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. Also found in al-Bukhari
The fact that God’s Beloved Messenger, Muhammad (saw), did not respond by claiming that the “Islam” brought through him was “the most beloved to God” or ‘the most superior religion’ and answered instead with a spiritual quality or innate orientation, rather than a name of a given religion is quite profound in and of itself. There is an inexhaustible teaching contained here in such a succinct Prophetic response, a teaching which is timeless and universal yet timely and particular to our context of religious pluralism. We shall try to distill some of this Prophetic wisdom below with God’s help, and shall begin with what is implicit in the Prophetic narration and then move to what is explicit in the same response.
Implicit in this Hadith is both the awareness of religious multiplicity as well as religious unity. Religious multiplicity: that there is more than one religion revealed by God and that beyond the formal diversity and human vicissitudes of revealed religions there is an inner quality which determines ‘when’ and ‘if’ a given ‘religion’ or ‘religious adherent’ is most beloved to God. Religious unity: that 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; and the more that 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 is to God. One witnesses such wisdom 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 every Might, 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” 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 “peace with 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 ‘when’ or ‘how’ a given religion or religious follower is ‘most beloved’ to God, and not ‘which’ 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 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 truth directs us naturally to recognizing that “islam” is first and foremost a primordial state of being, an inner 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 or religion. 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 whomsoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly? (3:83)
It is this level or reality of “islam” which is to be identified with “universal submission” or “universal peace” which is found only through the awareness of one’s most intimate connection with one’s creator which even precedes all revealed manifestations of “Islam” through the Prophets and their revealed religions. It is in fact this kind of ‘islam’ which can be seen to be the “religion of the primordial monotheist” (din al hanif) who is purely and sincerely devoted to the Divine Reality through Religion (mukhlisina lahud-din) often affiliated with the Prophet Abraham, as well as “religion of the original/primordial nature” (din al-fitrah) which is the True Origin and True Goal of all revealed religion:
“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 that which the Qu’ran refers to as “the right religion”. 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). To spiritually strive with the utmost sincerity of sacred direction (qibla) towards the Divine Reality in order to realize the very substance, heart and essence of one’s very inner nature and connection before 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) is inextricably linked to the heart of one’s 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 ‘that right religion’ should not be seen as privy or exclusively bound to one form of religion in space and time, but rather as the true heart and transcendent essence of all revealed religion 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 is so direly needed now more than ever before in a secular yet multi-religious world seeking to better understand and fully live with religious diversity in a new existential light.
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.