Understanding Tawhid: What is faith and how does it differ from knowledge?

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Compassionate

أَوَّلُ الدِّينِ مَعْرِفَتُهُ، وَكَمَالُ مَعْرِفَتِهِ التَّصْديقُ بِهِ

‘The foremost in religion is the acknowledgement (knowledge) of Him, the perfection of acknowledging Him is faith in Him’

From this glorious passage by Imam Ali (as), it can be seen that the purpose of معرفة(ma’rifah – knowledge) is to reach تصديق (Faith). Thus knowledge of Allah is the prerequisite towards faith in Him.

It is also clear from the passage above that not all knowledge leads to faith. Being knowledgeable about God does not necessitate faith in Him. This has been made abundantly clear in the Quran, as in the case of Satan, who testified to God’s Lordship but faith was absent from him.. There are other examples presented in the Holy Quran.

 وَجَحَدُوا بِهَا وَاسْتَيْقَنَتْهَا أَنفُسُهُمْ ظُلْمًا وَعُلُوًّا

“And they rejected those Signs in iniquity and arrogance, though their souls were convinced thereof.” (27:14)

As the noble verse above demonstrates, people despite the knowledge they held, refused to have faith.

So what is faith? How does it differ from knowledge?

Knowledge (ma’rifah) is generally part of an intellectual (aqlani) domain. It is concerned with understanding. It is that truth which is obtained in the mind.

Faith (iman) begins with the recognition of the truth in the heart (qalb). Faith (iman) is linked with the spiritual, inner dimensions, particularly the heart. It is when the knowledge obtained has been tied to ones existence (wujud). It also explains why matters which require faith, in Islam are called عقاءد Aqaid. Aqaid is derived from the word Aqd which means to entine, to make a link, to tie one thing to another. Thus faith can be said as the link between knowledge and one’s existence.

It is worth noting that faith (iman) which is usually defined as a belief, should be distinguished from belief as the English language does not make such a distinction. “When we say that people believe in something, we mean that they have confidence that something is true, but frequently we are implying that they are mistaken and are flying in the face of all the evidence. In Islamic languages, the word iman has no such negative connotation. Iman involves confidence in a truth that is realy true, not a supposed truth.” (The Vision of Islam, Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick)

Secondly, “faith means that when people have this confidence, they commit themselves to acting on the basis of the truth they know” (Ibid). Thus faith is that which is established from knowledge and upon which actions result. The holy Prophet (s) defined the word iman by saying “Faith is a knowledge in the heart, a voicing in the tongue and an activity with the limbs.” Thus faith must result in an internal transformation and external action. In a narration by Imam Al Sadiq (as) says “Faith is all action, and the internal belief is part of that action.” Not all action is faith, but all faith is action!

Lastly it is worth mentioning that faith is optional , unlike knowledge which is often obtained without any choice – like a mirror always reflects. It must be sought after, with sincerity and humility by the wayfarer to God. And God guides whomsoever He wills!

 اهدِنَــــا الصِّرَاطَ المُستَقِيمَ

 صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِمْ غَيرِ المَغضُوبِ عَلَيهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّين

Guide us to the right path.

The path of those upon whom thou has bestowed favours, Not of those who thou has cursed once nor of those who have gone astray.

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