Islam: God’s Message of Guidance to Humanity
3 – Three Levels of Faith:
Islam, Iman, and I’hsan
By Hassan El-Najjar *
Al-Jazeerah, May 21, 2007
There are three levels of faith a person can attain. The first level is Islam. Prophet Muhammed, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him (pbuh) explained it as observing the five major obligations (the adhering to which creates an Islamic structure, as these obligations constitute the pillars of Islam’s structure).
Thus, to be a Muslim, a person has to proclaim (or testify) that there is no other god but Allah (praise to Him) and that Muhammed (pbuh) is His Messenger. The importance of this declaration or testimony is that a person acknowledges the existence of God (Allah), praise to Him, as the Creator of the Universe, and that Muhammed (pbuh) is the Messenger of God. This means that a person accepts the message of God revealed to humanity through Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), as expressed in the word of God (the Holy Qur’an) and the Sunna of the Prophet (his sayings, actions, and what he approved of).
Once a person pronounces the Islamic proclamation, then he/she proceeds to observe the Islamic obligations, namely to perform the five prayers, pay the Zakat, fast during the month of Ramadhan, and make the pilgrimage to the House of God in Makkah, if he/she is able to do so (for more details about these obligations, see Islam: A Brief Introduction).
It is important to note that these are ways of worshipping God, ‘Ibadat, as He wanted and commanded Muslims to do. He promised to reward those who worship Him and to punish those who don’t do that on purpose.
In analyzing these Islamic ways of worshipping God, one discovers that all of them benefit the worshipper directly and his/her society in this life, then they are rewarded with Paradise in the hereafter.
By performing prayers, a Muslim has to clean himself/herself through wudu’, by washing the mouth, nose, face hands, arms, ears, hair, and feet, every time before prayers. Muslims also have to take showers after sexual intercourse and must keep their clothes clean.
By praying five times a day in specific times, Muslims live in orderly fashion, budgeting their time, and literally exercising five times a day, doing certain movements that range between standing, bowing down, prostrating, and sitting down on the floor. These unique movements exercise various body organs and push more blood to certain areas of the body, like the brain through bowing and prostrating.
By paying the Zakat, a Muslim assists the poor and contributes to the well-being of society. It is, at least, 2.5 percent of a person’s annual savings. When properly given, the poor will not be left alone in society. It is a systematic expression of compassion and social solidarity. The Zakat does not replace charity or government taxes. However, it contributes to the welfare and well-being of society in areas not covered by government-funded projects.
Fasting the month of Ramadhan by abstaining from food, drinks, and sexual activity from dawn to the sunset has tremendous benefits for the body and the soul of a worshipper. Fasting strengthens the control of the self over the body. It allows the rich to feel the suffering of the hungry poor and prompts them to share food with them when they break the fast at the sunset. By eating moderately at the breakfast, many people lose weight, get rid of the accumulated fats throughout the year. Most importantly is giving a break to the digestive system, after eleven months of continuous hard work.
Finally, Hajj, pilgrimage to the House of God in Makkah, is the climax of being a Muslim. It is a personal journey for God first but it gives great satisfaction to the Hajj (pilgrim), as he/she leaves everything in this life behind. The pilgrimage to Makkah is also a worldwide conference of Muslims, where they meet there representing all nations, racial groups, and ethnic divisions. They are instructed by God to be loving, caring, and tolerant of each other, as well as praising God for His limitless benefits and bounties they have been enjoying.
By being a Muslim, as explained above, a person is promised God’s rewards in this life and in the hereafter. However, for those who are more ambitious to be closer to God, and to gain a higher level of his rewards, they need to reach a higher level of faith than Islam, which is Iman.
Iman is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day, and to believe in divine destiny, both the good and the evil thereof. This level is more theoretical than the first level of Islam. In the first level, Islam, a person is saved by worshipping God through actions, that is through performing the five obligations mentioned above.
To reach the second level, Iman, more faith is needed. A deeper degree of acknowledgement is required. This includes a belief in God and what He said. He informed us in His Book, the Holy Qur’an, that He has angels, He sent previous Books to humanity, delivered through previous messengers.
Thus, a person reaching Iman (a Mu’men) believes that not only God exists but He is capable of doing anything He wants. A Mu’men believes in everything God told in the Holy Qur’an. He/she believes that there are other intelligent creations of God than human beings, particularly angels. Among these are Jibril (Gabriel, the medium between God and His human messengers), Mika-il (Michael, the angel of sustenance), Ezra-il (angel of death), Israfil (angel of the Trumpet), Radhwan (custodian of Paradise), Malek (custodian of the Hellfire), Raqeeb and ‘Ateed (the angels who keep records for our good deeds and bad deeds), and Nakker, and Nakeer (the angels who question a human being briefly after death). A Mu’men is a person who believes that these angels exist and we are affected by them.
A Mu’men also believes that God revealed His guidance to humanity in previous Books before the Holy Qur’an. These included the Torah (Old Testament revealed to Moussa, Moses, pbuh), Zaboor (revealed to Prophet Dawood, David, pbuh), and the Engel (New Testament revealed to the Messiah, Essa Bin Mariam, Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, pbuh). These Books included the same message of guidance to humanity summarized in the Holy Qur’an. A Mu’men, further, has the same respect and love to the previous messengers of God, and should not differentiate one from the other, or side with one against the other.
A Mu’men believes that this life is a test, in which all our deeds and activities are recorded by angels. We will be held accountable for the entire test when we meet our Creator in the Day of Judgment. So, the belief in the Last Day is an acknowledgement of accountability and reckoning. It is an incentive for people to do good in this life in order to be rewarded in Paradise, and a warning against doing bad in order to avoid punishment in the Hellfire.
Finally, a Mu’men believes in Al-Qada wal Qadar, or divine destiny, both the good and the evil thereof. This is a belief in the ability of Allah, praise to him, to predict our behavior.
I’hsan is the highest of the three levels of faith and the closest to God. It is to worship Allah as if you are seeing Him. While you do not see Him, He truly sees you. Then, Ihsan means that a Mu’hsen is sure that Allah is seeing him/her in everything he/she says or does. Therefore, a Muhsen does his/her best to say and do only what pleases God and conforms to His commands. This is the level of righteousness, the level of perfection, the level of doing and saying the ultimate good, the level of I’hsan.
The word “I’hsan” in Arabic is a derivative of the verb “ahsana,” which means doing things better. Thus the literal linguistic meaning of I’hsan is doing the best, which is doing what God commanded us to do.
Text of the Prophet’s ‘Hadith (saying) about the subject:
On the authority of Omer1 (may Allah be pleased with him), who said:*One day while we were sitting with the Messenger of Allah (i.e. Prophet Muhammed, pbuh), there appeared before us a man whose clothes were exceedingly white and whose hair was exceedingly black; no signs of journeying were to be seen on him and none of us knew him. He walked up and sat down by the Prophet (pbuh). Resting his knees against his (the Prophet’s) and placing the palms of his hands on his thighs, he said:
O Muhammed, tell me about Islam.
The Messenger of Allah (may the blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and Muhammed is the Messenger of Allah, to perform the prayers, to pay the Zakat2 to fast in Ramadhan, and to make the pilgrimage to the House3 if you are able to do so.
He said: You have spoken rightly, and we were amazed at him asking him (the Prophet pbuh) and saying that he had spoken rightly.
He said: Then, tell me about Iman.4
He (the Prophet) said: It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day, and to believe in divine destiny, both the good and the evil thereof.
He said: You have spoken rightly.
He said: Then, tell me about I’hsan.5
He (the Prophet pbuh) said: It is to worship Allah as if you are seeing him, and while you see Him not yet truly He sees you.
He said: Then, tell me about the hour.6
He (the Prophet pbuh) said: The one questioned about it knows no better than the questioner. He said: Then, tell me about its signs.
He (the Prophet pbuh) said: That the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress, and that you will see the barefooted, naked, destitute herdsmen competing in constructing lofty buildings. 7
Then, he took himself off and I stayed for some time. Then he (the Prophet pbuh) said: O Omer, do you know who the questioner was? I said: Allah and His Messenger know better. He said: It was Jibril (Gabriel), who came to you to teach you your religion.