Islam: What’s in a Name? (A Quranic Study)

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Islam: What’s in a Name? (A Quranic Study)

Category : Thematic

By Sohaib Saeed

It is a common practice of Muslim scholars writing on some field of knowledge to define its basic terms; when it comes to Arabic words, this involves looking at their root meanings as well as their usage. This practice is certainly useful when seeking to understand Islam as a faith and way of life, as there are many things to learn from the very fact that it is so named. Generally speaking, when naming something new, or a new addition to the family, we choose a name that reflects the appropriate and desired meanings.

In this article, we shall explore five significant features of the name Islam, making special reference to how the Qur’an speaks of Islam and being Muslim. We shall note that the word reflects the concept of peace, that it is a name used right from the start, that it was specially chosen by the Creator, that it reflects an action and way of life, and that it has a universal meaning and appeal.

A Meaning of Peace

The root S-L-M, from which the word Islam derives, has the essential meaning of being free of any flaws or harmful things. Thus the derivatives of this root include salāmah which indicates soundness and safety, and of course salām which means “peace”. The verb-form islām (usually written in English without any diacritical marks) thus conveys entering into a state of peace and security; in short, this is what we refer to as “submission”. The active participle of the verb, i.e. the word for “submitter”, is muslim.

It may not be clear how important it is to look at the three-letter root of a word to understand its import, but this is something significant in the Arabic language. At the same time, it may seem like an exaggeration to state, as Muslims often do, that “Islam means peace”. Some critics point out that submission is not the same as peace, and some go further and suggest that submission is something undesirable.

In fact, the Qur’an uses a number of different terms to refer to this religion, and one of them is the word Peace itself. In the second chapter (Al-Baqarah 2:102), God says: “O you who believe, enter into al-silm completely and do not follow the footsteps of Satan.” This noun means “security, safety and leaving off war” (the opposite of war is peace) and is used here as an exact equivalent to saying “Islam”, according to commentators. This means that our religion is indeed called Peace, just as it is called Submission and numerous other secondary names.

Islam is not only “a religion of peace”: it is the religion of life, which means that it provides guidance for all situations that arise in our troubled world. Yet even aggression is to be met with high virtues in the pursuit of peace. The goal is not to “make the world submit”, as some misunderstand, but to invite each soul to its own wilful surrender to the Creator alone, not to any human force or worldly desire. This is the true source of inner and outer peace, and is the most liberating concept ever taught to humanity.

As well as attention to linguistic roots, we also must differentiate between the general meanings of a word, and its technical meaning in context. In this case, the difference is between what we may describe as “small-i islam” which means to live a life submitted to God, and “big-I Islam” which is the well-known religion, whose adherents declare that “There is none to be worshipped but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This declaration is what entitles a person to be known as a (“big-M”) Muslim, a member of the worldwide community of Islam. Of course, the Arabic language does not have capital letters, so what we really intend is to distinguish between submission as a religious ideal in general, and its usage as a proper noun – or what philosophers call its “reified” meaning.

When we look at the numerous references to “Islam” in the Qur’an, some could be understood in both ways, but others clearly show that Allah has chosen this name for His religion and named those who follow it “Muslims” (submitters).

A Historical Name

Almighty God declares in the Qur’an that all of creation is submitted to Him (see Āl `Imrān 3:83) and that He, being the only true Deity, is the One to Whom human submission is due (Al-Ḥajj 22:34). The best religion is to submit one’s face to God and do good (Al-Mā’idah 4:125). The same term appears frequently in the stories of the Prophets, from which we shall mention a few examples.

The patriarch Abraham (on whom be peace) is declared as having been neither Jewish nor Christian, but in fact upright in religion, a Muslim (Āl `Imrān 3:67). When he was commanded to submit, he said immediately: “I have submitted myself to the Lord of the Worlds” (Al-Baqarah 2:131). When he was called upon to sacrifice his first-born son Ishmael, they both submitted to this divine command (As-Ṣāffāt 37:103), until Allah announced that they had passed the test. When building the Sacred Mosque in Makkah, they prayed together that God would raise up from their descendants a Muslim nation (Al-Baqarah 2:128).

The prophets after Abraham are described as those who submitted (Al-Mā’idah 5:44), which of course does not deprive those before him of the same virtue. Prophet Jacob (on whom be peace) entrusted his children on his deathbed that they must follow the religion of their forefathers Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac (peace be upon them) and not die except as Muslims (Al-Baqarah 2:133).

The Pharaoh who opposed Moses (on whom be peace) vainly declared at the moment of death that he believed in the God of Israel and was “one of the Muslims” (Yūnus 10:90). The disciples of Jesus (on whom be peace) were inspired to believe, so they did so, saying: “Bear witness that we are Muslims.” (Al-Mā’idah 5:111)

All of this goes to show that the “Religion of Submission” (dīn al-islām) is both grounded in nature and rooted in history. As for its usage in the context of the last chapter of prophethood, we find a number of relevant passages in the Qur’an:

{Truly the religion in the sight of God is Islam…} (Āl `Imrān 3:19)

{Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted from him and he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter.} (Āl `Imrān 3:85)

{…This day I have perfected for you your religion, and completed My favours upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your way of life…} (Al-Mā’idah 5:3)

{He it is Who named you Muslims before and in this (Qur’an)…} (Al-Ḥajj 22:78)

{Who is better in speech than one who invites to God, works righteousness and says, ‘I am of the Muslims’?} (Fuṣṣilat 41:33)

A Divine Gift

One may question what the relevance is of showing that the Qur’an is the source for the name used by Muslims everywhere today in reference to their own identity and way of life, in addition to showing its history on the tongues of prophethood. The fact is that a name is an essential component to identity, and so one should take pride in the virtues embodied in a name that was chosen by the Creator.

The names of certain modern religions were chosen by their human founders, while the older religions tend to have more mystery surrounding the origin of their names. We also find names that were coined by people external to the tradition. New Testament passages suggest that the first people to use the word “Christian” (or rather, its original-language version) were the religion’s critics, but then the term became used by its followers as a badge of honour.[1] Followers of Muhammad (on whom be peace) have also had various unwanted labels attached to them, yet none of these was adopted by Muslims in preference to their original name. For example, the word “Mohammedan” suggests worship of Muhammad in the way that Christians worship the Christ.

Furthermore, while it cannot be correctly said that Jesus was a Christian – or that Jesus or Moses (peace be upon them) taught Christians and Jews to use these names – it is the case that Muhammad (on whom be peace) was indeed a Muslim submitted to God, thus providing the perfect example of a worshipper in front of his people. Just as the imam who leads any congregational prayer will stand ahead of the others but perform the same submissive actions facing the same direction, so did the Prophet – like those before him – show all men and women how to worship Allah in all aspects of life.

{ Say (O Muhammad): ‘Truly my prayer, my sacrifice, my life and my death are for God, Lord of the worlds; He has no partner. Thus I have been commanded, and I am the first of the Muslims.’ } (Al-An`ām 6:162-3)

Thus the Prophet was first in line to submit to Allah, and the foremost in obedience to Him. Chronologically, he was the first member of the Quranic community to follow its message, but of course, as we have shown in the verses above, he was not the first Muslim in history. Muhammad was a believer and submitter just as his brother-prophets (peace be upon them all), including the Messiah Jesus and those who followed his way, as opposed to the religion built upon claims surrounding his noble person.

A Way of Life

It is worth taking a closer look at the word Islam. What type of word is it? It is a verbal noun, i.e. the name for an action, and this fact has its own significance. It means that Islam as a religion is defined by this act of submission, which goes beyond a single action to being a comprehensive way of life. When someone becomes a Muslim, the way of speaking about this in Arabic is not to say that she “converted” – or even “reverted” as many Muslims prefer to say. Rather, the word that is used is islām, so it is as though we have said: “Sarah islām’d last month.”

This meaning of repentance and conversion is also found in the Qur’an, such as in the story of the Queen of Sheba (An-Naml 27:44) and the Bedouin Arabs (Al-Ḥujurāt 49:17). The People of the Book, namely Jews and Christians, are addressed with an invitation to submit (Āl `Imrān 3:20), meaning to recognize the last Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him) and live by the law revealed to him. This shows that while respecting the former communities of scripture, the Qur’an is clear that their religious beliefs and practice are not accepted from them by Almighty God.

Studying the etymology of the names of world religions, it becomes clear that many have been named in one way or another after their followers. For example, Judaism is the religion of the Judaic people[2]. Even Christianity, with its linguistic connection to Christ[3], derives from the name of the Christians rather than the other way round. Muslims, on the other hand, take their name from Islam. They are named by the action that defines them: their submission to God, manifested in absolute monotheism as well as belief in the final Prophet and divine Book.

A Universal Message

It follows that Islam is a universal meaning not bound to any group of people, nor even to any particular figure or event in history. It is another word for true religion itself, and is the direct relationship between any worshipper – human, animal or even inanimate – and the only Being worthy of worship. Thus everyone who believes that submission is the duty of all creatures towards their Creator will strive to perfect his islām (small-i) even if he is not among those who have chosen to follow the guidance brought by Muhammad, the last in the line of prophets teaching and exemplifying this submission.

When Muslims invite others to their religious path, they are inviting neither to something strange or novel, nor to an exclusive club. It is the revival of the human spirit, the echo of the prophetic call.


There are two points that ought to be clarified at the end of this paper, due to some misconceptions I have observed among Muslims and others.

First: The above study was particularly concerned with the Quranic occurrences of the word “Islam”, and established – among other things – that some of these are in the “small-i” sense, while others ought to be seen as referring to the “big-I, reified” meaning of Islam-the-religion. The latter reality would become clearer by studying the many texts of the Qur’an that establish the principles and details of a faith and way of life, called Islam. These include all the verses distinguishing believers (mu’minūn, a related key word) from rejecters (kāfirūn), delineating the fate of each, as well as those describing the Muslims as a nation of faith (ummah). These meanings would be further solidified by reference to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace), such as “Islam is built on five…”, which lists the famous pillars of religious practice, to give just one example.

The Muslims have understood, from the time of revelation until today, that they are a distinct community with a shared religion. Therefore, there is no justification from what we have said for rejecting “organised religion” – as some have defined it – and adhering to “personal submission”, still hoping for ultimate salvation and success. To incorporate the linguistic meaning of the word, we can understand the prophetic hadith just quoted as saying: “The way of life that is based on submission to God, and given that name, has been defined by divine revelation as consisting of…” Verses such as Q 3:85 (quoted above) make clear that no alternative is acceptable to the Creator. Moreover, being a Muslim entails being a member of the global Muslim community, with the rights and duties of brotherhood detailed in the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Second:Islam” is a noun, and “Muslim” can be used as a noun or as an adjective, as in “Muslim community”. Both are authentically Arabic words that have arrived in English intact. However, when linking a concept to the religion itself, we say “Islamic” (in Arabic, islāmī), such as “Islamic ethics”. While “Muslim” and “Islamic” are interchangeable in some cases, it should be clear with a little thought which cases require which.

In recent times, new terms have been coined to describe emerging phenomena (often with negative agendas on the part of the media or politicians responsible for the terms; bearing in mind that defining terms in public discourse is a function of power). One key term is “Islamist”, which is useful in a context such as multiple parties competing for governance of a country, many or all consisting of Muslims — while only some take Islam as the basis of their ideas and programme. These latter parties or politicians can be described adjectivally as “Islamist parties/candidates”. This is clearly just another rendering (better suited to the context) of the same word islāmī which is elsewhere “Islamic”; in other words, it is an alternative English suffix, fulfilling a similar function (relation, nisbah).[4]

If the word “Islamist” can be used in a reasonable way (alongside a variety of unreasonable ways), that does not entail the acceptability of the newly-coined noun “Islamism”. The difficulty in finding an Arabic equivalent is the first sign that this is an unhealthy construction; the word that they have attached this “ism” to already refers to a complete worldview and way of life! Another bad omen is the inability of its proponents to define it, other than to insist that it is something different (a political ideology) from Islam (the religion). In so doing, they wish to drive a wedge between the comprehensive message of Islam, and its manifestation in this particular sphere (defined as “politics”). We ought to be able to deal with new realities and terminologies without falling for such linguistic trickery.

[1]  See Acts 11:26 and 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16.

[2]  “Judaism” derives from Yehudah (Judah), the fourth son of Jacob and thus one of the Israelite tribes. Since Judah is not considered a founder of the religion in the way that Moses is, the use of his name is actually due to various political and historical factors.

[3]  Even though the name “Christian” comes from “Christ”, which originates in the Greek translation of Moshiach (Messiah), the name of the religion comes from “Christian” as shown in the biblical references provided in Note 1. Naturally, this observation applies to the name used in the English language.

[4] Another sense of this word can be found in the title of Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyīn by Abu al-Ḥasan al-Ash`arī (scholar of the 9th-10th Century C.E.), where the word could be translated “Proponents of Islam” — even though the sects being described include many outside the mainstream. In other words, they identify themselves by reference to Islam, even if their teachings are not in line with it — as the title Maqālāt al-Muslimīn would have implied.

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Word of Peace – 1st Ethical Charitable Trust | 1st Ethical Charitable Trust

6 February, 2013 at 9:49 am

[…] may have become something of a cliché that Islam means peace, or is a religion of peace. Yet there is no doubt that the pursuit of peace is a central goal of […]

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