What is Islam?
By al-Sheikh Ali al-Tantawi

Once I posed the following question to my students: If a foreigner asks you to explain all about Islam within an hour, could you fulfill this task? They replied: ‘this is impossible! He has to study Tawhid, commentary on the Holy Qur’an and the Art of its Reciting, Hadith and Jurisprudence. He has also to delve into problems and issues which may need five years.

I retorted by saying: ‘Subhana Allah! Didn’t the unlettered Bedouin come to Allah’s Messenger (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) and learn all about Islam just by staying in his company for a day or even less? And didn’t that very same Bedouin carry the message of Islam to the desert folks, and in turn become their guide and teacher? Don’t you remember how our Prophet explained the whole religion in three brief sentences? He spoke about: Iman, Islam and Ihsan (man’s realization of his relation to Allah). So, why can’t we explain the whole religion in an hour nowadays?

Thus, what is Islam? How does one become a Muslim?

Every creed, whether it is based on truth or falsehood; every society, good or bad and even every party, whether its intentions are noble or not, operates on the basis of certain principles and percepts that define their goal and chart out their course of action. These principles and precepts are put together in the form of a constitution that guides all members and followers.

Whoever wants to become a member of such an organization will, at the outset, study its principles and guidelines. If he finds that they satisfy his conscious thinking and subconscious mind, and believes in their ultimate validity, then he will apply for membership to that organization. Thus, he becomes one of its members and supporters. From then on, he has to obey its laws, to pay the membership fee, and prove in due course his sincerity to the principles and precepts of the organization. This means that he has to remind himself of those principles and avoid doing anything that contradicts them. In fact, he has to set the best example of one who adheres to those principles and as an ardent supporter of them, in word and in deed.

Thus, membership to a society means:

Knowledge about its system;

Adherence to its regulations;

To conduct oneself in everyday life in accordance with those principles and regulations.

These are accepted conventions which are all applicable to Islam. Whoever wants to embrace Islam has to, at the outset accept its intellectual principles firmly and fully. He will thus have developed the faith in himself.

The principles that he has to accept can be briefly stated as follows:

This material world is not the be-all and end-all of existence and this worldly life is only a stage of life.

Man existed even before he was born and will continue to exist after death: he did not create himself but he had been created before he could know himself.

The inanimate objects around him did not create him because he is a rational being whereas they are not.

Everything in this universe has been created from nothingness by one God, Allah the Al-mighty.

Allah, subhanahu watala, is the only One Who grants life and causes death. It is He Who has created everything, and if He wishes He will destroy and obliterate it.

Allah (SWT) has no resemblance with any of His creation. He is the infinitely pre-existent, the eternal, the omnipotent and the omniscient.

He is fully just and His justice cannot be assessed on the norms of human justice.

It is He Who has laid down the rules, which we call the laws of nature.

He has created everything according to a well-defined measure since eternity. Thus, all the phenomena of activity and inactivity, consistency and inconsistency that take place in animate and inanimate beings have been clearly defined and demarcated.

Man has been bestowed with the power of intellect with which he can think and decide on whatever matters that are subject to his disposal and he has been granted the power of reasoning with which he can make his own choice and will-power by which he can achieve what he wants.

Allah, (SWT) has created an eternal life beyond this temporary life, wherein the welldoers will be rewarded with a life in paradise and the evildoers will be punished and exist in Hell-fire.

This God is one only: Allah. He has no partner to be worshipped with Him; no intermediary can take us nearer to Him to plead on our behalf without His permission. Thus, He and only He is to be worshipped in all sincerity and purity.

He has created all the material beings that we can see and feel. He has also created unseen beings, some animate and others inanimate, which we cannot see. Among the unseen beings are the angels, who have been created for absolute good, and then, the Satans, who have been created as totally evil beings. Apart from these, there is a third category of unseen beings who have in them both the elements of good and evil; they are at once virtuous and wicked i.e. the Jinn. And from amongst human beings Allah (SWT) selects certain people to whom the Shari’a is revealed so that they can guide humanity to it. Such people are the Prophets and Messengers.

This Shari’a is contained in all the books revealed from the Heavens. Every successive book abrogates or amends the preceding book; the Holy Qur’an is the last of these books. All the books that preceded it were either distorted or got lost and forgotten. The Holy Qur’an has remained intact.

The last of these Prophets is Muhammad Ibn ‘Abullah, an Arab of the Quraish tribe. With him came an end to all the Divine Messages and Religions. There is no Prophet after him.

The Holy Qur’an is the constitution of Islam. Whoever endorses the fact that it is has been revealed by Allah and believes in completely is a Mu’min (believer). Iman in this sense is something that can only be seen by Allah the Almighty because human beings cannot penetrate into human hearts and know what is in them. Therefore it is essential, in order to be accepted in the fold of Islam, that one should declare his faith by pronouncing the two statements of faith, namely ‘I bear witness that there is no god except Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger. The moment one pronounces this statement of faith, he/she becomes a Muslim, who is entitled to all the rights enjoyed by Muslims and he also agrees to perform all the duties enjoined upon him by Islam.

These duties are the prescribed forms of worship. They are only a few and easy to perform and do not require much effort nor exertion. They are as follows:

First: One has to perform the prescribed Salah at Dawn-2 Rak’as, Midday-4, Later afternoon-4, After sunset-3, and at night-4 Rak’as during which one has communion with his Lord. One asks for His goodness and seeks refuge in Him from His punishment. Before offering Salah one has to perform Wudu (washing of the hands up to the elbows, face, rubbing head and washing feet) or take a bath if he is in a state of ritual impurity.

These are the obligatory times of Salah (prayers), the performing of which will not, on the whole, take more than half an hour everyday. There is no particular place or person required for the performance of Salah neither does it need any intermediary between a Muslim and his Lord.

Second: In the month of Ramadan of every year, Muslims have to change their normal daily routine of meals: breakfast is eaten before dawn and then meal is taken after sunset, and during the day they abstain from food and water and sexual intercourse. It is the month of self-purification for every Muslim in body and soul. It is also the month which represents the human desire to do good, to be generous and to reflect the brotherhood of man in the material life.

Third: A Muslim has to render 2.5% of his wealth as Zakah to the poor and needy. He has to do this yearly whenever a certain amount of saved money remained with him after his own needs and those of his family have been met. This financial support comes as a great source of comfort to the poor, the sick and the needy. It thus helps to alleviate poverty and to establish a form of social security.

Fourth: Islam has devised certain periodical gatherings for Muslims. Every day they get together five times in order to offer Salah in a congregation. This gathering is similar to a quarter meeting, which is held five times a day like school teaching hours. That is the congregational Salah through which Muslims can reap the reward of virtue.

There is no disruption of work for anyone, whatever the career. Those who miss the congregation, can offer Salah at home even though they will deprive themselves of the reward of performing Salah in a congregation.

Then there is the weekly congregation on Fridays for Jum’a Salah. It lasts less than one hour and it is compulsory for all male Muslims to attend.

Besides the above, there are mass congregations held twice a year on the occasion of the Two Eids. Attendance is not compulsory and they last less than an hour.

Finally, there is the annual world congregation known as Hajj. It is a kind of mammoth public gathering, held once a year in a certain place and time. This congregation, in fact, provides guidance in all aspects: spiritual, physical and intellectual. A Muslim is required to partake in it only once in his lifetime if he can afford.

These are the acts of ‘Ibadah enjoined upon every Muslim, male or female.

Apart from the above, abstention from certain action is also considered as ‘Ibadah. These are actions which are deployed by all sensible people and condemned as evil actions. They are such as: killing without a valid reason, encroachment and aggression on others; all forms of injustice, all intoxicants which affect the brain, Zina, since it destroys honour and dignity and violates the sanctioned forms of blood relationship; Riba, utterance of lies cheating, betrayal and deserting military service which seeks to further the cause of Allah; and above all, disobedience to one’s parents and making false oath and producing false witness. These are some of the vile deeds that are condemned by all sensible persons.

However, if a Muslim fails to do some of his duties or commits some actions that are not permissible, and then, repents and seeks pardon from Allah, verily He will pardon him. But, if he does not repent, he shall still be considered a Muslim–but a disobedient one who will be punished in the next world. This punishment will however, be only temporary and will not be equal to that of a Kafir.

As for a Muslim who denies some of the basic beliefs of Islam or expresses doubts regarding them, or refuses to perform a duty enjoined upon him and ignores Islamic regulations, or even renounces one single word of the Holy Qur’an, he will be considered as an apostate deprived of his Islamic identity. Apostasy is a crime in Islam. It is like the crime of high treason in contemporary law. And the punishment for it is death if the apostate does not give up his wrong beliefs and repent.

A Muslim may not perform some of the duties or he may commit some impermissible acts but if he acknowledges what is enjoined upon him and what is not permissible for him, he will still continue to be a Muslim i.e. a disobedient Muslim. As regards faith, it is something to be accepted in totality and therefore a denial of any aspect (of it) is deemed as a denial of the whole. Thus, if one accepts 99% of the faith and refuses 1%, one is considered a Kafir.

A Muslim may be a hypocrite like a person who joins a political party or a society, attends its meetings, duly pays the subscriptions and does all that is required of a member, but refuses its principles and remains unconvinced. He has joined the party only for the purpose of spying or creating disorder in that organization. Such a Muslim is a hypocrite. He pronounces the two statements of faith. Hypocrisy is defined as: outward profession of the faith and concealment of disbelief. He also performs the forms of ‘Ibadah but remains unconvinced about them in his inner self. Such a person has no salvation from Allah’s punishment although, in our eyes, he may be considered a Muslim. People judge the outward appearances whereas Allah the Almighty alone is aware of what is hidden in the hearts and innermost beings.

The Holy Prophet (SAW) said: "A hypocrite can be recognized in three ways: failure to keep his promise, lying and betraying anyone’s trust".

If a person believes in the intellectual principles of Islam, he becomes a true Muslim. And these intellectual principles are:

-Having sheer belief in the Tawhid;

-Belief in the Revealed Books;

-Belief in Prophets and Messengers;

-Belief in the hereafter;

-Belief in Destiny;

-Expression of the two statements of Faith;

-Performance of the obligatory Salah;

-Fasting in the month of Ramadan;

-Payment of Zakah;

-Performance of Hajj;

-Abstention from all that is forbidden by Muslim consensus. But he will not reap the fruits of Iman nor be blessed by its bounty or be a complete Muslim unless he adapts the life style of a true Muslim.

Our Prophet Muhammad (Sallallaho alaihi Wasallam) has summed up the characteristics of a true Muslim in one eloquent sentence which states the essence of faith and action in a nutshell: "You should worship Allah as though He is watching you: If you do not see Him, He sees you". This is the essence of Islam. It enjoins upon every Muslim to be God-conscious in all his actions, seen or unseen, serious or non-serious. Verily Allah (SWT), is watching us constantly and is aware of our every move. Therefore, every person who is God-conscious will not embark on any act of disobedience nor will he despair because he will realize that Allah is with him. Thus, a person who is fortified with such a consciousness will not cringe for help from anybody, because he will ask of Allah what he needs. And if a person commits an act of disobedience to Allah – it is human nature to disobey–he shall repent his action and Allah will pardon him.

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