How do we understand that we believe in Allah's existence by approving it with our heart? How do we understand whether we believe in something or not?

Details of the Question

How do we understand whether we believe in something or not? How do we understand that we believe in Allah's existence by approving it with our heart?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Belief means to trust, to believe heartily in the news that is given, to approve the one that brings the news, to believe in something without hesitation, to believe that there is no god but Allah, that Hz. Muhammad (pbuh) is Allah's slave and Messenger, to believe in Allah's angels, books, the Day of Judgment, qadar and that Allah created the good and evil. (Bukhari, Iman, 37; Muslim, Iman, 1, 5, 7; Abu Dawud, Sunnah, 15)

As an Islamic term, "belief" means to believe without hesitation that the news, religious principles and decrees that are definitely known to be brought by the Prophet Hz. Muhammad from Allah are true and real and to approve and express all of them by understanding and accepting them. That is, to believe in and to accept Allah, that Hz. Muhammad is the last Prophet, in the Islamic principles, decrees and news that are known as “religious requirements”, and to express them by the tongue.

Religious requirements are the Islamic principles, decrees and news reported from the Prophet (pbuh) through tawatur and known without needing any rational evidence like the fact that the Quran is Allah’s speech, that resurrection after that and life in the hereafter are true, that deeds of worship like prayer, fasting, zakah and hajj are fard and that fornication, wine, interest, murder and telling lies are haram. It is necessary for every Muslim to believe without hesitation in such religious principles that are definite. Therefore, as a religious term, belief is more specific in terms of the things that it is related to but more general and comprehensive according to linguists.

In essence, belief is something related to the heart and conscience; therefore, what is essential according to linguists and in religious terminology is approving it, which is necessary to exist in the reality of belief. However, what is the source of this approving and expressing? What are the decrees that form the reality of belief? Is it only the heart? Is it only the tongue? Or, both of them? Or, the acts and righteous deeds done by the organs in addition to both of them? There are differences of opinion among Islamic scholars regarding the issue. Therefore, many madhhabs of creed emerged.

a) According to some scholars of Ahl as-Sunnah, religious belief means to approve with the heart and to express by the tongue that all of the things that are definitely known to be brought by the Prophet Hz. Muhammad from Allah are true and real. According to this definition, belief has two parts: one of them is approving, the other is expressing (stating). However, those parts are not essential parts that are at the same level. For, "approving by the heart" is the essential part that cannot be abandoned by any means, but expressing by the tongue is the "additional part" that can be abandoned due to obligatory states like dumbness and death risk. If approval by the heart, which is regarded as the essential part, is no longer present, that person exits belief and becomes an unbeliever. For, belief without approving by the heart is not possible by any means. However, a person who cannot express his belief due to threats of death does not exit belief and does not become an unbeliever since his heart is full of belief. (an-Nahl, 16/106) This madhhab, which is known as "Qawl al-Mashhur", is adopted by some Ahl as-Sunnah kalam scholars, Shams al-Aimma as-Sarakhsi, Fakhr al-Islam Pazdawi, who are Hanafi imams, and other Hanafi fiqh scholars. It is even narrated that Abu Hanifa also preferred this view. (Fiqh al-Akbar Aliyyul-Qari Sharh, p. 76-77; Sharh al-Maqarad, II, 182, Sharh al-Aqaid an-Nasafiyya, p. 436438)

b) According to “the majority of the researchers” of Ahl as-Sunnah, belief consists of approving what is necessary to believe by the heart. In that case, the only part of belief is approving by the heart. A person who has such unhesitant approval in his heart is a believer in the eye of Allah Almighty. Expressing it with the tongue is not an essential or additional part of belief. However, the approval in the heart can be known only if it is expressed with the tongue; otherwise, it is not possible to know whether a person is a believer or not; therefore, it is necessary to express belief with the tongue for the application of worldly and legal decrees. According to this principle, those who really approve belief in their hearts but do not express it with their tongues are not regarded as Muslims in the world and religious decrees are not applied to them but they are regarded as believers in the eye of Allah. Religious nass support this view:

"…For such He has written Faith in their hearts..." (al-Mujadala, 58/22);

"…For not yet has Faith entered your hearts..." (al-Hujurat, 49/14 and an-Nahl, 16/106, etc)

This is the preference of Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi. Imam Abul-Hasan al-Ash’ari, Imamul-Haramayn al-Juwayni and Imam Fakhruddin ar-Razi also hold this view. (Ali Arslan Aydın, İslâm İnançları, I, 164-165).

The Relationship Between Belief (Iman) and Deed (Amal):

According to what is understood from the information given and the explanations made above, both linguists and the majority of Ahl as-Sunnah scholars hold the view that “the reality of belief” consists of approving by the heart the existence and oneness of Allah, the prophethood of Hz. Muhammad (pbuh) and that he is honest about what he brought from Allah and conveyed to people. Many verses and sound hadiths show this decree clearly. As a matter of fact, the Quran always uses the word ”belief (faith)” related to the hearts of people:

"…For such He has written Faith in their hearts…" (al-Mujadala, 58/22)

"…For not yet has Faith entered your hearts." (al-Hujurat, 49/14)

"... his heart remaining firm in Faith... " (an-Nahl, 16/106).

When Hz. Usama killed a person thinking that he was an unbeliever though he said "La ilaha illallah (There is no god but Allah)", the Prophet (pbuh) asked him, "Why did you kill him though he uttered ‘Kalima at-Tawhid’?" Usama said, "He uttered it in order to save himself." The Prophet asked, "Did you rip his heart open and look (whether he had belief or not)?" (Tirmidhi, Qadar, 7; Ibn Majah, Muqaddima, 13; Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, II, 4).

According to the same scholars, “expressing with the tongue” is not a part of the reality of belief as it is stated above; it is a condition that is necessary to know whether a person is Muslim or not in order to apply the worldly decrees of Islam to him.

To act in accordance with Islamic decrees, that is, to practice the religious decrees that one believes is not included in the reality of belief according to the view of the majority of Ahl as-Sunnah imams and scholars. Along with the evidences mentioned above, the following muhkam (unambiguous) verses indicate it clearly and definitely:

"O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you..." (al-Baqara, 2/183)

In the verse above and similar ones (see al-Baqara, 2/153, 187; Aal-i Imran 3/59; al-Anfal, 8/20, 27; an-Nur, 24/21; al-Ahzab, 33/70; al-Jumu'a, 62/9), the first address is "O those who believe"; after that, the orders and prohibitions that believers need to do and not to do are stated. In that case, deed that is positive or negative, is something separate and it is not included in the reality of belief.  

"But those who believe and do deeds of righteousness, We shall soon admit to Gardens..." (an-Nisa, 4/57)

Righteous deeds are attributed to belief in the verse above and similar ones (al-Baqara, 2/227; Yunus 10/9; Hud, 11/23; Luqman, 31/8; Fussilat 41/8; al-Buruj, 85/ 11; al-Bayyina, 98/7; al-Ankabut, 29/7, 9, 58; Fatir, 35/7; ash-Shura, 42/22); According to the Arabic grammar rule, only things whose meanings are different are attributed to one another. That is, attribution necessitates that the thing that is attributed and the thing to which something is attributed have different meanings. In that case, deed is different from belief and it is not part of it.

"But he who works deeds of righteousness, and has faith,…" (Taha, 20/ 112)

In the verse above, the acceptance of deeds is bound to the condition of having belief. It is a known rule that what is conditioned (that is, deed) cannot be included in the condition (that is, belief). In that case, belief and deed are different things.

"If two parties among the Believers fall into a quarrel, make ye peace between them..." (al-Hujurat, 49/9)

Since the committers of the major sins who fight each other are mentioned as believers in the verse above, it is clearly stated that belief and the deed of killing a person, which is haram, can be present in a believer and hence that all kinds of deeds are different from belief and that they are elements that are separate from belief.

In addition to the clearness of the verse above and similar ones,  it is unanimously agreed by Islamic scholars that belief (the approval in the heart) is a prerequisite for the deeds of worshipping, each of which are righteous deeds, to be accepted by Allah. Therefore, a deed of worshipping done by an unbeliever has no value and thawab. For, it is necessary for him to become a believer first and to worship and do righteous deeds after belief. Deeds done without belief are not acceptable and valid in the eye of Allah. 

According to the definite religious evidence mentioned above and the consensus of scholars, it is clearly understood that deed is not a part of the reality and essence of belief. (For more information, see bk. Fiqh al-Akbar Aliyyul-Qari Sharh, p. 80; Tafsir Kabir, I/249; Sharhul-Maqasid, II/187; Sharhul-Mawaqif, III/248)

Although deed is not a part and principle of belief, there is a close relationship between deed and belief. For, worship and righteous deeds improve the belief of a person. They make man gain the eternal boons promised by Allah and informed by the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), and divine consent. In that case, it is necessary to worship Allah and to do good and righteous deeds in order to shine the light of belief in the heart, to strengthen and to make it perfect. For, a belief whose signs/traces are not seen in the external life and in community is like a tree without fruit. Both the religion and belief, which is the foundation of the religion, have an aim and purpose. This aim is high ethics, to be useful to people and to attain the consent of Allah. The consent of Allah is not attained only through belief, which is related to the heart and conscience, but with worshipping, righteous deeds and high ethics, which are the fruits of that belief. In fact, a belief that does not exit the field of heart can be of no practical and vital importance. For, it means to imprison belief in the heart and not to benefit from it.  

Real belief must be the driving power that leads its owner to what is good, true and righteous deeds; its works must be transferred to life and must enlighten the believer and what is around him. This can be possible only through practicing what one believes, that is, through worshipping Allah, doing good and right things called righteous deeds and attaining high ethics. In that case, since worshipping and deeds done without belief are not accepted (and are regarded as sign of hypocrisy), a belief that does not lead a person to deeds and worshipping is not sufficient.  

In that case, in order to improve belief and to make it perfect, it is necessary to adhere to Allah's orders, to avoid His prohibitions; that is, righteous deeds are necessary. Only those who do so can attain the consent of Allah and eternal bliss. Therefore, deed is not included in the reality of belief but there is no doubt that it is included in the perfection of belief. Therefore, - as it is stated above – salaf scholars, hadith scholars and some madhhabs imams regard deed to be included in belief, that is, perfection of belief. This view is right and in point.

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