Īmān and Islām

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ĪMĀN AND ISLĀM . Islām, a noun derived from the verb aslama ("to submit or surrender [to God]"), designates the act by which an individual recognizes his or her relationship to the divine and, at the same time, the community of all of those who respond in submission. It describes, therefore, both the singular, vertical relationship between the human being and God and the collective, horizontal relationship of all who join together in common faith and practice.

In its communal aspect islām has come to be the commonly accepted term for the religion of the followers of the prophet Muammad and today claims many millions of adherents. As the personal act of response to the oneness of God and his commands islām often has been viewed as coordinate with another term basic to Muslim theology. This is īmān, most commonly understood as faith, from the verb amana ("to be secure, to place one's trust [in God]"). While islām as a verbal noun appears only eight times in the Qurʾān, īmān is found over five times as often in the sacred scripture.

Qurʾanic context

The Qurʾān as understood by Muslims is not a theological document per se, although it does reveal something of the being and will of God. It is rather a record of the revelations to the prophet Muammad that details the ways in which men and women of faith are to respond to the fact of divine oneness. It also sets forth the specific ways in which they are to conduct their daily lives in preparation for the reality of the final day of judgment and recompense. Terms such as islām and īmān therefore are not defined and analyzed in the Qurʾān. In some instances they are apparently interchangeable in meaning, and in others Qurʾanic usage seems to suggest that the two have different emphases, particularly as they relate to works. In one place only (sura 49:14) is a clear discrimination between islām and īmān implied. Here a distinction is drawn between the verbal acknowledgment of islām by the tongue and the īmān that has entered the heart. The suggestion that islām is the outward sign and īmān the inward, however, runs counter to the general understanding of the Qurʾān that they are essentially synonymous and that they both designate the religious response by which one heeds the message of God's oneness and thereby escapes the eternal retribution of the Day of Resurrection.


Many kinds of references to islām and īmān are to be found in the collections of adīth, the narratives or "traditions" that record the community's memory of the sayings and actions of the prophet Muammad and his companions. Individual traditions often fail to suggest a distinction between islām and īmān. The Prophet is sometimes quoted as having indicated that the essentials of islām are the Shahādah, the twin testimonies to the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muammad, as well as the other duties constitutive of formal islām, with no specification of the components of faith. More often, however, the reports seem to imply that the terms connote at least different aspects of the same response, if not two separate kinds of responses.

One particularly interesting narrative found in a range of renditions presents the Prophet defining islām as clearly distinct from īmān. In the best-known version the story is told about a stranger with a beautiful face, black hair, and a white robe (usually understood to be the angel Gabriel) who joins the Prophet and a group of his companions and asks "What is islām? " (or, in other versions, "Tell me about islām "). The Prophet answers that islām is the performance of certain duties. The specifics of these duties differ in the various renditions of this adīth, but the most commonly cited are witnessing that there is no god but God and that Muammad is his Messenger (shahādah ), submitting to God with no association of anything else, performing the prayer ritual (alāt ), paying the alms tax (zakāt ), observing the Ramaān fast (awm ), and making the pilgrimage (ājj). If the first two of these are combined, the list then reflects the elements that commonly have been accepted in Islām as the five duties that constitute the "pillars" (arkān ) of the individual Muslim's religious responsibilities.

After this enumeration the stranger assures the Prophet that the definition is correct. He then goes on to ask about īmān and is told that it consists of faith in the following (again differing somewhat according to the several versions): God, his angels, his books (or book), his messengers (or messenger), the resurrection, the garden and the fire, and other eschatological realities. Though less commonly classified than the arkān, the elements in this list generally are identified as the key components of the creeds that have been developed by members of the Muslim community. Several versions indicate that after thus defining islām and īmān the stranger asks the Prophet, "If I do that am I a muslim and a muʾmin? " to which the Prophet responds "Yes."

The continuation of the story includes commentary on iān, a third element beyond islām and īmān, which the Prophet says is the state of being perfected and serving God as if he were always before your eyes. From the structure of the narrative it is clear that the discussion was intended to suggest degrees of religious response, with islām as the first and most basic and iān as the last and highest. This kind of ranking is supported by another commonly cited narrative in which the Messenger of God says that islām is external while īmān belongs to the heart. For reasons that are not entirely clear, scholastic theology (kalām ) did not generally develop the concept of iān but centered its subsequent discussions primarily on the first two terms.

Other adīths seem to suggest that faith is a component element of islām. When asked about islām on one occasion the Prophet is said to have replied, "Witness that there is no god but God and that I am the Messenger of God, and have faith in all foreordinations, their good and evil, their sweetness and bitterness." On another occasion, the Prophet says that the more virtuous islām is īmān, which consists of faith in God, his angels, his books, his messengers, and the resurrection. Here īmān becomes a kind of subdivision of islām, with the most virtuous īmān said to be the emigration (Hijrah) and so on through a series of subcategories. In several traditions islām seems to consist of īmān plus works, as when the Prophet says that one should say "I have faith" and walk the straight path.


The respective definitions of islām and īmān became increasingly important in the early Muslim community as the nation of Islām grew through great numbers of conversions, and its members early on began to struggle with the question of who was or was not a Muslim. In a variety of ways, and for political as well as theological reasons, sects, schismatic groups, individual thinkers, and schools of theology adopted positions by which they tried to determine membership in the Islamic community. To this end clearer and firmer distinctions came to be drawn between islām and īmān, and the various groups in the young Muslim community often defined their positions according to those distinctions.


Theological speculation is often said to have begun with the political movement of the Khārijīs, the earliest of the Muslim sects. It was, however, a movement not of passive reflection but of active involvement in the effort to purify Islam. As decades passed after the death of the Prophet, some began to feel that those in power were betraying the basic understanding of the faith. All the members of the community were being called muʾminūn ("persons of faith") regardless of the degree of their piety and their adherence to the essentials of Islam. The Khārijīs, in their zeal to ensure that the Muslim community was led by those most qualified in matters of faith and obedience, focused attention on the question of who is a true muslim/muʾmin and who is a kāfir (best defined not as unbeliever or infidel but as one who actively rejects the will of God). Īmān and islām were seen by the Khārijīs as essentially synonymous: Both include verbal and intellectual assent as well as works and are in absolute opposition to kufr ("rejection"). Rather than trying to define the muslim/muʾmin the Khārijīs concentrated on the kāfir and adopted often ruthless means of condemning and in fact excommunicating such a person from the community.


The sect known as the Murjiʾah (lit., "those who postpone") was politically and, on this issue, theologically opposed to the Khārijīs. This group felt that it is wrong to condemn a member of the community as a kāfir, no matter what his or her actions. Judgment of human conduct and final determination of one's state of punishment or felicity must be left in the hands of God, they said, postponed until the Day of Resurrection.

Gradually, however, this doctrine came to mean for them not simply the postponement of judgment. In addition, they gave works a place of secondary importance behind faith by saying that good works are not a necessary indication of faith. This was in distinction to the Khārijīs, who stressed the importance of outward acts of piety in conformity with God's laws. The Murjiʾah thus became the first in the Muslim community specifically to address the question of the internal structure of īmān. While there clearly were different schools of Murjiʾah (al-Khaīb al-Baghdādī breaks them into three main groups, and al-Ashʿarī identifies twelve different strands), their overall contribution to Islamic theology was in their identification of the nature of faith as separate from works and in their assurance for the muʾmin of a place in paradise despite his or her failure to observe the laws of God.

Virtually all of the succeeding theoretical discussions about the nature of faith took as their starting point the issues and problems raised by the various schools of the Murjiʾah. There was general acceptance of the Murjiʾī thesis that the main elements to be considered in the understanding of īmān are affirmation (tadīq ) and verbal acknowledgment (iqrār ) of that affirmation. (While most later thinkers stressed the primary significance of tadīq as heartfelt affirmation, however, the Murjiʾah rather understood affirmation as intellectual assent or knowledge.) While they assented to the importance of tadīq and iqrār as necessary constituents of īmān, the Murjiʾah clearly rejected works.

As a consequence of this doctrine the Murjiʾah, in clear opposition to the Khārijīs, did not believe that the quality of one's faith could be determined by the commission of sins, even major or grave sins. One school of the Murjiʾah, the Karrāmīyah, went so far as to maintain that īmān consists strictly of the saying of the two shahādah s, the testimony of the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muammad, and involves neither affirmation nor works.

Later discussion

The debates between sects such as the Khārijīs and the Murjiʾah were based on crucial questions of membership in the Muslim community and were therefore far from strictly intellectual issues. They were, in fact, quite often matters of life and death. As time passed, however, and the community began to stabilize after its initial growth, a stage was reached in which these kinds of questions were seen less as issues requiring decisive action and more as matters of intellectual engagement and decision. Thus the nature of islām and īmān continued to be discussed by the leading thinkers of the community.

One way of treating the relationship of, or distinction between, submission and faith is to consider which is the broader category under which the other is subsumed. Not surprisingly, different Muslim interpreters and schools of theology have reached different conclusions, often based on traditions from the Prophet such as those cited above.

If one understands islām as consisting of the five pillars or duties (the testimony, prayer, fast, alms tax, and pilgrimage) it is possible to argue that the first of these, witnessing to God's oneness and the prophethood of Muammad, can be considered an act of faith. In that way īmān is part of the larger category of islām. Thus Ashʿarī theologians such as al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013), for example, concluded that all īmān is part of islām, but not all islām is part of īmān. Al-Ashʿarī (d. 935) himself said that islām is wider than īmān and that therefore not all the former is part of the latter.

The later anbalī thinker Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) carefully developed another way of seeing this relationship in his analysis of the adīth in which the Prophet seems to rank islām, īmān, and iān. Because of the very ranking, he said, iān, while characteristic of the most select number of the faithful, in fact connotes the most inclusive definition. That is, the person of faith (muʾmin ) must by definition be a submitter (muslim ), and the person of perfection (muin ) must therefore be both of the former. Īmān, therefore, contains islām. Ibn Taymīyah's conclusion was more than academic. It is clear, he felt, that islām is an external act while īmān is a matter of the heart. For Ibn Taymīyah the Ashʿarī conclusion that islām is wider than īmān implies that while all those who submit are persons of faith, not all who profess faith are muslim s, a conclusion with which he totally disagreed. And in fact the majority Ashʿarī view was that although faith can exist without islām, failure to do the works characteristic of islām is a grave sin. For Ibn Taymīyah, to have faith but not to do works of obedience is an impossible contradiction.

While some in the Muslim community continued to debate these and other theological issues, others turned to the task of systematizing the conclusions reached by thinkers within the various schools into creedal formulations. One of the most popular of the creeds over the centuries has been the Shar al-ʿaqāʾid of the anafī jurist al-Nasafī (d. 1143). The creed was later commented on by the Ashʿarī scholar al-Taftāzānī (d. 1389). Īmān, said al-Nasafī, is affirmation (tadīq ) of that which the Prophet brought from God and confession (iqrār ) of it. While acts of obedience may increase, faith neither increases nor decreases. Then, in a very interesting conclusion, he declares that īmān and islām are one; they are so, al-Taftāzānī explains, because obedience (idhʿān ) is the essence of both islām and tadīq, which, in al-Nasafī's definition, is īmān.

Despite the common element of obedience, al-Taftāzānī did not completely identify the terms but rather said that one cannot exist without the other. In the anafī creed Fiqh akbar II (Greater understanding II), attributed to Abū anīfah (d. 767) but probably written in the tenth century, īmān and islām share the common ingredient of submission and overlap so much that they are essentially interchangeable.

Qurʾān commentators analyzing the eight verses in which islām is mentioned all have stressed the essential component of submission, usually in relation to God's initiative. To the extent to which they have dealt with faith in relation to submission they have made it clear that īmān (most commonly defined as tadīq and iqrār ) is identified in some clear ways with islām. The degree to which they have equated the terms, however, has varied considerably. In his monumental commentary on the Qurʾān, Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān, al-abarī (d. 923) suggests a kind of bipartite islām. On one level is the verbal acknowledgment of submission by which one becomes part of the community of Islam, and on a deeper level is that islām that is in fact coordinate with the act of faith (īmān ) and that involves the complete surrender of the body, the mind, and the heart. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209), in the Mafātī al-ghayb (Keys to the mystery), insists that while the two are different in generality they are one in existence. If islām is not of the heart, he said, it cannot be called islām. Muammad Rashīd Riā, the twentieth-century Egyptian author of the Manār commentary, suggested a similar interpretation when he said that the true meaning of both islām and īmān is what he calls īmān khā, interiorized faith, which is the only means of salvation. In this understanding islām and īmān converge in a single reality (aqīqah ).

Most Qurʾān commentators through the centuries, however, have seen islām and īmān as more distinct than al-abarī, al-Rāzī, or Rashīd Riā have. They admit that islām can have a purely external meaning, while īmān always involves confirmation of the heart. Although they differ in their attempts to interpret the distinctions between the terms, in no instance have they seen them as irreconcilable. And despite the variety of responses reflected in the works of theology, general usage of the terms islām and īmān has revealed some common understanding both of their respective definitions and of the ways in which these terms together express the totality of the Muslim's response to the being and will of God.

See Also



Works in Arabic

For a full collection of traditions from the prophet Muammad in which the terms islām and īmān are used, see Ibn anbal's Musnad, 6 vols. (1895; reprint, Beirut, 1969). The earliest extensive Qurʾān commentary that analyzes the relation of the terms in their scriptural usage is Abū Jaʿfar Muammad al-abarī's Jāmiʿ a-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān, 30 vols. in 12 (Cairo, 19541968). Of the several creedal formulations dealing the juxtaposition of faith and submission in the thinking of the early Muslim community, one of the most popular is ʿUmar ibn Muammad al-Nasafīyah's Shar al-ʿaqāʾid, with commentary by Saʿd al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī (Cairo, 1974). A rich treatment of the meaning of faith and its relation to submission is found in the Kitāb al-īmān of the fourteenth-century theologian Ibn Taymīyah (Damascus, 1961).

Works in Western Languages

Such basic works as A. J. Wensinck's The Muslim Creed (1932; reprint, New York, 1965) and Louis Gardet and M. M. Anawati's Introduction à la théologie musulmane, 2d ed. (Paris, 1970), are helpful for a general understanding of the significance of the īmān/islām discussions in the development of Islāmic theology. More specific treatments such as Helmer Ringgren's Islām, ʾaslama, and muslim, "Horae Soederblomianae," vol. 2 (Uppsala, 1949), and "The Conception of Faith in the Koran," Oriens 4 (1951): 120, analyze Qurʾanic usage of the terms. Toshihiko Izutsu provides an extensive study of the interpretation of īmān in the history of Islamic thought, with a chapter on its relation to islām, in The Concept of Belief in Islamic Theology (Tokyo, 1965).

Jane I. Smith (1987)