What is your Belief or Faith, asked the person sitting next to me at an airport transit lounge whom I had befriended while waiting for my next flight, that was delayed by several hours. I had started a conversation with him which turned into some kind of metaphysical discussion about the purpose of human life, when he politely asked me the above question. I, in turn, asked him, what do you mean by faith? He replied, you know, everybody has a faith, except, of course, atheists. I continued, this does not explain what is meant by faith? To this, he gave the following explanation: A Christian's faith is Christianity; a Jew's faith is Judaism; a Muslim's faith is Islam; and so on. It seemed to me that my new friend thought that he had a good deal of understanding in this matter. I interrupted, but you are talking about religion. He continued, yes, kind of—but religion is different from faith. For example, a Christian's faith is Christianity but his religion could be Catholicism, Protestantism, etc. According to my friend's logic, then, a Muslim's faith is Islam and his religion could be well Sunni or Shia etc. But that is not how most Muslims think, I told my friend; Muslims think that their faith is Islam which is their religion.
I then asked my friend, What do you mean by religion? At this point, he gave a long sermon type lecture;Religion is too complex to understand. It is a private matter between man and God, and your belief is your personal subjective belief in Him in whatever way you prefer. God is merciful. He is very forgiving. So, He will forgive any mistakes we humans make. It really makes us all feel very good that when we commit sins and pray and ask for forgiveness from God, He forgives. All praise is to Him who is so forgiving. When God is so generous and gracious that, whether or not we really understand the meaning of faith, or any other religious concept for that matter; and since He is going to forgive us anyway, then why bother exploring these concepts in great detail and depth. Let us keep following what our ancestors and scholars have explained. After all, they were great people and great scholars. They traveled long distances, suffered greatly in search of truth and knowledge and took extreme care to preserve and transmit that knowledge to us so that our lives become easier and successful in the sight of God. We will get all the rewards and go to heaven by simply practicing our faiths the way our forefathers told us. It is wrong to question and deviate from what they have passed on to us.
At this point, I decided not to ask any further questions from my friend. I sensed a bit of uneasiness in him. Otherwise, I would have liked to ask: What does he mean by God's forgiveness? By His mercy, His generosity, His graciousness, and His praise? And what is the meaning of prayer? I had first asked a simple question as to what is meant by belief. Not only did he not answer my question, several other questions entered my mind as well. I told him that I have immense respect for all the great works of all those great scholars. But they were limited by the knowledge available to them at their time. Tremendous advancements have since then been made in various branches of knowledge such as Physical, Biological, and Social Sciences and Humanities; and we can better explain the religious concepts of belief in the light of this new knowledge, especially in the fields of anthropology, archeology, sociology, psychology, embryology, neurology, and astronomy. My friend seemed perplexed at this statement, and he commented, what do these various fields of knowledge have to do with faith or religion? And he repeated his earlier statement that belief is a private matter between man and God. So, my friend had completed a full circle and came back to the beginning of our conversation. I felt that explaining one concept in terms of another concept and then building a circular chain of arguments is not a satisfactory approach. I told my friend that I am not satisfied with this approach of explaining faith by using circular arguments and want to investigate it further. My friend, on the other hand said that he is fully and completely satisfied with this approach and has a good feeling about it. At this point, an announcement was made that our flights were ready to depart.
I kept wondering during my flight: Isn't life like this, too? Everyone is waiting in the transit lounge called Earth for one's flight—to the next world. But of course, there is a significant difference. Unlike the daily flights originating from different places and going to various destinations, life's flight originates from a single source and takes us to a single destination.
╟ One Journey Ends, Another Begins
Since I had resolved to investigate for myself the meaning of faith in depth, I turned to the most authentic source I knew that Allah Almighty book, the Quran, to find out the truth about it. Our Muslim brothers and sisters have lost interest in exploring the meanings of some of the most fundamental concepts and principles of Islam. Among such concepts is the most important one, called Iman.
As every Muslim knows or should know, Iman is the foremost and essential requirement of Islam. Without proper Iman or belief , one cannot become a Muslim even if one is born in a Muslim family. In fact, Iman is something which has to be self consciously acquired in order to become a Muslim, constantly maintained in order to remain a Muslim, and continually reinforced and fortified in order to begin the next life as a Muslim. Therefore, faith is something which cannot and should not be taken for granted. Unfortunately, many of us take it for granted.
If Belief or faith is so important that it is the kernel of life here and a savior in the hereafter, then it becomes necessary for each of us to find out what Iman really is. It is not right to say that I am a Muslim and therefore I have Iman because I was born in a Muslim family. As we will see shortly, the Quran and that means Allah Almighty does not accept this as a valid argument.
What is Iman and what is its definition in the context of Islam? We will have to explore this question in some depth (as mentioned earlier). This is a fundamental question concerning Muslims and Islam. But one thing is quite clear: A definition of Iman which contradicts any Quranic principle cannot be accepted as Iman in Islam, no matter where and whomsoever it may have come from. After this preamble, let us explore, first of all, the meaning of the Arabic word Iman and its definition given in the Quran by Allah Almighty.
╟ Meaning and Definition of Iman or Belief according to Quran
The root of the word Iman is a-m-n which means: to be calm and quiet in one's heart; to be protected from fear; trustworthiness and truthfulness (Taj al-Urus). It means to accept truthfully, to be convinced, and to verify something, to rely upon or have confidence in something. It is usually translated in English as faith or belief, and belief in turn signifies acceptance without proof or argument, without reference to reason or thought, knowledge or insight. According to the Quran, Quranic faith is conviction which is based upon reason and knowledge; a conviction that results from full mental acceptance and intellectual satisfaction; the kind of conviction that gives one a feeling of inner contentment and peace. And a Momin is one who accepts truth in such a way that it ensures his own peace and helps him to safeguard the peace and security of the rest of mankind. In fact, Al-Momin is one of the attributes of Allah Almighty Himself » Quran Chapter 59 verse 24
God Almighty gives a comprehensive and an objective definition of Iman ; to believe in Allah, and in the hereafter, and in Malikah (angels or forces of Allah Almighty), and in the Book, and the Prophets » Quran Chapter 2 Verse 177
To deny any of the above leads one into the category of deviated ones (i.e., unbelievers): Anyone who denies God, His Malaika, books, messengers, and the Day of Judgment has gone far astray » Quran Chapter 4 verse 136
Everyone has to believe in the entire Quran as a revealed guidance. This is what is meant by religious belief about God. Saying that I believe in God Almighty and not accepting his Books including the only preserved Book of God in the original form existing in the world now, the Quran as guidance for life, is in reality, not a belief in God. As a necessary corollary to this is the requirement of believing in all the Prophets / Messengers and the means of message delivery, i.e., Malaika (Allah Almighty forces or Angels). And since God Almighty wants to see how well we used His gifts of life and His Book of guidance, hence requiring us to believe in the Day of Judgment and accountability. This explains why it is necessary to believe in all the five components of Iman where each component has its own objective reality. This means that each of these components of belief exists and is real just as the sun exists and is real. So, there is nothing subjective about faith.