What does “religion” really mean?
Reading the last post by F, I was inspired. I truly love that hadith and believe it provides important insight into the way we (Muslims) are expected to embody our religion. I had already written an article about this hadith (that is no longer online, unfortunately) so I thought I might share it here.
In today’s materialistic world the personal spiritual connection with God has been all but lost. Ironically, it is a well-documented fact that religiosity in the Muslim world is on the rise, giving Muslim communities a somewhat contradictory image. This contradiction can be especially confusing for non-Muslims who are genuinely trying to understand if being “religious” from an Islamic perspective is restricted to a certain dress code and set of rituals. The problem is that so many Muslim societies have become obsessed with appearances of piety, and consequently outward manifestations of religiosity say nothing about inward spirituality. While these visible aspects of the Islamic way of life (known to Muslims as Shariah) are important, they are by no means sufficient on their own as a path to get closer to Allah (God).
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) explains in a hadith (prophetic saying) how being religious should be pursued from an Islamic perspective.
“One day while we were sitting with the Prophet there appeared before us a man, he said: “O Muhammad, tell me about Islam (submission)” The Prophet said: “Islam is to testify that there is no deity worthy of worship but Allah (God) and that Muhammad is His messenger, to perform the prayers, to pay the Zakat (charity tax), to fast in Ramadan, and to make the pilgrimage if you are able to do so.” The man said: “You have spoken rightly”
He then said: “Then tell me about Iman (faith)” The Prophet 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.” The man said: “You have spoken rightly”
He then said: “Then tell me about Ihsan (excellence)” The Prophet said: “It is to worship Allah as though you can see Him, for if you see Him not, truly He sees you.”
After this, the man left, and the Prophet told us: “This was the angel Gabriel, he came to teach you your religion”. (Muslim)
According to this hadith, religion – as a methodology or framework used to get closer to Allah – is much more than the visible aspects of worship such as prayer, fasting and dressing appropriately. Rather, Islam as a religion is described as a three-dimensional way of life that combines:
- Submission with one’s body through actions and rituals.
- Submission with one’s mind through faith, belief and creed.
- Submission with one’s heart through Ihsan which is usually translated as excellence in worship through purification of the heart, strengthening the spirit, and breaking the ego.
This multi-dimensional view of religiosity deals with the human being in a holistic manner that encompasses one’s physical being, one’s mind and intellect, and one’s heart and soul. Therefore, those who follow only the visible practices of Shariah, such as prayer and fasting, without concerning themselves with strengthening their faith or purifying their heart, can almost be described as “one-dimensional Muslims”.
This saying by Prophet Muhammad speaks about worshipping God as if we can see Him, and knowing, believing, and feeling in one’s innermost core that He can see us at all times. This is about checking our intentions before every action, our conscience being active at all times, being humble and aware of our equality in front of God, having the utmost trust in God’s Power and Mercy, and seeking help from Him and Him alone.
Excellence in worship is also achieved through excellence in action, for in Islam worship goes beyond rituals and includes regular daily actions, if done with the proper intention. That is why Ihsan can be pursued through many different channels. Ihsan also means doing good to one’s self and doing good to people, and it means not being attached to material things in this world, or as the Prophet said “Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a wayfarer”. (Bukhari)
Living one’s life as if one can see Allah means being in a constant state of awareness that all one’s actions are being observed and recorded. It is a special state of God-consciousness that prevents us from doing wrong and causes us to aim for excellence in everything that we do. It is to ask yourself: Would you throw that piece of garbage on the street if you could actually see God in front of you right now? If you could see Him watching you, would you ignore that poor person on the corner or would you stop to give that person some charity? Would you cheat? Would you lie? Would you hurt others?
Doing good in this world is given such a high priority in the Quran that in many different parts the Quran describes the rewards of those that do good, and they are given the title of those who have achieved Ihsan. The Quran says what means:
“And do good. Truly Allaah loves those who achieve Ihsan.” (Al-Baqarah 2:195).
“For those who do good in this world there is good, and the home of the hereafter will be better. And excellent indeed will be the home of the pious.” (An-Nahl 16:30)
“For those who have done good is the best reward and even more (i.e. having the honour of glancing upon the countenance of God). Neither darkness nor dust nor any humiliating disgrace shall cover their faces. They are the dwellers of Paradise, they will abide therein forever.” (Yunus 10:26)
This shows us that the concept of excellence in worship is not effectively pursued solely through ritualistic forms of worship or by applying the public aspects of the Islamic way of life. Rather, Ihsan is pursued through strengthening one’s personal consciousness of God’s omnipotent gaze. We must do good to other people, and try to contribute something positive to humanity by striving for excellence in everything we do. Only then, can we hope to be considered among those who have achieved Ihsan, and thus, only then can be considered among those who are truly “religious”.