Islam is the natural form of man, what Muslims call Fitrah. This natural form has three aspects, the inward, the outward and the spiritual: Islam, Iman, and Ihsan.
Habib is 22 years old and about to finish his law degree. Throughout his four years at university, he has answered the same question several times. If you are a Muslim, where are you originally from?
But Habib does not look like a foreigner in England neither has a foreign accent when speaking. In fact, Habib was born in England, and so were his parents and grandparents. Then, why this question?
Because Habib says that he is a Muslim, and many people think that being a Muslim is something akin to a nationality. You are a Muslim because you were born in such or such a place. Perhaps, this is the first thing to understand about Islam. Is not a nationality neither a cultural heritage. Islam is a choice; a choice of a belief and a way of life.
Muslim Refer to This Choice as the Deen
Muslims usually refer to this belief and this way of life as the Deen. ‘Deen’ is an Arabic word that originally means a debt or transaction. We are indebted to the One who gave us life. Therefore, our life is a transaction. On the one hand, we recognize that we were nothing and came into existence, so we are grateful for that. And, on the other, we recognize that we will die and return to the One who gave us life, so we prepare for that.
This recognition, which is the natural form of man, is what Muslims accept and submit to. That is why this religion, or how Muslims prefer to call it, this Deen, is called Islam.
What Does Islam Mean?
Ian Dallas, a known author who became Muslim and one the first westerners to call people to Islam in the West, in this brilliant article for The New York Times in 1973, says that:
Islam means submission to the Reality — acceptance — and the word peace derives also from the same root. A Moslem is one who submits to the nature of the Reality, to how things are. I became a Moslem as I discovered that it meant opening oneself to one’s full nature, one’s humanity which contained both the seen and the unseen.Source: The New York Times
Abdalhaqq Bewley, another known author, translator and speaker, says about his conversion to Islam:
When I became a Muslim, it was not because I wanted to put on a fancy dress or change my nationality. It was because I knew and had always known inside myself that God existed and wanted to do something about it. I was looking for an outward form to correspond to an inner awareness that things were not what they superficially appeared to.Source: The West Wake Up to Islam
Iman: The Inward Form of Islam
The inward form of Islam is what Muslims call Iman, which means belief. The essence of this belief is to recognise the existence of one God, without ascribing any partners to Him, who created everything from nothingness and who does not need a creator.
This belief in God also implies that God has sent messengers to humanity, to all nations on earth (Quran, 16:36). These Messengers were sent to remind humanity about their true nature, which is to recognise God, and to teach them how to live a life according to this recognition.
These teachings have had many different forms throughout the ages, that is why Muslims believe in all previous Prophets, such as Abraham, Moses or Jesus. But the last one to come with this teaching was Muhammad. These teachings were codified in Revelation. In the case of Moses was the Torah, the Bible in the case of Jesus, and the Quran in the case of Muhammad.
The Quran is God’s message to humanity as was revealed to Prophet Muhammad exemplified by the way he lived, which is known as the Sunnah. These two, Quran and Sunnah, are the source of all Islamic beliefs and practices and where to find what is the natural form of man.
Islam: The Outward Form
When Muslim speak about Islam, they use another term that has been very badly misquoted: Sharia.
Sharia is an Arabic term that means a path. Hence, Sharia is the path that we take in this life. We choose to take this path based on the acceptance of God and trying to live this life how His Messengers taught us so that we might gain His contentment and ultimately end up in Paradise in the next life. Or we can choose to take a path in the opposite direction. It’s our choice.
For Muslims, the foundations of this path are five: the Shahada, the declaration of faith; Salah, the prayer; the Zakat, an annual charity tax for the poor; fasting the month of Ramdhan and the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah. The goal of all of these is to increase our Ihsan, our spirituality.
Ihsan: The Spiritual Form
The goal of these beliefs and practice is that we are constantly conscious of the reality of existence, which is God.
This constant state of consciousness that leads Muslims to act in awe of God is what Muslims call Taqwa. And Taqwa is the cornerstone of spirituality in Islam.
God has told us that He only created us to worship him and to know him (Quran, 51:56). When a Muslim embarks upon any action, big or small, intending to please God, then that action is considered a form of worship.
A person of such quality looks for excellence and goodness in everything: towards himself, his family, his community, his society and humanity at large. This is the meaning of Ihsan.
The Deen is Islam, Iman and Ihsan
Based on these three principles -Islam, Iman and Ihsan- many scholars have developed in-depth expositions of what this religion is. This is based on a saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him (you can read it here in full).
The book “Islam, The Natural Form of Man” written by Abdalhaqq Bewley, and from which we have borrowed the title for this article, is an example of such an exposition an excellent continuation to this short introduction.