Muharram 1444 – 29th July 2022: Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions

“No one will feel secure on the Resurrection Day except those who feared God in this world. Hazrat Imam Husayn (a.s)

By: Sadruddin Noorani, Chicago, USA

The Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP) ( curriculum has a module entitled: Faith & Practice in Islamic Traditions. This module focuses on the dimensions of religious meaning and practical expressions in a community of faith, as understood in the Shia Ismaili Muslim and other Muslim traditions. These aspects are approached from a variety of perspectives by exploring the significance and functions of faith, prayers, rituals, devotion, and spaces of worship in Muslim contexts. Students are guided to reflect on their own experiences as members of the Ismaili Muslim community, while also referring to other religious traditions. This article is intended to enable young Ismailis to appreciate the significance of their faith and practice as a source of arriving at the ultimate meaning of life.

Faith and Intellect

In the Holy Qur’an, we find a close connection between faith and the exercise of the intellect. Repeatedly, the Qur’an invites people to ponder and reflect on God’s signs. It urges them to contemplate and think about these signs which God has shown throughout creation at large.

In Surah al-Imran, 190-191, Allah says:

“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, are signs for people of understanding – those who remember Allah standing or sitting or reclining, and who reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying]: ‘Our Lord, You have not created this in vain. Glory be to You! Protect us from the doom of the Fire.”

These verses suggest that we can arrive at a deeper understanding of creation through the exercise of our minds. In the Qur’anic view, creation itself is an ayat, a sign of God. God reveals to humanity His ayats through the revelations He has sent to His prophets and messengers. He also reveals His ayats in nature, in human history, and within the human self. It is ultimately up to each person to decide whether to follow or reject the guidance that God revealed through His signs. In many verses of the Qur’an which refer to God’s signs, we find the verb aqala. This term occurs almost fifty times in the Qur’an and is linked to the noun aql (‘intellect’). Aqala means to use one’s aql in order to recognize, understand or interpret the ayats or signs of God. The Holy Qur’an invites all humans to apply our reason or intellect to God’s ayats  conveyed through His revelations.

We are called to reflect upon the reality of creation and to give thought to what we perceive and experience with our senses and our minds. In the Qur’anic view, the exercise of the intellect is not an end in itself but a means to achieving a higher goal. The use of reason leads to the truth, while not using it results in error and falsehood. Recognizing and understanding God’s signs evoke belief in Him.

The views of early Imams on faith

Shia views on faith developed on the basis of their understanding of the Qur’an and hadith. The formative period of Muslim history is of particular importance to Shia thoughts. In Shia works, including Ismaili sources, we find many references to faith which are attributed to the early Imams, including Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a.s) and Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (a.s). Here are some examples of these references.

Someone asked Imam [Ja’far al-Sadiq (a.s] about the act which is most excellent in the eyes of God. [The Imam] replied, ‘That without which no act is acceptable to God.’ The man asked, ‘What is [this act]?’ [The Imam] said, ‘ Of all acts the most exalted is faith in God; in rank, the most noble; in good fortune, the most sublime.’ The questioner said … ‘Tell me about faith. Is it profession with action, or profession without action:’ [The Imam] said, ‘Faith consists entirely in action, and profession is part of that action …’

We gain further insight into what constitutes faith in this saying of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (a.s):

Faith consists of  professing by the tongue, believing with the heart, and acting in accordance with its tenets.

The Imam also said:

 … faith consists in word, deed, and belief. There can never be word, deed, and belief without faith and affirmation, for then alone is faith completed.

Faith as piety, character, and action

Faith and action are closely linked in many Islamic traditions. In Shia Islam, we find similar linkages connecting faith with piety, character, and action.

For example, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a.s) is reported as saying that iman is built on four pillars: patience, certainty, justice, and struggle. For him, a person’s virtues are directly linked to his iman. In another of his traditions, Imam al-Baqir maintains that:

The believer who is most perfect in iman is the one who has the best character.

The following saying of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq reinforces the point that faith cannot be separated from character:

Truly God has divided Islam into seven parts: patience, truthfulness, certitude, contentment, faithfulness, knowledge, and forbearance. And He has divided them among the people, and the one in whom God placed all seven portions, his iman … is complete …

A Fatimid perspective on faith

In Fatimid times, we find examples of works which include the subject of faith. One of the Ismaili authors who wrote about this subject was al-Qadi al-Nu’man. He devoted an entire chapter on faith in his major work Da’a’im al-Islam (‘the Pillars of Islam’), a book of jurisprudence.

The following quotation of al-Qadi al-Nu’man relates iman to the principles of tawhid, nubuwwa, qiyama and imama. It is based on his understanding of the Qur’an and hadith which he acquired from Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (a.s)’s teachings which states:

“Faith consists in testifying that there is no deity other than God alone; that He is without associate, and Muhammad is His Servant and His Messenger; that Heaven and Hell and the Resurrection are verities; that The Hour [of Judgment] will [surely] come, there is no doubt thereof; in believing faithfully in the prophets of God and in His messengers and Imams; in knowing the Imam of the time and accepting him faithfully, obeying his commands; in acting in accordance with what God has rendered obligatory upon His servants and avoiding what has been prohibited, and obeying the Imam and accepting what comes from him.” 

Approaches to faith in the Nizari period

In the Nizari Ismaili period, the outward and inward aspects of faith were reflected in the relationship between the shari’at, tariqat and haqiqat. For Shia and Sufi authors of this time, the shari’at was generally understood as the outer form of Islam, tariqat as the path which led the believer to an inner understanding of Islam, and haqiqat as the ultimate truth to be found in following this path. Some authors add  ma’rifat, or ‘inner knowledge’, to these three terms. 

We find many references to these terms in Ismaili writings. One work from this time period is attributed to Imam Mustansir-billah (a.s) from the Nizari tradition called Pandiyat-i Javanmardi which talks about the importance of piety, character, and wisdom.

Vision and commitment

Note: If you can get your hands on STEP Secondary Curriculum’s module on “Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions“, an IIS publication, Student Reader, please read Vol. 1, p. 18-19; and p. 29-31.

Hazrat Ali (a.s) has said: 

Islam is submission; submission is conviction; conviction is affirmation; affirmation is acknowledgment; acknowledgment is discharge (of obligations); and discharge of obligations is action.

Faith and its engagement with the world

The Holy Qur’an says: 

The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel (evil) with what is better; then he, between whom and you there was enmity, (will become) as though he was a close friend. (41:34)

Nabi Ibrahim in the Holy Qur’an

Among the accounts of the prophets in the Qur’an are those of Nabi Ibrahim (Abraham) (pbuh). A passage from the Qur’an  presents a particular event in the life of Nabi Ibrahim. 6:74-79.

A man of pure faith

When Ibrahim said to Azar, his father, ‘Do you take idols as gods? Truly, I see you and your people to be in manifest error.’ (6:74)

‘And thus We showed Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, so that he might be of those having certainty.’ (6:75)

When the night grew dark over him, he saw a star and said, ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘I do not love the things that go down.’ (6:76)

And when he saw the moon rising, he said, ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘If my Lord does not guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.’ (6:77

Then he saw the sun rising and said, ‘This is my Lord! This is greater!’ But when it set, he said, ‘My people, I am free from all that you associate (with Allah). (6:78)

Indeed, I have turned my face towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, a man of pure faith [hanif], and I am not one of the idolaters.’ (6:79)

The ideal person of faith

The above Qur’anic verses (6:74-79) are about a phase in Nabi Ibrahim’s life when he questioned the objects which his people worshiped. It shows him rejecting, one after the other, the star, the moon, and the sun as his ‘Lord’ because of their transient nature. Instead, he asserts his faith in God as the Creator of everything, including the heavenly bodies which his people worshiped as deities.

This passage of the Qur’an shows us (humans) of deep conviction. The principles he held led him to confront the injustices in his society. He became committed to struggle for what he felt was the absolute truth. The passage uses two phrases which reveal the nature of Nabi Ibrahim’s faith. He is linked to ‘those having certainty’, that is, people with unwavering conviction in what they believe, who are not swayed by doubt. He is also called a hanif, an upright person or a man of pure faith. He is one who has ‘turned his face’ towards the Creator. In these expressions, we find insights into the character of a person of faith, who orients his/her whole life towards God.

Mawlana Hazar Imam (Aga Khan lV) on faith and the eternal

The notion of faith as having to do with that which is eternal and enduring has been expressed throughout 1,400 hundred years of Ismaili history by the Imams of the Time (Hazar Imam) including the current Hazar Imam.

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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