What is a Muslim?
***I have a Muslim name. My identification papers say that I’m Muslim. I obey Islamic rituals. But my habits, style of life, character, ambition and achievements are all from the material life – 95% of my efforts are focused on the material life, leaving 5% of my time for devotion. If the angel of death comes, will he look at my Muslim documentation, or my feelings, convictions, values, thoughts and actions?***
So this may be an odd question. But while we know, at least from the academic perspective, what a Muslim is, let us revisit what being a Muslim means.
A Muslim is a follower of the monotheistic religion of Ibrahim AS and Muhammad SAW: the worship of one God. A Muslim obeys the words of Allah and follows the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad SAW. He is one who is in constant remembrance of Allah, through his prayers, supplications and actions.
There are various ahadeeth which explain the characteristics of a Muslim. One of the most famous is nicknamed the “Jibril Hadith”, because in it, the Angel Jibril AS, in the form of a human traveller, materialised before Muhammad SAW and a few of his Companions to teach and reaffirm the elements of the deen.
Part of this long hadith explains the rudiments of the Muslim practice:
‘Islam is that you witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and you establish the prayer, and you give the Zakat, and you fast Ramadan, and you perform the hajj of the House if you are able to take a way to it.’
The above describe the essential elements of Islamic rituals, and are known as the pillars of Islam. This information is basic to all Muslims. However, apart from just the rituals, do we know what being a Muslim means in the bigger scheme of things?
The Muslim Heart
In Islam, the heart, rather than the mind, steers one’s actions. When the heart, being the core of the human soul, is filled with Islam, the actions of the person will translate that faith into action. If the heart is lacking in Islam, the mind and body will mirror that lack of belief.
The heart is vital in this life and the hereafter. If the heart is corrupted, it jeopardizes the acceptance of one’s worship by Allah. The heart is the initiator of one’s Islam. The heart guides one’s actions, not just during times of ritualistic worship, but in all of a person’s actions and behaviour.
Many hadeeth discuss Muslim characteristics. One of these is was reported by Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar (RA):
“The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the Muslims are safe.” (Bukhari)
Safety implies a wide scope of actions. A genuine Muslim has peace in his heart; and he promotes safety for himself and others. A Muslim refrains from causing harm to himself or to those around him, whether by his tongue, eyes, heart or actions. He is at peace with himself, and fosters peace within his surroundings.
A Muslim stringently safeguards his speech and actions, and avoids matters that do not concern him, and affairs which do not benefit him. This is achieved by developing a keen sense of self awareness, which shields one from harming oneself and others.
The early scholars advised that in order to remain obedient to Allah, one has to benefit those who are in need, and to prevent others from committing harm.
A Muslim tries to be patient with the oppressor, gives good advice (with wisdom and mercy) to those who are in need of it and strives to maximise his good deeds at every opportunity.
We know of someone who used to accumulate beautiful knowledge on Islam, but through time, became increasingly harsh on herself and to those around her. Her rigorous discipline in implementing Islam lacked wisdom and compassion, hence it was applied with severity rather than mercy. Eventually, she broke down under the strain and the loneliness, and ended up on a sinning frenzy of every kind. This is the consequence when we become too severe in the implementation of Islam, discount the mercy of Allah, and become too stern and judgmental with others and ourselves. Such rigid implementation of Islam can be self destructive and unsustainable.
True Islamic knowledge should increase a Muslim’s humility and mercy to others. If we feel even a hint of moral superiority, we should remind ourselves of where we used to be before we were guided. The Companions used to recall their own ignorance and wrong doing before the call of Islam as a way of remaining humble.
We are living in the bounty, mercy and guidance of Allah. Allah can snatch all these from us if we are no longer deserving of that bounty. Our pious predecessors used to advice that one of the qualities of a Muslim is that whenever he comes across a sinner, or a spiritually weak person, he should supplicate for Allah to bestow that person guidance and repentance. When we see a non-Muslim, we should ask for Allah to grant him guidance, and to grant us the quality to guide him. If we were to meet someone with superior qualities, we should ask Allah to give him sincerity and guidance, and to increase His bounty upon them. It is the opposite of what we do in reality, where we internally condemn the sinner and feel smug that we are better.