The Meaning of Faith in Islam

by Dr. Christine Schirrmacher

Copyright © 1997 Christine Schirrmacher

Westerners often assume that the Moslem faith rests only on the obedience of strict rules and regulations but has no place for 'a living faith of the heart'. How do the Koran and the Islamic teachers define 'faith in God'? Does the Moslem have assurance of his salvation?

In the Koran, the term 'faith' means 'to consider something to be sure and reliable' without doubting. Faith can only be given by God, and means above all, that a human being acknowledges Allah's greatness and superiority, his own position as God's servant, who owes Him gratitude for His mercy towards man.

"He has created the heavens and the earth with truth. . . He has created man from a sperm-drop. . . And cattle He has created for you (men): from them ye derive warmth, and numerous benefits, and of their (meat) ye eat. And ye have a sense of pride and beauty in them as ye drive them home in the evening and as ye lead them forth to pasture in the morning. And they carry your heavy leads to lands that ye could not (otherwise) reach except with souls distressed: for your Lord is indeed Most Kind, Most Merciful And (He has created) horses, mules, and donkeys, for you to ride and as an adornment; and He has created (other) things of which ye have no knowledge." (Surat 16:3+4,+5-8. Compare with the whole section, Surat 16:1-21).

In general, the Koran divides humanity into two groups, the Moslems (the believers-Arabbic-'al-mu'minûn') and the non-Moslems (the unbelievers-Arabic-'al-kâfirûn). The unbeliever is ungrateful towards God and His goodness, above all towards His gift of revelation, the Koran. The believer, however, gives the thanks he owes Allah by honoring Him as source of all goodness and by recognising His revelation as law. It is the faith of the individual that decides his fate at the Day of Judgment; whether he will enter Paradise or Hell. That belief is essential to salvation is accepted by all schools of Moslem theology'.[1] Opinions differ, though, on the consitution of faith. Possibilities include:

1. The inner conviction of the truth of the revelation of God without any public confession being necessary.

2. The declaration of the Islamic confession of faith, combined with the inner conviction of the heart.

3. The fulfillment of the prescribed Moslem duties.

4. The Moslem conviction of faith combined with the fulfillment of the Moslem duties and good works.[2]

5. The declaration of the Moslem confession of faith, inner conviction and good works.[3]

Faith in Need

The Koran clearly condemns those who call upon God only when in need and forget Him afterwards. Surat 39:8 says, for example, "When some trouble toucheth man he crieth unto his Lord, turning to Him in repentance: but when He bestoweth a favour upon him as from Himself, (man) doth forget what he cried and prayed for before, and he doth set up rivals unto Allah, thus misleading others from Allah's Path. Say, 'Enjoy thy diselief for a little while: verily thou art (one) of the Companions of the Fire!'"

God thus demands faith out of gratitude towards man's creator, and not out of calculation in a momentary situation of need. A true Moslem, in the actual sense of the word, is one who contintually trusts in divine assistance and support, and does not wait until an emergency to arise before seeking Him. For example, the Koran condemns the Arabic Bedouins, who confess Islam publicly, but who do not believe it in their hearts. "The desert Arabs say, 'We believe.' Say, 'Ye have no faith; but ye (only) say, 'We have submitted our Wills to Allah,' for not yet has Faith entered your hearts." (Surat 49:14)

In the same way, the Koran condemns the feigned belief of the hypocrites (Arabic-'munâfiqûn'), who profess to be Moslem in order to enjoy its privileges. Buhârî, a collector of Islamic tradition, wrote that 'religious teaching' consists of three elements: the contents of faith, the practice of Islam, and the internalisation of this practice, so that the individual always acts as if he were in the presence of God.[4]

Faith and Acts

The majority of Moslem theologians teach that the Islamic faith is more than either a mental agreement with certain facts or a mechanical obedience of cetain rules, but rather a person's dedication to God's will and the recognition of His sovereignty. This has consequences for his behavior in the family, in society and in the State. Without question, the Islamic faith can not be described as a mere external membership to a relgious group or as the theoretical agreement with particular dogmas.

According to the Koran, particular deeds and behaviors are essential aspects of faith and are demanded of every Moslem. The five pillars of Islam come to mind first, of course: The confession of faith, prayer five times daily, alms, fasting in the month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca. But beyond these requirements, the Koran describes other practical expressions of faith in Allah. Surat 2:177 concludes, "But it is righteousness-to believe in Allah and the Last day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and give Zakat."[5] Surat 23:1-11 promises Paradise to the believer who prays humbly, who has no sexual relations to women other than his own wife and slaves, who uses wealth entrusted to him honestly, who does his duty and prays.

The Islamic Confession of Faith

Besides the individual rules of behavior, the Koran does not formulate any particular dogmas which a Moslem must believe in order to be considered a believer. Since there were no offical councils held or doctrinal decisions made in Islam as in the early centuries of New Testament Christianity, no official confession of faith binding on all Moslems was ever formulated. In contrast to the detailed Apostolic and Nicene Creeds of Christianity, the first Pillar of Islam contains only two points, the belief in the existence of God and the belief in Mohammed's prophetic office: "I confess that there is no God besides Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet." For this reason, there are usually only three or four statements of faith required of every Moslem:

1. The belief that there is only one God.

2. The belief that Mohammed is His Prophet.

3. The belief that every human being must appear before God at the Last Judgement.

4. The belief in Angels.

5. The belief in the Holy Books of revelation.

Above and beyond these statements, Moslem theologians have collected basic dogmas, such as the sinlessness of the prophets or the absolute sovereignty of God, which are generally accepted in Moslem theology, but have never been formulated into a statement of faith binding on all believers. The well-known reformist theologian of the nineteenth century, Muhammed Rashîd Ridâ (1865-l935), who lived in Cairo, defined Islamic faith as "the act of worship, the care to avoid bad and blameworthy deeds, to respect right and justice in social relationships, and to purify the soul and prepare it for the future life; in a word (it consists of) all the laws whose aim is to bring man near to God."[6]


The comparison of these statements about faith from the Koran and from Moslem theologians with those of the Bible demonstrates similarities as well as differences. The Bible also presents faith as more than a mere acceptance of various regulations, a theoretical agreement with dogmas or a membership in a religious group. On the other hand, Biblical faith could be called 'a firm, unshakeable trust in God' rather than merely a humble recognition of God's sovereignty, as it is in Islam. The firm belief, which does not doubt, but becomes sure, before it sees, is considered exemplary in the Bible (Compare Heb. 11). Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

At the same time, the Bible makes it clear that faith can never be a mere acknowledgement of dogmatic precepts. ("You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe-and tremble." James 2:19) Rather, Biblical faith is a conviction which expresses itself in a person's actions. ("But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?" James 2:20, or ""Thus also faith by itsef, if it does not have works, is dead." James 2:17.) The Bible also calls this 'bearing fruit' "He who abides in Me and I in him, bears much fruit;" John 15:5). Whoever truly believes, repents before God, for a merely theoretical conviction of sin is not a real conviction. A true believer in Christ, acts according to God's standards, for he otherwise proves that he is not really convinced of the truth of God' Word "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked." 1 John 2:6).

[1] L. Gardet. "Imân", Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol, III, E. J. Brill, (Leiden, l986), pp. 1070-1074.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hermann Stieglecker. Die Glaubenslehren des Islam, Ferdinand Schönigh, (Paderborn, l983), pp. 570-571.

[4] Louis Gardet. Islam, Verlag J. P. Bachem, (Cologne, l968), p. 30.

[5] The tax for the poor

[6] Muhammed Rashîd Ridâ. al-hilâfa au al-imâma al'uzma, (Cairo, l922), p. 192, quoted from the Encyclopaedia of Islam, II, E. J. Brill: Leiden, 1986, p. 293-296, here p. 294.

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