Generally, the Qur’an mentions four stages of submission and four stages of faith. While each of these stages can be reached by a servant of God by his own will, the fourth stages of submission and faith is a Divine gift bestowed from God to His servant. In all the first three stages, the order to submit is therefore, legislative.
The first stage of submission (or islam) is to submit or accept the Divine commandments, orders and prohibitions. One enters into this stage by reciting the two testimonies – testifying to the Oneness of God and the Messengership of Muhammad – no matter whether belief has entered into the heart or not. This is followed by the first stage of faith (or imaan) which is sincere belief in the two testimonies. Such a person becomes a believer who faithfully obeys most of the rules of the shariah.
The first stage of faith is followed by the second stage of submission which is the sincere acceptance or submission of all true beliefs in detail with good deeds – which is the necessary ingredient of belief although occasional slips are not impossible. God says:
O you who believe! enter into submission one and all and do not follow the footsteps of Satan; surely he is your open enemy. (2:208).
Why is the believer asked to enter into submission after he already was a submitter (in the first stage)?
Because if he proceeds without wholly submitting himself to God and His Messenger, he may fall into the traps of Satan and therefore he must not be in the footsteps of Satan.
The verse (2:208) therefore implies that one should follow the islam that has been prescribed by God and His Messenger as it guarantees that it contains all kinds of laws and knowledge which are needed by human beings for their welfare and good.
The second stage of submission is followed by the second stage of faith and it entails believing with full details and reasoning in the realities of the religion. God says:
The believers are only those who believe in Allah and His Messenger then they doubt not and struggle hard with their wealth and their lives in the way of Allah; they are the truthful ones. (49:15)
The second stage of faith paves the way for the third stage of submission although in many verses, the second and third stages of submission are counted as one.
When the second stage of imaan has permeated into the soul and it acquires its characteristics, then man’s all animalistic and beastly faculties are subdued to the sublime powers of his intellect and spirituality. He keeps all his desires – pulling him to the material attractions, the transient trinkets of this world – under firm control. Thereupon he reaches a stage where he worships God as though he was seeing Him and he also becomes certain that God is seeing him!
The third stage of submission is followed by the third stage of faith. The sublime virtues, for example, being pleased with Divine Decree, submitting to the commands of God, forbearance and patience for the love of God, self-denial, piety, and love and hate for the sake of God are concomitants of this stage of faith.
The condition of a believer in this stage with his Lord is like that of a slave with his master when the slave faithfully follows the dictates of his bondage – when he totally surrenders to the will of his master.
The third stage of faith is followed by the fourth stage of submission. When a man reaches the third stage of submission and faith, the Divine Grace takes him under its wing; he is shown the reality and sees with his heart’s eyes that the kingdom belongs to God, there is no Lord other than Him. (“We showed Ibrahim the Kingdom”)
This realization, as we mentioned above, is a Divine Gift, a bestowal by God to Whom He pleases. A man cannot reach this sublime stage by his own will unlike the order to submit which is legislative. Probably it is to this level of submission that the prayer of Ibrahim and Ismail refers:
Our Lord! and make us both submissive to Thee and (raise) from our offspring a group submitting to Thee, and show us our ways of devotion and turn to us (mercifully), surely Thou art the Oft-returning (with mercy), the Merciful. (2:128)
Undoubtedly he was asking for something which was not in his power. In short, the islam they prayed for was of this fourth and sublime stage.
The fourth level of submission is followed by the fourth stage of faith. It happens when the realization (mentioned) permeates the believer’s whole being and submerges all his conditions and actions. At this stage, the believers have certainty that nothing is independent of God and no cause has any power except by His permission. It is this certainty which insulates them from grief when a tragedy strikes them and protects them from fear if a danger looms ahead. It is because of these factors that God praises them in verse 10:62.
Reference: Al-Mizan, English vol. 2