of Allah (and the meanings contained in them) would not be exhausted (31:27, 18:109). That means we are limited by our finite capacity of knowledge and understanding. But still, Allah enjoins on every one of us (who call ourselves Muslims) to use our reason, intellect, and the up-to-date human knowledge and to directly try to understand and explore the meanings of His revelations (as noted earlier in many verses, especially verse 25:73). We will never be able to exhaust the meanings of Allah’s words but we are asked, nevertheless, to keep striving continuously. That is why it is all the more important not to give up and stop this process by saying that our great scholars of the past have already explored all there was to be explored and they have understood all there was to be understood. And we simply have to refer to them in matters of Islam. This passive approach on our part will not absolve us from our duty to ponder directly in the Qur’an as required by Allah. This requirement is for each and every generation and for all time to come.


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