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Why Religion?

Discover Islam


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Islam is the religion chosen by God for humanity’s individual and collective welfare in this world and the next. It is based on belief in and worship of God, without associating with Him any partners, whether in the form of something created, a person, or a concept. True belief and worship requires a deep concern for all animate and inanimate things. The deeper their belief in and submission to God is, the deeper is their concern for all creatures. Belief in God’s Unity prevents humanity from enjoying and exer­cising absolute freedom in dealing with creatures.

Islam is derived from the Arabic root s-l-m, which means salvation, peace, and submission. In its religious context, it is the expression of God’s Grace flowing in the universe’s arteries, the Divine system to which all creatures-except humanity-have submitted willingly. The universe displays perfect order, for everything therein is Muslim, in the sense that it submits to God’s laws. Even people who reject belief in God or worship that which is not God are Muslims, as far as their bodily exis­tence is concerned. While we journey between being an embryo and a corpse, every bodily tissue and every limb follows the course prescribed for them by God’s law.

The fundamental Islamic principle of Tawhid implies that humanity necessarily must be in harmony with the surrounding world. The vast Muslim uni­verse displays a coherence and harmony of which our world is a part. Although our world is subject to laws special to itself and to the general “laws of nature,” it is also in harmony with other laws go­verning surrounding phenomena. Human beings, unlike other creatures who tread “the path of nature,” have free will. We bear the gift of freedom and the obligation to harmonize our life with nature. This harmony is also the path of our exaltation and progress, the path upon which God created human nature: Set your face to the religion, a man of pure faith-God’s original nature in which He originated humanity. There is no changing God’s creation. That is the right religion, but most of humanity know it not (30:30).

To harmonize our lives with nature, we first should realize our personal integrity. To do this, we must apply our free will to our energies (e.g., desires, thoughts, and actions) to keep them within the limits established by God. If we do not recognize such limits, we might usurp other’s property, seek il­licit sexual relations, and indulge in other sins. If we do not recognize such li­mits with respect to our intellect, we may use it to deceive others. Our powers must be held in check, our intellect used with wisdom, and our desire and anger restrained by lawful behavior and moderation. In addition, we should remember that we are social beings; if we do not restrain ourselves as God demands, wrongdoing, injustice, exploitation, disorder, and revolution will occur in society.

God does not approve wrongdoing and disorder. Rather, it is His Will that we live in peace and justice. Therefore, those who believe in God and worship Him faithfully are obliged to work for justice in this world. Islam calls this responsibility jihad.

Meaning of Jihad

Jihad has the literal meaning of exerting our best and greatest effort to achieve something. It is not the equivalent of war, for which the Arabic word is qital. Jihad has a much wider connotation and embraces every kind of striving in God’s cause. A mujahid is one who is sincerely devoted to his or her cause; who uses all physical, intellectual, and spiritual resources to serve it; who confront any power that stands in its way; and, when necessary, dies for this cause. Jihad in the way of God is our struggle to win God’s good pleasure, to establish His religion’s supremacy, and to make His Word prevail.

A related principle, that of enjoining good and forbidding evil (amr bi al-ma‘ruf wa nahy an al-mun­kar) seeks to convey the message of Islam and establish a model Islamic community. The Qur’an introduces the Islamic community as a model community required to inform humanity of Islam and of how the Prophet lived it: Thus We have made you a community justly balanced, that you might be witnesses for all humanity, and the Messenger may be a witness for you (2:143).

The greater and lesser jihad

There are two aspects of jihad. One is fighting to over­come carnal desires and evil inclinations; this is called the greater jihad; the other is encouraging others to achieve the same objective and is called the lesser jihad.

The Muslim army was returning to Madina after they had defeated the enemy in a battle, when the Messenger of God said to them; We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater one. When the Companions asked what the “greater jihad” was, he explained that it was fighting with the carnal self.1

The aim of either jihad, the greater or the lesser, is that the believer be purified of sins and so attain true human­ity. The prophets were sent for this purpose. God says in the Quran:

Thus We have sent unto you a Messenger from among you, who recites unto you Our revelations (and makes Our signs known to you), and who purifies you and instructs you in the Book and in the Wisdom, and also instructs you in what you don’t know. (2:151)

Human beings are in some sense like raw minerals to be worked upon by the Prophets who purify and refine them by re­moving the seal from their hearts and ears, and by lifting the veils from their eyes. Enlightened by the message of the Prophets, people are enabled to understand the meaning of the laws of nature, which are signs of the existence and Unity of God, and to penetrate into the subtle reality behind things and events. Only through the guidance of the Prophets can mankind attain the high status expected of them by God.

In addition to teaching the signs, the Prophets also in­structed men in the Book and in Wisdom. As the Quran was the last Revelation to the Last Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, God means the Quran when He speaks of the Book, and the Sunna when He speaks of Wisdom. We must therefore follow the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, if we desire to be rightly guided.

The Prophet also teaches us what we do not know and humanity will continue to learn from the Prophet until the Day of Judgment. We learn from him how to purify ourselves of sins. By following his way, many great saints have attained their distinctions as saints. Among them ‘Ali says that his belief in the pillars of Islam is so firm that even if the veil of the Unseen were lifted, his certainty would not increase.2 ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani is said to have had insight into the mysteries of the seventh heaven. These and many others, such as Fudayl bin ‘Iyaz, Ibrahim bin Ad­ham and Bishr al-Khafi might well have been endowed with Prophethood, if God had not already set a seal on Prophethood.

The dark clouds of ignorance have been removed from human intellectual horizon through the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad, and many more advances will be made in science and technology as a re­sult of the light he brought from God.

Jihad is the legacy of the Prophets, and Prophethood is the mission of elevating men to God’s favor by purify­ing them. Jihad is the name given to this prophetic mis­sion, which has the same meaning as bearing witness to the truth. Just as judges listen to witnesses to settle a case in a court of law, so those who have performed jihad have borne witness to the existence and Unity of God by striving in His way. The Quran says: God bears wit­ness that there is no god but He and so do the angels and the people of learning, maintaining justice. There is no god save He, the All-Mighty, the Wise (3.18). Those who have performed jihad will also bear witness to the same truth in the heavenly court where the case of unbelievers will be settled.

Those who bear witness to the existence and Unity of God should travel far and wide into the remotest parts of the world and preach this truth. This was the duty of the Prophets as stated in the Qur’an, and it should be our duty as well:

...Messengers who brought good news to mankind and who admonished them, so that they might have no argument against God after their coming. God is the All-Mighty and the All-Wise. God Himself bears witness by what He has revealed to you that it has been revealed with His knowledge; and so do the angels. There is no better witness than God. (4.165-6)

There has been no people to whom God did not send a Prophet, so that every people has some notion of Prophethood. As the term used to describe the activity of Prophethood, jihad is deeply engraved on the heart of every believer so that he or she feels a profound responsibility for preaching the truth in order to guide others to the Straight Path.

The lesser jihad, which has usually been taken to mean fighting for God’s cause, does not refer only to the form of striving done on battlefields. The term is com­prehensive. It includes every action done for God’s sake. Whether speaking or keeping silent, smiling or making a sour face, joining a meeting or leaving it, every action taken to ameliorate the lot of humanity, whether by individuals or communi­ties, is included in the meaning of the lesser jihad.

While the lesser jihad depends on the mobilization of all the material facilities and is performed in the outer world, the greater jihad means a person’s fighting against his or her carnal soul. These two forms of jihad cannot be separated from each other.

The Messenger of God has taught us how to perform both forms of the jihad. He has established the principles of preaching the truth, which have application until the Day of Judgment. When we scrutinize the way he acted, we shall see that he was very systematic. This is actually another proof of his Prophethood and a wonderful ex­ample of following the way of God in behavior.

The believers kept their belief vigorous and active by means of jihad. Just as a tree keeps its leaves as long as it yields fruits so a believer can preserve vigor as long as he performs jihad. Whenever you encounter a hope­less pessimist you soon realize that he or she is one who has abandoned jihad. Such people have been deprived of the spirit, and are sunk in pessimism because they have abandoned preaching the truth. Whoever performs jihad unceasingly never loses his or her enthusiasm and always tries to increase the scope of his or her activities. Every good deed results in a new one, so that believers never become deprived of a good: As for those who strive for us We surely guide them to our path. God is with the good (29.69).

There are as many paths leading to the Straight Path as the number of breaths drawn in the creation, mankind included. Whoever strives for His cause, God guides him to one of these paths and saves him or her from going astray. Whoever is guided to His Straight Path by God lives a balanced life, exceeding the limits neither in his or her human needs and activities nor in his/her worship and other religious observances. Such balance is the sign of “true guidance.”

However great the sacrifices made in fighting with the oppressive unbelievers, they nevertheless all constitute the lesser ji­had. It is striving to discharge religious obli­gations as perfectly as possible. As for the greater jihad, it is really much more difficult to accomplish since it re­quires us to fight against all our own destructive drives and impulses such as arrogance, vindictiveness, jealousy, selfishness, self-conceit, and the carnal desires.

Although the person who abandons the lesser jihad is li­able to spiritual deterioration, he or she may recover. Every­thing in the universe praises and glorifies God with its every breath and is, accordingly, a sign of the existence and Unity of God: a person may be guided to the Straight Path through one of these signs. For this reason, it is said that there are as many paths leading to the Straight Path of God as the breaths of all His creatures. A person returning from the lesser jihad is vulnerable to worldly weaknesses. Pride, love of comfort and ease may capti­vate that person. These are some of the perils awaiting one who has returned from the lesser ji­had. It is for this reason that the Prophet warned us through his Companions: returning to Madina after a victory, he said: We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater.

The Companions of the Prophet, upon him be peace, were fearless on the battlefields on the one hand, and as sincere and humble as dervishes in wor­shipping God on the other. Those victorious warriors used to spend most of their nights in prayer to God. Once, when night fell during battle, two of them had to take turns in standing guard. One took his rest while the other began to pray to God. Having become aware of the situation, the enemy shot a shower of arrows at him. He was hit and bled profusely but did not abandon his prayer. When he finished his devotions, he woke his friend, who asked him in amazement why he had not woken him sooner. His reply was: “I was reciting the sura al-Kahf, so I did not wish the deep pleasure I found in this prayer to be interrupted.”3

The Companions went into a trance-like state of ecstasy when in prayer, and would recite the Quran as if it were being revealed directly to them, so they did not even feel the pain caused by arrows which penetrated their bodies. Jihad, in its lesser and greater aspects, found complete expression in them.

The Prophet, upon him be peace, combined these two aspects of jihad in the most perfect way in his own per­son. He displayed monumental courage on the battle­fields. ‘Ali, who was one of the most courageous figures of Islam, confesses that the Companions took shelter behind the Prophet, upon him be peace, at the most critical moments of the fighting. To give an exam­ple, when the Muslim army experienced a reverse and began to scatter in the first phase of the Battle of Hunayn, he urged his horse towards the enemy lines and shouted to call back his soldiers who were retreating: I am a Prophet, I do not lie; I am the grandson of ‘Abd al Muttalib, I do not lie.4


1. Ajluni, Kashf al-Khafa’, 1, 424.
2. Imam Rabbani, Ahmad Faruq al-Sarhandi, Maktubat, 1, 157).
3. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 3. 344; 359.
4. Bukhari, “Jihad,” 52, 61, 67.

Recommended Reading:
Stages of Jihad and Its Main Principles

Last Updated on November 13, 2000

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