Defining Faith [Imān], Does it Increase and Decrease? Are There Different Levels?


I have learned that the difference between Ahl al-Sunna and other groups is the method in defining Imān. My question is, did Imam Abū Ḥanīfa define Imān differently than Ahl al-Sunnah? According to him;

  1. What is the definition of Imān?
  2. Does Imān have different levels?
  3. Does Imān increase and decrease?

If you could also please provide evidences for his position this would be appreciated.


The Definition of Imān

There are differences between the scholars of the Ahl al Sunna wal Jam`ah over the definition of Imān.

Imam Bukāhri states, “Imān is a declaration and an action.”

Other scholars say, “Imān is to be convinced with the inner heart, to affirm with the tongue and to carry out actions with various parts of the body.” This description has been provided by the Ḥadīth Scholars (Muĥaddithīn).

Imam Abu Hanīfa and the Islamic Theologians (Mutakallimīn) claim, “Imān is to be convinced with the inner heart. Affirming [the faith] with the tongue is a condition (sharţ) to enforce the sacred law [upon a person] whereas doing righteous actions is the result of being convinced and among the fruits of Imān.

Imam Abu Ḥanīfa and Imam Ṭahāwī have also been recorded to have said that affirmation with the tongue is an integral pillar (rukn) of Imān. According to another account Imam Abu Ḥanīfa and the Islamic Theologians (Mutakallimīn) have declared the verbal affirmation to be a condition (sharţ).

In any case the point that is being made is that the Islamic Theologians and Imam Abū Ḥanīfa have described Imān as ‘being convinced with the inner heart’ and have deemed [righteous] actions to be the result and the fruit of Imān.

The Reason for these Differences

Shaykh Al Hind has explained,

“The difference [in the description of Imān between the Mutakallimīn and the Muĥaddithīn] is really due to the conditions that rose in each party’s respected era. During the time of Imam, Abu Ḥanīfa and the Mutakallimīn the Mu`tazila and the Khawārij had a tremendous influence on society. These people emphasized that [righteous] deeds are a part [i.e. an integral pillar] of Imān. If a person failed to observe them he would end up in the fire [of Hell] forever. They also considered a person guilty of enormities to be out of the fold of Imān. Therefore, in order to refute their claims, the Mutakallimīn and Abū Ḥanīfa adopted this stance in which they stated that Imān is simply being convinced with the inner heart. [Righteous] actions are only the result and fruits of Imān, not its component.

The Muĥaddithīn on the other hand lived in an era in which the [the corruption of the] Murji`ah was very strong [in society]. These people attached absolutely no importance to [righteous] actions and claimed: Obedience [to the Creator] is of no benefit and being disobedient [to Him] does no harm [to one’s spirituality]. In order to rebut their crooked notions the Muĥaddithīn declared [righteous] deeds to be a component of Imān so that their significance would remain [in the hearts of the laity].

This is why a difference exists [between the Mutakallimīn and the Muĥaddithīn] over the description of Imān. In reality neither group refuses to believe in the importance of [righteous] actions, for both believe that observing [righteous] deeds are necessary [to attain salvation]. Likewise both parties do not consider a person guilty of enormities to be out of the fold of Imān nor do they feel that he will dwell in the fire [of Hell] for eternity.

(Source: Kashf al Bāri p. 576-581, vol. 1, Salimullāh Khn, Maktaba Jāmi’a Fārōqi’a, Karachi, Pakistan 1999)

The Increase and Decrease of Imān

Regarding the increase and decrease of Imān, Imam, Abū Ḥanīfa has explained in Al Fiqh al Akbar, “The faith of the inhabitants of the heavens and earth neither increases nor decreases in terms of the articles of faith; it increases and decreases in certainty and conviction.”

Mullā `Alī Al-Qāri has elaborated this point in Minah al Rawd al Azhar by writing, “[The faith of the inhabitants of the heavens] i.e. the angels and the residents of Paradise [and earth] i.e. the prophets, the saints and all the believers from among the righteous and the sinful [neither increases nor decreases] i.e. in terms of the articles of faith. This is because when conviction (in the articles of faith) is not established (in one’s heart) it (really) falls under the category of doubt and uncertainty. According to theological experts, doubt does not avail (a person) in the line of creed (in anyway and hence he will not be a believer). Allāh the Exalted has declared,

“…Indeed, assumption avails not against the truth at all.” [10:36]

In reality Imān, as Imam Al Rāzī has stated, does not accept any increase or decrease in terms of the actual faith but rather in terms of conviction, for people vary in religious excellence as the Glorious One has alluded to in his statement,

And [mention] when Abraham said, “My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.

” [Allāh] said, “Have you not believed?” He said, “Yes, but [I ask] only that my heart may be satisfied.” [2:260].

Undoubtedly the certainty developed through eye witnessing (something) is far greater than certainty developed through knowledge.

… In conclusion the increase and decrease (in Imān really) refers to its strength and weakness. (For example) conviction in the rising of the sun is far stronger (in a person’s heart) than his conviction in the beginning of the world despite the two being equal as items to believe in.

We know for a fact that the Imān of individual people among this nation does not resemble the Imān of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم or the Imān of Abū Bakr, the Most Truthful رضى الله عنه in this regard. This is the meaning of the narration: If Abū Bakr’s, the Most Truthful رضى الله عنه Imān were to be weighed against the Imān of all the believers, his Imān would outweigh theirs i.e. due to the excess of his conviction…”

And Allāh Knows Best

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