The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, informed Mu'adh bin Jabal, when he was going to the land of Yemen, "You are going to a people from the People of the Book. Let the first thing that you call them to be the worship of Allah. If they acknowledge Allah, then inform them that Allah has obligated upon them five prayers during their days and nights." [Agreed upon]
This hadith is clear. It does not require much of an explanation. The Prophet applied this principle in his practical calling to Islam. He stayed in Makkah for thirteen years to each the people iman and to educate his Companions on this point and to correct the beliefs of the people. That is the pattern upon which the Companions were brought up.
Jundub ibn 'Abdullah al-Bajaly said, "We learnt iman (faith) and then we learnt the Qur'an and it increased our iman."
'Abdullah ibn 'Umar said, "We lived during an instant of time in which one of us would receive faith first before receiving the Qur'an and when the chapters were revealed we would learn what they permitted and what they prohibited and what they forbade and what they ordered and what should be the stance towards them. But I have seen many men from whom one is given the Qur'an before iman and he reads it from the opening of the Book to its closing and he does not know what it orders and what it forbids and what should be his stance towards it. He is like someone who is just throwing out dates [i.e., he does not get any benefit from his recital]."
That is the manner in which the Prophet brought up his companions: Iman first and then the Qur'an. This is similar to what Al-Imam Abu Hanifah pointed out; understanding the religion first and then understanding the sciences (i.e. the shari'ah). The beliefs must be corrected first, then follows all of the other aspects of the religion.
Al-Imam Ash-Shafi'i said, "That a servant meets Allah with every sin except shirk is better say than meeting Him upon any of the innovated beliefs."
'Aqidah linguistically is derived from the root aqada. In Arabic, one states, "aqada the rope" when the rope is tied firmly. And, "aqada the sale" or "he settled the sale" when the person ratifies and contracts a sale or agreement. Allah says in the Qur'an:
"And as for those whom your right hands have made a covenant (aqadat)."
And Allah also says:
"But He will take you to task for the oaths which you swear in earnest (aqadtum),"
Which means asserted and adhered to, as proven in the verse:
"And break not oaths after the assertion of them."
If one says, "aqadtu such and such," it means his heart is firm upon such and such. Therefore, aqidah or'itiqad according to the scholars of Islam is the firm creed that one's heart is fixed upon without any wavering or doubt. It excludes any supposition, doubt or suspicion.
Al-Imam Abu Hanifah called this great subject Al-Fiqh al-Akbar ("The Greater Understanding") and the understanding of the religion. He called shari'ah the understanding of the science. Many scholars of Islam use the word tawhid for all matters that a person must believe in. This is because the most important of these matters is the basic tawhid that is contained in the phrase, "There is none worthy of worship except Allah."
Tawhid, according to them, may be divided into two categories: tawhid of cognition and affirmation and tawhid of purpose and deeds.
Tawhid of cognition and affirmation is the tawhid of the Oneness of the Creator and the tawhid of His Names and Attributes [i.e. He is Unique in His being the only Creator and the only One with His names and attributes]. Tawhid of purpose and deeds is tawhid of His Lordship or that none should be worshipped except Allah [i.e., He is the only One worthy of worship].
The scholastic theologians - and what will explain to you who the scholastic theologians are - call this great subject "the root of the religion" and they call the law "the branches of the religion". This is their terminology. We also have a dispute with them in this matter but this is not the place to discuss it. All of them give it a name or adjective according to their needs.
But what is the name the Qur'an gives to this matter?
The Qur'an gives the grave matter the name iman. Allah says in the Qur'an:
"And thus We inspired in You (Muhammad) a Spirit of Our command. You did not know what the Scripture was, nor what the Faith was. But we have made it a light whereby We guide whom We will of our bondsmen ... "
The general concepts that the heart of the believer must be firm about are the "pillars" of this faith. But one will not be called a believer just by knowing and understanding these pillars but he must come to the level where he submits and implements what is described, in the hadith of Gabriel, as Islam. Iman, in this manner, incorporates Islam.
If iman was simply knowing the facts in one's heart, then its companion would be equal to Satan and Pharaoh. Satan was the most knowledgeable of his Lord but he was destroyed because of his pride and envy. And Pharaoh, even though he claimed to be the lord, knew that the lord is Allah and that none has the right to be worshipped but Him. Allah says:
"He said: In truth you know that none sent down these portents save the Lord of the heavens and the earth as proofs ... "
Although they knew the truth, they did not put it in practice by turning their 'ibadah to Allah Alone.
In the hadith of Gabriel, the Prophet explained the pillars of this faith in which every human must believe. When asked what iman is, he replied, "To believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day and predestination, the good and the evil."
It is a must for every person to know these pillars and to learn them with a correct understanding and to believe in them in the manner that he pious forefathers understood and believed in them, in the same manner that the Companions of the Prophet believed and understood them, as well as their followers and those who followed on their path. This includes the four Imams, Sufyan ath-Thawri, Sufyan ibn 'Uyaynah, 'Abdullah ibn Al-Mubarak and others similar to them, as well as Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari, Muslim ibn Al-Hajjaj, Shaykh ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah and Al-Hafidh Ibn Al-Qayyim. And scholars similar to them who followed the same manner of understanding and believing in these pillars.
This is the first obligation upon the responsible human being. There is no difference of opinion on this question among the scholars whose opinions are worth following. Al-Imam Abu Hanifah said, "The understanding of faith is better than understanding of the science." What he meant by faith is tawhid and what he meant by science is the shari'ah.
And Shaykh ul-Islam Al-Harawi al-Ansari (d. 481H) stated at the beginning of his book, 'Itiqad Ahl us-Sunnah, "The first obligation upon the slave is the knowledge of Allah. This is proven by the hadith of Mu'adh, when the Prophet said to him, 'You will come to a people from the People of the Book. The first thing that you should call them to is the worship of Allah. If they gain the knowledge of Allah, then tell them that Allah obligates upon them five prayers during the day and night ... ' "
From this premise did the great scholars of Islam proceed. Ponder, for example, what Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari did in his book Al-Jami' as-Sahih, which is the most authentic book after the Book of Allah; one will see that from his detailed knowledge and understanding of this religion, this great Imam began his book with "The Beginning of Revelation" and then he followed it with chapters on faith, followed by the chapters on knowledge. As if he means, may Allah have mercy on him, to point out that the first obligation upon a human being is faith or iman and the way to attaining faith is knowledge. And the source of faith and knowledge is revelation. So he began by showing how the revelation occurred and what it was like. Then he followed by mentioning faith and knowledge. This arrangement is no accident; by it he makes some important points.
This is the sum of what we wish to mention and what we wish to raise our voices about. The matter of 'aqidah is the first priority. Faith and knowledge are the means of attaining it. And the source of knowledge and faith is the Book and Sunnah.
From Aqidah (Matters of Faith) First ... If They But Knew