Being Muslim in Truth and in Form


Question: You frequently mention in your articles and talks that Islam does not merely consist of outward form. Can you explain this a little more please?

Answer: As is stated in the question, Islam does not merely consist of some outward forms, rhetoric, ceremonies, and formalities. On the contrary, practicing Islam is a matter of the heart. That is to say, what really matters besides the form is the essence and meaning.

The noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, once drew attention to this truth by stating that God does not look at your body or your physical appearance, He looks at your heart and the sincerity of your deeds, and judges you accordingly.[1] The pure and simple voice of Anatolia, the Sufi poet Yunus Emre once said:

Being a dervish does not mean putting on the robes and cap.

One dervish in the heart, does not depend on the attire.

Thus he pointed out that what really merits consideration is not the appearance but the heart.

If the Inner Being Was To Be Turned to the Outside

There are some people who come to the fore as a Muslim and try to be the principal representative, but in truth they do not have the slightest value in God’s sight. Even if they come to the fore as Muslims in this world, they will be in a miserable condition in the next. On the other hand, there are some people who are not esteemed here and who appear to be backwards; however, in the next world it will be apparent that they have actually progressed to a position in the first rank, and walk side-by-side with the saints in their spiritual life. In this respect, basing opinions of people on their outward appearance and manner of speech may not always lead us to the correct conclusions. Once, the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, drew attention to this truth and stated: “There are so many people of shabby appearance who are treated as objects of scorn. When they swear that a certain thing will happen, however, God does not contradict them.”[2]

But let this not be misunderstood; a person does not necessarily need to seem poor and lowly in order to attain such exalted spiritual ranks. By having a sound heart and giving one’s position its due, people in certain worldly positions too, can be of excellent worth in the sight of God with His grace. Each of the Rightly Guided Caliphs is such a beautiful example of this.

The Moving Lives of True Leaders

As you know, our master Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, received a modest payment to support his family. He put the remaining amount into a pot and requested that it be given to the next caliph after he passed away. When Umar ibn al-Khattab, may God be pleased with him, learned about it, he said as if addressing the late caliph: “You lived such an exemplary life, impossible for us to repeat.”[3] The blessed Abu Bakr owned a fortune before he became Muslim. He spent all his wealth for the sake of God and did not think of using even the slightest amount for his own sake. In spite of the ample means God Almighty granted him, he passed to the next world empty-handed in terms of worldly possessions.

The life of Umar ibn al Khattab was no different. When he became the state leader, he requested his payment to be determined according to the income of an average person. During a time of famine, he asked what the poorest of the people ate. Upon learning that it was bread and olive oil, he said: “Then what falls to me from now on is doing thus.”[4] This great caliph, who had overcome the two superpowers of the time, left this world without any possessions. The main essential of worldly and otherworldly success lies in attaining such a personal state.

Caliph Uthman, may God be pleased with him, was another example of such virtue. A wealthy member of the Banu Umayya tribe, Uthman ibn Affan gave away five hundred camels together with their loads without hesitation when the Muslims were urged to make donations at a time of emergency.[5] With his extraordinary magnanimity, his horizons did not fall behind the two caliphs that preceded him.

Likewise, for his whole lifetime, Ali ibn Abi Talib, may God be pleased with him, donated the money he could find, giving half of it openly and half of it secretly. In spite of the ample means he could have enjoyed, he passed to the next world as a poor person.

These exalted personages never used their status or title to personally benefit from the extensive authority or ample means they had access to. In the same way, they did not allocate the means within their reach to their relatives or supporters either.

So-Called State Leaders and Societies Drifting to Disaster

What about the situation of those who abuse their position and the means entrusted to them by the public by misappropriating them for themselves, their relatives and their supporters; are they to be considered unbelievers? They do not become unbelievers of course. However, there is no doubt that they assume unbelievers’ characteristics. Even if they observe the Daily Prayers, go to Hajj every year and never forsake the Ramadan fast, the characteristics of unbelief will survive in their bodies like germs for as long as they do not correct their weaknesses in this respect. Maybe these will cause certain deviations in their attitude and behavior. Since they allow a deadly virus to survive in their body, they will think and speak wrongly, make wrong decisions and take wrong actions, and consequently, with their wrong policies they will lead the people to disaster.

Let us not forget that God judges people according to their attributes. For example, there are characteristics of believers both in the religious and non-religious field such as respecting others’ chastity and honor, living decently, not coveting others’ possessions, practicing mutual help, declaring war against laziness, planning one’s time, using one’s means efficiently, and scrutinizing the creation with a love for research and truth… Whoever possesses these attributes, God will help them succeed; those who fail to embody these attributes will be punished both in this world and the next.

Even if individuals see themselves as very religious, if they are idly killing time in tea houses and adding to their laziness vices as gossiping, backbiting and slander; if they are solely acting upon baseless suppositions and thus thinking evil and speaking evil about other believers, then they are leading a life with attributes of unbelief. As far as such a person is concerned—considering the impossible—even if they brought down the stars from the sky and thus let people on earth enjoy such fireworks, they would have no true worth at all in God’s sight. For some time they may manage to pull the wool over people’s eyes. However, as they cannot establish a sound relationship with God, and fail to follow a course to become a believer, and fail to follow the orbit in which the Prophets walked, they light up briefly like an eye-catching spark but fade away in a short time and end up as a disappointment. Many others so far attracted the masses to follow them with such make-believe, but before long they fell to oblivion without leaving any positive trace.

The Insatiable Greed

Considering what has been said so far, believers must not be deceived by outward forms and must not forget that what really matters is the essence and spirit. They must not give up sincerity, but relate all of their acts and moves to God’s good pleasure, and try to follow what God wills with every step they take. Without organizing one’s life in accordance with the principles decreed by God, a person will become vulnerable to being directed by the carnal soul and Satan. When such a person finds the opportunity, he will fill his own pockets and bank accounts, and even transfer money to foreign banks when the banks of his own country will not suffice. With unimaginable tricks, he will rob the people of their money and try to establish his own sultanate with the money he stole from them. Even if a person acting in such a devilish manner appears to be Muslim, it means that he is walking on the path of unbelief.

Whatever way and methods were used during a certain period to attain certain achievements and victories, it is not possible to attain the same achievements in another period with other ways than theirs. It is necessary to follow the way of those righteous ones. A legitimate end cannot be reached through illegitimate ways. If the target has to be reasonable, legitimate, and Divine, then the way and method to achieve that target must also be legitimate. As for the Machiavellian approach claiming that it is possible to employ illegitimate means to reach a legitimate end, it is nothing but an urge from Satan. Even if such a person goes to the mosque and places his forehead on the ground, there will be no difference between him and one who boozes or worships idols.

The Attempt to Cover up for One Wrongdoing with a Greater One

Regardless of their level in the government, people who commit grave sins such as misappropriating the public’s money, rigging public tenders, bribery, leading an indecent life, or favoring those in their close circle, do not wish others to know what they are doing. Therefore, they feel disturbed if decent and upright people, who do not approve of their illegitimate dealings, attain certain positions that will mean their wrongdoings are discovered. They fear that they will be prevented, their dealings will be revealed and they will lose credit in the sight of the masses they deceive. For the sake of preventing this, they put the pressure on decent and upright people in unimaginable ways. For, every criminal makes an effort to cover up his crime and be cleared of it. A criminal does not even refrain from accusing others to appear innocent.

As they do not wish for others to recognize their sins, they wish for those around them to resemble themselves in order carry on freely with their crooked dealings. They also transform others, for those who commit the same vices get along well. At the same time, if the people around them are also like them, they are both saved from criticism and from trying to silence the pangs of conscience on account of the wrongs they commit.

Besides all of these, for the sake of guaranteeing their position and future, they try to defame people that they see as opponents and try to make them fall from grace with some fabricated accusations. Even more, they even try to shut all doors in their faces and try to isolate them in their places. However, it should never be forgotten that even if all of these acts and attributes are found in a believer, they essentially belong to unbelievers.

Steadfast in Righteousness, Magnanimous at Solving Problems

In spite of everything, on the one hand the duty that falls to real believers is not yielding to the power and pressure of tyrants, but walking uprightly on the righteous path. On the other hand, in accordance with the meaning of the verse: “Goodness and evil can never be equal. Repel evil with what is better (or best),” (Fussilat 41:34) what falls to believers is finding a way of doing good even to those who do them evil and thus trying to stop them from committing sins. Remember how Rumi said: “One of my feet is in the center, taking religion as basis, and my other foot is with 70-odd nations.” Or, “Come, come, whoever you are; even if you are an unbeliever, a fire-worshipper, or idolater… come. Our lodge is not a place of hopelessness, even if you have reneged your vow of repentance a hundred times, still come.” Disturbed by these words, a certain man wearing the attire of a religious teacher accosts him and lets out a stream of invective such as: “You are such a transgressor, you are misguiding people… you are welcoming Christians, Jews, and even fire-worshippers…” He lets off all of the carbon dioxide from within. In the meantime, Rumi listens to his words with perfect sincerity and modesty. When the man has nothing else to say, Rumi asks, “Have you finished your words?” When the man replies in the affirmative, he says, “My heart is open to you as well, you also come!”

Some might slam all doors in your face by fabricating different pretexts; they might even try to deprive you of your essential rights and freedoms. They might even try to prevent certain good works you carry out in some distant corner of the world. In response to this, you should do your duty and carry on with good deeds on the righteous path by saying, “God is sufficient for us!” While struggling against evils, you should never follow the cruel way of tit-for-tat reactions. Responding in the same way to every evil committed against you is cruel conduct.

However, God Almighty did give permission for it, as stated: “If you have to respond to any wrong, respond (only) to the measure of the wrong done to you” (an-Nahl 16:126). But, the same verse continues: “but if you endure patiently, it is indeed better for the patient” and thus pointed out that monuments of virtue need to take the way of patience and forgiveness. The noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, always responded with forgiveness and kindness to those who committed every kind of evil against him. During the peaceful conquest of Mecca, out of gratitude to God Almighty who blessed him with such a favor, the Messenger of God humbly bowed forward so far that his head nearly touched the saddle while entering the city. The people who, up until that day, had done every kind of evil to him were now waiting for the verdict to be given about them. Like Prophet Joseph, peace be upon him, said to his brothers a few thousand years before, the noble Prophet said: “No reproach this day shall be on you. Go now, all of you are free” (Yusuf 12:92).[6] This is what deserves to be called true magnanimity, and this is the way to be followed by the inheritors of the Prophets in our time.

[1] Sahih Muslim, Birr, 34; Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Al-Musnad, 2/284, 539.

[2] Sahih al-Bukhari, Ayman, 9; Sahih Muslim, Birr, 138; Jannah, 48.

[3] Ibn Sa’d, At-Tabaqat al-Kubra, 3/186; at-Tabari, Tarikh al-Umam wa al-Muluk, 2/354.

[4] Ibn Sa’d, At-Tabaqat al-Kubra, 3/312.

[5] Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Manaqib, 18; al-Bukhari, At-Tarikh al-Kabir, 5/246; At-Tayalisi, Al-Musnad, 164

[6] Al-Bayhaqi, As-Sunan al-Kubra, 9/118.

This text is the translation of “Hakiki ve Şeklî Müslümanlık.”

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