What is Islam?
Islam as a practical faith is traditionally understood in three dimensions: theology (aqaid), spirituality (akhlaq), and jurisprudence (fiqh). Theology begins with an understanding and recognition of the faith’s core tenets—belief in God, His prophets, and messengers; the authority of the Imams after the final Messenger (pbuh&hp); and the Day of Judgment and eternal life beyond this one. Spirituality and ethics in Islamic tradition focuses on the nature of the soul. We are humans with a physical and spiritual component, and it is our responsibility to cultivate the spiritual in the same way that we care for our physical bodies. Finally, the third dimension is that of jurisprudence and law—the obligations and prohibitions that God has commanded us to obey, which manifest after belief and conviction in theology, coupled with a refinement of our souls. In a famous tradition, the Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali (p) states, “I will describe Islam in a way that no one before has ever explained it: Islam is submission, and submission is certainty, and certainty is attestation, and attestation is testifying, and testifying is to perform, and to perform is to act.”1 The objective of faith is to cultivate our heart with conviction in God’s presence and seek His nearness by action and good deeds, which can be manifested by ritual acts of worship. Therefore, in another tradition, someone asked Imam Ali (p), “what is faith (iman)?” to which he responded, “to know with the heart, to testify with the tongue, and to act with the limbs.”2 Thus, true Islam lies in the conviction of our theology, in the purification of the heart by seeking spirituality, and in fulfilling our obligations as specified by jurisprudence.
In the Arabic language, the term Islam translates as “submission” and a Muslim is “one who submits.” Being a monotheistic faith, the act of submission is to One God—the Ever-Living, Omnipotent Creator of the heavens and the earth. Every phase and dimension of life seek to manifest the reality that we are to be obedient servants to our Lord. And through this servitude, there is potential for us to find meaning and beauty.
Created for Worship
Reflecting on the purpose of creation is among the most fundamental questions that perhaps people of all backgrounds and traditions seek to navigate. Naturally, asking the question “why was I created” is important, because finding the answer creates a sense of clarity and understanding of that which we are striving toward. We are working toward an objective and it is always important to know what that objective is. God states clearly and definitively in the Quran, as an answer to this inquiry: “[I] have created jinn and human beings only that they might worship Me.”3 When Imam al-Sadiq (p) was questioned about the meaning of this verse, he responded, “He created them for worship.”4 In other words, among the objectives of our existence in this universe is to seek nearness to God through worship, though many times we limit worship to ritualistic acts like that of prayers, fasting, the hajj pilgrimage, recitation of the Quran, and supplications taught to us by the Prophet and his family. These rites are a means to the end, which is to worship God with a sense of knowledge and conviction. As God states in an important verse, “and worship your Lord until certainty comes to you.”5 Through the worship which we engage in, our hearts and souls are molded to a state of understanding and recognition of our Creator, and there is unique contentment when we reach the state of certainty that God mentions in this verse.
Furthermore, a tradition from Imam Ali (p) elaborates this notion when he states, “God, the All-High states, ‘Oh son of Adam! I did not create you to gain [from you]. Surely, I created you so you can gain from Me!’”6 God does not need our worship, our obedience, or our submission, but we, as a creation, naturally must be in a state of servitude to the Creator. At the very least, we are to act according to God’s commandments, because He is the Absolute Legislator. On a deeper level, fulfilling God’s commandments is something that bring us solace, for His worship settles our heart and allows us to find deep meaning in our engagement with Him.
What Does Servitude Mean?
Seeing ourselves solely as a servant or a slave of God may seem as though it has a negative connotation, but that is far from the reality. Innately, our intellects direct us to take instruction from someone more knowledgeable than us, and we see that in practice in our daily lives—with our parents, our teachers, our doctors, and so forth. Similarly, obedience to God is necessary because He is the All-Knowledgeable, and His divine command is to emulate the life of His greatest creation, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp). In the Quran, God states, “Take only what the Messenger gives to you and desist from what he forbids you.”7 Thus, in one way, servitude to God means walking in the footsteps of the Prophet of God and striving to act in accordance with his ethics. It allows us to model ourselves on his worship, interactions, and dealings with others. And on another level, it is our responsibility to follow the guidelines that the Creator has established and set for us, because it is to our benefit. As mentioned earlier, among the purposes of our creation are to know God and to worship Him in a state of certainty and conviction.
Submission to God’s Law
The philosophy of servitude to God is based on the idea of walking in the prophetic footsteps, which ultimately means seeking nearness to our Creator, thus expanding positivity and goodness outwards. Yet, in this endeavor, emulation of the prophets and chosen people of God and servitude in general goes beyond personal growth and the fulfillment of individual objectives. This is because there is a social aspect to the manifestation of our faith and what we hold to be sacred. As such, each servant of God initiates every process of life with the goal of self-improvement and then reflects on how this they can disseminate this to those around them. The cyclical influence of personal and social states and their relative advancement or deterioration manifests in everything we do, from the mundane to the life-altering. For this reason, Islam has always stressed that even though a believer has limitless rights and ability to grow and change themselves, there is a measure and wisdom to how they impart that same goodness to others. Thus, we must acquire a greater understanding of ourselves and everything around us simultaneously and foster a constant and continuous awareness of the conditions and factors that shape who we are and the world we live in.
Submission to God’s laws and commandments is not solely through our personal development but is a means to create collective growth as a community. This includes religious obligations that go beyond the rites and rituals of our individual worship. For instance, the responsibility to cultivate positive social behavior, which includes the obligation to command others to good and forbid evil is often -mentioned in the Quran. The depth of conversation around social forms of worship in addition to the idea of preserving communal morality will be discussed in part two of our series of articles on Islam’s perspective on humankind’s relationship with God, the development of our identity therein, and interaction with people, the world, and the changing circumstances around us.
1. Nahjul balagha, saying 120.
2. Nahjul balagha, saying 217.
3. The Holy Quran 51:56. Unless otherwise noted, Quranic quotes in this article are from the Muhammad Sarwar translation.
4. Al-Majlisi, Bihar al-anwar, vol. 5, p. 318.
5.The Quran 15:99. Translation by Ali Quli Qarai.
6.Muhammad al-Rayshahri, Mizan al-hikma, vol. 1, p. 223.
7. The Holy Quran 59:7.
1. روي عن الإمام علي (ع): “لاَنْسُبَنَّ الاْسْلاَمَ نِسْبَةً لَمْ يَنسُبْهَا أَحَدٌ قَبْلِي: الاْسْلاَمُ هُوَ التَّسْلِيمُ، وَالتَّسْلِيمُ هُوَ الْيَقِينُ، وَالْيَقِينُ هُوَ التَّصْدِيقُ، وَالتَّصْدِيقُ هُوَ الاْقْرَارُ، وَالاِْقْرَارُ هُوَ الاْدَاءُ، وَالاْدَاءُ هَوَ الْعَمَلُ.”
2. روي عن الإمام علي (ع): “الاْيمَانُ مَعْرِفَةٌ بِالْقَلْبِ، وَإِقْرَارٌ بِاللِّسَانِ، وعَمَلٌ بِالاْرْكَانِ.”
3. قال تعالى: ((وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ))
4. روي عن الإمام الصادق (ع) في تفسير قوله تعالى: ((وما خلقت الجن والإنس إلا ليعبدون))، قال: خلقهم للعبادة”
5. قال تعالى: ((وَاعْبُدْ رَبَّكَ حَتَّىٰ يَأْتِيَكَ الْيَقِينُ))
6. روي عن الإمام علي (ع): “يقول الله تعالى: يا بن آدم لم أخلقك لأربح عليك، إنما خلقتك لتربح علي”
7. قال تعالى: ((وَمَا آتَاكُمُ الرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ فَانتَهُوا)