Having understood what Islam requires of us in matters of ritual worship, our next step is to understand faith as it was revealed to us in the Qur’an and Sunnah and as it was understood by our righteous predecessors. Faith is based upon belief in the six articles of Faith, but this is not blind belief, as many people incorrectly assume. Readers may need to set aside any preconceived notions that the English word ‘faith’ might imply. Rather, faith in Islam is an action
. As Allah said, “Give glad tidings to those who have faith and do righteous deeds, that they will have gardens beneath which rivers flow.”12
The phrase “those who have faith and do righteous deeds” occurs over and over throughout the Qur’an. Faith is inseparable from the deeds of the heart and the deeds of the body, as the Prophet ﷺ said, “Allah does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather he looks at your hearts and actions.”13
For this reason, the scholars defined iman
in terms of both inward and outward action. Ibn Taymiyyah explains the definition for us, “It is understood that īmān
is [actually] affirmation and not simply belief (al-taṣdīq
). Affirmation includes both the heart's statement, which is belief, and the heart's action, which is compliance.”14
The statement of the heart means to really believe in what you profess with your tongue, and the actions of the heart are the internal mechanisms of worship, such as one’s ultimate fear, love, hope, reliance, and penitence. In another place, Ibn Taymiyyah writes that faith “is not merely belief in His existence and His attributes, as is shared by the believer and unbeliever alike.”15
Even Satan believes in Allah’s existence, but that does not make him a believer. It was only after he arrogantly disobeyed his Creator that “he became one of the unbelievers.”16
It was not the sin per se that made him an unbeliever, as we are all sinners, but rather it was his stubborn and remorseless refusal to repent and obey the commands of his Lord.
Shaykh ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Saʿdī gives us an even more detailed definition of faith:
As for the definition of faith and its explanation, it is resolute belief and total acknowledgment of everything Allah and His Messenger commanded to have faith in, complying both outwardly and inwardly. It is belief in the heart and its acceptance, including actions of the heart and actions of the body… For this reason, the Imams among the righteous predecessors would say: Faith is a statement of the heart and the tongue, and the actions of the heart, the tongue, and the limbs.17
Hence, faith is fulfilled through internal and external actions, in our hearts and minds as well as our limbs. From this perspective, faith is not a static category, but rather the strength of one’s faith fluctuates according to the nature of our deeds. As Allah said, “When a sūrah
is revealed, those among them say, ‘Which of you had his faith increased by this?’ As for those who believe, it increased their faith and they rejoice in it.”18
When new verses of the Qur'an were revealed, the companions of the Prophet ﷺ would memorize them, contemplate over them, and put them into action. The book of Allah would increase their faith.
As such, the parable of faith is that of a piece of clothing, which one wears or takes off at any given time. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Verily, the faith of one of you will wear out within him, just as a shirt becomes worn out, so ask Allah to renew faith in your hearts.”19
And ʿAbdullāh ibn Rawāḥah رضي الله عنه said, “The parable of faith is that of a shirt. You may not be wearing it and then you put it on, or you may be wearing it and then you take it off.”20
Faith must be constantly renewed by actions such as prayer, fasting, seeking Islamic knowledge, and remembrance. This is why Muʿādh ibn Jabal رضي الله عنه used to say to his companions, “Come and sit with us. We will have faith for a while.”21
That is, they would perform the actions of faith together as a means to increase their faith.
From another perspective, there are aspects of faith that do not change, because Allah Himself is Eternal and Unchanging. Most importantly, Allah is One and there is no object worthy of worship except for Him. Ibn Abī al-ʿIzz, a commentator on the popular classical creed of Imām al-Taḥāwī, defines monotheism (al-tawhīd) in Islam:
Monotheism is the beginning and end of the matter, meaning the oneness of divinity. Monotheism has three components. First, knowledge of the divine attributes. Second, the oneness of Lordship and clarity that Allah alone has created all things. Third, the oneness of divinity, that Allah, Glorified and Exalted, deserves to be worshipped alone, without any partners.22
In other words, there are three aspects to monotheism: the Oneness of Names and Attributes (tawḥīd al-asmāʾ wa-al-sifāt), the Oneness of Lordship (tawḥīd al-rubūbiyyah), and the Oneness of Divinity (tawḥīd al-ilāhiyyah). These are not mutually exclusive categories; they overlap. To affirm the name Allah (“the God”) is to affirm His Divinity. To affirm the name al-Khāliq (“the Creator”) is to affirm His Lordship, and so on. From the all-encompassing principle of monotheism, the scholars have delineated the most important beliefs in the discipline known as ʿAqīdah, creedal theology.
As aspiring believers, then, we come to know Allah by studying His Names and Attributes as they are revealed in the Qur’an. In a particularly meaningful passage, Allah reveals several of His Names to us:
He is Allah, besides whom there is no God, the Sovereign, the Holy, the Pure, the Faithful, the Overseer, the Almighty, the Compeller, the Superior. Glory be to Allah above what they associate with Him.
He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner; unto Him belong the Best Names. Whatever is in the heavens and on the earth glorifies Him, for He is the Almighty, the Wise.23
And the Prophet ﷺ said, “Allah has ninety-nine names and whoever preserves them will enter Paradise.”24
By these Names, we recognize our Creator and worship Him correctly. Shaykh al-Saʿdī comments on this tradition, writing, “Whoever memorizes them, understands their meanings, believes in them, and worships Allah by them, he (or she) will enter Paradise.”25
Studying these Names, learning them by heart, and observing their manifestations in the world is an essential method of increasing our faith. Great scholars, like Imām al-Ghazālī, would produce treatises on the Names of Allah, explaining not only their meanings but also how to act upon them.26
Our faith in the Creator must include the means by which He has communicated His will to us: faith in the Messengers and their Books. Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ is the last in a long line of Prophets, including well-known figures such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, peace be upon them all. However, as the Books of earlier Prophets were obfuscated, lost to history, or changed by their latter followers, Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ is distinguished among them as the bearer of the Noble Qur’an, the literal words of Allah.
The importance of the Qur’an in Islam cannot be overstated. It is the direct connection between the worshipper and the Creator, a divine discourse speaking to you, the reader, from the Lord of the universe. It is a prophetic miracle in its substantive content, which laid the foundation for a great world civilization. It is also a linguistic miracle in that the very method of reciting the Qur’an, known as al-tajwīd, has the ability to stir hearts and increase faith; the miracle of the Qur’an can be experienced by all who study it. Even if believers do not yet have the knowledge to experience the Qur’an, they should know that its miraculous nature is an article of faith for a very good reason.
Imām al-Taḥāwī رحمه الله writes in his famous creed:
The Qur’an is the word of Allah. It originated from Him, without ascribing a modality to its speech. It was revealed to His Messenger by divine inspiration. The believers affirm all of that as the truth. They have conviction that it is the word of Allah Almighty in reality, not created like the word of creatures.27
New, or newly awakened, Muslims who do not know the Qur’anic language have yet to experience the miracle, but this is also how the companions of the Prophet ﷺ learned Islam. First, they learned faith, then they learned the Qur’an. Jundub ibn ʿAbdullah رضي الله عنه said, “We learned faith before we learned the Qur’an, then we learned the Qur’an and it strengthened our faith.”28
One must first connect their heart to the Creator, then connect their heart to His words.
Reciting the Qur’an, in both its outward form (al-tajwīd
) and inward meanings (al-tafsīr
), is how a believer can take his or her faith to the next level, as Allah said, “Do they not ponder over the Qur’an? If it had come from another besides Allah, they would have found many contradictions in it.”29
The beauty of its enlightening words, the wisdom of its rulings, the natural simplicity of its theology, everything about the Qur’an provides a spiritual experience like no other.
We were not present when the sea was parted for Moses عليه السلام, nor when the dead were raised for Jesus عليه السلام, but each one of us can study the Qur’an and experience this miracle firsthand. As such, the Prophet ﷺ said, “There were none among the prophets but that he was given unique signs to instill faith in humanity. Verily, I have been given the revelation that Allah has inspired in me, so I hope to have the most followers on the Day of Resurrection.”30
The miracle of the Qur’an is timeless and accessible, unlike the miracles of all other Prophets.
Furthermore, Allah challenges all of creation to bring forth a book that matches the Qur’an. Allah said, “If you are in doubt about what We have revealed to Our servant, produce one sūrah
like it and call upon your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful.”31
But the fact is that no one can produce anything like the Qur’an. No one else can match its style, its influence on history and civilization, its settling in the hearts of millions of believers, who strive to memorize its every utterance.
Complementing the miracle of the Qur’an is the authentic prophetic tradition, the Sunnah, the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ. Allah said, “It is He who has sent a Messenger to the unlettered from among themselves, reciting to them His verses, purifying them, and teaching them the Book and the Wisdom.”32
According to the great exegete among the tābiʿīn
, Qatādah ibn Diʿāmah, the “Wisdom” in this verse, and others like it, means the prophetic tradition, the Sunnah.33
The Sunnah is contained in rigorously preserved oral traditions (ḥadīth
or plural aḥādīth
Believers learn the practical application of the Qur’an, such as the details of prayer, everyday habits, and morality from the Sunnah, as put by the wife of the Prophet, ʿĀishah, “Have you not read the Qur’an? The character of the Prophet of Allah was the Qur’an.”35
The two source-texts of divine revelation, the Qur’an and Sunnah, together make up the Sharīʿah
, the religious path. The term Sharīʿah
has been misunderstood, confused, and abused by anti-Islam media and even by some Muslims. As with all technical terminology, we need to precisely define what we mean by the word Sharīʿah
from its usage in Islam’s source-texts. Allah said, “Thus We have placed you upon an ordained path (sharīʿah
), so follow it and do not follow the whims of those without knowledge.”36
Al-Ṭabarī explained the linguistic meaning of Sharīʿah
in this verse as a way (ṭarīqah
), a tradition (sunnah
), and a method (minhāj
The technical definition of the term by later scholars is comprehensive, consisting of three branches inclusive of the entire religion: rules (āḥkām
), beliefs (ʿaqāid
), and morals (akhlāq
Moreover, the moral foundations of the Sharīʿah
are the virtues and values of mercy (raḥmah
), integrity (istiqāmah
), God-consciousness (taqwá
), gratitude (shukr
), patience (ṣabr
), honesty (ṣidq
), justice (ʿadl
), temperance (ʿiffah
), fidelity (wafāʾ
), and tolerance (samāḥah
The religion in its fullest sense is contrasted in the verse with whims and base desires (ahwāʾ
). That is, true faith is about conforming our personal desires to the Sharīʿah
, not changing the Sharīʿah
to fit our personal desires, as the Prophet ﷺ said, “None of you has true faith until his desires comply with what I have brought.”40
With this broader picture in mind, a believer is ready to study the Sharīʿah
with the hope of being blessed by its guidance.
However, it is encouraged for believers to study the Sharīʿah
, Islam’s source-texts, within the theoretical framework of one of the interpretive schools established by the four Imāms: Abū Ḥanīfah, Mālik, Al-Shāfiʿī, and Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal. The early scholar Ibn Wahb would say, “Were it not for Mālik and Al-Layth (two Imāms of fiqh
), I would have been ruined. I used to think that everything narrated about the Prophet ﷺ should be acted upon.”41
This concern still holds true today, since many of the anti-Islam arguments that permeate the internet are nothing more than citing Qur’anic verses and hadith out of context. And since fiqh
is essential for interpreting hadith, many scholars recommended studying fiqh
according to one of the orthodox schools, while others maintain that one does not need to limit oneself to one school as long as their practice of the Sunnah draws upon the inherited guidance of fiqh
The authentic hadith and the Sunnah (plural Sunan) they express also fit into a broader narrative known as the Sīrah, the prophetic biography. Believers keen to increase their faith ought to study the Prophet’s ﷺ biography, the social context within which he preached the message of One God, the hardships he and his followers overcame, and the magnanimity they showed to their enemies. Even many non-Muslims who investigate the life of the Prophet ﷺ with curiosity and fairness cannot help but be amazed by his faith.
Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader best-known for his successful nonviolent campaign to achieve independence from British imperial rule, was an admirer of Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ. Gandhi wrote in one of his letters:
I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today an undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind… I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These, and not the sword, carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle. When I closed the second volume (of the Prophet’s biography), I was sorry there was not more for me to read of that great life.42
Indeed, the biography of the Prophet ﷺ is yet another sign for the believers. The classical jurist Ibn Hazm used to say, “If there were no other miracles besides his biography, it would be enough.”43
Another important practice to increase our faith, and this is especially important for those who cannot yet read the Qur’an, is to ponder over the wonders of creation and witness the miracles of the Creator in nature. Allah said:
Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of night and day are signs for those who understand, who remember Allah standing, sitting, or lying on their sides and reflect deeply upon the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, ‘Our Lord, You have not created all this without purpose. Glory be to You, so save us from the Hellfire.’44
Believers who think about their own existence can only logically conclude that the creation has a Creator, who created it for a wise purpose. When asked to justify belief in God, the early Muslims, like the Qur’an, found evidence in the many signs in creation. Imām al-Shafi’i رحمه الله, for instance, was asked about the existence of the Creator and he replied, “The leaves of a berry bush all have one taste. Worms eat it and produce silk. Bees eat it and produce honey. Goats, camels, and cows eat it and produce droppings and dung. Deer eat it and produce musk. Yet, all of these come from one thing.”45
If one really thinks about this particular natural miracle—that many different creatures eat the same plant but produce different substances useful to humankind—the necessary conclusion is that it was made to be this way.46
Once we have established our relationship with our Creator, His Messenger, and His Book, we then need to turn our attention towards how the believers are described in the Qur’an and Sunnah, and act accordingly. Allah said:
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces east or west, rather righteousness is in one who has faith in Allah and the Last Day, the Angels, the Book, and the Prophets, who give out their wealth, despite their love for it, to relatives, the orphans, the needy, the wayfarers, those who ask, and for freeing slaves, who establish prayer, give in charity, and keep the promises they make, the patient in poverty, hardship, and times of danger. Such as these have been truthful and are Godfearing.47
These verses and many others describe the believers by various virtues and good deeds, such as praying, giving charity, being patient, and restraining their anger. Speaking on the verses of this type, Shaykh al-Saʿdī writes:
Whoever fulfills these characteristics is a true believer. Included in that are the establishment of obligations, both outwardly and inwardly, and avoidance of what is forbidden and discouraged… These verses are explicit in that faith includes theological beliefs, morals, outward and inward actions. Based on this, it increases by the increases in these characteristics and their actualization, and it decreases when they are decreased.48
As proven in many verses and traditions, faith is inseparable from moral character, dignified manners, and good behavior towards others.49
The topic of morals (al-akhlāq
) and manners (al-ādāb
) greatly concerned the early Muslims, who compiled hundreds of prophetic traditions about it and authored extended treatises on it. The classical scholar Ibn al-Qayyim went so far as to say, “The religion itself is good character, so whoever surpasses you in good character has surpassed you in religion.”50
In this statement are the two dimensions of the religion: good behavior towards Allah (including correct theological beliefs, sincere and correct acts of worship), and good behavior to the creation (including giving charity, being kind, and showing mercy). Both of these aspects—the rights of Allah (huqūq Allah
) and the rights of His servants (huqūq al-ʾibād
)—are intrinsically linked. Whoever is deficient in one aspect will be deficient in the other.
The summation of how our behavior should be towards our fellow human beings and creatures is found in the theological maxim, “The recompense for deeds is of the same type” (al-jazāʾ min jins al-ʿamal
). Put differently, Allah will treat you how you treat others. In this regard, the Prophet ﷺ said, “Love for people what you love for yourself and you will be a believer. Behave well with your neighbors and you will be a Muslim.”51
A true believer imagines himself in the shoes of his neighbors; he naturally empathizes with them and shows compassion for them. This is known as the “ethics of reciprocity,” a concept deeply rooted in Islamic texts.52
Ibn al-Qayyim expresses the essence of this principle, writing:
The recompense of a deed resembles its type of good and evil. Whoever covers the faults of a Muslim, Allah covers his faults. Whoever eases one in difficulty, Allah will make it easy for him in the world and the Hereafter. Whoever relieves a believer of hardship in the world, Allah will relieve his hardship on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever cancels a sale someone later regretted, Allah will cancel his slips on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever seeks out the faults of his brother, Allah will seek out his faults. Whoever harms a Muslim, Allah will harm him. Whoever is harsh, Allah is harsh with him. Whoever abandons a Muslim in a situation in which he needs support, Allah will abandon him in a situation in which he needs support. Whoever is tolerant, Allah is tolerant with him. The Most Merciful will show mercy to the merciful. Indeed, Allah only has mercy on His merciful servants. Whoever spends in charity, He will spend on him. Whoever is miserly, He will withhold from him. Whoever forgoes one of his rights, Allah will forgo one of His rights over him. Whoever overlooks the mistakes of people, Allah will overlook his mistakes. Whoever is keen to find fault, Allah is keen to find fault in him. This is the law of Allah, His decree, and His revelation. His reward and punishment are entirely based upon this principle.53
Shaykh al-Saʿdī concurs, writing, “The recompense is commensurate with the deeds. As one is good to the servants of Allah and approaches them with benevolence—as much as one can—Allah will be good to him with all types of good.”54
To recap, faith is defined as both conviction and action. It increases or decreases depending on our deeds. Believers can increase their faith by studying the Qur’an, studying the Sunnah, reading the biography of the Prophet ﷺ, and reflecting deeply on the miracles of nature. Believers must also try to live up to the description of the believers in the Qur’an and Sunnah, upholding justice, showing compassion, and generally behaving with the same moral standard that they expect from other believers.
The next level of faith, Iḥsān, involves achieving excellence in all characteristics of the faith: worshipping Allah sincerely and correctly, seeking knowledge, purifying the heart from spiritual diseases, and treating others how we like to be treated.