By Dr. Eren Tatari
Many Muslims understand Islam mostly in terms of halal (permissions) and haram (prohibitions); excessively and/or exclusively emphasizing the dos and don’ts. These concepts do exist in Islam and circle the frontiers of where a believer should or should not be. However, the real question is: once we choose to be inside this circle and know the boundaries, what are we going to do inside? For instance, we know drinking alcohol is haram (forbidden) and water is halal. But: what is water for us, how should our relationship with water be so that we are an abd (servant of God) who is worshiping God even while drinking water? How can we have a worshipper’s relationship with the world since Qur’an persistently reminds us that everything is a sign? Many people may not drink alcohol because they dislike it; so what is the difference between the one who is seeking to be a worshipper and an unbeliever who both avoid alcohol?
When hadith or Qur’an says “act in the name of God (bismillah),” it does not only mean “say” bismillah. Saying it is meant to remind us of something else. As a worshipper, we are to do the halal things in the name of God, and bismillah is only the remembrance (zikr) or the reminder. Zikr is higher than prayer (salat) because zikr is what makes the prayer meaningful. You may perform an entire salat (daily prayers) without thinking of God once, whereas zikr (remembrance) is the essence of worship. Thus, saying bismillah is only the beginning of a lifelong learning and education (tarbiyah). This is why the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did not just come and learn the list of what is halal and what is haram; this would not have taken 23 years to learn! Moreover, at the beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an, there was not a concept of halal and haram yet. These concepts came after iman was established in their hearts, and they have received the tarbiyah of the Qur’an. Because when one has the gist/essence, amal (deeds) are like the skin of the fruit. The skin is needed to protect and nourish the fruit so it can grow. The skin is therefore crucial for preserving the core.
If we do not have the boundaries, or the setting in which the core can grow, we will not know how to practice submission (taslimiyah) and tawhid… Thus deeds, dos and don’ts, are facilitating worship but the goal is ibadatullah (worship of God), not the amal on its own. To do everything in the name of God is ibadah (worship). Hence, we need to learn more than just memorizing the dos and don’ts. For instance, if I fast during Ramadan and do not feel anything other than hunger, would this really be fasting? Whereas the amal is the psychical form of expressing the belief, the niyah (intention) is very important in order to be actually worshipping. If someone comes and starts imitating the salat (prescribed prayers) without intending to do it in the name of God, it would not be considered salat. The relationship between the outer form of deeds and the inner dimensions resembles the relationship of the spirit (ruh) and the body. The ruh cannot experience anything without the body. Yet, the body would be dead without the ruh, so they are both important to coexist. In a hadith qudsi, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) related God’s message as:
A servant [of Allah’s] committed a sin and said: O Allah, forgive me my sin. And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for them. Then he sinned again and said: O Lord, forgive me my sin. And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for them. Then he sinned again and said: O Lord, forgive me my sin. And He (glorified and exalted be He) said: My servant has committed a sin and has known that he has a Lord who forgives sins and punishes for sins. Do what you wish, for I have forgiven you (Hadith Qudsi 33).
This hadith does not imply we can sin as we like and God will forgive us no matter what. The condition for forgiveness is that every time we sin, we sincerely repent and come back asking for forgiveness from God. The essential point here is that asking for forgiveness implies the acknowledgment of having a Lord; accepting His Lordship and Mercy and asking for forgiveness.
The greatest sin, and the only one that will not be forgiven, is shirk (associating partners with God = violating tawhid). It is on the level of belief and disbelief, and not the less significant halal and haram level. Hence, we should focus on understanding shirk so we do not commit it, because according to this hadith we will be forgiven as long as we return to God and do not violate tawhid. Tawhid is so important that the whole Qur’an is about it. The fact that the Qur’an was revealed gradually over 23 years is noteworthy. The companions of the Prophet were gradually educated by the Qur’an to live by tawhid. Yet, we have the entire Qur’an as a book now, so we mistakenly think that ‘saying’ the declaration of faith (shahadah) makes us a muslim/submitter. However, what will save is God’s grace and our understanding and living by tawhid and ikhlas (sincerity). The goal is not total self-purification, and we can never be sure that we have no sins. The goal is to continuously recognize our ubudiyyah (our being created). The attitude, “I have no sins so you have to put me in Heaven now,” contradicts the spirit of tawhid. The point is to know our position before the mercy of God. In a hadith qudsi, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) relates God’s message as:
O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it (Hadith Qudsi 33).
This hadith qudsi, like the previous one, warns us not to over-emphasize sin and halal/haram at the expense of iman, but to focus on tawhid and ikhlas (sincerity). These hadith qudsi instruct us to make sure we are not committing shirk. When we focus on halal and haram, we tend to say “I am on the halal side so I am fine/safe.” This attitude itself is on the path of shirk because it assumes that it is me who is doing the halal, not seeing it as God’s grace. Thus it is not humble, and it can easily lead to shirk. The goal is to close all the ways that might lead to shirk. Someone who really knows God and the true meaning of unifying God/tawhid in daily life is less likely to commit shirk. This requires practicing our faith; putting it in practice in our daily life. We tend to forget about our purpose of creation, which is to worship our Creator, to know ourselves and our purpose in life and relation with God. It is not about dos and don’ts, which may be called the mechanics of religion.
The mechanics are there to help us with the essentials (i.e. iman). When we falsely think we are the one performing things, we feel better about our ego/nafs. For example, we have lost if we say “I am sincere,” by attributing our accomplishments to ourselves. Ikhlas is to know that everything is from God and nothing is from us. Understanding this is a lifetime process… We will experience and recognize it at different levels through different phases of our life. This is why the Qur’an descended over 23 years. It is not a set amount of knowledge or information that we memorize or can be spoon fed. We ought to strive to be educated and transformed by its guidance.
The aforementioned hadith qudsi tell us not to focus on sin. It is one of Satan’s tricks to render us hopeless by whispering “you sinned so much, your prayer is not worth anything.” Losing hope of God’s mercy is sign of unbelief. When we concentrate on deeds/amal, we can easily lose hope, because we can never be sure our deeds are good enough. The focus should always be on asking God to make our deeds acceptable by praying: “God, my intention was to worship you, so please purify my intention and accept my deeds.” Doing the best action, etc. is not the point. The point is to return to Him and ask from Him, because acknowledging His mercy is important. The salat (prescribed prayers) is only a reminder of our state of worship. If our salat is not increasing our iman in God, it means we do not have the right attitude and the right understanding of ibadah (worship).
 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.
 Hadith Qudsi refers to sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) where the meaning is from God but the words are from the Prophet. In contrast, in normal hadith, both the meaning and the words are from Pophet Muhammad (pbuh).