By the late eighties, or maybe the early nineties, ‘‘Aqidah comes first’ started to become something of a slogan in certain Muslim quarters here in Britain. It can’t be dismissed that ‘aqidah, ‘creed’ or ‘belief’ (from ‘aqada: to tie, bind, fasten securely – out of which comes the idea of tying certain beliefs to the heart in utter conviction of them), is the single most important aspect of the religion. One is not a Muslim until a small, core set of beliefs, or ‘aqidah, is tied to the heart. It’s as simple as that. In Islam, acts of piety follow on from sound intentions, which stem from a core set of sound beliefs.
Again, there’s no doubt that ‘aqidah transforms and defines the believer’s outlook on life. In the Quranic estimation of matters, if someone’s beliefs are sound and the conviction (yaqin) firm, deeds will be morally good and virtuous. Which is why ‘aqidah comes first; so that we may know ultimate truths, and that outlooks and actions can then give concrete expression to these truths.
As for the basis of the Muslim creed or ‘aqidah, it comes in the following hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ said, when asked about what faith, or iman, entailed: ‘That you believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and to believe in divine destiny, both the good and the evil thereof.’1
LEARNING IMAN BEFORE THE QUR’AN
The hadith corpus details an interesting encounter. Yusuf b. Mahak relates that he was once in the presence of the lady ‘A’ishah, when a person came and asked that she show him her copy of the Qur’an, so that he may learn its chapter arrangements. But before doing so, she explained to him that: ‘The first of what was revealed were the shorter chapters (al-mufassal) that mentioned Paradise and Hell. When the people had turned and settled in Islam, the verses about the lawful and prohibited were revealed. Had the first thing to be revealed been: “Don’t drink alcohol,” they would have said: “We will never quit drinking alcohol!” Or if at the very outset adultery was forbidden, they would have said: “We will not stop having illicit sex!” There was revealed at Makkah to Muhammad ﷺ whilst I was still a young girl of playing age: No, but the Hour is their appointed time, and the Hour shall be more calamitous and bitter. [Q. 54:46] The chapters of Baqarah and Nisa’ were not revealed until I was with him [as wife].’ She then brought out her copy and dictated to him the order of the chapters.2
Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani makes the following observation, having quoted this report: ‘This points to the divine wisdom in the gradualness of Revelation and that the first thing the Qur’an calls to is to tawhid, to glad-tidings for believers, the delights of Paradise [for them], and to dire news of Hell for sinners and unbelievers. When souls had firmly settled upon this, religious laws were then sent down.’3
The same point – that only when people had begun to warm to the Quranic ‘aqidah regarding God, Prophethood and the Afterlife, and the hope, fear, trust, love and yearning it nurtures in hearts, were Islam’s laws and rulings sent down – was made by the Companion, Jundub b. ‘Abd Allah. He said of the method of education in the prophetic age: ‘We learnt iman before we learnt the Qur’an, then we learnt the Qur’an and it increased us in iman.’4 Here, iman in this context refers to the cardinal beliefs of Islam and to the spiritual states of the heart that such beliefs inspire or necessitate, while Qur’an refers to the religious laws and injunctions.
About this, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said, in discussing the spiritual virtues hearts should be adorned with, and the vices they must eschew or be emptied of: ‘However, the emptying and adorning that the Messenger came with is for the heart to be emptied of whatever Allah doesn’t love and filled with what Allah does love, emptied of worshipping other than Allah and filled with worshipping Allah, emptied of loving for other than Allah and filled with loving for Allah, and likewise expelling from it fear of other than Allah and putting in it fear of Allah; exalted is He, and ridding from it reliance upon other than Allah and rooting in it reliance on Allah. This is the Islam that incorporates the iman which aids and strengthens the Qur’an and doesn’t contradict or contravene it; as Jundub and Ibn ‘Umar have said: “We learnt iman before the Qur’an, then we learnt the Qur’an and it increased us in iman.”’5
Yet to infer from this that no outward injunction was instated in the early Makkan years, or that Revelation was occupied solely with ‘aqidah, would be to misread Islam’s sacred history. Yes, the sha‘a’ir of Islam – those acts emblematic of the religion; like prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, or zakat – were made obligatory at a much later date. Nonetheless, there were some duties the Makkan Revelations constantly exhorted believers to; and these were what might be termed societal duties and ethical imperatives.
Thus the Qur’an enjoined on the fledgling community of believers to feed the poor, look after the orphans, attend to the weak and needy, be just in commercial dealings, shun fraud, offer neighbourly assistance, honour and serve parents, maintain the bonds of kith and kin, and to stop the murder of infant girls for fear of economic hardship or a supposed humiliation they may later bring on their family or clan. It also enjoined speaking truthfully, observing justice, acting compassionately, and tending to matters of the Spirit more than worldly things.
That societal obligations and ethics constitute cornerstones of the religion can also be seen in Ja‘far’s reply to the Negus, when the latter asked about the sum and substance of the new Islamic faith. The response of Ja’far to the Abyssinian Negus essentialises the Quranic message and enshrines its core teachings:
‘O King, we were a people steeped in ignorance, worshipping idols, eating carrion, committing indecencies, cutting-off kinship ties, mistreating our neighbours, and the strong would devour the weak. Thus we were, till God sent us a Messenger from among our own midst, one whose lineage, truth, trustworthiness and clemency we knew. He called us to God’s oneness and worship, and to renounce the stones and the idols that we and our fathers worshipped. He commanded us to speak the truth, to fulfil our promises, respect kinship ties and the rights of neighbours, and refrain from crimes and bloodshed. He forbade us from acting indecently, lying, devouring the wealth of orphans, and slandering chaste women. He ordered us to worship God alone and not ascribe partners to Him. He commanded us to pray, give charity and fast (and he enumerated other acts of Islam). So we confessed his truth, believed in him, and followed him in what he brought … For such reasons have our people turned on us and persecuted us, to make us revert to the worship of idols instead of the worship of God alone.’6
Thus there’s a certain core humanity which may be said to accompany, or even precede, religiosity, which the Qur’an includes in the overall concept of religion and faith.
CAN TAWHID BE LEARNT IN FIVE MINUTES?
So where are we heading with this? Well no doubt ‘aqidah does come first. Without assenting to the core six beliefs listed at the start of the chapter, one cannot said to have ‘submitted’; i.e. one isn’t as yet a Muslim. But those who confine Islam to little more than dogma or ‘aqidah, usually accompanied by an obsessions with a handful of external acts, do themselves and those they imprudently confront with their offbeat view, much disservice. The alleged justification for the focus is that the Prophet ﷺ spent ten years (thirteen, if we include the first three secretive years) in Makkah calling to tawhid – to God’s oneness. But to assume from this that ‘aqidah is all that was called to, or to downplay the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the Makkan Revelations has become quite the badge of a false Salafism in our times. Devoid of its spiritual or social concerns, ‘aqidah comes first tends to foster a cold, puritanical Islam stripped of its compassion, beauty and depth; as has been plain for all to see over these past three or four decades.
In this flawed sense, ‘aqidah comes first – its tone of smug superiority often unmistakable, and its small-minded assumption that it alone possesses the truth of tawhid that all others lack – has become more than a belief. It has become an unquestionable mantra where the act of believing is now more important than the content itself. It’s so dogmatically held that to disagree with it not only undermines the distorted truth, but is seen as an attack on the salaf themselves. This is no mere playground squabble of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ Instead, it’s a case of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong, and your wrongness threatens my identity and my group affiliation.’ To suggest we need to be nuanced in this, or that there’s a broad way and a more focused way of looking at the issue, is to invite scorn, contempt and rejection.
In trying to redress the balance, some have tried to point out that people in the prophetic era learned tawhid in the space of five or ten minutes. This attempt at a corrective has, however, met with fierce backlash. Yet it can’t be denied that people did meet or hear the Prophet ﷺ for a short time, then accepted Islam there and then. There was no one month’s course on tawhid or a ten year diploma after which you graduate and have a right to be seen as a true muwahhid. Conversion to Islam, and to the acceptance of tawhid, often happened on the spot. Such was its blazing simplicity and brilliance, and such was the sheer magnetic power of the Qur’an, and the Prophet ﷺ, to attract hearts. Take the case of the lady Khadijah, for instance. As soon as the Prophet ﷺ had received the first revelation and had descended the slopes of the mountain, still trembling with fear; and no sooner did he tell his wife what had happened, she comforted him, reassured him and then believed in him on Day One. Ibn Hisham wrote:
‘Khadijah b. Khuwaylid believed in him, accepted as true what he brought from Allah and helped him in his affair. She was the first to believe in Allah and His Messenger and the truth of what he came with. Through her, Allah relieved the burdens of his Prophet ﷺ. Nor did he hear anything that hurt him of rejection or charges of falsehood which saddened him, except that Allah consoled him through her when he returned to her – reassuring him, comforting him, affirming his truth and down-playing peoples’ opposition. May Allah, exalted is He, have mercy upon her.’7
Another example is that of a young sayyiduna ‘Ali. The sirah records: The next day ‘Ali b. Abi Talib came as the two of them were praying and asked: ‘What is this, O Muhammad?’ He replied: ‘It is Allah’s religion that he has chosen for Himself and sent His Messengers with. I call you unto Allah, the One without any partner, and to worship Him, and that you reject al-Lat and al-‘Uzza.’ ‘Ali said: ‘This is a matter I have never heard of before today. I cannot decide a matter until I discuss it with Abu Talib.’ The Messenger of Allah ﷺ didn’t want his secret revealed before he announced the matter publicly, so he said: ‘O ‘Ali, if you do not accept Islam, then conceal this matter.’ ‘Ali tarried that night till Allah cast Islam into his heart. Early next morning he went to Allah’s Messenger ﷺ and asked him what he should do. He replied: ‘Bear witness that there is no god but Allah, alone without associate, and reject al-Lat and al-‘Uzza, and disavow any partners.’ ‘Ali did so and became a Muslim.8
TRUE TAWHID, BLINKERED TAWHID & THE REALITIES OF FAITH
The point in the above two accounts is that Islam was accepted without a lengthy discussion on tawhid; and examples like these abound in the sirah. The reason being is that the essence of tawhid is crystal clear: give up all forms of idolatry or ways of setting-up a partner with Allah, and worship God alone. Although the Qur’an uses various terms related to the practice of idolatry (e.g., taghut, jibt, asnam, and awthan), the principal theological term to designate the broader concept of worshipping deities other than God, or alongside God, is shirk (the root sh-r-k: to ‘set-up a partner’ with someone else in a sale or some other matter).
So is tawhid a ten minute thing or a ten year one? Well it is probably only ten minutes if one is calling a person to the bare bones of tawhid and to the six articles or pillars of iman; outlining for them what it essentially entails to become a Muslim. And quite often that’s more than enough for someone to get started on their journey. But ten years or more if we’re talking about actualising a rooted and transformative grasp of tawhid and avoiding, not just overt idolatry, but the subtle idolatry where the human will becomes divided between the Divine and between created things – be they worldly means (asbab), forces of nature, an over-veneration of holy men, or making gods out of our desire or whims. For idolatry, as presented in the Qur’an, is not only about images or stone idols, but with any contamination of God’s oneness, via an unwarranted association of created things as partners with God’s divinity, uniqueness, or sovereignty and lordship. That is, the Qur’an doesn’t employ shirk as a label for one specific act or belief system, but as a broader term representing any and every human folly to deify without just cause; to wrongfully idolise the things around us, or within us, and hence veil a direct encounter with al-Haqq, the Ultimate Reality.
Again, a lifetime or more if by it we mean deepening tawhid from rejecting overt partners, rivals, compares, or equals with Allah, to an intensification of perception that all acts emanate from Him alone, grasping this through spiritual witnessing (mushahadah) – as the Prophet ﷺ clarified when asked concerning spiritual excellence (ihsan): ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him.’9 While the first level of tawhid opens the door of salvation, this degree enriches the heart such that the fruits of this witnessing are a complete and unwavering surrender to Allah, a wholehearted love for and in Him, complete reliance of Him, and a turning away from all creation so that the heart neither hopes in, nor fears, nor seeks ultimate intimacy or reassurance, save in Him. It is for the human will never to be at odds with the Divine Will, but to be in harmony with it. Such is the loving surrender of Islam; such is true tawhid. All this comes under the sought-after rubric of haqa’iq al-iman – cultivating the deeper ‘realities of faith’.
And herein lies the tragedy of a very reductionist, blinkered view of tawhid. To cling to an Islam which offers so very little guidance on how to nurture the heart upon true tawhid, upon the haqa’iq al-iman, due to suffering from delusions of grandeur as already being ‘the vanguards of tawhid’, is to stand with one’s face to the wall.
Shaykh Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Wasiti: ‘Many of those who have been veiled from the realities of the science of tawhid, even if they be learned in the Sunnah and its details, are veiled because they only sought to acquire the legal rulings from the Sunnah. Their resolves fell well short in seeking from the Sunnah the haqa’iq al-iman. Had they sought it with sound intent, they would have reached it. But instead they directed themselves to love of this world.’10
O Allah! Grant our hearts openings to know You,
the sincerity to draw closer to You,
the will to seek only You,
and the patience
to tread the
1. Muslim, no.8.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.4993.
3. Al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 11:178.
4. Ibn Majah, no.62. It was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1997), 1:37-38.
5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:401.
6. Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, 1:270-71; Ahmad, no.1740. Its chain was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Fiqh al-Sirah (Dar al-Hadithah, 1965), 121.
7. Ibn Hisham al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah (Damietta: Dar Ibn Rajab, 2013), 1:198.
8. Ibn Kathir, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1976), 1:428.
9. Muslim, no.8.
10. Al-Wasiti, Madkhal Ahl al-Fiqh wa’l-Lisan ila Maydan al-Mahabbah wa’l-‘Irfan (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islami, 2002), 50.