Ibn Rajab’s Commentary on Hadith #2 of Imam Nawawi’s 40

Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad

Ibn Rajab’s Commentary on Hadith #2 of Imam Nawawi’s 40

Ibn Rajab’s Commentary on Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 

Translation and copyright: Mohammed Fadel

Hadith #2

Hadith of Jibril (as)

It is reported on the authority of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab that he said:

“One day, while we were sitting with Rasulallah (s), a man appeared before us.  His garments were sparkling white; his hair the darkest black.  No signs of travel appeared on him.  None of us recognized him.  He went to the Prophet (s) and sat in front of him, placing his knees before [the Prophet’s] knees.  He also placed his hands upon the Prophet’s thighs, saying: ‘Muhammad, What is Islam?’                 Rasulallah, (s), replied, saying: ‘Islam is to testify that there is no deity save Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah; to establish regular prayer; to give regular alms; to fast Ramadan; and, to visit Allah’s House as a pilgrim, if you are able.’                 The stranger said, ‘You speak the truth.’                 ‘Umar said: We were amazed that he would ask him [a question], then tell him he was truthful!                 The stranger said: ‘Muhammad, what is faith?’                 “Rasulallah replied, saying: ‘Faith is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day, and to believe in [the Divine] Power, its good and its ill.’                 The stranger said: ‘You speak the truth.’  Then, he said: ‘What is Ihsan?’                  Rasulallah replied, saying: ‘Ihsan is to serve Allah as though you see Him, but if you see Him not, then [to serve Him knowing] He sees you.’ The stranger said: ‘You speak the truth.’  Then, he said: ‘Can you inform me about the Hour?’ Rasulallah replied, saying: ‘The questioned knows no more about it then the questioner.’ The stranger said: ‘Then tell me of its signs.’ Rasulallah said: ‘[Among] its signs are that the slave woman shall give birth to her mistress, and that the poor, naked and barefoot, the herders of sheep, shall compete in raising tall buildings.’ The stranger tarried but a moment before departing.  The Prophet (s) said to me: ‘ ‘Umar, do you know who was the questioner?’  I replied that Allah and His Messenger knew better.  Rasulallah (s) said: ‘This is Jibril.  He came to teach you your religion.’”

This hadith, or versions similar to it, is transmitted in several of the famous collections of hadith, including Muslim and Tirmidhi.

Ibn Rajab describes this hadith as being “of momentous importance (‘azim al-sha`n jiddan)” because it explains the entirety of religion.  For that reason, the Prophet (s) said at the end of the hadith, “That was Jibril.  He came to teach you your religion.”  The hadith explains that religion is made up of three elements:

                1. Islam.

                2. Iman (faith).

                3. Ihsan (excellence).


 The Prophet (s) explained that the first category consists of external actions, both conduct and speech (qawl wa ‘amal).  The first external action is to testify that there is no deity save Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.  The remaining acts, namely, regular prayer, regular alms, fasting Ramadan, and Pilgrimage, all involve conduct that can be described as either involving only  the body, e.g., salat and sawm, or involving only property, e.g., paying regular alms, or a composite of the two (murakkab minhuma), e.g., Pilgrimage for one who lives at a distance from Makka al-Mukarrama.

In the transmission of Ibn Hibban, the additional terms are included in the definition of Islam: performing ‘Umra, purification from major impurities (al-ghusl min al-janaba) and performing wudu` completely (itmam al-wudu`).  This indicates that all external acts that are obligatory are included in the meaning of Islam.  The Prophet (s), however, in this version of the hadith mentioned only these five acts because they are the foundations of Islam upon which everything else is based.  Therefore, whoever discharges these five duties becomes a true Muslim, whereas a person who performs only the first obligation, i.e., testifying that there is no deity save Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger, becomes a Muslim only as a matter of law for purposes of this world, and remains obliged to perform all the remaining acts required of him.  As for someone who rejects the declaration of faith, he has no share whatsoever in Islam.

The proof that all external acts are subsumed under the term Islam is found in many of the sayings of the Prophet (s), including, the following: 

1. “The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand Muslims are safe”; 

2. “Someone asked the Prophet (s), ‘Which Islam is best?’  He replied: ‘To feed the people and to greet those you know and those you don’t.’”; and, 

3. The Prophet said: “Islam is made up of eight parts. Islam, i.e., declaration of faith, is the first.  Regular prayer is the second.  Paying regulars alms is the third.  Performing jihad is the fourth.  Fasting Ramadan is the fifth.  Commanding the good is the sixth.  Forbidding the evil is the seventh.  Pilgrimage is the eighth.  Indeed, whosoever has no share of any of these has certainly failed miserably.”                 

To refrain from all acts Allah has prohibited is also a part of Islam.  The Prophet (s) said, “Minding one’s own affairs is a part of a person’s Islam.”  Imam Ahmad, al-Tirmidhi and Nasa`i also reported on the authority of al-‘Irbad b. Sariya, may Allah be pleased with him, that the Prophet (s) said:                 “Allah has struck a parable: a straight highway, on either side of which are two walls.  Within both of the walls are open gates; curtains cover the doors.  At the gate of the highway is a caller who says: ‘O people! Enter the highway and do not stray away!’  There is another caller in the depths of the highway.  Whenever someone wishes to open one of  those doors, he cries out: ‘Woe to you! Open it not, for if you do, you shall certainly enter it!’  

The highway is Islam, the two walls are the limits of Allah, the gates are sins, the caller at the entrance of the highway is the Book of Allah, and the caller from the depths of the highway is Allah’s preacher [i.e., the voice of conscience] who resides in the heart of every Muslim.” 

Al-Tirmidhi added the verse of the Qur’an, “Allah calls to the Abode of Peace and guides whom He wills to a straight highway.” 


As for Iman (faith), the Prophet (s) explained it as inner beliefs in the heart, saying that it is belief in Allah, His Angels, His books, His messengers, resurrection after death, and belief in Divine Power, its good and its bad.  Allah (SWT) also described these five principles of Iman in the Quran using many of these same expressions, e.g., “The Messenger believes in that which has been revealed to him from his Lord, and the Believers [as well]”; “The righteous person is the one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, and the Book.”  

Belief in the messengers necessarily requires belief in all that which they have authoritatively taught, including their teachings about the Angels, their fellow Prophets, the Book, the Next Life, and Divine Power, its good and its bad, as well as the attributes of Allah and the Last Day, e.g., the Sirat, Heaven and Hell.  It is through the Sunnah, then, that belief in Divine Power is part of the basics of Iman.                 

Someone might ask why the Prophet (s) seems to be making a distinction in this hadith between Iman and Islam, making all conduct a part of Islam, not a part of Iman, although the well-known opinion of the Salaf and the scholars of hadith is that Iman consists of three things: statements, conduct and intention, and that all conduct is subsumed, therefore, under the category of Iman.  Indeed, al-Shafi’i asserts there was complete consensus on this definition of Iman among the early Muslims, and several scholars of the Tabi’in, including, Sa’id b. Jubayr, Maymun b. Mihran, Qatada, Ayyub al-Sakhtiyari, al-Nakha’i, al-Thawri and al-Zuhri all were severely critical of anyone who claimed that conduct was not part of Iman. 

There are many verses in the Quran that demonstrate that conduct is part of Iman, e.g., “The Believers are indeed those who, when Allah is mentioned, their hearts become restless, and when His signs are rehearsed unto them, they increase them in faith, and they place their trust in their Lord”.                 

Bukhari reported in his Sahih, on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas, that the Prophet (s) told the representatives of ‘Abd al-Qays, when they came to visit him: “I command you to perform four things: To believe only in Allah — and do you comprehend what is faith in Allah?  To testify there is no deity save Allah, to perform prayer regularly, to pay alms, to fast Ramadan, and to give a fifth of all spoils of war [to Allah].”                

Bukhari also reported in his Sahih, on the authority of Abu Hurarya, that “Iman is seventy-something [or sixty something] branches.  The highest branch is ‘There is no deity save Allah.’  The lowest branch is removal of harm from a public path, and modesty is a branch of Iman.”                

Bukhari also reported in his Sahih, from Abu Hurayra, that the Prophet said “The fornicator, at the time he fornicates, does not commit adultery while he is a [faithful] believer, and the thief, at the time he steals, does not steal while his a [faithful] believer.”   

These hadiths show that avoiding major sins are part of Iman because otherwise it would make no sense to describe the person who commits such acts to be negating aspects of his faith.                 

The way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements about the relationship of the word Islam to Iman is to understand that both have the same meaning when they are used without the other.  When they are used together, however, each one has a specialized meaning, as is the case in the hadith we are discussing.  Thus, when Islam and Iman are mentioned together, Iman refers exclusively to the belief of the heart and its knowledge, and Islam refers to a person’s surrender to Allah, his subservience to Him and his submission to Him.  For this reason, the Prophet said, as reported by Imam Ahmad, said “Islam is external and Iman is in the heart.”  For the same reason, the precise scholars have said that “Every Mu`min is a Muslim,” because when Iman becomes settled in the heart of a person, he performs the conduct required by Islam, as the Prophet said “There is a tiny part of the body that, when it becomes healthy, the entire body becomes healthy, and when it is ill, the entire body becomes ill.  That part of the body is the heart.”

                Not every Muslim is a Mu`min, however, because his Iman might be weak, in which case his heart is not perfect in its faith, although he performs some of the acts of Islam.  This was true of the Bedouin, about whom Allah said in the Qur`an “The Bedouin say, ‘We have believed.’  Say: ‘You have not believed, but rather say, ‘We have submitted.’”  According to the opinion of Ibn ‘Abbas, these persons were not hypocrites, merely persons of weak faith. 

                Thus, someone whose faith is imperfect may not be a mu`min, according to this understanding of Iman, but nonetheless remains a Muslim.  As for Islam, it is not removed from a person merely for failure to perform some of the conduct Islam requires.  Only conduct that contradicts it in its entirety is sufficient to exclude a person from Islam.  There is nothing in the Sunnah of the Prophet (s) that shows that someone who abandons an obligatory practice of Islam, thereby leaves Islam.  There are expressions in the sunna whereby words such as kufr and nifaq are used to describe people who do some types of forbidden acts.  The scholars, however, agree that these words are metaphors for minor kufr or minor nifaq, not the type of kufr or nifaq that excludes one from Islam. 

                Therefore, when Iman is negated from a person, but Islam is attributed to him, e.g., the Bedouins, the meaning is that the Iman of that person has yet to be perfected.  Nonetheless, he shares with a Mu`min participation in the conduct of Islam, and he also has enough Iman whereby his acts of worship are accepted, otherwise he would not be a Muslim at all.  Thus, the texts in the Shari’a that speak of loss of Iman, or its absence, are taken to mean that such a person has yet to experience its truths, or lacks some of its essentials.  It is in this sense that Iman increases and decreases.

                It is very important to understand the relationship of Islam to Iman and Iman to Islam, because this has been the source of many fitan in the Muslim community, including the Khawarij, who thought that major sins exclude a person from Islam, and therefore, could be treated as non-believers.

                The previous discussion has shown that conduct falls both under the category of Islam and the category of Iman.  Therefore, both external actions and interior ones are both part of the conduct defined by Islam, including, sincerity of religious purpose (ikhlas al-din lillah), faithfulness to Him and His servants (al-nush lahu wa li-‘ibadihi), removing from one’s heart cheating, covetousness, and spite as well as all other types of harm and injury.

                Included in the category of Iman is the trembling of the heart (wajal al-qulub) out of remembrance of Allah, trembling when one hears Him mentioned or His Book recited, its increase as result, firm trust in Allah, fear of Him in secret and in public, satisfaction with Allah as Lord, Islam as religion, and Muhammad (s) as messenger, preferring death and the worst types of physical torture to disbelief, feeling the nearness of Allah and constantly seeking His presence, preferring the love of Allah and His Messenger over all else, loving and hating for the sake of Allah, giving for the sake of Him and refusing for His sake, all movement and stillness be for Him, generosity in performing obligatory acts of monetary and physical worship, being hopeful and joyous upon the performance of good deeds, ill-feeling and sadness upon the performance of bad deeds, unselfishness, modesty, good character, loving for his brothers what he loves for himself, giving aid and succor to the believers, especially his neighbors, solidarity with them and grief for that which saddens them.
                Many clear revelatory statements establish these principles:

                1. Imam Ahmad and al-Nasa`i reported on the authority of Mu’awiya b. Hayda, who said: “I said, ‘Messenger of Allah! With what has Allah sent you?’  He said: ‘Islam.’  I said: ‘What is Islam?’  He said: ‘To give your heart to Allah, may He be glorified, to direct your face to Allah, to pray the ordained prayers, and to pay regular alms.’”

                In another transmission, the expression “A Muslim is absolutely sacrosanct from any type of harm [wa kullu al-muslim ‘ala al-muslim haram].”

                2. The collectors of the Sunan reported on the authority of Jubayr b. Mut’im from the Prophet (s) that he said: “The heart of a Muslim is never burdened by three things: discharge of conduct sincerely for Allah, sincere loyalty (munasaha) to those exercising authority, and sticking to the community of Muslims, for their prayers encompass those around them.”

                3. In Bukhari and Muslim, Abu Musa reports that the Prophet (s) was asked “Which Muslim is best?”  He said: “The one from whom Muslims are safe from his tongue and his hand.”

                4.  Muslim reported on the authority of Abu Hurayra, that the Prophet (s) said, “The Muslim is the brother of the Muslim — he does not do him injustice, nor does he abandon him; he also does not hold him in contempt on account of his station, for it is evil to hold his brother Muslim in contempt.  The entirety of a Muslim is sacrosanct to other Muslims — his life, his property and his honor.”

                5.  Imam Ahmad reported on the authority of Abu Razin al-‘Uqayli who said: “I said: ‘Messenger of Allah! What is Iman?’ He said: ‘To declare that there is no deity except Allah, alone, with no partner and that Muhammad is His servant and messenger; that Allah and His messenger are dearer to you than all else; that burning in fire is preferable to you than to ascribe a partner to Allah; that you love a stranger only for the sake of Allah.  If you have achieved these things, the love of faith has entered your heart, just as the love of water enters the heart of the thirsty on a blistering day.’  I said: ‘Messenger of Allah! How can I know if I am a believer?’ He said: ‘Anyone in my community’ or ‘Anyone in this community’ ‘who does a good deed, knowing that it is a good deed, and that Allah will reward him for it or does a bad deed, knowing that it is a bad deed, and seeks Allah’s forgiveness from it, knowing that no one forgives it other than Allah, is a believer.’”

                6.  In the Musnad of Imam Ahmad, and other works of hadith, ‘Umar b. al-Khattab (R) reported that the Prophet (s) said, “A believer is one who experiences joy as a result of his good deeds, and sadness as a result of his bad deeds.”

                7.  It is reported on the authority of Anas in the Sahihs of Muslim and Bukhari that he said that the Prophet (s) said: “None shall be a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.”

                8.   Bukhari reported on the authority of Abu Shurayh that the Prophet (s) said, “By Allah, he does not believe!  He does not believe!  He does not believe!”  Some of the companions said, “Who is that, messenger of Allah?”  He said, “The one whose neighbors are not secure from his machinations.”

                9.  Allah said in the Quran, “The believers are those who, when Allah is mentioned, their hearts tremble”; “Is it not time for the believers for their hearts to fear on account of remembrance of Allah and the Truth which has been revealed?”; “and let the believers place their trust in Allah”; and, “in Allah place your trust, if indeed you are believers.”


                Ihsan has been mentioned in several places in the Qur`an.  Sometimes it is associated with Iman and other times it is associated with Islam.  At other times it is associated with taqwa or good deeds.  An example of Ihsan’s association with Iman is in Allah’s statement, “No sin accrues to those who believe and do good deeds for that which they eat so long as they have taqwa, believe [in Allah] and do good deeds.  Then, they [continue] in their fear of Allah and their belief in Him.  Then, they continue to fear Him and do well [ihsan], and Allah loves those who do well [al-muhsinin].”  An example of Ihsan’s association with Islam is Allah’s statement “Indeed, whosoever submits himself to Allah, practicing Ihsan, then he has grasped the firmest handle.” 

                In another verse of the Qur`an, Allah states “For those who do excellent shall be the most beautiful [reward], and even more [ziyada].”  Muslim reported in his Sahih that the Prophet (s) explained ziyada in this verse as the beatific vision of Allah granted to believers in Paradise.  This explanation fits those who practice Ihsan, because the Prophet (s) explained that Ihsan is to worship Allah in this world in the manner appropriate for His presence [hudur] and His direct observation [of His servant], as if the servant sees Him with his heart, looking upon Him as he worships Him.  The reward of such a person is glancing upon the face of Allah directly [‘iyanan] in the Hereafter. [Note: the vision of Allah that is granted to believers in the next world is not like the vision we experience in this world, nor does it imply any corporeality to Allah, far above any likeness to creation is He!].  The opposite case is what Allah reported about the non-Believers in the Hereafter: “On that day, they are veiled from their Lord.”  The veil that separates the non-believers from Allah in the Hereafter is the rust that covers their hearts to the point that they are unable to know Him and observe Him in this world.  Thus, their punishment in the Next Life is that they are veiled from the vision of Allah in the Hereafter.

                That condition, i.e., being veiled from Allah, is a consequence of the accumulation of rust on their hearts to the point that their hearts have become veiled from knowledge of Him and concern for Him during their worldly lives.  Their reward for this heedlessness is deprivation of seeing Allah in the next life.

                Furthermore, the Prophet’s explanation of “ihsan” as worshipping Allah in this manner — namely, drawing forth the feeling of His closeness [istihdar qurbihi] and that He is with the servant as though he sees Him — this necessarily results in glorification, fear, awe and respect [of Allah].  This condition also leads to sincerity in worship expending all one’s ability in improving it, completing it properly and perfecting it.  The Prophet, may Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him, told several of his companions this advice, namely, to worship Allah as though you see Him, because of the vast benefits such a condition bestows upon the person who attains this level.

                The second part of the hadith of the Prophet (s) explaining ihsan is that “if you do not see Him, than He sees you.”  Because it is very difficult to attain the level that allows you to worship Allah as though you see Him,  the Prophet (s) told us that we may seek to attain that level by means of our knowledge that He certainly sees us. 

                In our worship, we should work hard on reminding ourselves and making ourselves conscious of Allah’s nearness to us.  Many verses in the Qur’an repeat this meaning, e.g., “He is with you wherever you are”; “When My servants ask you of Me, [tell them] ‘I am near.’”; and, “There is no secret conversation of three save that He is their fourth, nor of five save that He is their sixth, nor of a fewer number or larger, save that He is with them wherever they are.”  The Prophet (s) taught his companions repeatedly to think of Allah’s closeness to us, e.g., “When one stand to pray, [let him remember] that he is calling out to his Lord”; “When one prays, Allah is in front of his face” [Again,  that cannot be taken literally.  The meaning is that when one prays, Allah draws near to the servant in the sense of mercy, etc.]; and, “So long as one is undistracted in prayer, Allah’s face is immediately in front of him”.  One time the Prophet (s) told a group of people who had raised their voices during prayer that “You are not calling out to one who is either deaf or absent!  You are calling to One who is hearing and close by! [sami’ qarib]”.  The Prophet (s) also said that “Allah, may He be glorified and elevated, says: ‘I am with My servant’s thoughts of Me: I am with him when he mentions Me.  If he remembers Me in his thoughts, I remember him in My thoughts; if he remembers me in an assembly, I remember him in an assembly that is more fair than [his assembly].  If he draws near to Me by an inch, I draw nearer to him by a cubit.  If he draws near to Me by a cubit, I draw nearer to him by the length of a full arm.  If he comes to Me walking, I go to him running.”

                Note: none of these meanings can be taken literally, for Allah has no attributes of a body such that He could be literally described as moving spatially, whether forward or backward, slowly or quickly, etc.  All these words are used by the Prophet (s) metaphorically for the meaning of His closeness, may He be elevated over any comparison with His creation.  “Nothing is like Him, and He is the seeing, the hearing.”

Signs of the Last Day

                When Jibril (s) asked the Prophet (s) about the Last Day, the Prophet (s) disclaimed any knowledge of when it will occur.  This is evidence that Allah has kept knowledge of this moment to Himself.  Likewise, it shows the importance of saying “I don’t know,” when one is asked about something of which he is ignorant.  Far from reducing his stature, admission of ignorance is a sign of piety and fear of Allah.

                The first sign is that the slave girl gives birth to her master.  The scholars have understood this to be a reference to the early conquests of Islam and the spread of slaves among the Muslims from the conquered populations, and that the children of  these slave women would be their masters, for the child of a master is in the same position, socially, as the master.  Thus, the slave woman will give birth to her master.

                The second sign is that you see the barefoot, the naked, the poor, the herders of sheep, competing in raising tall buildings.  The meaning of this is that the undeserving become the leaders of the people.  In this expression is criticism of needless luxury and showing off for the purpose of gaining prestige in this life. 

                Allah knows best.