This article is written by guest author Petrit Kola, who presents a Muslim point of view on the question of faith and works.
In Islam, there is a story where one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), Anas Ibn Malik, asked the Prophet, “O Messenger of Allah (God), should I tie my camel and trust in Allah, or should I leave her untied and trust in Allah?” The Prophet replied to him by saying “Tie her and trust in Allah.” With this story in mind, we will be looking into the discussion on the importance of faith and work in achieving one’s goals.
Let us analyze the answer the Prophet gave his companion. When asked what he should do about his Camel, the Prophet’s answer was both to tie your camel and to have faith in God; he did not say “have faith in God and then tie your camel” or “tie your camel and then have faith in God.” Rather, both the act of tying the Camel and having trust in God are actions that are simultaneously done with one another. In essence, you cannot have one without the other. Both actions need to happen simultaneously, and that is why in this story, one does not proceed the other; they happen at the same time.
This notion of doing work and having faith in God is seen both in Moses’ escape from Pharaoh and the story of Mary after giving birth to Jesus. In the story of Moses, when escaping the clutches of the Pharaoh, Moses was stuck between the sea and the Pharaoh’s army coming closer to him and his people. In this seemingly impossible situation that had no way of escape, God commanded Moses to strike his staff on the ground. Following his orders, when Moses did strike the ground, the sea was split into two and the Hebrews were able to safely escape from the Pharaoh and his army. Some important questions arise when reading this story: Why did God tell Moses to strike the ground with the staff? What significance did striking the staff to the ground have in splitting the sea?
The story of Mary in the Quran also brings up very interesting questions on this tension between faith and work. After going through the hard, painful, experience of labor, God tells Mary “shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, and fresh ripe dates will drop upon you (Surah 19:25).” Think about the scenario that is put on Mary: immediately after going through the hard and painful experience of labor, God commands you to shake the trunk of a palm tree so he may provide food. So many questions arise from this: how can someone going through so much pain shake a tree? Also, why can’t God just give her food? In Surah 3, verse 37, God provides the Prophet Zechariah with food without commanding him to do any sort of work to attain it. Why does God then make Mary shake the tree for food?
Why did Moses have to strike the ground, and why did Mary have to shake the tree? Both of these stories have the same explanation of what the Prophet told the man who asked about tying his camel: tie your camel and have faith. God told Moses to strike the ground for the same reason that God told Mary to shake the tree; they needed to tie their camel with the faith that they already had in God. God could have easily just split the sea for Moses or made food miraculously appear for Mary. However, God is telling us a valuable lesson in all of these stories. God is telling us that no matter who you are to God, in addition to having faith you have to give up something from yourself in order to see change come your way. If we ask God for a good grade in a class, or we ask God to help us land a job, we cannot just sit there and pray all day and all night without studying or applying to jobs; we have to act.
The stories provided in the Quran share one common theme: people tying their camel and having faith. Islam’s answer to the balance between work and faith is, as the Prophet said, a two-fold answer: have faith and do hard work. You cannot have one without having the other; doing so will render one’s ability and results null and void. This is such an important lesson to understand not only in the Islamic or theological context, but also in using this in our daily lives. Getting past theoretical debates, it is important for everyone to understand and to implement this notion of faith and work going hand-in-hand with one another. Never think that your actions are meaningless, because as long as you have faith and try your best, something will come out of it. On the flip side, never lose faith when the work gets tough. Mary and Moses had to do the impossible. Yet, through their faith and through their actions, they conquered the impossible. For everything that you do, just remember what the Prophet said: Tie your camel and have faith.