THE FAITH: The Three Stages of being a Muslim – Part I

In Islam, Quran on August 2, 2009 at 8:04 am

quranWhile I was reading the Qur’an some days ago, with  tafseer by Maulana Taqi Usmani, I came across an ayah in Sura Al-Maida which reminds us of the progressive stages of a Muslim’s faith.

In view of the coming Ramadaan, it seemed to be an excellent topic of presentation and preparation.

Here is the ayah.

Al-Maida, ayah 93

Translation: On those who believe and do good there is no blame for what they eat, when they are careful (of their duty) and believe and do good deeds, then they are careful (of their duty) and believe, then they are careful (of their duty) and do good (to others; and Allah loves those who do good (to others).

The context

This ayah appears in the context of the prohibition of drinking wine in a previous ayah (#90). When the commandment was received and announced by the Prophet (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam), some Sahaba came and inquired what of those who had drunk and have already died before its prohibition. This ayah explains that since those Muslims had eaten only what was not forbidden according to the Allah’s commandments up till then, and that they had done this in sincerity towards Him while standing in fear of displeasing him, they do not deserve any penance; rather they deserve reward in the hereafter.

Stages of faith

However, what inspires me to write about today is the simple gradation of the Muslim faith that is provided in this ayah and against which we can measure ourselves.

In this and many other verses of the Qur’an, the Believers are called upon to believe. What does it mean? Why the apparent repetition? Why tell those who already believe to believe…?

Tafaseer confirm what the common sense points to: the belief that is being demanded of the Believers is of a different and higher kind than that more basic and lower rung of the ladder that they have already climbed. At various points in Qur’an and hadith, as here, this second stage of Faith is further distinguished from a third, higher one. The three stages in succession are:

1. Islam – 2. Iman – 3. Ihsan

Below follows a hadith that verifies the authenticity of these concepts.

The hadith

On the authority of Omar [razi Allahu unh] who said:

One day while we were sitting with the messenger of Allah 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 [salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam].

Resting his knees against his and placing the palms of his hands on his thighs, he said:

“O Muhammed [salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam], tell me about Islam“.

The messenger of Allah 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 zakat, to fast in Ramadhan, and to make the pilgrimage to the House if you are able to do so.”

He said: “You have spoken rightly”, and we were amazed at him asking him and saying that he had spoken rightly. He said:

“Then tell me about eman.”

He [Prophet Mohammad salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam] said:

“It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and 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 ehsan.”

He said: “It is to worship Allah as though you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not yet, truly He sees you”.

[Reference: Hadith #2 in Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths, taken from Muslim]

[Note: The narration continues to a discussion of signs of qiyamah and Hazrat Omar asking and finding out that the strange person asking questions and talking freely to Prophet Mohammad was Hazrat Jibrail (Angel Gabriel).]

Stage 1: Islam

Many of us assume (with a simple-minded ignorance) that if we have recited the kalima thus claiming our Muslim faith we have indeed attained the first stage.

Not so fast..

Look again at the first section of the reference ayah and you will find the phrase wa ‘amilu-ssalihaat (“and they perform the good deeds”) attached as an essential characteristic of the first stage. Even if you are a perfunctory reader of the Qur’an you will testify that this little phrase accompanies the phrase allazina amanu (“those who believe”) nearly all the places in Qur’an, except where they are simply being addressed (i.e., as ya ayyuh-allazina amanu).

Now look at the first section of the reference hadith wherein our Prophet Mohammad (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam) replies to Jibrail the meaning of Islam. Therein we find the full requisites of falling in the “Muslim” category; the most basic definition of ‘good deeds’. And why not? Of course, ‘deed’ means action and ‘testifying’ to the basic components of faith is merely an intellectual act, not a behavioral one.

So here’s an opportunity for us to compare ourself with the following four-point scale of being a true MUSLIM (forget, for the time being, about being a Mo’min and next a Mohsin; that will come later).

The Muslim Scale: the starter


Before the actual four deeds that are the minimum requirements for our Muslim faith having any validity in the hereafter, of course their is the prerequisite testimony. The common mistake is to invoke the testimony as Enough! No. Think of this testimony (the kalima) as a prologue. Suppose you go to your favorite bookshop and buy a novel by your favorite author. You don’t look into the book then (being in a hurry), and bring it home. At home a big disappointment awaits you. The novel only has a prologue! Where’s the rest of the story? It’s outrageously blank! [Or more typically, keeping in mind the actual case we are following, filled with irrelevent rubbish..] So what do you do? Placidly- patiently- rather helplessly- accept your position to be content with a mere two-page prologue? Never! Surely your dignity is of higher sensitivity. YOU WANT YOUR MONEY BACK! So you return to the bookstore as soon as you can and return this INVALID case of a novel with disgust. So what are we expecting from our Lord, the Almighty? This ayah (translation here) is a clear eye-opener if any doubts still remain:

Do they, perchance, wait for the angels to appear unto them, or for thy Sustainer [Himself] to appear, or for some of thy Sustainer’s [final] portents to appear? [But] on the Day when thy Sustainer’s [final] portents do appear, believing will be of no avail to any human being who did not believe before, or who, while believing, did no good works. Say: “Wait, [then, for the Last Day, O unbelievers:] behold, we [believers] are waiting, too!” [Al-An’aam, 158]


In the next post InshaAllah, I will go through the other four points of this first stage.

Note: Read the Part II of this post here.

  1. why do you have to post your thoughts in parts?? now how long will I have to wait for 2nd and 3rd part? :p

    I recently read a book “Even Angels Ask” by Jeffery Lang… a good read if you can find it. Its by a convert who goes through
    the Quran for non-muslims and explains things beautifully. The title of the book is based on the story of angels who are asked to prostrate prophet Adam and they even asked why humans should be created… any way, to get to the point, the book goes thru the Quran and explains our purpose in life. I recommend you read it!

    BTW, Great interpretation and explanation! Jazakallah khair!

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. What with university schedules and postgraduation pressures, it took me two long weeks to complete this (and most of the second part) of the post. If I don’t decide to post in parts, my rate will be once per month!

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