When do we/not differentiate between the terms ‘Islam’ and ‘Iman’?
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between the terms ‘Islam’ and ‘Iman‘ when mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah?
We know that in the hadith of Jibril, the Prophet described Islam as consisting of the five pillars of outer actions that we all know, and he described Iman as consisting of the six pillars of inner beliefs that we all know.
So, according to this, there is a clear distinction between the term ‘Islam’ and ‘Iman.’
Therefore, when we come across in the Shar’i texts the term ‘Muslims’ (al-Muslimin), and in another place, we read the term ‘believers’ (al-Mu’minin), what is the difference between the two terms? Are they always distinct, different, and separate, as in the hadith of Jibril? Or are they interchangeable terms that both mean the same thing? If so, what of the clear distinction made by the Prophet in the hadith of Jibril in which he specifically describes Islam with certain characteristics, and Iman with others?
And why does the hadith of Jibril describe Islam as consisting of outer actions, and Iman as consisting of the inner beliefs, while other texts contain the opposite: a description of Iman as consisting of outer actions, such as in the hadith: “I command you with four things: Iman in Allah – and do you realize what Iman in Allah is? It is to testify that none is worthy of worship but Allah, and to establish the prayer, and to pay the charity, and to fast Ramadan, and to give up one fifth of the war booty.”
In ‘Jami’ al-‘Ulum wal-Hikam’ (1/105-107), Ibn Rajab al-Hambali answers:
“…and as for the way in which to reconcile between these texts and the hadith in which Jibril asked about Islam and Iman, and in which the Prophet distinguished between the two, and placed the outer actions under the category of Islam instead of Iman – this becomes clear to us when we understand the following principle, and that is that there are certain terms that are so comprehensive that they also carry the meaning of other terms when they are mentioned on their own. However, when accompanied with the other term, its meaning is only indicative of a part of the meaning of these terms, with the other term being indicative of the rest of the meaning. An example of this is in the term ‘faqir‘ and the term ‘miskin‘ – if either of them is mentioned on its own, they would each be generally defined as ‘one who is in need.’ However, if they are both mentioned together in the same sentence, one of the terms refers to a specific type of person in need, and the other term is in reference to another specific type of person in need.
Such are the terms ‘Islam’ and ‘Iman‘: if either term is mentioned on its own, it includes the meaning of the other, and it is indicative of what the other term is indicative of, representing the more comprehensive meaning. If they are both mentioned together, one of the terms is indicative of certain aspects of this more comprehensive meaning that the other is not, with the other term being indicative of the rest of the comprehensive meaning.
And this was clearly stated by a group of the scholars. Abu Bakr al-Isma’ili said: “Many of Ahl as-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah stated that Iman is speech and action, and that Islam is what has been obligated upon the human being of actions. If one of these terms is mentioned along with the other, such as if one were to say ‘the Muslimun and the Mu’minun,’ each term is indicative of a meaning that is not indicated by the other. And if each term is mentioned on its own, it is indicative of the general meaning of both terms.”
And this interpretation was also mentioned in by al-Khattabi in his book ‘Ma’alim as-Sunan’ (4/313), and a group of the scholars followed him in this afterwards.
And what also proves this is that, when mentioning it individually in the hadith of ‘Abd al-Qays, the Prophet described Iman in the same way that he described Islam when it was mentioned along with Iman in the hadith of Jibril. And in another hadith that mentioned Islam individually, he described Islam in the same way that he described Iman, as in the ‘Musnad’ of Ahmad (4/114 – and al-Haythami said that its men are trustworthy), on the authority of ‘Amr bin ‘Abasah, that a man came to the Prophet, saying: “O Messenger of Allah! What is Islam?”
The Prophet replied: “It is that you submit your heart to Allah, and that you protect the Muslims from your tongue and hand.”
The man then asked: “Which Islam is the best?”
The Prophet replied: “Iman.”
The man asked: “And what is Iman?”
The Prophet said: “That you believe in Allah, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers, and the Resurrection after death.”
The man asked: “Which Iman is the best?”
The Prophet said: “Hijrah.”
The man asked: “And what is hijrah?”
The Prophet said: “That you abandon evil.”
The man asked: “And which hijrah is the best?”
The Prophet replied: “Jihad.”
So, the Prophet described Iman as being the best Islam, and described Iman as being included under Islam (as opposed to it being a separate term).
And with this explanation, the conclusion is clarified for us in regards to the issue of Islam and Iman, and whether they are one and the same, or are two distinct terms: …if either Islam or Iman are mentioned on their own, there is no difference between the two terms, and they each mean one and the same. If they are mentioned together, this is when we differentiate between them, saying that Iman is the belief, acceptance, and knowledge in the heart, while Islam is the humble submission and enslavement of the servant to Allah that is manifested in the outer actions.”W