“The Messenger of God was asked, ‘Which among the religions is the most beloved to God?’ He replied, ‘Primordial and Generous Faith’ (al-hanifiya al-samha).” (Quoted by Ahmad b Hanbal. Authenticated hadith, found in al-Bukhari)
When asked “which among the religions (al-adyan) is most beloved to God” (ahabbu ila-Allah), it is quite significant to note that God’s Beloved Messenger (saw) did not respond to his companion (ra) with the name of any known religion, or even specify in this narration “the final religion revealed through your Messenger”. Instead, the Prophet (saw) responded with a descriptive term which is more of a quality found in genuine faith and in genuine religion. This compound term, includes the words primordiality (al-hanifiyya) and generosity (al-samha), which put together, can be understood to mean “primordial and generous faith”.
It will be noticed by the observant Muslim that these qualities can be seen to make up the very essence of the Messenger of God (saw), also named by God as “The Beloved of God” and a “Mercy to all worlds”. Indeed for Muslims, the Prophet’s very nature and character brought “primordial and generous faith” to its full fruition: “And I was only sent to perfect character”. If we do not embody such Prophetic qualities, then it is possible we are not attracting God’s love as we should, because we are not following more fully the Prophetic model: “Say, If you love God, follow me, and God will love you and forgive you your sins”(3:31). Such a Prophetic definition of “the most beloved religion”, rooted in the Prophetic model of belief and praxis, can have profound consequences for how we view ourselves and our own religion, as well as how we view and interact with others, both intra-religiously as well as inter-religiously in our modern and multi-religious context.
Although this hadith does not exclude the possibility that this “most beloved religion” is Islam as the final religion (as Muslims would believe this to be), the wisdom contained in this hadith points to a more subtle truth than simply acknowledging which extrinsic religious form is most acceptable to God. Rather the Prophet is reminding us to bring our attention to that specific quality which can be said to qualify any given expression of religion and religious devotion, “amongst all the religions” as stated in this hadith, which attracts God’s Love. This spiritual quality is what the Messenger (saw) aptly termed “primordial and generous faith”. Such Prophetically defined faith can be understood to allude to a more universal dimension of religious truth and spiritual awareness. Such faith is more aligned with the “religion of the heart” than with the “theology of the mind”. In other words, primordial and generous faith points more to a spiritual quality of the heart and inner disposition of the soul of a devout (hanifi) person, then mere knowledge or certitude pertaining to the mind of an individual. In this light, such “hanifi” (primordially devout) wisdom as expressed through this Prophetic tradition has implications as to how Muslims should devout themselves to God in order to attract His Love (swt): that is, through awakening within themselves a more sincere and wholesome expression of their innate form of faith in God’s Oneness. The “samha” (generous) aspect of this wisdom implies a generous comportment with “others” (whether others in religion, or others in humanity) through expressing a forbearing attitude of good faith towards them, rooted in the ontological Oneness of God and the spiritual oneness of humanity. For the root of all “Islamic ontology” goes back to “Rahmah” (Mercy) as this is the primary “Quality” of the Divine Nature. This Rahmah is the very ground of all existence, including the substance of all humanity and all revealed religion.
Such recognition of primordial generous faith quite naturally manifests in an acknowledgment of the inherent possibility of “primordial and generous faith” in the other. This would be “the most beloved way” to view and approach our co-religionists who differ with us, as well as with those in humanity who believe in and practice other religions, or are of different ethnicities. This is certainly possible, if not mandated, upon recognition and thereby adherence to a sense of good faith, generosity and nobility (samha), despite real religious difference and diverse ethnic expressions of religious culture in the other. For as the Qur’an states:
“O mankind! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another (li ta’arafu). Surely the most noble among you before God are the most reverent of you (atqakum). Truly God is Knowing, Aware.” (49:13, Study Quran).
If the “most beloved religion” is rooted in a recognition of the degree of reverence that an individual has for their Creator, then it becomes easier to transcend religious, ethnic and social boundaries and embrace with empathy any “other”, while maintaining one’s roots in one’s own religion. This writer has observed first hand in his own life and professional career, how many a Muslim and non-Muslim who have differed with us either theologically or in praxis, have had superior qualities of character. Surely, this can easily be related to their ability and grace to attract “Divine Love” by living that “primordial and generous faith” through a reverence to God expressed through a sincere adherence to their own religion.
To the possible objections founded upon a more exclusive understanding of religion and truth, the following question should be asked: Does God’s Love not reach sincere devotees of other religions? This question can be answered in many different ways, all quite legitimately from various Islamic points of view and levels of religious reference. Yet a profound key lies in the above understanding of primordial and generous faith: if such faith is a quality of the heart, then each and every human being regardless of outward religious confession, has potential access to this primordial faith by virtue of having a heart and inner connection with God. For as we are reminded in another hadith, “God does not look at your bodies or your forms, He looks at your hearts”. By extension, what is “most beloved to God” is not necessarily the extrinsic form or outer body of a given religious practice (however important), but the inner state or heart of the devotee. This “inner heart” is universal and even transcends outer conformity to religious forms. For this reason, this “inner religion” or “religion of the heart”, can be identified with “primordial and generous faith”.
So how can “primordial and generous faith” be the “birthright” of all of humanity, regardless of religious orientation? Both an intuitive knowledge (ilm) of the pure Oneness of Divine Reality as well as a genuine and compassionate forbearance (hilm) towards others can be viewed as an innate quality flowing from a healthy human soul of sound disposition (fitra). This fitra, or innate sense of the sacred, is precisely what is termed “the most beloved among the religions to God” by the Beloved of God (saw), since it is “primordial” (hanifi). In the Qur’anic worldview, such devout faith in and knowledge of God through “witnessing” is acknowledged as the very substance of our original human nature, an original nature related to our spirit even before it entered our human bodies in a pre-temporal (or primordial) moment of our humanity’s existence. The Qur’an renders it thus:
“And when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their progeny and made them bear witness concerning themselves, ‘Am I not your Lord?’, they said, ‘Yea, we bear witness’…” (7:172, Study Quran)
This verse can be seen to be the essential cornerstone of Islam’s ‘spiritual anthropology’ as it concerns the nature and destiny of human beings, as well as the sacred history of the underlying substance of all revealed religions. For Islam, the essential relationship between God and humanity is premised upon this “unmediated recognition” of God’s Oneness (Tawhid) we bear witness to, through His Lordship over humanity at the moment of primordial creation. In other words, the innate recognition of God’s Oneness is viewed to be the the very essence of being human, even if it lies hidden within our nature or obscured through religious teaching, for various reasons. Notably, Divine Unity (Tawhid) is also believed to be the essential Truth and teaching of all revealed religion, regardless of the diverse forms or “languages of expression” it has taken. Being imprinted or embedded in the fabric of human nature, such primordial knowledge of God’s Oneness makes us duty bound to uphold this “self-evident truth” when we devote ourselves to God. It naturally compels us all to practice this “inalienable right” in the form of love, compassion and generosity (qualities rooted in the essential substance of the Divine Nature) towards all human beings who by definition share in this same spiritual heritage by simply being human. It is ultimately this underlying primordial nature which may be called “the primordial and generous faith” which the Messenger of God (saw) referred to. It is also this recognition as the underlying substance of all true religion that we strive to realize through the form of revealed religion we find ourselves in or have been guided towards. To sincerely devout ourselves to God alone and by ‘natural’ consequence emanate generosity of soul, this can only attract the Love of God and make our spiritual orientation and religious expression “the most beloved religion” to the Divine Beloved (swt).
So beyond all the real differences between Islam and other religions, let us strive to recognize how all genuine religion finds its “validity” through being “beloved to God” to the extent that faith and religious practice awakens the awareness of humanity’s original or primordial (hanifi) religion of “Am I not your Lord?”! If we are able to succeed in this endeavor, then we will not be too quick to find “everything right” with ourselves or our own religion, and “everything wrong” with others and their religions–even with those within our own religion who disagree or differ with us. This recognition should immediately engender a sense of humility and sacred awe towards God who is the Origin (Alpha) and End (Omega) of All Truth. Likewise, we should strive to recognize that all genuine acts of devotion (from religious worship to practicing virtues) are “loved by God” to the extent that they express and realize sincere devoutness (haniffiya) and radiate generosity (samha) towards others. Then accordingly, we will look at others through God’s unconditional love and compassion, engendering generosity, forbearance, and tolerance in the context of religious difference. If we are able to achieve this, we may then live “primordial and generous faith” whose fullest embodiment for Muslims is God’s Beloved Messenger (saw), who was a “mercy to all worlds” even other religious worlds. Such mercy to other religions was manifested in how God’s Beloved (saw) chose to respond in this hadith, to this very question.
And God Knows and Loves Best.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
- Spiritual Teachings of the Prophet: Hadith and Commentaries by Saints and Sages of Islam by Tayeb Chourief, Translated by Edin Q. Lohja–One of the best Hadith commentaries emphasizing the more spiritual sayings of the Prophet (saw) with excerpts of profound Sufi and Philosophical commentaries on the subjects.
- The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam, by Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi
- The Study Quran: See the commentaries following this above referenced verse 30:30, as well as 2:135; 3:67,95; 4:125; 6:79, 161; and 16:120, 123, regarding the “religion of the hanif” (primordial monotheist), which is often identified with “the way (millah) of Abraham”.
- “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.
- It is this same essential “primordial and generous faith”, and even the same essential question which sparked this most beautiful Prophetic answer, that is mirrored quite exactly in the meaning of the following Biblical Passage conveying the first two commandments in Matthew of the New Testament; the first commandment expressing the spirit of “al-hanifiya” (primordiality) and the second commandment speaking to the spirit of “al-samha” (generosity of spirit):
“Master, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love your Lord your God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love thine neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)