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When one first makes the declaration of faith, he has started on the road to being a true Muslim and a true believer. The first step is to cleanse oneself of the clear, major, encompassing form of associating partners with God. This is the first and absolutely necessary step, such that no other act or step will be of benefit or use without it. However, this does not mean that it is a once and for all step or a constant with no room for growth and improvement.
Murad perceptively noted,
You now have a mission: to become a mumin [true believer] and mujahid [one who strives for the sake of Allah]. As you embark upon this mission you may come to feel that your knowledge of Islam is somewhat limited or perhaps that you are unable to attain those heights of submission and purification that you desire or others expect of you. This is only natural. You must not, however, allow these feelings of personal shortcomings to undermine your efforts to practise Islam. Remember that Islam is a state of becoming not a state of being. Each day you must strive to improve and better yourself—and you will improve [Allah willing]…
Once you have committed yourself to Allah, all that you have must be spent in His way. This is the ideal. Ideals, however, are always difficult to achieve—and this you must understand and accept. Ideals are always to be pursued; if they are easily and always achievable, they can hardly remain as ideals. Keeping to your side of the bargain [mentioned in al-Taubah: 111 ] then is an ideal that you must always seek to maintain. It is this seeking and this striving to spend all that we have in the way of Allah that is known as Jihad and alternatively, in this instance, as tazkiah [purification].
When a person first embraces Islam—or when a born Muslim first makes a commitment to Islam—his heart may be free of the greater as-sociating of partners with Allah and disbelief, but that does not mean that he understands all of the concepts of pure monotheism or that in his heart there is not some minor remnants of shirk and disbelief. Allah says about the Bedouins,
“The Bedouins say, ‘We have believed.’ Say [to them], ‘You have not yet [truly believed] but instead you should say, “We have submitted” for faith has yet to [completely] penetrate your hearts. But if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you [of the rewards for] your deeds. Verily, Allah is Forgiving, Merciful”
Indeed, some shortcomings with respect to the complete concept of pure monotheism even occurred among new Muslims at the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), although they were fluent in Arabic, thus having an understanding of the basic meanings of the Quran, and they also lived during the time of the revelation itself. Note the following report:
Abu Waaqid al-Laithi narrated that when the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was going out to the Hunain [before its battle] they passed by a tree of the polytheists known as dhaat anwaat on which they would hang their weapons. They [some Companions] said, “O Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), make for us a dhaat anwaat like they have a dhaat anwaat.” The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Exalted be Allah. This is like when the people of Moses said, ‘Make for us an idol like they have an idol.’ By the One in whose Hand is my soul, you shall certainly follow the practices of the people who came before you.”
However, as one grows in faith, new horizons become clear to him—they may actually be related to things that he already admitted to knowing but he had never really experienced or tasted them in the past. These new understandings related to his faith purify him even further and allow him to grow spiritually in matters that have been difficult for people to describe.
The quote below from ibn al-Qayyim highlights some aspects of faith that may not necessarily be in the person’s heart when he first becomes Muslim or when he is practicing Islam. However, as he grows in the faith, these aspects become stronger and stronger and they begin to develop in him more and more of their desired effects. For example, a new Muslim may see the rain come down from the sky and then recall the forecast on the news the previous night, simply thinking that all of the factors were there for the rain to come and hence it rained. On the other hand, the believer whose knowledge and realization of Allah is at a different level, realizes that Allah has brought about that rain not haphazardly. Perhaps, it was an act of mercy from Allah or the first moments of some punishment from Allah.
Ibn al-Qayyim wrote,
When the servant knows that Allah alone is in charge of harming and benefiting, giving and withholding, creating and providing, giving life and bringing about death, it produces the acts of worship of completely putting one’s trust and reliance in Him in one’s heart, and what such reliance necessitates of trust and outward deeds. The servant’s knowledge about Allah’s hearing, seeing and knowledge—not even the smallest of physical particles in the heavens and earth is unseen to Him—and that He knows the secret and hidden and the deception of the eyes as well as what is hidden in the breasts produces in the person a keen guarding over his tongue, physical limbs and thoughts in the heart to keep them away from everything that is displeasing to Allah. Furthermore, it makes him involve those bodily parts in acts that are beloved and pleasing to Allah. This in turn produces an inward shyness. It also produces a shyness that makes the person avoid the forbidden and evil acts. [The servant’s] knowledge of Allah’s self-sufficiency, generosity, graciousness, kindness and mercy makes the person become very hopeful in Allah. Furthermore, it produces in him similar acts of external and inward forms of worship in accord with his level of understanding and knowledge. Similarly, his recognition of Allah’s grandeur, greatness and magnificence produces in him humility, submission and love. It also produces in him internal emotions and feelings of worship as well as the external acts that these require. Similar, his knowledge of Allah’s perfection, beauty and exalted attributes manifests itself in a special kind of love found in the different levels of worship.