Narrated by the Companion Ibn ‘Abbas:
“The Messenger of God was asked, ‘Which religion is the most beloved to God?’ He replied, ‘Primordial and Generous Faith. (al-hanifiyya al-samha)’” (Quoted by Ahmad b Hanbal. Authenticated hadith, found in al-Bukhari)
The fact that God’s Beloved Messenger (saw), did not respond by claiming that “Islam” in the form of the final revelation was “the most beloved to God” or ‘the most superior religion’, and answered instead with a spiritual quality or innate orientation (al-hanafiyya al-samha) is quite profound in and of itself. Although this hadith does not exclude the possibility that this “most beloved religion” is Islam as the final religion, we must bear in mind there is an inexhaustible teaching regarding the subtle nature of “the most beloved religion” contained in the Prophet’s words. The wisdom contained in this Prophetic tradition (Hadith) has personal implications regarding how Muslims should devout themselves to God (primordial faith) and their comportment with others (generous faith). This Hadith also has Intra-Faith and Inter-Faith implications regarding how we view “Others” who do not belong to our religious denomination or the overall religion in general, especially in light of being “generous in faith” towards others through upholding the possibility of the spiritual sincerity in the Other, and a genuine devotion to the One and Only God as the Lord of Mankind, recognizing the inherent nature of primordial faith embedded in the heart and spirit of all humanity and all revealed religion.
We hope that expounding upon certain teachings contained in this Hadith shed light upon how any view of the religious other should be rooted in a humility and good opinion (a generous faith) towards them, which leaves open the possibility that these “others” could be practitioners of “the most beloved religion” in God’s Eyes, due to their sincere intentions and the quality of their inner devotion to God. For any “other” may be “more beloved” in God’s view than ourselves, especially if they inwardly realize and outwardly manifest “primordial and generous faith” regardless of religious orientation. Such wisdom humbles the believer in God and seeker of truth, and prevents anyone from arrogating “the best religion” only to themselves or how they understand it to be, and in which manner they practice it. For the Beloved Messenger of God (saw) the “most beloved religion” is more a recognition of spiritual qualities than a mere adherence to a particular extrinsic religious dogma or teaching, according to this Hadith.
Let us try to further distill the wisdom contained in this Hadith with what is implicit in the Prophetic narration and then move to what is explicit in the same response.
Implicit in the question asked in this Hadith is both the awareness of religious multiplicity as well as religious unity. Religious multiplicity: that there is a recognition by the companion (ra) that there is more than one religion revealed by God, and that beyond the formal diversity and human vicissitudes of revealed religions, there may be a religion “most loved by God”–hence the question. Implicit in the response given in this Hadith is an awareness of an inner quality of all revealed religion which in a sense transcends religious forms and even determines ‘when’ and ‘if’ a given ‘religion’ or ‘religious adherent’ is most beloved to God. This can be understood as the unifying principle of all true Religion and its expressions. In other words, regarding Religious unity: there is in essence only ‘one religion’ (al-Din) which manifests itself in time and space in diverse forms through the Prophetic founders of a given religion. The more this very essence or heart is realized or manifested by a given religion or follower of a religion, the more beloved that revealed religion or religious follower and his spiritual practice is to God, here and now, irrespective of which revealed religion may be more “approved” or “acceptable” to God. One witnesses such wisdom pertaining to both religious diversity and religious unity in many places in the Quran and Hadith, but the following should suffice:
“Every Religion has a special quality and the particular quality of Islam is modesty”–Hadith/Saying of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).
“Say: We believe in God and that which is revealed unto us, and that which is revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was given unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have submitted. (3:84)
“Truly We have revealed unto you as We have revealed to Noah and the prophets after him, as We revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and the tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and as We bestowed upon David the Psalms; and Messengers We have mentioned to you before and Messengers We have not mentioned to you–and God spoke directly to Moses–Messengers giving good tidings and warnings, so that mankind might have no argument against God after the Messengers. God is ever Mighty, Wise .” (4:163-165)
“…For each We have appointed a Law and a Way. And had God willed, He could have made you one community. But in order that He might try you by that which He has given you [He has made you as you are]. So compete with one another in good works. Unto God you will all return. He will disclose to you [the truth] about that in which you all differed.” (5:48)
From this inclusive point of view, “islam” as “submission (or peaceful surrender) to God” encompasses all revelations and revealed religions. And since “islam” is the principle and essence of all revealed religions, than to the extent that a given religion manifests “islam”–that is “submission to God “and “peaceful surrender to God”–it is to that extent that it is “most beloved” to God. In other words, since all authentic religions originate with God through Revelation and Prophecy, it is significant to note that what is being considered here as the answer by the Beloved Messenger is recognizing ‘how’ or ‘why’ a given religion or religious follower is ‘most beloved’ to God, and not ‘which’ form of of revealed religion per se, is more superior by point of fact. Again, this can be appreciated by looking directly at the Prophet’s response to his companion which does not relate the name of any revealed religion-even his own–yet relates a general quality or spiritual orientation which can be seen to be the essence and heart of all true authentic religion and religious following: ‘al-hanafiyya as-samha’, that is ‘primordial and generous faith’. This kind of faith can be seen to be embedded in the very substance of the human spirit or spiritual heart, and found at the heart or core of each revealed religion.
Such reflections direct us naturally to recognizing that “islam” as “universal submission” is first and foremost a primordial state of being, an inner, spiritual orientation: an innate disposition (fitra) of creation before one’s Lord who is The Originator (al-Fatir), even before ‘islam’ can be viewed as a revealed form of guidance given to all Prophets in general or the final religion in particular. We find this kind of “islam”, that is a mode of being in perfect harmony, peace and submission with the Divine Intention and Purpose for creation in the following verses:
“…And there is not a thing [in creation] that does not sing His Praise (17:44)
“Seek they other than the religion of God (Din Allah), when unto Him submits [in islam] whomsoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly? (3:83)
It is this level or reality of “islam” which may be identified with “universal submission” or “universal peace”, found only through the awareness of one’s most intimate connection with one’s creator: a connection which precedes all revealed manifestations of “Islam” through the Prophets and their revealed religions. Certainly the Quran in 3:85 which follows this more inclusive and universal verse mentioned above, which reads, “Whoever seeks a religion other than al-Islam (submission to God) it shall not be accepted of him..”, may be read to specify the general or generic “islam” in this verse and restrict its meaning or scope to understand “Islam” as the final religion. As legitimate and normative of a reading as this is, it nonetheless stands that the literal sense of the term “al-islam” need not be restricted to this definition alone, as its more encompassing definition does not violate or contradict both the literal sense of the Arabic wording and its meanings found in a multitude of verses. This more encompassing understanding of the term “al-islam” would resonate with the overall thrust and message contained in the verses immediately preceding this verse, and speaks more directly to the “inclusive” nature of ‘islam’ as the substance through which “primordial and generous faith” flows quite naturally as “the most beloved religion” as found in the human heart and the heart of all revealed religion.
For these reasons, it is this kind of ‘islam’ (universal submission) which can be seen to be that “religion” which is “most beloved” to God, or the “religion of the primordial monotheist” (din al hanif) who purifies his connection to God in his heart, and sincerely devotes his whole self to the Divine through religion (what the Qur’an refers to as ‘mukhlisina lahud-din’in various places). This Qur’anic term “mukhlis” (purifier/effacer) is often affiliated with the Prophet Abraham, along with the “religion of the original/primordial nature” (din al-fitrah) which is the true “Origin” and true “Goal” of all revealed religion and Prophetic Tradition:
“So set thy purpose for Religion with unswerving devotion (din al hanifi)–in accordance with the original nature which God fashioned (fitra-t-Allah); for there is no altering God’s creation (la tabdillah khalqilla): and that truly is the right religion (dalika din al-qayyima), but most men know not.” (30:30)
To return to our Prophetic statement in light of the above, that which the Prophet of Islam (saw) identifies as “the most beloved religion to God” is also what the Qu’ran refers to as “the right religion” since it is described as the religion through which one “sets one’s face (wajh) with unswerving devotion”. It is this very religion, or spiritual orientation innately within us and within our revealed traditions, that in its essence is immutable, incorruptible, ‘un-abrogated’ and unalterable (la tabdila khalqillah, according to the above verse), because it is identified with our very inner spiritual heart. It is also, this “religion” or “religious essence” beyond all forms of revealed religion or personal devotion which can be said to be the true criterion of sincerity and the true substance of “the most beloved” or “better religion” known only to God. We find this wisdom in the following verse:
“Who is better in religion than one who submits (aslama) his whole self/face (wajh) to God, and who is beautifully virtuous, and follows the creed/way of Abraham the devout in Faith (hanif); for God took Abraham as an Intimate Friend (khalil)”. (4:125)
It will again be noted that in this verse we find very specific descriptors of the practitioners of this “better/more beloved religion”: that the ‘person’ who is better in religion is the one who has devoted his whole being or inner face (wajh) entirely to God–such spiritual intimacy resulting in a beautifully virtuous character (wa huwa muhsin). It is in this way that such an individual “follows” the way of Abraham (millati Ibrahim), who is described as purely devout in Faith/Worship (Hanifan) and thereby an Intimate of God (khalil). This “way of Abraham” is immediately appreciated to be more an inward disposition and spiritual station (maqam), rooted in what could be called the ‘spiritual archetype’ of purity and sincerity (ikhlas) modeled after the Prophet Abraham’s (as) own personal intimacy with God. In this light it can be appreciated that such a way is “uniquely” expressed for each individual worshiper through their unique inner face (wajh) which “turns” or “faces” God uniquely–a manner of devotion which transcends any limitation one may find in their outward religious orientation.
In other words, there is no explicit specificity that this “best religion” is an actual religious form to be found or proclaimed extrinsically. Such a “religion” then, be can be seen to be more of a psycho-spiritual state of inner disposition of yearning and spiritual realization, then an actually embodied formal religious teaching. It should be noted however, that many Muslim commentators on this above verse advocate Islam in its final form as being the fullest and complete manifestation of “the way of Abraham”. Yet the Qur’an’s literal wording and meanings leave this door open for diverse views, as found in various Sufi commentaries on this and other verses.
Therefore, it can be appreciated that in this particular Prophetic response to the questioner (ra), the Prophet (saw) is identifying the “the most beloved religion” with an inner spiritual orientation described as “al-hanafiyya as-samha”, one of these terms being directly identified in the Qur’an with the Prophet Abraham as the spiritual model par excellence for this kind of spiritual disposition, described as a hanif who is “the better in religion”. So the “better religion” or “the most beloved religion” can be viewed to be the person who has the most sincere inner orientation to the Divine Beloved. This recognition can not but promote humility as it may be possible that a believer in a religious tradition foreign to our own may be “more beloved” to God then we are, due to an inherent sincerity in devotion that God Sees, and we do not…
To strive then, with the utmost sincerity of sacred direction (qibla) towards the Divine Reality within the heart, in order to realize our connection to God, is to realize that which is ever-present at the heart and origin of all true revealed religion–and vice versa. For that which the Qu’ran refers to as the “right religion” (din al qayyima), “the better religion”, or “the most beloved religion”, is inextricably linked to the heart of one’s individual being and the heart of one’s revealed religion. It is truly ‘that religion’ (or ‘that which binds’–the root meaning of religare in Latin–in our case, to God), that original, primordially generous and unswerving faith (al-hanafiya as-samha), which is the “most Beloved” to God and found directly buried within our heart. It is the “religion” of the “covenant of Alastu bi-rabbikum” (Am I not your Lord, 7:172), the oath that all of humanity took in pre-Eternity, witnessing God’s Oneness through His Lordship to us: a divine knowledge and primordial faith embedded in the very substance of our hearts.
And ‘that religion’ should not be seen as privy or exclusively bound to one form of a religion in space and time, but rather as the true heart and transcendent essence of all revealed religion and of all humanity beyond any historical and spatial accretion. A truth, which our Beloved Messenger (saw) so succinctly transmitted to us in a single sentence response! A truth which we so direly need to be reminded of now more than ever before in our secular yet multi-religious world seeking to better understand and fully live one’s own religion while being respectful to how others view or and live in the Sacred in our new existential predicament. To call ourselves and others then, to “the way of Abraham” the purely devout (hanif), to the way of “primordial and generous faith” is to call seekers back to their own heart where they may find the Beloved, and thereby “the most beloved religion”, which is none other than the religion of God found within the core of all revealed religion and the heart of all human souls.
So know God in your heart and have “primordial faith”, and through that faith, have “generous faith” towards all others since by the very virtue of their existence, they share in this “primordial and generous faith”. Then perhaps you will be “most beloved” in the Beloved’s Eyes.
And God Knows Best.
Suggestions for further reading:
1. “The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam”, by Reza Shah-Kazemi. The most succinct and comprehensive evaluation of the Quranic, Prophetic and Historical roots and manifestations of the spirit of tolerance in Islam to date (published 2012). The book opens with this very hadith treated here.
2. “Generous Tolerance in Islam”, by Hamza Yusuf, in “Seasons: Semiannual Journal of Zaytuna Institute, 2 (2005), which provides a profound and much needed traditional perspective on the term “al-hanafiyya as-samha”. The etymological references to these Arabic words are discussed as well.
3. “Ideals and Realities of Islam”, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, especially his chapter: ‘Islam, the Last Religion and the Primordial Religion’. The whole book is a landmark book which is a pure classic and synthesis of Sufi and Philosophical teachings on the universal dimensions of Islam, and is catered to a Western audience.
***Note: This is an expanded version of an original blog posted here in 2012.