Excerpt of a chapter from the Da’aim al-Islam, a work by the Fatimid jurist Qadi al-Nu’man
On the difference between Islam (submission) and Iman (faith), Allah the Most High says:
“The Arabs of the desert declare: ‘We are true believers’. Say (to them O Muhammad!): ‘You are not. Rather say: We profess Islam, for faith has not yet found its way into your heart’.” (Holy Qur’an 49:14)
And again Allah says :
“They regard it as a favour to you that they embraced Islam. Say (to them O Muhammad!): ‘In accepting Islam you have conferred on me no favour. It was Allah Who bestowed a favour on you in guiding you to the true faith. Admit this, if you are men of truth’.” (Holy Qur’an 49:17)
Yet in another verse, Allah says:
“We saved all the faithful in the town – We found but one household of true believers.” (Holy Qur’an 51:35)
It is obvious from the above verses that Iman (faith) is a different thing altogether. To say, as some believe, that Iman and Islam are one and the same is absolutely incorrect. It is related of Imam Ja’far al Sadiq as having said that Iman (faith) is contained within Islam (submission) but Islam does not imply Iman. Islam is the outward profession of faith and work whereas Iman is the hidden (batin) aspect of faith namely the piety of heart (khulus-i-qalb).
When asked about the meaning of Islam and Iman, Hazrat Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq replied:
“Iman is the state within the heart and Islam is the keeping of the laws of marriage and inheritance. One who enters the fold of Islam is forbidden to shed blood for the reason that his life, honour, wealth, etc., are also safe and secure. Iman comes within Islam but Islam does not mean Iman.”
Imam Muhammed al-Baqir explained about Islam and Iman with an illustration. He drew a small circle on his palm and said:
“This (small circle) represents Iman.”
He then drew another circle outside the smaller one and said:
“This outer circle represents Islam. The inner circle is Iman because Iman is related to the knowledge of the heart which lies within the body.”
This illustration thus proves that Iman (faith) is the inner spirit of Islam, but Islam (submission) which is the outer form is not Iman. A person can be a Muslim without him being a Mu’min (one who is faithful) but he cannot be a Mu’min without being a Muslim. This clarifies and strengthens the idea that Iman is dependant upon niyyat (intent of the heart).
It is reported that Hazrat Mawlana Murtaza Ali once explained the distinction between Islam and Iman, as follows:
“Islam is mere verbal affirmation whilst Iman is both verbal affirmation and its acceptance by the heart. When Allah gives the knowledge to a believer regarding Himself, His Prophet and Imam, and the believer accepts it truthfully, he becomes a mu’min (faithful) in the real sense of the word.”
Hazrat Ali was once asked:
“O Mawla! which is the smallest act which makes one a mu’min (faithful)?”
Hazrat Ali replied:
“If a person is guided to a belief in Allah, he should profess this belief with his heart; if he is guided to the knowledge of Allah’s Prophet, he should accept him and obey his commands; if he is guided to the recognition of the Living Imam, Allah’s Proof on this earth, he should give him his allegiance and follow him. This makes one a mu’min (faithful).”
This reading has been adapted from Mahomed Merali’s article, “Islam and Iman”, published in Ilm, Volume 3, Number 1, July 1977 (Ismailia Association for the United Kingdom, now known as the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board).
For a brief biography of Qadi Nu’man please click Literary Reading: Qadi Nu’man on Obedience to the Imam.