What makes a Muslim different from other people? Non-Muslims may answer this question in a number of ways; they may talk about cultural and moral differences, about “different outlooks on the world” or values which they deny outright. Alternatively, some may say the difference has its roots in the different ideologies which Muslims embrace. However, all these answers relate to “visible” differences that appear to be the consequences of a more fundamental one. Often, they fail to grasp the reasons underlying this difference.
There is one point to be stressed before proceeding to explain the basic attribute that makes a Muslim different: When we talk about a “Muslim,” we are not referring to someone whose ID card has the word “Muslim” written on it. Muslim is actually the name Allah gives to those who adhere to His religion. The basic attribute, referred to in the Qur’an, that distinguishes Muslims from other people is their being aware of Allah’s infinite might. Awareness of Allah’s infinite might does not in all cases mean affirmation of the existence of a Creator, however. In the Qur’an, Allah underlines this fact as follows:
Say: “Who provides for you out of heaven and Earth? Who controls hearing and sight? Who brings forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living? Who ordains all things?” They will reply, “Allah.” Say, “Then will you not fear Allah? Such is Allah, your Lord, the Truth, and what is there after truth except misguidance? How then can you turn away from Him?” (Surah Yunus: 31-32)
In the verse above, the questions are put to somebody who acknowledges the existence of Allah, accepts His attributes yet, despite all these attributes, has no fear of Allah and thus turns away from Him. Grasping Allah’s might is not only a matter of verbal confirmation. Believers are those who recognize Allah’s existence and His greatness, “are steadfast in their duty” to Him and re-orient all their deeds and conduct in the light of this reality which has become apparent to them. Others, on the other hand, are either those who deny Allah, or, as in the case of the people depicted in the above verse, those who do not perform their duty to Allah, despite their awareness of His existence.
A believer, however, is fully aware of Allah’s existence and might. He knows why Allah has created him and what His expectations are of him. For this reason, his basic aim in life is to be a servant with whom Allah is pleased. He employs all means to try to reach his goal, and strives to do so. This being the case, he resolves the mystery of death: for many it means nothing but the ultimate end but for him, death is not extinction, but a phase of transition to the real life.
Unbelievers assume death, which they take to be an incident that puts an end to their lives, to be a “self-generated accident,” just as they assume life to have emerged coincidentally and spontaneously. The fact is, however, that Allah creates life and likewise takes it away. Death, which is by no means a coincidence or an accident, is an incident that takes place by the law of Allah at a predestined moment and place.
A Muslim is a person who grasps that Allah has power over all things and that death is not an end but a transition to the real abode of man (the Hereafter). Aware of these facts, he carefully avoids building his life on a “crumbling precipice.” He turns to Allah, aware that He is the real Owner and Creator of life, death and what lies beyond. In this system created by Allah, he comprehends that wealth, social status or good looks are not the means that lead man to success; they are only “causes” operating under the rules laid down by Allah, which are effective for only a brief period of time.
The key to the system that Allah has created is the consent of Allah. That is because Allah guides only those who seek His approval.
…Allah will guide to the ways of peace those who follow what pleases Him. He will bring them by His will from darkness to the light, and will guide them to a straight path. (Surat al-Ma’ida: 16)
A Muslim is a Muslim because he seeks Allah’s approval. This is the most important trait that makes a Muslim different from all other people. Muslims see religion as a way to earn Allah’s approval, whereas the majority of people consider it to be a system of beliefs which occupies an insignificant portion of their lives.
Indeed, at this very point there emerges the distinction between real Muslims and those who imitate them (hypocrites). Muslims embrace religion as a path of guidance to the approval of Allah. For hypocrites, however, it is something from which they derive benefits. That is why a hypocrite’s prayers are of a “pretentious” nature (Surat al-Ma‘un: 6) while Muslims pray in humility (Surat al-Mu’minun: 1-2). Similarly, while Muslims spend their money in Allah’s cause, hypocrites spend to impress people rather than to earn Allah’s approval.
You who believe! Do not nullify your almsgiving by demands for gratitude or insulting words, like him who spends his wealth, showing off to people and not having faith in Allah and the Last Day. He is like a smooth rock coated with soil, which, when heavy rain falls on it, is left stripped bare. They shall have no power over anything they have earned. Allah does not guide the unbelievers. (Surat al-Baqara: 264)