Safety and Faith: the Meaning of “Iman”
Quran Vocabulary Series
Imân is one of the most common words of the Muslim vocabulary. It is often translated as faith, belief, or conviction. At its most basic meaning, imân is belief in God (Allah), His prophets, revealed books, angels, the Hereafter, and Allah’s divine decree. Imân is considered the most important boundary in human life, for it draws the line between two of the most disparate conditions a person will ever confront: between belief and disbelief; morality and capriciousness; and, ultimately, Heaven and Hell. Anyone who replaces [his] faith with disbelief has strayed away from the straight way (Quran, 2:108); Those who sell God’s covenant and their faith for a small price shall have no share [of Paradise in] the Hereafter (Quran, 3:77).
Imân is the only mark of a person’s identity that holds any real meaning. Everything else—ethnicity, language, skin color, profession, wealth, palaces, and so on—is meaningless when compared to the gigantic matter of faith. Nothing else in human life—no perfection or success in any other realm of existence—can possibly compensate for the loss in imân. The higher meaning of imân refers to the strength of one’s belief in these truths and the degree to which a person lives his or her life in accordance with them, for imân is something that may increase or decrease in a person: Indeed, it is but the believers whose hearts tremble out of awe when God is mentioned. And when His verses are recited to them, it increases them in faith (Quran, 8:2); As for those who believe, [the revelation of the Quran] increased them in faith and they rejoice (Quran, 9:124); [God] sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers so that they may have more faith added to their faith (Quran, 48:4). The significance of imân is only meaningful in this life, in which we have choice. For when we die and veils are removed, the most desperate and despicable of human beings will suddenly rush to claim their belief in Allah and the reality of the Hereafter. But it will be too late: But when they saw Our doom [in the Hereafter], their [sudden] declaration of faith could not benefit them (Quran, 40:85).
Imân comes from the Arabic root amana, whose original linguistic meaning signifies calmness of the soul and freedom from fear. It also means safety and security, which result from a sound relationship with Allah. (Also, the related word amâna refers to a sacred trust that has been given to someone, who then must protect and fulfill that trust, whether it is a promise, safeguarding someone’s property, secret, reputation, and the like.)