What should we believe? The Six Pillars of Iman

In this article we want to address the basic beliefs of Islam, the so-called “Six Pillars of Iman”1 from a Christian perspective. We want to see what the Bible says about these basic beliefs.

Muhammad answered the question of what faith is by explaining:

“Thou shalt believe
in the One God,
in His angelic messengers,
in His revealed books,
in His human messengers,
in the Last Day (or Resurrection and final judgement)
and in the determination of good and evil by God2.”

From this statement of Muhammad’s, the so called six pillars of Iman – the six most important beliefs of Islam – are derived.

As disciples of Jesus, we want to consider these six points, which display a basic similarity to the teachings of Jesus, in the light of Jesus’ and his apostles’ words, and in our dialogue with Muslims to point out the significant aspects of a relationship with God.

1 Preface: What is belief?

Before we deal with these “six pillars” in detail, let us briefly mention some relevant aspects of what we call belief.

In its everyday use the word “to believe” often expresses some level of uncertainty. Someone who believes that it will rain tomorrow has perhaps a reasonable suspicion but no certainty.

Paul, in his letter to the Christian community in Rome, writes about the belief of Abraham in a very different way:

“…in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations…. Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:17-22)

The characteristics of Abraham’s belief were the hope in God contrary to all human expectations, his endeavour to give praise to God and his complete certainty that God would fulfil His promise. These characteristics are also visible in the faith of Abraham’s children. Our faith leads us to trust completely in the work of the Almighty.

The faith Abraham demonstrated through his life is the very opposite of an uncertain assumption. Faith is being fully certain, even if we cannot always perceive the subject of our faith with our senses.

Faith means two things:

On the one hand, faith means to entrust and devote our lives entirely to God, and that no longer we are the lords of our lives, but God alone.

On the other hand, faith means believing everything God has revealed to us. Faith is not just a personal relationship; it has a very specific content.

These two aspects are of necessity inseparably bound together. We cannot say that we believe in God if we reject the content of His revelation. Similarly, a purely rational acceptance of the content of the faith without devoting our lives to God is nothing but dead theology.

“And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

Now let us turn to the main content of faith according to Islamic tradition:

2 One God

The belief in the one and only God is not just the incontrovertible teaching of every monotheistic religion. The existence of the one and only God is obvious to every earnest seeker through creation.

Paul also writes:

“…because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20)

The basic creed of faith of the nation of Israel was:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deutoronomy 6:4)

Jesus used these words when he answered a question about the greatest commandment:


We also find the confession of the oneness of God again and again in the writings of the apostles.

For instance, Paul said to the idolators in Lystra:

“…and [we] preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, WHO MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM.” (Acts 14:15)

Here are some more examples from the New Testament (Injeel):

“…we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one.” (1 Corinthians 8:4)

“…whereas God is only one.” (Galatians 3:20)

“…the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

These examples show clearly that the Christian belief, as it was taught by Jesus and the apostles, is the belief in the one and only God.

But what about worshipping Jesus as God?

For us Christians Jesus is NOT a God besides Allah could be assumed from Surah 5:

“And when God said, “O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say unto men, ‘Take me and my mother as gods, apart from God?'” He said, “To Thee be glory! It is not mine to say what I have no right to. If I indeed said it, Thou knowest it, knowing what is within my soul, and I know not what is within Thy soul; Thou knowest the things unseen.” (Surah 5:116)

Perhaps the following quote from the Islamic scholar M. Hamidullah can help to understand the Christian teaching better:

“There are several ways to establish contact or communication between man and God. The best would have been incarnation, but Islam has rejected it. It would be too degrading for a transcendent God to become man, to eat, drink, be tortured by His own creatures, and even be put to death3.”

God is absolute and perfect. We have to leave it up to him to decide how He reveals Himself to us and we must not judge according to our human way of thinking and say that something is too degrading for Him. What He considers the best to do cannot be impossible for Him to put into practice. We are convinced that in His wisdom, goodness and infinite love for us, his people, He chose this best way to help us. God became one of us. Not an other, second god besides the Almighty, but the Almighty Himself lowered Himself for us in order to lift us up to Himself. In Jesus, God Himself spoke to us. Thus, even the Qur’an calls him a “Word from Allah”.

“When the angels said, “Mary, God gives thee good tidings of a Word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary; high honoured shall he be in this world and the next, near stationed to God (to Allah).” (Surah 3:45)

“That is Jesus, the son of Mary – the word of truth about which they are in dispute.” (Surah 19:34)4

This is in harmony with what John, one of Jesus’ closest confidants, writes about him:

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

We are aware that the belief in Jesus’ divinity and in the trinitarian nature of the only God is the most difficult and the least acceptable part of Christian doctrine for Muslims (and not only for them). These thoughts should serve as a help to take an unprejudiced look even at this difficult point of our teaching. God is good and He wants and also does the very best for us. As Christians, we reject idolatry with the same determination as every believing Muslim. God is ONE and it is impossible to associate someone or something with him. God’s incarnation does not contradict God’s oneness; it deepens our belief in his oneness. Through it, God displays the greatness of His inexpressible love and grace.

3 The angelic messengers

The existence of created personal spiritual beings is a fact which the Christian Holy Scriptures presuppose. Nevertheless we do not find any distinctive teaching about angels and evil spirits, because God wants to call our attention first of all to Himself, the creator of the visible and invisible world. We regard the angels to be…

“…ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation.” (Hebrews 1:14)

In numerous passages of both the Old (Taurat) and the New Testament (Injeel) angels appear as carriers of the divine revelation. These beings by no means deserve any kind of religious veneration.

In the Book of Revelation an angel puts it like this:

“…I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God.” (Revelation 22:9)

As bearers of divine revelation the importance of angels decreases in view of the fact that God Himself spoke to us in Jesus Christ. That’s why it says about Jesus:

“…who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” (1 Peter 3:22)

The Holy Scriptures also assume that a part of the spiritual beings which were created to be good by God rebelled against their creator and now they try to lead believers away from their path of faith. The Holy Scripture exhorts us to endurance in this spiritual fight:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:10-13)

These warnings must certainly be taken seriously. But it is completely clear that no evil spirit could ever come close to being God’s rival.

Hence James writes:

“Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8)

4 The revealed books

God loves us and He does not want us to stumble around in spiritual darkness5 , so He revealed His will to mankind. Again and again He spoke to people through men of God. In accordance with God’s will their warnings and encouraging words apply not only to their own generations but were to be preserved for all people in every time and nation. In this way the word of God, which was first proclaimed in a specific situation to specific people, becomes an invitation from God for all people to follow His commandments and in this way to glorify the Almighty.

That is why Paul writes to his co-worker Timothy:

“…and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:15-17)

The Scriptures were not sent down on a single occasion. God spoke to the people time and time again. The people of Israel collected the revealed words over the course of their history as God’s nation. With time this collection grew into a small library of books which the Jews call the “Tenach”6, and we Christians call the “Old Testament”. The Qu’ran also contains references to the Taurat (which we call the five books of Moses or the Pentateuch), to the Zabur (the Psalms) and to books of various prophets (like Jonah7).

Jesus came to confirm the Scriptures and to fulfil them. Jesus himself said this:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)

as does the Qu’ran:

“And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus son of Mary, confirming the Torah before him and We gave to him the Gospel, wherein is guidance and light, and confirming the Torah before it, as a guidance and an admonition unto the godfearing. So let the People of the Gospel judge according to what God has sent down therein. Whosoever judges not according to what God has sent down – they are the ungodly.” (Surah 5:46-47)

Because the Holy Scriptures of the nation of Israel were also the Holy Scriptures of Jesus, we Christians accept and value these scriptures, which we call the “Old Testament”. In this way we follow the example of Jesus and his disciples. In their words we find quotations from the Holy Scriptures of Israel again and again. The new covenant which Jesus brought to us builds on the old covenant and brings it to fulfillment.

The Qur’an too urges Muslims to believe in all the revealed scriptures:

“Say you: “We believe in God, and in that which has been sent down on us and sent down on Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the Prophets, of their Lord; we make no division between any of them, and to Him we surrender.” (Surah 2:136)

In order to believe in something you have to get to know it. That is why we want to invite all sincere Muslims who, in the words of the Qu’ran, want to make no division between the various prophets and their scriptures, to read the Holy Scriptures of the Jews and the Christians with the same deep respect as the Qu’ran. There is no other way to be a true Muslim.

But how can we know that the Scriptures we find in the Bible today are the same as what the Qu’ran speaks about?

In the second Surah Muslims are urged to believe the scriptures of the prophets before Muhammad. This presupposes that those scriptures really must have existed at that time (7th century AD). Yet the books which we Christians call the “New Testament” and in the Qu’ran are called Injeel are attested to by manuscripts from much earlier times. The so called Papyrus 668, originating in the second century contains almost the whole gospel of John. Similarly Papyrus 469, which originates in the second century10 includes a large part of the Apostle Paul’s letters. Likewise, there is a large number of manuscripts of all the other scriptures of the New Testament (Injeel) which originated long before the Qu’ran.

The “Gospel of Barnabas” – a work highly regarded by some Muslims – is, on the other hand, a work originating in a much later period11. It is impossible that when the Qur’an mentions the “Injeel” it is referring to this work.

If, as we have demonstrated, the text of the Bible which was widely accepted at the time of the writing of the Qur’an is the same as what we have today12, the above mentioned quotation from the Qu’ran can only mean that every Muslim ought to endeavour to get to know and believe the earlier revealed Scriptures as we find them in the Bible today.

Jesus said:

“…the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” (John 6:63b)

His words are spirit and life – not for his contemporaries only, but for everybody who listens to them or reads them.

5 The human messengers

The question of God’s messengers is closely connected to the previous point of the revealed books since the Holy Scriptures contain his messengers’ words.

Barnabas summarizes the history of revelation in his letter to the Hebrews in the following way:
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son13, whom He appointed heir of all things….” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

God spoke through the prophets again and again throughout the ages. His very last and final word to the human race was transmitted through Jesus. That is the clear message of the Injeel.

Jesus himself said:

“All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” (Matthew 11:27)

If all things have been handed over to Jesus then there cannot be any further revelation. The way to God is through Jesus.

Also the Qur’an confirms that Jesus is God’s anointed one, the Messiah whom the Israelites expected on the basis of the words of the prophets.

“…The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him. …” (Surah 4:171)

His birth of the virgin Mary became a sign for the whole world:

“And she who guarded her virginity, so We breathed into her of Our spirit and appointed her and her son to be a sign unto all beings.” (Surah 21:91)

Both the Bible and the Qur’an testify to the parallelism between Adam and Jesus:

“Truly, the likeness of Jesus, in God’s sight, is as Adam’s likeness; He created him of dust, then said He unto him, “Be”, and he was.” (Surah 3:59)

Both Jesus and Adam were begotten without a human father. This parallelism points at Jesus’ uniqueness.

“So also it is written, “The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL.” The last Adam (=Jesus) became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)

Just as Adam marked the beginning of mankind, so too Jesus marked the beginning of a new mankind. He is the final message for all people.

Muslims and Christians agree that Jesus is not dead now but that he is with God and that he will return.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

…God raised him up to Him; (Surah 4:158)14

Jesus himself also claimed to be the judge of the whole world.

“For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son.” (John 5:2)

Muhammad also spoke of Jesus as the righteous judge over all people15.

Jesus, the last person God spoke through, is now with God and will come again to judge the world. Nothing more can be added to his message.16

6 The Last Day

Belief in the day of judgment of all men resulting either in eternal reward or eternal punishment is a basic conviction shared by both Christianity and Islam.

Jesus said:

“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29)

We understand heaven and hell in connection with the relationship with God. Heaven means eternal fellowship with God, hell means eternal separation from our Creator and thus from the source of our happiness.

That is why the Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures say:

“With Your counsel You will guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:24-26)

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3)

We find the same idea in John’s Revelation expressed in a somewhat poetic form:

“I saw no temple in it (in the new city Jerusalem), for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (Jesus) are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22-23)

When hell is depicted as fire or darkness the intention is not to describe physical suffering but a deep spiritual distress due to the separation from our Creator who is the only one who is able to give eternal fulfilment to his creatures. Thus, in the Bible we find the expression “to be outside” as a description of hell.

“In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out.” (Luke 13:28)

“And nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it (the new Jerusalem), but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”(Revelation 21:27)

We must certainly not imagine Heaven (or in Islamic terms, Paradise) as a place of earthly pleasures17, which will be presented to us after an life of abstinence on Earth; nor should we conceive Hell as a torture chamber18, in which God delights in inflicting pain on people.

God is love (1 John 4:8) an he wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). Only those who reject this divine love by their own free decision will have no part in it. And that is hell.

7 The determination of good and evil

Both the Bible and the Qur’an contain statements confirming that God is the origin and ultimate cause of everything. Unfortunately in some “Christian” circles this led to the terrible false teaching that God does not give people freedom to decide and he predestines them for heaven or hell according to his own will. The false teaching of predestination19 totally contradicts God’s revelation.

We do not want to touch upon the inner-Islamic discussions on this topic; instead we want to explain the teaching of the Bible which, on the one hand, declares that God is the omnipotent Lord and Creator of the Universe, while on the other hand reveals his love which gives us freedom and responsibility for our actions.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah God says:

“That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.” (Isaiah 45:7)

The context of this verse shows that the aim is not to say that God causes evil. The fact that he created calamity means that he punished the people of Israel through the Babylonian exile. But now he brings about peace. He delivers his nation from captivity. These words show us that God works. Even though this world is full of sin and wickedness, God brings about the salvation of those who seek Him wholehartedly.

In the same chapter God calls all people to turn to him.

“Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22)

Turning to God presupposes freedom. God’s activity and human freedom are not in contradiction. Thus all the messengers of God, in full conviction of His omnipotence, time and time again called the people to repent. It is this very act of turning to him freely that honours and glorifies God, not puppet-like obedience as is assumed by people who believe in the teaching of predestination.

Our love is the free response to God’s love, which He demonstrated to us most clearly through Jesus.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16-17)

“We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16)

8 Closing words: What are the consequences?

The previous quotation from the 1st Letter of John points out the consequences of faith effected by God. Faith always goes beyond one’s own personal religious experience and leads us to love in practice, as manifested in the life of the first community of Jesus’ disciples.

“And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.” (Acts 4:32)

The very fact that these consequences are missing in the life of many people who call themselves Christians while denying Jesus by their actions is a hindrance for many people in recognizing the revelation sent through Jesus.

“For the name of God is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:24)

Paul’s criticism of the unbelieving Jews of his time can be just as aptly applied to the pseudo-Christians of today.

Regardless of the many pseudo-Christians, God is nevertheless at work today in all of Jesus’ disciples, in those who put His words into practice in daily obedience.

We would like to invite all Muslims not to be deterred by bad examples but to turn to God’s words, which the Almighty revealed through the prophets and through Jesus, and in this way to get to know God’s will more and more deeply.

“How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings. They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; And You give them to drink of the river of Your delights. For with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we see light.” (Psalm 36:7-8)

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b)

  1. “Iman” means “faith”. This differs from the “five pillars of Islam”, which concern the faith of Muslims in practice. The “Six Pillars of Iman” refer to the content of that faith. 
  2. From Hadith, quoted according to M. Hamidullah, Introduction to Islam, § 129, http://muslimcanada.org/ch4hamid.html
  3. M. Hamidullah, Introduction to Islam, § 138; http://muslimcanada.org/ch4hamid.html#angels
  4. acc. to Saheeh International. 
  5. cf. Psalm 119:105 – Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. 
  6. Tenach” is a made-up word composed of the initial letters of the names of the three main parts of Israel’s Holy Scriptures: Torah (law), Nebiim (prophets), Ketubim ([other] scriptures). 
  7. Surah 10 is named after Jonah. 
  8. A part of this papyrus is stored in Cologny in the Bodmer Library. It is called Papyrus Bodmer II. Another part of it called Papyrus Chester Beatty is in Dublin in the Chester Beatty Library. A third part (No. 4274/4298) can be found in Cologne in the “Institut für Altertumskunde”. 
  9. A part of it is in Dublin, in the Chester Beatty Library as Papyrus Chester Beatty II, another part in Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, No. 6238. 
  10. Young Kyu Kim, Biblica, Vol. 69, No. 2, 1988, dates this papyrus as early as the first century. This article can be found at http://www.friktech.com/rel/p46.htm
  11. More about the Gospel of Barnabas at: https://www.islaminstitut.de/en/2004/wurde-das-wahre-evangelium-christi-gefunden/ This link is provided for the reader’s information only. It is a detailed critique with extensive bibliographical references which allow the reader to form his own opinion. 
  12. As a result of recently discovered manuscripts, which actually usually differ only in unimportant ways, we have an even better quality text than in the seventh century. 
  13. The term “son” here and in other passages of the New Testament which speak about Jesus as the son, does not refer to his physical descent, as if the Almighty God had entered into a sexual relationship. The term “son” expresses his spiritual closeness to God. 
  14. A discussion of the question of Jesus’ death on the cross, which is rejected in this passage of the Qur’an, would go beyond the scope of this article. – Jesus’ return is not written expressly in the Qur’an but it is a part of Islamic tradition. 
  15. “It is narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger or Allah (Peace be upon him) observed: I swear by Allah that the son of Mary will certainly descend as a just judge and he would definitely break the cross, and kill swine and abolish Jizya and would leave the young she-camel and no one would endeavour to (collect Zakat on it).” (Sahih Muslim Book 1 Hadith 289 – quoted according to http://muflihun.com/muslim/1/289.) 
  16. Concerning the question whether Jesus predicted the coming of Mohammad see “Whose coming did Jesus predict?“ 
  17. Consequently, we as Christians cannot agree with statements such as are found in Surah 2:25 where the believers are promised “houris”, the women of paradise, as a reward. Jesus said clearly: “…but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; for they cannot even die anymore, because they are like angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:35-36)
  18. See Surah 4:56 “(As for) those who disbelieve in Our communications, We shall make them enter fire; so oft as their skins are thoroughly burned, We will change them for other skins, that they may taste the chastisement; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise.” A spiritual understanding of this verse, similar to that of Bible passages which speak of fire, seems to be impossible here. 
  19. The main proponents of this false teaching (with varying emphases) are Augustine, Luther and Calvin.