What is islam?

For a critical thinker's introduction to Islam, we begin with three important foundations to build upon:

  1. What are the tenets of the Islamic faith in which Muslims believe?;
  2. What is the role of God and what is the purpose of creation?; and
  3. What does the expression "Submission to God" really mean?

Understanding these basic fundamentals alone will go a long way in building bridges and creating common ground for meaningful conversations.


Current political debates about Islam attempt to characterize the whole religion as an enemy of the Western world that is engaged in a "clash of civilizations" with Judeo-Christian values. Those who harbor irrational fears about Islam ("Islamophobes") claim that it is "rational" to fear the faith as well as all Muslims. They claim Islam is an ideology and not a religion. These types of fear tactics and misrepresentations only serve to breed hate and engender support for the extreme Islamophobic agendas of those in power.  


To neutralize such hate tactics, it is critical to understand what the faith actually calls for, what Muslims believe, and what the differences are between "moderates" and "extremists," or "puritans."  After 9/11, Dr. Abou El Fadl wrote a defining book on the key differences between moderates and extremists in theology and practice, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, which is excerpted here and lays important foundational understandings in the following sections.


What All Muslims Believe

"As is the case with all religions, there is a core set of beliefs and practices that define the religion of Islam. These are the least common denominators that distinguish and define the Islamic faith. At a minimum, this core would include what are known as the five pillars of Islam. These five pillars are considered the heart and pulse of Islam, and it is often asserted that believing in and accepting them as the foundational articles of the faith differentiates between a Muslim and non-Muslim. The five pillars of the faith are the following:


1. The testament of faith (shahada): To believe and profess that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God.


"The testament of faith is the most fundamental and critical pillar of Islam. Muslim theologians agree that believing in and pronouncing the testament of faith is the defining conviction and act that makes one a Muslim. The converse is also true: denying the testament of faith means that one is not a Muslim. At the most basic level, the testament of faith means a strong and unwavering conviction in one God, who has no partners or equals, and who was not begotten and who begets no other. The testament also means believing that Muhammad is God’s prophet and messenger, who faithfully transmitted what God revealed to him. Believing that Muhammad was but a human being who possessed no Divine powers or attributes is a critical part of the Islamic faith. Muhammad’s role was restricted to transmitting the literal Divine revelation, word for word, and to acting faithfully upon God’s commands. Muslims do not worship the Prophet Muhammad, but they do honor and respect him as God’s messenger, and they treat him as a high moral example to be followed on all matters.


"This is considered to be the basic meaning of the testament of faith, but there are various implications and details that follow from it, and those implications are of critical importance to the faith. Some of these Islamic theological tenets, despite their pivotal importance to the faith, are poorly known in the West. In fact, people in the West are often surprised when they learn, for instance, about Islam’s relationship to Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, in introducing some of these Islamic tenets, it is best to let the Qur’an speak for itself..."

God and the Purpose of Creation

"The relationship of the individual to God is the most significant dynamic in Islam. There is no disagreement that God is immutable, omnipresent, indivisible, and eternal. 

"...human beings should seek to understand God as God is, and not invent God as they would like God to be and then whimsically follow their own desires..."

"Belief in the oneness, completeness, and perfection of God is central to the Islamic faith. God has no partners, associates, or equals, and He is neither begotten nor a begetter. God has many attributes, but it is fair to say that the attributes most emphasized in the Qur’an are the mercy and compassion of God. God is the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Kind, the Indulgent, and the Gracious. God is the Forgiver and the Avenger— the Just and the Punisher. God is Serenity and Peace and the Lover and the Beloved. God is purified and unadulterated Light; God is Beautiful and loves beauty. God is the Generous Giver and the Majestic Inventor; God is the Creator and the source of all goodness; the Sustainer, the Protector, the All-Powerful, and the All-Knowing. [Most of these attributes are mentioned in the Qur’an, and they are known as the names of God (asma’ Allah al-husna)]


"The Qur’an emphasizes that human beings must submit to God and yield to God’s commands, and it warns that people should not subjugate God to their own whims. In other words, human beings should seek to understand God as God is, and not invent God as they would like God to be and then whimsically follow their own desires. There is no question that in this relationship, God is the Superior and Supreme, and human beings must approach God with submission, humility, and gratitude.


"This much is clear, and I believe that conservatives, puritans, and moderates would be in agreement. But what follows from this? What is the nature of the relationship between God and human beings, and what is the potential of that relationship? What does God want from human beings, and what is the ultimate objective behind submitting to God?..."


What does 'Submission to God' Really Mean?

"...It is well known that the word Islam means submission, and the basic Islamic demand is that human beings submit themselves to God, and to no one else and nothing else.  Human beings should struggle to defeat their weaknesses, control their urges, and gain mastery over themselves.  Only by gaining mastery over the self can that self be meaningfully submitted to God.  If the self is controlled or mastered by the ego, urges, fears, anxieties, desires, and whim, then attempting to submit this highly compromised self is not very meaningful—one cannot submit what he does not control in the first place.


"Furthermore, according to the Qur’an, human beings are God’s viceroys and agents on this earth.[9]  They possess a divinely delegated power to civilize the earth (ta‘mir al-ard), and they are commanded not to corrupt it.  Human beings are individually accountable and no human being can carry the sins of another or be held responsible in the Hereafter for the actions of the other.  Since human beings are directly accountable to God, their submission to God necessarily means that they submit to no other.  Surrendering one’s will or autonomy to another human being is like reneging on the relationship of agency with God.  Every person, as a direct agent of God, must exercise his or her conscience and mind and be fully responsible for his or her thoughts and actions.  If a person surrenders his autonomy to another, in effect, such a person is violating the terms of his agency.  Such a person would be assigning his agency responsibilities to another person and defaulting on his fiduciary duties towards God.


"Thus, the first obligation of a Muslim is to gain control and mastery over himself; the second obligation is to insure that he does not unlawfully surrender his will and autonomy as an agent to another; and the third obligation is to surrender fully and completely to God.  However, this act of surrender cannot be grudging or based on desperation and cannot arise out of a sense that there is no alternative but to surrender.  To surrender out of anxiety or fear of punishment is better than defying God, but it is a meaningless and empty submission.  Submission must be anchored in feelings of longing and love.  Submission is not a merely a physical act of resignation and acceptance.  Rather, genuine submission must be guided by a longing and love for union with the Divine.  Therefore, those who submit do not find fulfillment simply in obedience but in love—a love for the very Divinity from which they came..."