“Jibrīl has come to you to teach you your dīn.” The emissary from heaven has come down to earth to teach us the three stages of the path to God: islām, īmān and iḥsān. The first lesson is that it is in fact a path with a beginning a middle and an end. It is a path with steep hills that may discourage wayfarer oblivious of their existence and importance.
In the beginning there is Islam, the outer shell, the realm of the Faqīh or jurist. Islam is what you do to be considered a Muslim, and the precise way in which you do it. Conforming to the requirements of this phase is tantamount to identifying the road and facing the direction. Obviously, at this stage, one could find the sincere seeker as well as the opportunistic hypocrite, the knowledgeable as well as the novice. But all have chosen to unite under the banner of Islam, and there is no questioning their affiliation unless they openly disavow one of the basic five pillars: professing that there is one God and that Mohammad is His messenger, performing the five daily prayers, giving the obligatory Zakāt on one’s wealth, fasting the month of Ramadan and performing pilgrimage to Makkah for those having financial and physical ability. Pretty straight forward: no intention is addressed there, no spiritual education and no inner work, you do the motions consistently and a big part of the road flies by.
Recite the statement of faith, to yourself and to a congregation of Muslims. Name your destination. You are not here to wander around aimlessly. You have a destination and you have a set amount of time to reach it. A man named Utbah Al-Ghulām, a famous Muslim ascetic known for his poise and grave manners was once seen jubilating and frolicking lightheartedly, when asked, he said: “how can I not be joyful when I learned that I had a Lord.” In the midst of a nauseating desert of theories, hypotheses and doubt about the very aim of existence, how comforting is this oasis of certainty that my Lord is, and this world and all worlds are His and this perfected man is the usher to His dominion.
Now that the aim is clear, comes prayer: The constant daily reminder of the destination. Your body needs to face a physical reminder of the Divine: the sacred square cube in Makkah, and your limbs and thoughts have to take a break from mundane occupations and quite down for a few minutes of remembrance. It punctuates your entire day, just in case a distraction threatens to pull you out of the way. It is your faithful companion along that path you engaged in, only in advanced stages, it tastes sweeter and feels lighter, unlike in beginnings when worldly desires and concerns are still weighing down the soul.
Your money is yours so long as your aim is quenching your nafs’s unrelenting demands. Once you set out on the road to your Creator, it’s no longer yours; it’s His money that He entrusted you with to make wise usage of. You are expected to spend the best part of it on yourself and family, relinquish a precise percentage each year from your savings for the advancement of your society and the rest you are free to spend on whichever good enterprise you are most inclined to. If earned from pure and lawful endeavors, it is collected by God the Almighty Himself and augmented and saved for when you’ll join Him at the end of the journey.
Then comes the central gem in the chain of your days: Ramadan; A precious occasion to transcend the confines of our physical and bodily bondage and glimpse into the angelic realm. Restricting our food and drink intake for entire days from dawn to sunset, thirty days in a row, intensifying our ritual obligations and watching our every action and word for any transgression. This weakens our bestial leanings and invigorates the part that has been breathed into us by the divine. Thus the soul, once a year, is generously fed to withstand periods of spiritual aridity that may creep into our lives.
The last reminder is Ḥajj, a journey reminiscent of the final one humanity will take to its Creator. We pack up, settle any pending issues, bid family and friends goodbye and head for a journey from which we intentionally believe we may never return. We answer an ancient call with pining hearts; circumvallating a symbol, in symbolic gestures, the meaning of which may not be explicitly explained, but the belief and surrender and utter love with which they are performed are promised to bring about an incomparable amount of Divine Mercy and forgiveness. And we return home, clean slates, to progress even further and rise even higher.
This is how the first part of our journey to God begins, islām. This is the most populated phase of the road. We progress here among sinner and penitents. People around us here are still struggling, now falling, now picking themselves up. Some inhabit this phase an entire lifetime: hypocrites needing the comfort or security of a strong community, slackers who are content with the minimum and do not feel the heart-rending pull to know their Creator for themselves, or yet a third category who, short-sighted and poorly informed believe that this is what the road is all about and no headway is there to make. Yet it’s just the start, an important part of the journey but by far not the most exciting.