Belief and unbelief

Surah 49 (Al-Hujarat/The Apartments): 14

The Arabs (often mistranslated as nomads or Bedouins) said ‘We believed’.
Say ‘You did not believe but say “We submitted/became Moslem” and the faith/belief did not enter in your hearts/minds.

And if you obey God and His messenger He does not reduce/diminish you a thing from your deeds, that truly God (is) Forgiving, Merciful’.


One of the most prevalent themes of the Qur’an is the binary division of humanity into believers (‘al-mu’min’) and infidels. Throughout its pages, these two categories of people are lauded and denounced, and promised rewards or punishment, both in this world and the next, respectively.


Al-mu’min’ derives from the root word ‘imān’, which in turn derives from the Jewish and Christian ‘amen’, and carries a meaning of ‘assent’. In most if not all of its appearances in the Qur’an it conveys the sense of being committed and faithful rather than the holding certain propositions to be true. So, for example, Ibn Ishaq tells us that, even prior to his marriage to Khadija, Muhammad had been nicknamed al-Amin (‘the Faithful’), to reflect his renown as an honest man. In this light, ‘al-mu’min’ should be understood as a devoted follower, somebody who has placed all their trust and confidence in the Qur’an and its announcer.


Although it is the word ‘Muslim’ that has become the prevalent term for those who follow the Qur’an as the word of God, Fred M. Donner points out in Muhammad and the Believers that variations of the root s-l-m (see 〈86.〉 preceding) appear in only seventy-five verses of the Qur’an compared with the word ‘believers’ who are addressed over a thousand times. One might expect that all who believe in Muhammad’s revelations as the verbatim word of God, would tend to submit to the laws and commands that those revelations contain. However, it does not follow that all who submit to these laws and commands necessarily believe them to be divine. In {49.14}, above, and also {33.35}: ‘For submitting men (‘muslims’) and submitting women, and believing men (‘mu’min’) and believing women…’ a clear distinction is drawn between true believers and mere submitters. As Donner writes, in relation to the former verse:

Belief obviously means something different (and better) than ‘submission’ (islam); and so we cannot simply equate the Believer with the Muslim, though some Muslims may qualify as believers.

The Qur’an’s frequent appeal to the Believers, then – usually in phrases such as ‘O you who believe’ – forces us to conclude that Muhammad and his early followers thought of themselves above all as being a community of Believers rather than one of Muslims.


It would seem that in order to be a believer:

one must intellectually hold that the articles of faith set out at namely God and His angels, His Books, His Messengers and the Last Day are true, per the Hadith of Gabriel 〈52.〉,

one should submit to the dīn (observance of religious laws and rituals) out of genuine desire to do the will of God, rather than for some other motive, such as fear or self-interest, and

one must engage with God on an emotional or spiritual level, as {8.2} states: ‘only they are believers whose hearts quake with fear when God is mentioned’; see also {39.23}, and {49.14} (produced above).


Entry to the Gardens of Paradise is promised to the believers, although, as will be seen, the precise criteria for admission is more complex and uncertain than this simple statement would indicate 〈97.〉 However, the clear implication of {49.14} is that this reward will also be received by who merely submit instructions, and will not be diminished by a submitter’s failure to fulfil the ‘believer’ criteria. The religion of Islam is correctly named, in the sense that it is obedience that counts more than genuine faith.



There is no concession whatsoever granted in the Qur’an to those who fail to submit to its terms because they are unpersuaded by its claims to divine authorship. Unbelievers are referred to in pejorative terms. Where they are not otherwise specified, they are ‘al-kuffār’ (literally ‘buriers’, meaning ‘those who conceal the truth’) or ‘munāfiqūn’ (‘hypocrites’).


The logic is presented as simple and unassailable: the Qur’an is itself ‘a clear proof’ of the its true authority, {2.187 & 242}, {3.103}, {4.176}, {24.58-61} and {98.1-5}. Those who refute it have no such proof, {2.111}, {21.24}, {23.117}, {27.64} and {28.75}, and so any denial of the Qur’an’s authenticity constitutes ‘fabricating a lie against God’, {10.17 & 69}, {16.166} (see also {23.90}) by ‘guilty people’, {10.13}, {46.25} and {77.18}. And eight times the Qur’an poses the rhetorical question: ‘Who does a greater wrong than one who fabricates a lie against God?{5.104}, {6.21 & 144}, {7.37}, {10.17}, {11.18}, {29.68} and {61.7}.


When the possibility of a sincere error is acknowledged, this is explicable by the person making it having been led astray by Satan, {6.121} and {7.27, 30 & 175}. A reverie, much-loved by the Qur’an’s author, is the moment of horrific realisation by unbelievers on the Last Day as they discover their terrible mistake:

{7.37} When our messengers come to take them away they will say: ‘Where is that which you used to call upon apart from God?’

(The unbelievers) will respond: ‘They have forsaken us’.

And they bear witness against themselves that they were unbelievers.

{7.38} He will say: ‘Enter the Fire…’

Similar passages are found at {6.24, 31 & 94}, {7.53}, {10.30}, {11.21}, {16.87}, {25.29}, {28.75} and {40.73-74}.


Sometimes the accusation that an unbeliever has both lied and been deluded are combined in a way that is not entirely logical:

{2.146}: ‘ … but a group of them knowingly conceal the truth. The truth is from thy Lord, so be not amongst the doubters’,

{3.24}: ‘That which they used to fabricate has deluded them in their religion’,

but ultimately this matters little. In the Qur’an, reaching an incorrect conclusion by relying upon one’s own intellect, falling victim to Satan’s trickery and telling a deliberate lie are all treated the same. Dīn cannot be compelled 〈42.〉, but those who have been led, whether by God or Satan, to reject the truthfulness of the Qur’an’s message have no place, other than possibly as a sub-class, in this world, 〈90.〉, 〈91.〉 and 〈93.〉, and fuel for the Hellfire in the next.