The Meaning of Islam


The word Islam is derived from the Arabic root “ SLM” which means, among other things, peace, purity, submission and obedience. In the religious sense the word Islam means submission to the Will of God and obedience to His Law. The connection between the original and the religious meanings of the word is strong and obvious. Only through submission to the Will of God and by obedience to His Law can one achieve true peace and enjoy lasting purity.

Some outsiders call our religion “Mohammedanism” and address the believers in Islam as “Mohammedans “. the Muslims both reject and protest the use of these words. If our faith is classified as Mohammedanism and if we are called Mohemmadans, there will be seriously wrong implications. This misnomer implies that the religion takes its name after a mortal being, namely, Muhammad and that Islam is no more than another “ism” like Judasim, Hinduism, Marxism, etc. Another wrong implication of this misnomer is that outsiders might think of the Muslims, whom they call Mohammedans, as worshippers of Muhammad or as believers in him in the same way as Christians, for example, believe in Jesus. A further wrong implication is that the word Mohammedanism may mislead the outsider and make him think that the religion was founded by Muhammad and therefore takes its name after the founder. All these implications are seriously wrong or at best misleading. Islam is not just another “ism”. Nor do Muslims worship Muhammad or look upon him the same way as Christians, Jews, Hindus, Marxists, etc., look upon their respective leaders. The Muslims worship God alone. Muhammad was only a mortal being commissioned by God to teach the word of God and lead an exemplary life. He stands in history as the best model for man in piety and perfection. He is a living proof of what man can be and of what he can accomplish in the realm of excellence and virtue. Moreover, the Muslims do not believe that Islam was founded by Muhammad, although it was restored by him in the last stage of religious evolution. The original founder of Islam is no other than God Himself, and the date of the founding of Islam goes back to the age of Adam. Islam has existed in one form or another all along from the beginning and will continue to exist till the end of time.

The true name of the religion, then, is Islam and those who follow it are Muslims. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Islam or submission to the Will of God, together with obedience to His Law, does not mean in any way loss of individual freedom or surrender to fatalism. Anyone who thinks or believes so has certainly failed to understand the true meaning of Islam and the concept of God in Islam. The concept of God in Islam describes Him as the Most Merciful and Gracious, and the Most Loving and most concerned with the well-being of man, and as Full of Wisdom and care for His Creatures. His Will, accordingly, is a Will of Benevolence and Goodness, and whatever Law He prescribes must be in the best interest of mankind.

When the civilized people abide the laws of their countries, they are considered sound citizens and honest members of their respective societies. No responsible person would say that such people lose their freedom by their obedience to the Law. No rational being would think or believe for a moment that such law-abiding people are fatalists and helpless. Similarly, the person who submits to the Will of God, which is good Will, and obeys the law of God, which is the best Law, is a sound and honest person. He is gaining protection of his own rights, showing genuine respect for the rights of others, and enjoying a high degree of responsible, creative freedom. Submission to the good Will of God, therefore, does not take away or curtail individual freedom. On the contrary, it gives freedom of a high degree in abundant measures. It frees the mind from superstitions and fills it with truth. It frees the soul from sin and wrong and quickens it with goodness and purity. It frees the self from vanity and greed, from envy and tension, from fear and insecurity. It frees man from subjugation to false deities and low desires, and unfolds before him the beautiful horizons of goodness and excellence.

Submission to the good Will of God, together with the obedience to His beneficial Law, is the best safeguard of peace and harmony. It enables man to make peace between himself and his fellow men on the one hand, and between the human community and God on the other. It creates harmony among the elements of Nature. According to Islam, everything in the world, or every phenomenon other than man is administered by God-made Laws. This makes the entire physical world necessarily obedient to God and submissive to His laws, which, in turn, means that it is in a state of Islam, or it is Muslim. The physical world has no choice of its own. It has no voluntary course to follow on its own initiative but obeys the Law of the Creator, the Law of Islam or submission. Man alone is singled out as being endowed with intelligence and the power of making choices. And because man possesses the qualities of intelligence and choice he is invited to submit to the good Will of God and obey His Law. When he does choose the course of submission to the Law of God, he will be making harmony between himself and all the other elements of Nature, which are by necessity obedient to God. He will be consistent with the truth and in harmony with all the other elements of the universe. But if he chooses disobedience he will deviate from the Right Path and will be inconsistent. Besides, he will incur the displeasure and punishment of the Law-Giver.

Because Islam means submission to the Good Will of God and obedience to His Beneficial Law, and because this is the essence of the message of all God-chosen messengers, a Muslim accepts all the prophets previous to Muhammad without discrimination. He believes that all those prophets of God and their faithful followers were Muslims, and that their religion was Islam, the only true universal religion of God (Qur’an, 2:128-140; 3:78-85; 17:42-44; 31:22; 42:13)

To sum up this discussion, it may be helpful to reproduce my statement which appeared in the Observer Dispatch (O. D.) of Utica on December 4, 1972. The statement shows how much distortion and confusion there is in this regard. The partial overlapping and repetition may be forgiven because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue and the need to reiterate the Islamic point of view:

A particular news item (O. D., Nov. 25) is alarming. It invites sympathy for the misinformed public and pity for many a school teacher or man of the pulpit. It calls upon every man of good will and conscience to stand up to his moral obligations.

Marcus Eliason reported from Israeli-occupied Jordan that “The Moslems,” among other things. “worship Abraham as Ibrahim…”

It is incredible in this day and age, in this small world of ours, to read in fresh print that the Muslims worship Ibrahim. It is more incredible yet that this news comes from sources presumably knowledgeable and is passed on to a public entitled to know.

For centuries, many Westerners held and propagated the idea that the Muslims worshipped Muhammad, whose religion was called Mohammedanism and whose followers were known in the West as Mohammedans. Then it somehow become apparent to those Westerners that the Muslims worshipped Allah, a “deity of sorts.” And now this new discovery that they worship Abraham as Ibrahim.

The fact is that the Muslims never worshipped Muhammad or any other human being. They have always believed that Muhammad was mortal like the numerous prophets before him, and it is the highest tribute to humanity that a man could achieve the most exalted status of prophethood.

The Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last, not the only prophet, who reinforced and immortalized the eternal message of God to mankind. This message was revealed by God to many prophets of different nations at different times. Including Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, David, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them). What is more important is that the Muslims believe in them without discrimination against any.

Because of their universal outlook and cosmopolitan orientation, the Muslims sorrowfully consider it an unfortunate misnomer to call them Mohammedans and their faith Mohammedanism. The implications are distasteful and for good reasons. The Muslims do not think of themselves as a racial or ethnic group with any exclusive monopolies. Their religion is not named after a man or place; it is transcendent and atemporal.

The proper name of the religion is Islam and its followers are properly called Muslims. In the religious context, the word Islam means submission to the will of God and obedience to God’s Law. The will of God is defined by the Qur’an as good and compassionate, and His law as the most beneficient and equitable. Any human being who so submits and obeys is, therefore a Muslim in a moral state of Islam. It is in this sense that the Qur’an calls Abraham and all authentic prophets Muslims and designates their religions by one and the same title, namely Islam. Hence, the Muslim is not only a follower of Muhammad exclusively he also follows Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and the rest of God’s messengers.

Finally, the word Allah in Islam simply but most emphatically means the One and only Eternal God, Creator of the universe, Lord of all lords, and King of all kings. The only unforgivable sin in Islam is the belief in any deity besides or other than God. The most common daily prayer among Muslims is: “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.”

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