WHAT WE BELIEVE
Witnessing God: The Commandments of Our Faith
I grew up mostly in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, the eldest son of a well-known Muslim scholar and imam. As a boy I prayed, like other Muslims, five times a day. At the core of these prayers we recite, in Arabic, what is known as the shahada, or “witness of faith,” a ritual declaration that translates as “I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is God’s Messenger.”
When I was twelve or thirteen I had a problem with the shahada: every time I recited it I heard a voice inside me saying, “Feisal, you’re a hypocrite. In your prayers you are saying that you bear witness to God, when the truth is that you haven’t witnessed God at all; you are simply mouthing the words.” Teenagers are highly sensitive to what they believe to be hypocrisy in others, so it was excruciating to hear this voice accusing me, especially when I knew it was telling the truth. I knew little about my faith at the time, but I would later learn that the Quran is filled with God’s criticism of hypocrisy and hypocrites.
One day, during our midday meal—it was our main meal of the day—I put my problem to my father. “Doesn’t the word shahada mean ‘to bear witness,’ that is, ‘to see’?” “Yes, Feisal,” he replied. I continued, “And doesn’t ash-hadu an la ilaha illallah therefore mean ‘I have seen, or witnessed, that there is no god but God’?” “Yes, Feisal,” he again answered. “But I haven’t seen God yet,” I all but wailed, and waited for a rebuke. My dad did not look surprised or angry or even annoyed—and he did not, thank goodness, think me a hypocrite. He was a great teacher and a wise man, so he understood the significance of what I was seeking: that inner moment of experience or enlightenment, what Sufis (Muslims who seek this experience of God) call “the unveiling” of God.
While suggesting that I simply continue with my prayers, he also guided me to writings that he thought would be helpful in my quest. He had a friend at the university who taught Sufism, whom I visited and who pointed me toward books that attempt to help the individual achieve spiritual realization, to recognize God. I read and read, especially the writings of Imam Ghazali, the great eleventh- and twelfth-century Sufi philosopher, which I found particularly inspiring. And I prayed and prayed, and pleaded with God to hear my prayers.
I got an important part of the answer when I read a story by the thirteenth-century poet Rumi, called “Two Friends.” A man goes to a friend’s house and knocks loudly, imperiously, on the door. From within, a voice asks, “Who’s there?” to which the man answers, “It is I.” The voice retorts, “Go away.” Disappointed, he leaves. After a year of wandering and spiritual reflection, the man comes back, this time humbly and with a trembling heart, and knocks on the door with trepidation. The voice inside asks again, “Who’s there?” This time the man answers, “It is you.” The friend says, “Please come in, my self, there’s no place in this house for two.”
One afternoon about a year after that first conversation with my father, I was riding home from school on the bus and suddenly, out of nowhere, it happened. For what seemed like a long minute, though I don’t know how long it actually lasted, I could feel my own personal boundaries dissolve. Without losing consciousness—in fact, I was extremely aware of everything around me—the boundaries of my own self, my ego, just melted away, and in that moment I felt a complete oneness with everything around me, and oneness with God. At that moment I knew directly, experientially, with no shadow of a doubt, that I was in the presence of a being absolutely almighty, all-knowing, all-loving, merciful, and compassionate, who comprehended everything in existence. And I knew that everything was perfect, that the universe was the way it should be.
To this day I remember that moment vividly. I remember the greenness of the leaves and the bus driving me home, the yellow of the afternoon sun, the grinding of the bus’s diesel engine, even the rip in the brown vinyl seat to my left. And I felt at one with all of it: with God, with the sounds, with the colors, with the feelings and sensations. We all were one. When the moment was over, I knew that I had borne witness to God. As in Rumi’s story, I felt that God had finally invited me in—and I was now a genuine witness to God. Sufis have a saying: Once the heart prostrates itself before God, it never rises, remaining eternally in prostration. With this initial experience of God’s reality, I felt I had performed this prostration, an act so transformative that I saw everything in a new light. And that feeling has never left me. It has enabled me to practice my religion authentically, from the inside out, instead of experiencing the forced practice of religion from the outside in, which results in strained and often fake religiosity.
The First Commandment: Bearing Witness to the Oneness of God
Islam is a faith based on the Quran, a collection of God’s words revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Jibril (whom Christians know as the Angel Gabriel) between 610 and 632, when the Prophet died, and the practice, or sunna, of the Prophet as described in the collected reports, or Hadith, of his teachings and practice. In the nearly 1,400 years since the Prophet’s death, an immense body of commentary has emerged to explain, interpret, and elaborate the meaning of the Quran, the Prophet’s actions, and the Hadith, which, depending on the tradition, number into the hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless the religion practiced by Muslims in America and around the world is also one of breathtaking simplicity.
Most fundamentally of all, we believe there is just one God, whom we love and worship above all else. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam was born in an era of polytheism, a time when Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, and tribes and kingdoms worshipped many gods, often through idols. We Muslims acknowledge, affirm, declare, and worship one God. This God, our God, has no partners. The Lord is one. Our single most important act of worship is to declare the following: “There is no god but God.” In Arabic: La ilaha illallah.
If you are not Muslim, you might try saying it, as we do, several times in a row, just as it is written. The front of the tongue goes to the roof of the mouth to make the “l” sound. Not only is it a profound declaration of monotheism; it has an alliterative rhythm (repeating the “la” sound) that helps move it into the realm of Arabic poetry, which makes much use of alliteration.
Among Sufis, repeating this phrase is the basis of all meditative practice, known as dhikr, similar to a Buddhist mantra. Dhikr means “remembrance (of God),” which in turn elicits God’s remembrance of us, as God commands us, “Remember Me so I will remember you” (Quran 2:152). God often commands us in the Quran to remember Him. One of the Prophet’s companions complained he was too old to perform all five of the daily prayers, and he asked the Prophet to give him something easier to do. “Occupy your tongue with the mention of Allah,” the Prophet answered (Tirmidhi 1970). As important as the five-times-daily prayer is, the Prophet did not rebuke the old man, but urged him to frequently remember God, for the Quran (29:45) asserts that remembrance of God is greater than prayer.
It is greater because that is how we connect with God, the spiritual source that enlightens and transforms us into loving creatures. It is greater because connecting with God is how we internally realize and experience the underlying unity of all faiths and experientially connect with adherents of all faiths. To use a business metaphor, we have a tendency to think of Judaism as resembling “Moses, Inc.,” Christianity as “Jesus, Inc.,” and Islam as “Muhammad, Inc.” The Quranic truth is that Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and all the countless prophets God sent were regional managers of “God, Inc.” Divine remembrance transforms us from religious observers who are attached to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as crystallizations of Moses, Inc., Jesus, Inc., and Muhammad, Inc., into adherents of God, Inc., and seeing Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and all the prophets as crystallizations of God, Inc., in different contexts of time and place. Divine remembrance is the source of spiritual power and the enlivening power behind nonviolence.
The Prophet bid his followers repeat La ilaha illallah as often as they could, and to this day Muslims are encouraged to repeat it frequently, to the point that it is constantly on our tongues. Depending on context and how it is intoned, the words Allah and La ilaha illallah can be exclaimed by Muslims to mean any number of things (just as Americans use the exclamations “Good God!” or “God Almighty!” to indicate surprise or wonder). But the repetition, a hundred or even a thousand times a day, to fill up dead time, to express thankfulness for good fortune, for the beauty of the day, for the love of one’s family, is considered a very beneficial and potentially transformative practice. It can even be a kind of stress reducer. I know someone who looks forward to a traffic jam so she can repeat La ilaha illallah!
Islam is not alone in this exercise of expressing the oneness of God. If you are Jewish, you may hear the echoes of the Hebrew Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (in Hebrew, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad, which sounds strikingly similar to the first verse of chapter 112 of the Quran: qul huwa-llahu ahad, meaning “Say, He is God: One”) and the following instruction, part of the Shema, known in Hebrew as the v’ahavta:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:5–9)
Jews often place a mezuzah, a decorative case holding small scraps of paper imprinted with Torah verses, on their doorframes. Muslims do something similar: the expression La ilaha illallah is often written in beautiful calligraphy and posted on entrances to people’s homes, and today it even appears on bumper stickers and digitally on laptops.
If you are Christian, you may be reminded of Matthew 22:37–38, in which Jesus quotes the Torah: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” These similarities are no accident, of course. Muslims believe that the Torah and the Gospels were also divine revelation from the same almighty God, and believe in Moses and Jesus as our prophets too.
The First Commandment of Islam, then, is to bear witness to the oneness of God. We incorporate the La ilaha illallah into the full shahada, which is this statement: “I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is God’s messenger.” By making this statement, we are bearing witness to God’s oneness, God’s power, and God’s revelations to the Prophet (and thereby to all the prophets), which are collected in the Quran. It is a covenantal act, an active commitment rather than an article of passive belief.
This commandment is the foundation of our faith and the key to our religion, the group of beliefs, practices, and obligations defining the relationship between the individual and God. It is the defining pillar of Islam. To me, it is the defining pillar of religion itself.
Here is what I mean, and why I give so much importance to the First Commandment. The Quran, while acknowledging Jews and Christians, never once speaks of Judaism or Christianity. God never once addresses the Prophet’s followers as “Muslims” in the Quran. He always calls them “believers” (mu’mins). In the Quran (9:29, 9:23), God talks about believers, about “right” or “good” religion (din al-haq and din al-qayyimah), and “God’s religion” (din Allah), and asserts that each of the prophets and messengers came to teach the same religion in a different time, in different languages, and with slightly different liturgical practices.
The Prophet himself always referred to his community as “believers.” The caliphs appointed as leaders of the community after the Prophet’s death were known as “Commanders of the Believers,” not “Commanders of the Muslims,” and did in fact rule over a growing multifaith community. Only a century later did we change our name from “believers” to “Muslims.” This change occurred because the Prophet’s followers felt the need to differentiate themselves from other faith communities, especially the Jews and Christians, who were also considered believers, literally “People of the Book” (people who were given a Scripture: in the Jews’ case the Torah and the Psalms; in the Christians’ case, the Gospels).
We all, Jews and Christians and Muslims alike, have a tendency to (in effect) “worship” our own religion and our own religious laws and practices and articles of faith, when the core of each of our religions really ought to be the First Commandment: the acknowledgment of and bearing witness to the greatness and oneness of God. The Prophet instructed his followers not to worship him, but to worship God. The Hebrew prophets make this precise criticism of the Children of Israel, and Jesus does something very similar. This criticism and commandment are just as relevant today, in the religiously diverse United States—and the world—where far too many believers are more attached to their denominational understandings of rituals and doctrinal niceties than they are to the genuine basis of their belief.
I almost wish we could use the ancient language and call ourselves “believers” rather than Muslims. In our zeal to exalt our own religions, we lose sight of what we have in common, which is deeper than any particular manifestation of a religious faith. More than once in the Quran (6:159, 30:32) God laments our human predilection to divide ourselves into sects, each delighting and congratulating itself on its limited understanding of “true faith” and looking down its nose at others.
If all of us, including today’s Muslims, were to return to thinking of ourselves as believers in this larger sense, it would expand the space for more interfaith interaction and mutual respect among those who consider themselves believers. We would be closer to what the Prophet was trying to create in Medina, a community of believers that included his followers and some who believed in God through the path of Jesus, others through the path of Moses.
This language would, I believe, create a sense of a believing community that could also cross national and ethnic boundaries. This is why, in the early history of Islam, there was recognition and protection of other faith communities and aiding them in being the best possible Jews and Christians. Followers of the Prophet thought of themselves as believers building communities of faith, rather than thinking of themselves in a parochial sense as Muslims in contrast to Christians or Jews. They did not exclude those outside their faith as being outside their community and did not believe they had to have a hostile relationship with them. Instead of focusing on defining “the other,” the concept of believers expands the notion of “us.”
If you think about this idea, you can see that it offers a way back from the extraordinary religious divisions and conflicts of our time: expanding the notion of “us” rather than establishing differences between “us” and “them” as a cause of enmity. Because once we start down the path of defining and rigidifying differences, the space of “our community” shrinks: one group of Sunni Muslims, for example, begins to regard every other group, including the Shias, as heretics and enemies. The same phenomenon has occurred, especially among Christians over the centuries, in literal battles between Protestants and Catholics, but also within Jewish communities.
The “Islamic” Word: Expressing a Theology
There is a tripartite model in Islamic theology, based on one of the most important hadiths, known as the hadith of Jibril (or Gabriel), organized around three concepts: islam, or submission; iman, or faith, and ihsan, or virtue (Muslim 1). The translations are not exact, but they will do for our purposes.
Islam, I want to emphasize, is understood to be the lowest level of religious adherence, even though it consists of the “five pillars” of religious practice that all Muslims (those who submit) must perform as obligations. These practices unite Muslims from Los Angeles to Lahore, Detroit to Dar es Salaam. At this most basic level, the Prophet defined the term “Islam” as a set of actions, things that we do, not a concept in which we believe. It is God we primarily have to believe in, and not Islam. It is not enough, in other words, to know that God exists; we must also bear witness to Him.
In the past few centuries, the term “Islam” has evolved from a verbal noun to a proper noun, as a religion we belong to rather than the set of actions we perform. We have created the adjective “Islamic” to describe things that would have puzzled our Arabic-speaking ancestors. These words only make sense because we are looking at ourselves from the point of view of outsiders, using a modern terminology that is alien to our tradition.
A confident, righteous people doesn’t define itself from others’ point of view. We ought to be defining ourselves based on our own sense of selfhood and our own relationship to God, not in the fuzzy language of being “Islamic” or “un-Islamic.” People or cultures or nations are either godly or ungodly, abiding by God’s laws, surrendering to Him and obeying His laws, or not. But since the advent of colonialism, too many Muslims have fallen in love with the term “Islamic” and have sought to “Islamize” everything; thus we have “Islamic state,” “Islamic banking,” “Islamic dress,” “Islamic food,” “Islamic Barbie,” and the like. Is it any wonder, then, that non-Muslims also extend the Islamization process to include “Islamic bomb” and “Islamic terrorism”? Although these terms are genuinely offensive and frequently nonsensical to Muslims, we have been partly responsible for their creation. Unless we take responsibility for this usage and seek to erase it, I believe we cannot in good conscience completely place the blame for this usage on non-Muslims.
Even some of the best interpreters of the Muslim world make what seems to me a fundamental error when they use the word “Islam” to refer to the entire history and belief systems of Muslims and the Muslim world. It is a profound mistake to think of individuals or Muslim groups as identical to Islam the faith, just as it is an error to consider individual or groups of Christians as identical to Christianity. This way of thinking results in people asking, “Why does Islam do this?” or “What does Islam think about this?”
Nomenclature is critical here. Islam is the five actions believers are required to perform. It is not really a proper noun; it’s a verb form, a gerund, like “surrendering.” In Arabic, you never ask, “What does Islam say?” The proper and classical way of phrasing this question is “What does God say?” or “What did the Prophet say?” or “What do the majority of scholars say?” When the questions are phrased in this manner the answer must naturally take note that God has said different things in different contexts, that the Prophet gave different judgments in different contexts and at different stages of his community’s evolution. It is God who commands, and God commands islam. Islam does not command!
If you ask, on the other hand, “What does Islam say?” you have transformed “Islam” into a proper noun, into an actor in its own right, and incorporated the implicit presumption that there is one answer and anything else is “un-Islamic” and heretical. You collapse the diversity of opinion and law, which has been a part of the robustness and health of living societies over centuries. The question itself is structurally wrong, historically invalid, and logically false.
The same is true of the question “What does America think?” If “America” thinks something, then all Americans—Tea Partiers and teachers’ union shop stewards, environmentalists and oil company CEOs, politicians and plumbers—think exactly the same thing, which we know to be false. But if we shoehorn all Americans into one set of “correct beliefs” on a whole set of issues, from dress to politics to what is healthy food to whether abortion should be legal or illegal, then every opposing view will be de facto “un-American.” Now you get the idea of what has happened to Muslims over the past half-century. If journalists and public officials speak of “Islam,” they collapse the experience and history of more than a billion people over a millennium and a half into one category of interpretation.
Now that I have gotten this pet peeve out of the way, let us return to islam, the five action-obligations. First is to make the declaration of the shahada: “I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is God’s Messenger.” (That alone, by the way, declared publicly, is required for embracing Islam and will gain you formal entrance into the Muslim community as a convert.) Second, we ritually pray to God while facing Mecca five times a day: at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and early night. These prayers are prescribed, memorized by all Muslims, and involve a certain choreography (standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting in a particular order) that is pretty much identical across the world. I say “pretty much” because there are some very slight differences between Sunnis and Shias on this choreography. But Sunnis and Shias may, and do, pray together, and such prayers are all deemed valid. Because we believe that God dictated the Quran to the Prophet in Arabic, this Muslim liturgical prayer is performed exclusively in Arabic, the way the Mass used to be entirely in Latin and Jewish services all in Hebrew.
The narrative of how the prayer began is the subject of a story in the Hadith (Bukhari 3596). One day, while the Prophet was asleep in Mecca, the Archangel Jibril put him on a winged horse that flew him to the site of the destroyed Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem—now occupied by the Dome of the Rock. After praying there with all the prophets, he was raised through the seven heavens, where he met and conversed with various prophets (including Adam, Abraham, and Jesus) and witnessed many things. Among the sights he witnessed was angels adoring God and singing His praises. At one level of heaven he witnessed infinite rows of angels eternally worshipping God in a standing position; as he ascended to the next level he saw angels in a bowing position, at the next level angels in a prostrate position, at the next level in a seated position. The Prophet was so moved by this powerful image of rows and rows of angels singing and glorifying God that God established it as the choreography of the prayer movements for his followers.
Muslims are also known around the world for our call to prayer, chanted by muezzins five times daily in mosques. The origin of the call to prayer, itself now something of an art form, also makes a good story. When the Prophet emigrated from Mecca and established the first community of believers in Medina, he built a mosque. The question soon arose: how to call the believers to assemble for prayer in the mosque in such a way as not to be confused with Jews’ use of the ram’s horn, the shofar, or the bell that Christians used.
At first, they decided to use a gong, but then one day one of the Prophet’s companions reported that he had had a dream in which he heard these words as a call to prayer: “God is the greatest. I bear witness that there is no god but God. I bear witness that Muhammad is God’s Messenger. Come to prayer. Come to success. God is the greatest. There is no god but God.” The Prophet announced that this dream was a sign from God (Abu Dawud 421). He instructed his community that a call to prayer would be recited out loud in place of a gong. Then he asked his friend, the freed Ethiopian slave Bilal, who had a fine voice, to climb to the roof of the mosque and chant the words publicly. The very first time the people of Medina heard this call, the beauty of his rendition echoing off the alleyways of the city stopped them in their tracks, holding the Prophet and his followers in a kind of awe. This chant has been the Muslim call to prayer ever since. It is such a powerful and beautiful chant that muezzins compete over who can produce the finest rendition.
The third action-obligation central to Islam is to donate, annually, at least 2.5 percent of our wealth, called the zakat, both to support the needy and to benefit the larger community. In some Muslim-majority countries (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia), the zakat is collected by the state-run zakat treasuries, who then distribute them; in other countries, it is entirely voluntary and distributed directly to the needy. In the United States Muslims give the zakat to their mosques, relief organizations, or other favorite charities.
Fourth, we are enjoined to fast—to refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual activity—from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan.
Because of their different interpretations of God’s words in the Quran, Sunnis and Shias end their fasts differently. I experienced an amusing example of this difference when I was invited some years ago to the home of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations in New York during Ramadan. He had invited American Muslim leaders from all over the United States for this meal; most of them were Shia. Sunset came and went, and people kept talking, and I found myself increasingly confused. We Sunnis rush to break our fast at the very instant of sunset, and I was hungry for the delicious fesenjan, tadik, and other Iranian delicacies! After fifteen minutes or so, I leaned over to one of the Shia imams and gently whispered that sunset had passed. “Oh,” he explained, “we don’t break our fast at sunset, we wait until the onset of first night in the East, about twenty to thirty minutes after sunset, in keeping with the Quranic verse ‘to complete the fast until night’” (Quran 2:187). Shias don’t interpret “night” as sunset the way Sunnis do. This made perfect sense, I thought, though I had never heard this interpretation before. You will have deduced from this story that I am Sunni, and that I did not spend much time with Shias in my early life.
Fifth, we are to make a pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the hajj), assuming we are physically and financially able, at least once in our lifetime.
These ritual acts connect Muslims to each other all over the world, in ways that are often quite moving. For example, Malcolm X’s letter to his friends and family from his own hajj (reprinted in his Autobiography) is one of the true highlights of American religious writing:
Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors . . . from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.
Although they are called the five “pillars of the faith,” acts through which we submit ourselves to almighty God, the truth is that we can perform these movements and actions without really believing in them, without having a sense of deep faith, without ever having truly witnessed God. In the Quran, for instance, God explicitly recognizes that a person can be a Muslim—someone outwardly performing the actions—and be spiritually empty. Or worse. A person can be intentionally hypocritical and unethical—a wolf, so to speak, in sheep’s clothing (Quran 2:264).
In the Quran (3:113–115) we read that there are Jews and Christians who are sincere and devout, who compete in acts of goodness, and who will receive God’s approval and salvation. So there are upright people of faith of whom God approves, whether they call themselves Christians or Jews or believers or Muslims, and there are hypocrites and evildoers in all these religious categories as well. The real divide is therefore not between Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists, but between godly believers and ungodly people—which includes religious hypocrites. We must work to make the godly/ungodly divide dominate over the current attempts to divide Muslims against Jews and Christians and Hindus.
Anyone can perform these actions for show rather than belief and can be unethical or cruel in dealings with others; in either case the person would be engaging in hypocrisy, one of the most serious sins discussed in the Quran, with an entire chapter devoted to it (chapter 63). Another chapter condemns those “who perform the prayers, but who are forgetful of their prayers” (that is, do not act accordingly: Quran 107:4–5).
Calling ourselves Muslims, therefore, in this theological and historical sense, ought not by itself to be a great source of pride. After all, in Quranic terms Muslims are in effect probationary believers, a full step below where we need to be: real believers (people of iman, belief or faith), which is the next step up in this system. Believers are called to five core “items of faith”: belief in one God, the supreme being; belief in angels (such as Gabriel, Azrael, and Michael); belief in the Holy Scriptures of Jews and Christians—the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels—as well as the Quran as originally and fully God’s compositions; belief in the prophets and messengers of God; and belief in the Last Day (a complex of events, including the end of the world, a day of resurrection followed by a day of divine judgment, followed by eternal reward in Paradise or punishment in Hell). There is no tradition of doctrinal dispute or cherry-picking among these beliefs in Islam, the way some Christians will argue about the virgin birth or the resurrection or the literal existence of heaven and hell. For us, this is a complete package comprising core beliefs.
As you can see, belief goes a step further than practice. If we truly believe the words of the Holy Scriptures, we cannot simply go through the motions of prayer or financial charity. We have to practice in our daily lives what God instructs: to free ourselves of hypocrisy, egoism, and self-delusion and to seek justice for our community.
There is an ancient argument among believers that is as old as religion and has manifested itself in theological debates and creedal competitions over the centuries. It has to do with whether salvation depends on faith alone, by God’s grace, without “works”—actions in society—or whether salvation might come to those who may not have true faith but who perform good works. God frequently commands us in the Quran “Believe and do good works” (Quran 2:62) and also “Establish prayer and pay the zakat” (Quran 2:110). So it is clear to me that we need both faith and good works, prayer and charity, to win God’s grace and approval.
If this sounds as though I am calling for a kind of revival here in the United States in the early twenty-first century, you are reading me correctly. I am calling for the same kind of return to spirituality that Jesus called for in his lifetime. Jesus criticized the emphasis on religious legalism that allowed money changers into the Temple of God. As he violated the letter of Sabbath laws, he declared, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Many Muslims, especially those who are influencing our young, are concerned only with legalities and have dispensed with the spirit of the law. I would like to see a return to our original tradition of calling ourselves believers, not merely Muslims, and demanding of our community a serious level of faith commitment and ethical virtue.
We contrast this level with what we call ihsan, often translated as “virtue,” which the Prophet described as “worshipping God as if you see Him.” This highest level is the one closest to God, and one few of us think we can actually reach. But since the concept is based in the word for “doing that which is the good, or the better or best” it suggests a constant effort to become more virtuous, to see God more clearly, to become closer to God. Experiencing God makes a person more virtuous. You can see how much of the Prophet’s teachings are rooted in action: active practice, active belief, and the struggle to achieve the best and thereby actually do better.
We all tend to act more responsibly and ethically when we know we are being watched than when we are alone. God is watching us all the time, and we human beings need to act with that knowledge.
You can see how this highest level, ihsan, links back to the shahada, since the act of witnessing necessarily implies that one sees God. To witness something, after all, is to see and be present to it. So to worship as if you can see God requires us to perform the shahada as something real. That was my problem as a boy: I did not feel it was real, and until it was real, it tormented me.
When I tell the story from my childhood of how I came to internalize God, I get powerful reactions from different kinds of people. No matter the audience, both Muslims and non-Muslims respond strongly. The search for God is universal. If there is a God, how do we really know He exists? How can we know? These questions are not unique to any one religious community. Religion begins with spirituality, the experience of God that binds all people of faith. People are touched by the idea that Muslims and Christians and Jews share a powerful hunger for experiencing the presence of God, what American Christians used to call a “conversion” and Buddhists “enlightenment.”
The Second Commandment: Love Others as Ourselves
My personal experience of God on that school bus had a profound impact on my relationship with Him: how I prayed and worshipped, how I threw myself into deeper readings on religion and religious philosophy, my experience of fasting, my desire to go on the hajj. All of these actions became more intense, more consequential to me. But it also deeply affected how I related to others and made me so much more eager to understand how God wanted me to relate to my world: to my parents, family, friends, teachers, and strangers, but also to animals and the rest of the natural environment. For when I experienced God, I simultaneously perceived Him in His handiwork, so to speak: in the mountains, in the sky, in the colors of a sunrise or sunset, in the dogs and cats and other animals around us, in all of nature. I felt friendly, even intimate toward nature, for which I felt grateful to God. And I wanted to relate differently, better to the Creator of all this beauty. I desperately wanted to earn God’s approval, and the possibility that I might evoke His displeasure made me feel horrible.
Which brings us to the Second Commandment of Islam, equal in importance to the First. It will be familiar to Jews and Christians (and all other religious communities), as was the First Commandment. Most simply, it is the Golden Rule: to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the words of the Prophet, “None of you is a believer until you love for your brother what you love for yourself” (Bukhari 12). The Prophet’s Farewell Sermon commands, “Hurt no-one, so that no-one may hurt you” (Muslim 2129). Or, as the Jewish teacher Hillel answered when dared to summarize the Torah while the challenger stood on one foot, “What is hateful to you do not do unto your fellow human being; this is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.” Not an easy task.
Preventing people from doing what is hateful to others is what God’s law is all about, and this is why I will now discuss law.