For us Muslims what does the word Iman mean?

Quran Contributor

Many translators translate the Arabic word ‘Iman’ as ‘belief’ in English. This translation is like an incomplete solution to a very difficult problem. The difficulty here is to find a simple English equivalent to match the complexity inherent in the Arabic original.

Unfortunately, incorrect translations are often found when translating from Arabic to English. One of the saddest examples of this linguistic breakdown is the word ‘jihad’, which was once translated as “holy war” (better translated as “struggle”).

Muslims themselves are translating Iman as ‘belief’. The translation of word Iman as ‘belief’ is so problematic because if a Muslim thinks that the Qur’an commands him to believe. And if he looks at the translation of ‘Iman’ as ‘belief’ and believes only from the heart and does not perform any religious duty, it is for his destruction. It will become a terrible cause. The meaning of Iman is broader which is not fully expressed by the word ‘belief’.

Difference between the word Iman and belief

One way to distinguish between Iman and ‘belief’ is to analyze the etymology of the two words. Anas ibn Malik (R) narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “None of you can be a true believer unless you choose for your brother what you like for yourself.” (Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim)

The above hadith highlights the difference between Iman and belief. A helpful way to look at the Prophet’s saying is to see it as the Islamic version of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule tells people to treat others as they would like to be treated. In this hadith, Muslims are told to choose for their brothers what they like for themselves. It is not limited to belief but must be performed with action. So Iman is not limited to belief only.

In fact, this difference is so crucial that Muslims imperil their souls if they fail to understand it. This difference is that Iman must manifest itself through action. Whereas belief does not necessarily have to do so.

The word belief has nothing to do with performance. Think about how the word ‘belief’ is used in common parlance. When someone says, “I believe you”. What he or she is saying so, “I think you are at least 51% more likely to tell the truth” Is there a connection between this belief and action? No there is no connection. So, just imagine this conversation.

Belief has nothing to do with promise. On the other hand, Iman is related to promise. Iman makes a deposit. It makes the servant committed to Allah. These promises include learning Islam yourself, practicing Islam to the fullest, and teaching Islam to others.

Why did Abu Talib reject Iman?

Iman begins a life-changing process. Think of Abu Talib, the beloved uncle of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) started calling his uncle Abu Talib to accept Islam from the very beginning of Islam. But Abu Talib did not accept Islam till his death. If there is nothing but belief in Iman, would Abu Talib reject it? Was it just so hard to believe why the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) refused to accept Islam despite his repeated attempts? This is because Abu Talib probably really understood Iman more than many Muslims today. For this reason he rejected it. Because he might know that Iman is a promise of action, a promise of changing life. So he refused because he was not ready to fundamentally change his life.

Iman leads to Aman (peace)

So. having Iman means being committed to any action. A Muslim who has Iman is not limited to believing in Allah, but he is committed to following Allah’s instructions in every aspect of life. Iman is the key to success in religion, but it also has its applications in other areas.

I can say, Good students have also a kind of Iman. They believe in their success and as a result, they study regularly, attend classes and are committed to reading.

So, there is a lot of work to be done with Iman. Then why would anyone be interested in Iman? Because the result of Iman is Aman. It means security, safety and peace. Iman leads a person to peace. And despite the hope of this peace, today the world is staying away from Iman. So, whether it is inner peace or external comfort, it is possible only through Iman.

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