When one thinks of the term “Islam” as used in the English language to denote the whole tradition, one must think not only of islām , but also of īmān and i .h sān . The teachings of Islam have levels of meaning, and the religion consists of a hierarchy that, destined to become the religion of a large portion of humanity, had to accommodate the spiritual and intellectual needs of the simplest peasant and the most astute philosopher, the warrior and the lover, the jurist and the mystic. Islam achieved this goal by making the teachings of religion accessible on various levels from the most outward to the most inward. But it preserved unity by insisting that all of the members of its community share in the Sacred Law and the central doctrine of al-taw .h īd summarized in “ Lā ilāha illa’Llāh .” Their degree of penetration into the meaning of Unity depended and continues to depend on the intensity of their faith and the beauty of their soul. But in submission to the One (al-islām) , all Muslims stand in the same manner before God in a single community governed by the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood as well as amity. Paradoxically, the multiple inner dimensions of the religion do not destroy this unity, but in fact only strengthen it, because these inner and higher modes of participation in the religion bring worshipers ever closer to the One. Unity is thereby strengthened, even in the more outward aspects of human life that all Muslims share, whatever their degree of participation might be in the understanding and practice of Islam.
Islām, Īmān, I . hsān To understand the hierarchical structure of the Islamic tradition better, we turn to the terms islām, īmān , and i .h sān , all of which are used in the text of the Quran and the .H adīth . The fi rst means “surrender,” the second, “faith,” and the third, “virtue” or “beauty.” All those who accept the Quranic revelation and surrender themselves to God are muslim; that is, they possess islām . Those who with intense faith in God and the hereafter are often referred to in the Quran as mu’min , that is, persons possessing faith, or īmān . Not every muslim is mu’min , and to this day in the Islamic world this distinction is kept clearly in mind. Those whom the Quran calls mu .h sin are those who possess i .h sān , which, as mentioned already, implies a high level of spiritual perfection, the attainment of which allows human beings to live constantly with the awareness of being in God’s presence; i .h sān is none other than that spiritual teaching that has been preserved, transmitted, and promulgated in Sufi sm. A famous .h adīth known as the .h adīth of Gabriel gives a defi nition of all these terms. The .h adīth , as transmitted by ‘Umar, is as follows: One day when we were sitting with the Messenger of God there came unto us a man whose clothes were of exceeding whiteness and whose hair was of exceeding blackness; nor were there any signs of travel upon him, although none of us knew him. He sat down knee unto knee opposite the Prophet, upon whose thighs he placed the palms of his hands saying: “O Mu .h ammad, tell me what is the surrender (islām).” The Messenger of God answered him saying: “The surrender is to testify that there is no god but God and that Mu .h ammad is God’s Messenger, to perform the prayer, bestow the alms, fast Rama .d ān and make, if thou canst, the pilgrimage to the Holy House.” He said: “Thou hast spoken truly,” and we were amazed that, having questioned him, he should corroborate him. Then he said: “Tell me what is faith (īmān).” He answered: “To believe in God and His Angels and His Books and His Messengers and the Last Day, and to believe that no good or evil cometh but by His Providence.” “Thou hast spoken truly,” he said, and then: “Tell me what is excellence (ih. sān).” H e answered: “To worship God as if thou sawest Him, for if thou seest Him not, yet seeth He thee.” “Thou hast spoken truly,” he said, and then: “Tell me of the Hour.” He answered: “The questioned thereof knoweth no better than the questioner.” He said: “Then tell me of its signs.” He answered: “That the slave-girl shall give birth to her mistress; and that those who were but barefoot naked needy herdsmen shall build buildings ever higher and higher.” Then the stranger went away, and I stayed a while after he had gone; and the Prophet said to me: “O ‘Umar, knowest thou the questioner, who he was?” I said: “God and His Messenger know best.” He said: “It was Gabriel. He came unto you to teach you your religion .” 9
Islam is based on the Absolute, Allah, and not on the messenger. Yet the love of the Prophet lies at the heart of Islamic piety, for human beings can love God only if God loves them, and God loves only the person who loves His Prophet. The Quran itself orders human beings to venerate the Prophet. In Muslim eyes, the love and respect for the Prophet are inseparable from the love for the Word of God, for the Quran, and of course ultimately for God Himself. There is something of the soul of the Prophet present in the Quran, and in a famous saying uttered before his death, the Prophet asserted that he was leaving two precious heritages behind for his community, the Quran and his family, both of which represent his continued presence in the Islamiccommunity In Sufism and many schools of Islamic philosophical thought, the inner reality of the Prophet, the “Muh.ammadan Reality” (al- .H aqīqat al-mu .h ammadiyyah) , is identifi ed with the Logos, God’s fi rst creation, which is the ontological principle of creation as well as the archetype of all prophecy. Sufi s assert that the inner reality of the Prophet was the fi rst link in the prophetic chain and that his outward and historical reality came at the end of the prophetic cycle to bring it to a close. It was in reference to this inner reality that the Prophet asserted, “I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay.”
The text of the Quran consists of 114 chapters (sūrahs) divided into the Meccan and the Medinan, that is, those revealed to the Prophet when he was in Mecca and those after he migrated to Medina. The very fi rst verses revealed are those of the chapter entitled “Bloodclot” (al-‘Alaq) , which open chapter 96 of the Quran .