One of the best ways to appreciate the different levels or dimensions of Islam is the tripartite definition given to ‘the Religion’ (al-Din) by the Angel Gabriel when he was discoursing with the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in front of his Companions, known famously as the “Hadith Jibril”. The tripartite division is categorized as: 1. ‘Islam’ or “following revealed praxis”; 2 ‘Iman’ or “faith and intellectual/creedal belief”; and 3. ‘Ihsan’ or “spiritual excellence, purification and virtue”.
The first level is defined by the Prophet upon being asked by the Angel Gabriel as “to accept the Shahada (the testimony of Faith in the Divine Unity and Prophecy), and the rest of the 5 pillars of Islam, that is, Prayer, Fasting, Charity/Alms due, and Pilgrimage. The second is defined as faith in God, the Angels, the Scriptures, the Prophets, the Day of Return and Divine Destiny. The third is defined quite elusively by the Prophet (saw) as “to worship God as if you see Him, and if you do not see Him, know that He Sees you”.
Perhaps the most profound and universal way to view each of one these levels is to recognize that each dimension of Islam pertains to a particular mode of ‘correctly’ or ‘harmoniously’ engaging the human being in one’s connection to Divine Reality. The first level of ‘islam’ is more formal and can be seen to engage the Divine reality through the means of the ‘body’. The second level of ‘iman’ can be seen to the engage the Divine reality through recourse to the ‘mind’, and the third level of ‘ihsan’ through the reality of the ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’. Hence the first level or dimension of Islam is related to “correct”, “harmonious” or “right practice”; the second to “right understanding” and the third to “right relationship” with God, self and others.
Seekers or Practitioners of Eastern Wisdom, especially as found in Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist paths shall appreciate the terms “right/correct/harmonious” as adequate descriptors for the terms ‘way’ or ‘nature/law’ (as in the terms Tao or Dharma respectively). The beauty of the English term “right” as a descriptor is that it is very ‘non-confessional’ or universal in scope and points to an objective quality which can be seen to be in ‘the nature of things’. Whether it relates to “right practice”or “right thinking”, it does not have some of the restrictive connotations that the terms “orthodox” and even “dogmatic” may have in their respective Western Christian contexts, yet are wide enough to include the positive function and significance of these same terms which are sacred in certain forms of Christianity. From this point of view, it is interesting to note that the Quranic term “rushd” is probably best defined in English as “Right Guidance” and fits perfectly into the spirit of one of the intended meanings of the Quranic verse, “There is no compulsion in Religion (al-Din); Right Guidance (rushd) is clear from error/misguidance” (2:256). In this light, it is worthy to note that there is no formal Quranic equivalent in Arabic of the Western term “orthodox” as one finds in certain Western traditions, although the ‘meaning’ of the term ‘orthodoxy’ can be grasped through the Quranic term ‘rushd’.
As such, these three levels or dimensions of Islam can be viewed as levels of ‘right guidance’ which is revealed from the Prophets to humanity on high, but recognized naturally and realized willfully from within the heart of human beings without any need for extrinsic coercion. Hence there is “no compulsion” in following “right guidance” according to this Quranic verse: by definition following ‘right guidance’ should occur naturally. When a human being recognizes Truth and Rightful Guidance in whichever revealed form it manifests itself in time and space, by their very nature that same human being naturally and freely starts inclining and orienting themselves towards “right guidance” (rushd) on the levels of ‘understanding’ (iman), ‘practice’ (islam), and ‘realization’ (ihsan).
And God Knows Best.
Suggestions for further reading:
1. “Vision of Islam”, by Chittick and Murata. This whole book is the most comprehensive introduction to Islam in the English language and runs like a traditional commentary on the aforementioned ‘Hadith Jibril’.
2. “The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi”, by Murata, Chittick and Tu Weiming. A very deep and penetrating book which is a translation of a Chinese Sage named Liu Zhiu’s teachings on Islam (died crica 1700’s) which uses the revealed wisdom of Neo-Confucian thought to explain the verities of Islam to the Chinese.