“Aqidah comes first” is a phrase that has, over the last quarter of a century, become a slogan of sorts in certain Muslims quarters. Yet there can be no denying that aqidah or belief (from ‘aqada: to tie, bind firmly, fasten securely – out of which comes the idea of binding certain beliefs to one’s heart in utter conviction of them) is the single most important aspect of the religion. One is not a Muslim until a small core set of beliefs are tied to the heart. It is as simple as that. In Islam, acts of piety follow on from sound intentions, all of which should stem from certain sound beliefs.
Again, there is no doubt that aqidah, particularly the doctrine of tawhid (monotheism), transforms and defines a believer’s worldview and social outlook. In the Qur’anic estimation of things, if beliefs are sound and conviction (yaqin) strong, deeds will be morally upright and virtuous – which is why ‘aqidah comes first: that we can know ultimate truths, and that attitudes and actions can give concrete expression to such truths.
So for Muslims, it is against the backdrop of tawhid (monotheism), khilafah (humanity’s stewardship of the earth) and akhirah (belief in an afterlife), all of which nurture a profound sense of responsibility, spirituality and accountability, that they live out their lives. These lie at the heart of Muslim ethics. For the believer, life, liberty and the freedom to pursue happiness are inseparable from them. For a social contract based on the belief in responsibility, spiritual growth and final judgement is, according to the Qur’an, the best foundation for establishing a just and compassionate social order.
The hadith literature details an interesting encounter. Yusuf b. Mahak relates that he was once in the presence of Lady ‘A’ishah, when a person came and asked that she show him her copy of the Quran, so that he may learn its chapter arrangements. But before doing this, she explained to him that ‘The first of what was revealed were the shorter chapters (al-mufassal) which mentioned Paradise and Hell. When the people had turned and settled (thabat) in Islam, the verses about the lawful and prohibited (al-halal wa’l-haram) were revealed. Had it been that the first thing to be revealed was: “Do not drink alcohol,” they would have replied, “We shall never quit drinking alcohol!” Or if, at the outset, adultery was forbidden, they would have said, “We shall not stop having illicit sexual affairs!” There was revealed at Makkah to Muhammad, upon whom be peace, while I was still a young girl of playing age: No, but the Hour is their appointed time, and the Hour shall be more calamitous and more bitter. The chapters of al-Baqarah and al-Nisa’ were not revealed until I was with him [as wife].’ She then brought out her copy and dictated to him the order of the chapters.
Having cited this report, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani makes the following observation: ‘This points to the divine wisdom in the gradualness of Revelation and that the first thing the Qur’an calls to is tawhid, to glad-tidings for believers, to the delights of Paradise [for them], and to dire news of Hell for the sinners and unbelievers. When souls had settled on this, religious laws (ahkam) were subsequently sent down.’
The same point (that only when people had warmed to the Quranic aqidah regarding God, Prophethood and the Afterlife were Islam’s laws and rules sent down) was made by the Companion, Jundub b. ‘Abd Allah. Concerning the pedagogy of the prophetic age, he stated, ‘We learnt faith (iman) before we learnt the Qur’an; then when we learnt the Qur’an, it increased us in faith.” Here, iman refers to the cardinal beliefs of Islam, while Qur’an refers to the religious laws and injunctions.
Yet to infer from this that no religious injunctions was instated in the Makkan years and that revelation concerned itself solely with beliefs would be to misread Islam’s sacred history. Indeed the sha‘a’ir of Islam, those acts emblematic of the religion such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, zakat, etc. were made obligatory at a much later date. Nonetheless, there were certain duties Makkan revelation constantly exhorted believers to, perhaps what we may regard as societal responsibilities and ethical imperatives.
Thus the Qur’an enjoins upon the fledgling community of believers to feed the poor, look after the orphans, attend to the weak and the vulnerable, be just in commercial dealings and shun all types of fraud; be neighbourly and offer neighbourly assistance, honour and serve parents, maintain the bonds of kith and kin, and to stop the murder of infant girls due to fear of economic hardships or a supposed humiliation they could later bring upon their families. It also enjoined speaking truthfully, observing justice, acting compassionately, and tending to affairs of the spirit more than worldly wants.
That societal obligations and ethics constitute cornerstones of the faith may also be seen in Ja‘far’s reply to the Negus, when the latter asked about the sum and substance of the Islamic faith. Ja‘far answered him thus,
O King! We were a people steeped in ignorance, given to idolatry, eating unsacrificed carrion, committing lewd acts, severing ties of kin, treating our neighbours badly, and the strong would exploit the weak. Thus we were, till God sent a Messenger from our midst, one whose lineage, honesty, trustworthiness and integrity were well-known to us. He called us to God, that we should affirm His monotheistic nature, worship Him alone, and renounce what we and our forefathers worshipped in the way of stones and idols. He commanded us to speak truthfully, fulfill our promises, respect ties of kinship, and to refrain from acts of lewdness. So we affirmed faith in him and followed what was sent to him from God. It is for this reason that our people have turned against us and tortured us, that we turn away from our faith and revert to worshipping idols. When they continued to persecute us, oppress us and constrict our freedom to practice our faith, we came to your land, choosing you above all others, hoping to receive asylum from you as well as just treatment.
Now social scientists may frown upon the idea of essentialising Islam, yet the above portrayal of the faith, as depicted by Ja‘far, does precisely that. Aqidah indeed does come first, but its existence must be accompanied with societal responsibilities and ethical living followed by other personal obligations. Those who focus exclusively on dogma tend to lose sight of Islam’s social aspirations. ‘They become,’ as Dr Umar Abd-Allah so deftly observes, ‘the victims of an atomistic, one-dimensional mindset that is virtually incapable of critical consciousness and social awareness.’ As such, people have ‘minimal incentive to participate in their community’s preservation and growth, much less the concerns of the world beyond them.’ Hence, devoid of its ethical and social dimensions, the mere slogan that aqidah comes first is only likely to foster a cold, hostile, selfish, puritanical manifestation of faith, stripped of its beauty, depth, compassion and brilliance. And we seek God’s protection from that.