Faith Versus Works: Which is More Important?

I just read Maha Muslimah’s post on “Muslim-ness” in which she discusses what it’s like for converts who are trying to catch up with born Muslims. There are so many things we need to learn and improve on that it sometimes seems futile. At least it does for me. I don’t waver in my faith in Allah as much as I do in my practice of Islam.

In Christianity, one of the debates is about what is more important: faith or works? Martin Luther insisted that it was faith, partly in response to the Catholic Church which put a lot of emphasis on works. Paul, in his Epistles, wrote a lot about how becoming a Christian meant that you would try not to sin out of love for God and gratitude for His mercy. Some Christians go so far as to say that you are “perfected” by faith in Christ and cannot sin once you’ve accepted the Holy Spirit into your heart.

One thing I like about Islam is that there is more emphasis on “doing” than “not doing.” The Qur’an doesn’t go on and on about how sinful humans are like Paul does in the New Testament of the Bible. It makes a clear distinction between believers and non-believers, i.e., those who submit versus those who do not submit. Muslims are taught that there is no such thing as original sin; we each make our own destiny as we go along in life. Each moment, each point where a choice has to be made between good deeds and bad ones, is a chance for us to submit to Allah’s will. It is the submission (or lack of it) that is the key, not the sin.

But how does a Muslim show that he or she is submitted? That’s a question that haunts me. Christians have a concept of submission, too, but it is submission shown by primarily by faith, not by works. Coming from a Christian background, I have a tendency to think that as long as I believe the “right” things, Allah will be pleased with me. It’s a struggle for me to realize that I also have to do the right things.

Profession of faith is just one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The others—prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage—are just as important. Or are they? Doesn’t submission have to start with faith? If there is no faith, what will it matter what we do or don’t do? Doesn’t the oft-repeated statement in the Qur’an that Allah knows our hearts mean that He is examining us to see if we have faith?

Of course, it also says in the Qur’an that Allah knows what we do. But doesn’t even that mean that we are being judged on whether or not we are submitted to Him in faith when we act?

When I obsess about all the ways that I “fail” as a Muslim, it’s not my faith in Allah that worries me. It’s the missed prayers, the selfish acts, the lost opportunities to fast and the fact that I will probably never perform Hajj that makes me feel judged and found wanting.

That’s why it’s a relief to me that Allah judges our intentions as well as our actions. In Christianity you’re told that even an evil thought is the same as an action. In Islam, the focus is more positive: Allah sees our good intentions in the same light as He does our actions. One thing that always confused me about Christianity is the emphasis on man’s sinfulness even after he has accepted Jesus as his savior. If faith in Christ is supposed to save him from damnation, then why do Christians obsess about their own sinfulness?

Muslims know that they fall short, but they take heart in also knowing that they can ask for forgiveness and start over. Christians can do that, too, but the question remains: why do they have to if their sins are already forgiven?

I’m at peace with my decision to convert to Islam. What unsettles me is the feeling that I’m not a “good enough” Muslim. Will I be condemned to Hell if I don’t pray on time, if I don’t give enough to charity, if I don’t help my fellow man as much as I could, if I rarely fast, if I have the money and the opportunity to go to Hajj and don’t go?

I know that none of us can be assured of salvation because Allah can do with us as He wills. But I would at least like to know if I’m on the right path. Does my faith in Allah and submission to His will mean that I’ve taken the right turn in the road? Or does my progress on that road determine whether or not I’ll end up in Paradise? Or is it both?

4 Replies to “Faith Versus Works: Which is More Important?”

  1. Ellen,

    You stated: “When I obsess about all the ways that I “fail” as a Muslim, it’s not my faith in Allah that worries me. It’s the missed prayers, the selfish acts, the lost opportunities to fast and the fact that I will probably never perform Hajj that makes me feel judged and found wanting.”

    I don’t believe that when we fall short of perfect, it makes us less Muslim, it just reflects our flaws as human beings. Naturally, we shouldn’t want to settle for less than perfect, but we cannot beat ourselves up over it either—especially allow ourselves to feel as if we are “failures”. Is it even possible to fail as a Muslim? Even if we are the most disobedient Muslims, we are still Muslim as long as we believe and acknowledge Allah’s guidelines of what is wrong and right.

    I think it’s easy for converts to feel as if they need to be perfect to be accepted by the community. The truth is that we don’t need affirmation from others, though it is a mistake we often make (myself included, obviously).

    I wrote the post “Muslim-ness” after remember a conversation I had with a brother who “embraces all things haraam” (for the sake of not being too specific here, lol). I had asked him if he would have believed that I was Muslim if I didn’t pray nor fast, drank, gambled and had premarital relationships. He admitted that he’d have a hard time believing it. So, I asked him why, then, should I consider him a Muslim if he was a passive Muslim—not to mention one who transgressed the limits set by God. And he responded that I should consider him a Muslim because he is aware that he is disobeying Allah. At first I was taken aback by his response, but then I realized that being really disobedient doesn’t take away the fact that we are Muslim, though of course, being a good Muslim is a whole different story.

    That said, if we fear our Creator, then we should always try to improve ourselves—insh’Allah, the little acts would lead to stronger faith and being better Muslims and people.

    With love,

  2. Thanks for this post. However , regarding the new converts and how can they beat up the originally born Muslims, there is a saying that says (He who has came earlier is no better than the one who came later but with better intentions).
    The good and pure intentions are more valuable here. Some old Muslims may pray just in-front of other ones (not pure intentions of Allah), therefore this these prayers are not accepted from Allah, as they were not purely intended (or devoted) for him.On the other-hand some-other new Muslims pray less than their born counterparts but with pure intention to Allah who accept it.

    Quran teaches us that the devil himself (Ebleis) was called the (peacock of the angels), as he used to worship God in a very amazing way. However when Allah ordered him to kneel to (Adam), he refused it out of arrogant and stubborn, so he lost every thing he done before, cuz he refused to submit to God and started negotiating and clashing with him as a peer to peer, not as a creature to his creator.

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