An Exegesis of the Prophetic Saying:
“Renew your belief with – There is no deity but God”
By Dr. Eren Tatari[1 ]
Is belief a fixed or a changeable phenomenon (whether or not it can increase or decrease)? Another related question, to which most scholars gave a positive answer, is whether belief is renewable. Since we are created with forgetful/neglectful natures, we forget or neglect our belief, so we need to renew/reconfirm it. But why would we need to reconfirm our belief once we have already affirmed our belief in God?
The primary reason why we are encouraged to renew our faith is simply because creation is continuously being renewed. Creation points us to the Creator, and we acquire belief through witnessing the manifestations of God’s Attributes in the creation. Hence, as the universe changes, we need to reconfirm our belief in the Creator of that universe.
“Practice” does not only involve performing prescribed rituals. We have to also “practice believing.” Belief is not static, but alive and dynamic. Belief is not a status that we obtain, such as identifying ourselves as a Muslim and thinking our duty is finished. Belief is not obtaining an identity card; belief is lives with us and changes from minute to minute, hour to hour, etc. God prescribed guiding rules that organize human relationships, relations between humans and the other creation, ritual worship, plus another way of putting one’s belief into practice: renewing our belief through the signs we observe in the universe.
Our duty is to reflect on the creation and to acknowledge the real source of everything. Human beings constantly undergo change. We are tired, happy, hungry, etc. In every instance we need to establish the right relationship with God. To see the manifestations of God’s Attributes in all the qualities we have is the goal of our iman education. But this is not enough for a human being. We are created to have a relationship with the universe as well. While we have contact with the universe, we encounter manifestations of God’s Attributes. The universe may not be according to our wishes all the time, so we need to interpret things and events that we encounter as manifestations of God’s Attributes of Perfection. We are not tested only once, but in every event we encounter, we are being educated/tested. In institutionalized religion, you become a member of a church, you pay your membership, you join the congregation, and this is it. Your closeness with God is not related to your active relationship with the universe. You get advice from the clergy, but in Islam there is no clergy. So we are responsible for our own belief; we are on our own. So we cannot just say I am a Muslim, I am a member of a mosque, come to Friday prayer and so I am done. Religion is not an institution. Islam is submission; submission is a process; it is our relationship with our Creator.
Belief is not a claim, but a dynamic phenomenon. The most important aspect of Islam is the absence of institutions. From one aspect, the lack of institutions gives the believer freedom, yet from another aspect it gives greater responsibility since believers have a personal relationship with their Creator without an intermediary. Believing in your Creator is important, not the “God of your religion.” My Creator creates the sun for me. This is a complete change in point of view. When you confirm that God is your Creator, than this is your definition of who you are: “I am a created being, a servant of God,” and your life changes. Our faith must not only be strengthened when we go to the mosque. The entire universe is the house of God, and everything is prostrating to God. Our faith can only be strengthened when we contemplate on the signs/ayah in the scriptures and the creation.
The universe is changing, so God’s Attributes that I am supposed to witness are changing as well. One second it is rainy, the next it becomes too sunny. Day and night change. Everything is constantly being created anew. The same is true for human relations – each social event (say someone hurts you or someone pampers you) is a new opportunity for spiritual training. So in all my interactions (with other people, events, universe), there must be la ilaha illallah (there is no deity in creation, but God). Our relationship with the universe is the litmus test. Will I try to impose my expectations/desires onto the universe (which is impossible to accomplish and leads to stress/sorrow), or will I acknowledge that it is God who is organizing everything? No one says, “I will create the universe,” but we struggle to accept that events/things do not go as we want. I do not want it to rain (hence its Creator), so I am protesting the rain as if it is in my hands.
The first thing we will be asked when we die is: men Rabuk (Who is your Lord/Sustainer/Care Taker/Educator)? The question is not only, “Who created you?” We need to recognize that God is the Creator, but that is only the beginning. We need to also confirm that in every instant of our lives God is our Sustainer, our Care Taker. As human beings and as khalif representing God on earth, we have been given the potential to manifest all of God’s Attributes. We are the vicegerents or stewards of God on earth, because we can act here on behalf of God. All the abilities I have are from God, so I am acting in this world on behalf of God, in His name. This is why we are expected to act in accordance with the Attributes of God. For example, God is forgiving, merciful, and just, so I cannot act without wisdom, justice, and mercy. This is my duty as God’s vicegerent. We are not acting as a God, but in the name of God. We must try our best to choose the right thing, to reflect God’s Attributes, as a creature of God. However, we have been given the freedom to choose not to reflect these Attributes. We have to be very careful not to choose against God’s gifts to us – we should not be unjust, merciless, and foolish.
The other aspect of our stewardship is our relationship with the rest of the creation. When we interfere with the universe, we have to interfere in the name of God, not in the name of our desires. This is where the quarrel starts. I may appropriate God’s Attributes to myself, forget that I am being created, not heed His guidance, and choose as I want (submit to God’s Will vs. submit to my ego). If I forget I am here to act in the name of God, I start acting according to my own whims. We have to implement God’s guidance into our life by using our freewill correctly. This is a personal responsibility. This is why there is no clergy in Islam. No one else can do it apart from me. The rules of the Qur’an are waiting to be implemented by human beings in their personal lives by themselves. This is why belief in God is a personal choice and a personal matter. Indeed we live in a society and have relationships, but we are personally responsible for our choices. If my friend is a wali, a friend of God, that does not save me. If somebody cannot give the Rububiyyah to God (admit that God is the Sustainer) in his own life, he cannot do it in his family, city, or country. This means acknowledging that God is the Creator and choosing to submit our freewill according to His will. Having a personal relationship with God is beautiful and safe. It is to know that you do not worship your own desires, nor can anyone bully you. Death is nothing to fear for such a believer. Even if we hear that doomsday is here, we say “my Most Compassionate Sustainer is operating it all,” so we are relaxed. The key to inner peace is in this realization: “It is the All-Wise and the Most-Merciful One who is administering my life, not me!”
This is why the main question is Who is your Rab/Sustainer/Administrator? Not who created you? We need to realize that our belief is dynamic and needs to be continuously renewed.
We might talk of being a submitter to God at three interrelated levels. Practice of rituals (ibadah), practice of shariah (Divine laws/guidance) at the societal level, and the personal practice of one’s belief, which is the core of everything. Living our belief entails living as the worshipper of God only. It is a personal conviction. To become part of the ummah (religious community), you need to submit yourself to God, not commit yourself to the ummah. For example, if you are going to college, and if you do not study well, you will be expelled from school. Even if you want to identify yourself with Purdue University and you wear a Purdue t-shirt, this does not make you a student there. The point of you being a part of the university is for you to learn and receive training. If you are not committed to your education, then there is no meaning for you to be part of the community anyways.
Claiming that I am a monotheist, there is only one God, is a necessary but not sufficient step. A person might ask, “Yes, creation witnesses that there is only one God, but when it comes to my life, decisions I make about my life, in how I interact with others, who is going to decide? Is it me or the Creator? Will I submit to His guidance or act according to my desires?” Claiming to be a monotheist does not solve the problem. Usually if someone claims to be an atheist, it means “I could not find any way to submit; I am not ready to look for it at all.” But if someone claims to be an agnostic, it means, “I know there is a God, but I do not want to submit to Him.”
Being a servant of God is beautiful; it means you are free from all other thousands of servitudes. It means: relax! If you really believe in God, everything is guaranteed as He wills. And the good news is that the One who is in charge is the Most-Compassionate and the All-Wise…
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.