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What’s the real meaning of Islām?

Islām: Peace or Submission?

Islām:  a word we hear so often, yet fail to recognise the essence of what it really means. Whichever way one looks at the question posed, there is a dilemma. If we say Islām means peace, then why does Islām permit the use of force in certain instances (as do most religions and ideologies)? And if we say that Islām means submission, then why should man submit himself to something even though we live in an era of freedom and liberation?

The meaning of Islām

When trying to understand the meaning of a word in Arabic, one should look to its etymology as well as the understood meaning from its derived form. The majority of words found in the Arabic language are derived from three basic letters, otherwise known as the ‘three radicals’ (in Arabic: jidhr). It is from these root letters that many words can be derived (in Arabic: mushtaqqāt). For example, the following words all are derived from the same root k t bkitā(book), kātib (writer), maktūb (something written), kitābah (writing), and so on.

The word Islām is no exception to this phenomenon as it also is a derivative derived from the root letters: سلم. Before we proceed any further, it is important to stress that the meaning of a word can be partially derived from its root but is more accurately understood from taking the meaning directly from the derivative itself. Therefore, the root meaning shall be given first followed by the meaning of the derivative; Islām.

These three letters form the basic verb salima, which means: “He was, or became safe, or secure, or he escaped, منالآفات (from evils[1] of any kind)…”[2] The verbal noun for this verb is salāmah or salām. Ibn Manẓūr stated that it conveys the meaning barā’ah (freedom from something).[3] Al-Aṣfahāni stated that it means to be free from ‘inward and outward harms and blemishes, as Allāh says: “The Day when there will not benefit [anyone] wealth or children, but only one who comes to Allāh with a sound (salīm) heart.” (26:88-89) i.e. free from defectiveness from the inward perspective. As for the outward perspective: “He (i.e. Mūsa) said, “He says, ‘It is a cow neither trained to plow the earth nor to irrigate the field, one free from fault (musallamah) with no spot upon her.’” (2:71)[4] The definition offered by Lane is not at variance with what Ibn Manẓūr or Aṣfahāni stated since being ‘safe or secure’ in essence means being free from harm or defects. This is further backed by the adīth: Abū Mūsa Al-Ash’ari (May Allāh be pleased with him) reported: I asked the Messenger of Allāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam): “Who is the most excellent among the Muslims?” He said, “One from whose tongue and hands the other Muslims are free (salima).”[5] As for peace which is opposed to war, then that is called silm in Arabic.[6]

The idea of peace which is commonly attributed to the word Islām is taken from this understanding. Peace according to the Oxford dictionary of English is:

1.Freedom from disturbance; tranquility: he just wanted to drink a few beers in peace”

  • Mental or emotional calm: the peace of mind this insurance gives you

2. A state or period in which there is no war or a war has ended: the Straits were to be open to warships in time of peace.[7]

The common phrase that a person is ‘at peace’ is used to describe a person who is free from anxiety or distress or a person who is dead and therefore free from the difficulties of life. Therefore, it is evident that the underlying meaning of peace revolves around the idea of being free from something.

When the concept of ‘peace’ is attributed to Islām, it is usually done so on the premise that its root letters suggest that meaning. However, it is important to note the following:

  1. Derivatives, in most cases, do not convey the exact same meaning of their root words.
  2. Peace has many connotations and is not restricted to non-violence as has been illustrated above; rather in essence it means that one is free from something.
  3. If, for argument’s sake one argues that Islām does actually mean peace, what type of peace would it mean?
  4. One should not allow the general meaning of Islām to dictate particular rulings i.e. if one were to argue that Islām means peace in the conventional sense to mean non-violence, then that would imply that Islām does not condone any form of physical force.
  5. Based upon the above point, the definition of Islām should give a person a general overview of the religion and not necessarily specific rulings.

The meaning of Islām as derivative.

Islām is the verbal noun for the verb أسلم aslama which shares a similar meaning to another form of the verb: سلّم sallama which means to submit and surrender. Aslama also has the meaning of resigning and to come to accept, which is what the word istaslama conveys as well. Ibn Manẓūr states: “Islām & Istislām[8] both mean total submission (inqiyād). Islāaccording to the sharī’ah means to manifest total submission and obedience as well as manifest the sharī’ah and adhere to the teachings of the Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam)…”[9]

As has been already stated, the root meaning; salima implies being free from something. Is this meaning also present in the word Islām? Since Islāexpresses total submission, it therefore implies freeing oneself from all matters that would tarnish one’s submission to Allāh (subhānahu wa ta’ālā). Thus, Ibn Bashshār said: “There are two views as to what the word muslim means: One view is that he is the one who submits totally (mustaslim) to Allāh and the other view is that he is the one who renders his worship purely for Allāh…”[10] thereby freeing his worship from being directed to any other object of worship. This meaning can be found in the following verse: “Allāh presents an example: a slave owned by quarreling partners and another belonging exclusively (salaman) to one man – are they equal in comparison? Praise be to Allāh! But most of them do not know.” (39:29).

The consequences of knowing what Islāreally means

Servitude, submission and enslavement are all apparent antonyms for many values that people stand for today in the modern world that we live in. Much of our recent history has been tarnished by the slave trade and exploitation of theocracies to usurp the wealth and rights of the vulnerable. Could servitude and submission ever be viewed in a positive way? Man cannot deny that to a certain extent, all are submissive to certain laws, such as the natural laws of the universe. Allāh says:

“So is it other than the religion of Allāh they desire, while to Him have submitted (aslama) all those within the heavens and earth, willingly or by compulsion[11], and to Him they will be returned?” (3:83)

These natural laws (whilst being divine in nature) keep the entire existence in check and order. Without the natural adherence to such laws, the entire existence will fall into disarray and chaos.

However, there are also those laws that man consciously chooses to adhere to, whether those laws are man-made or divine. When man chooses to live by a way other than the way the Creator legislated for him, disarray and instability take over and the perfect equilibrium that exists elsewhere in the universe disappears.

“Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness].” (30:41)

If people had followed the commandments of Allāh (subhānahu wa ta’ālā) with precision, their lives would have been in perfect order like the precise movements of the celestial bodies. However, they chose to abandon his way and so their lives became disordered:

“…therefore let those beware who go against his order lest a trial afflict them or there befall them a painful chastisement”[12]

In order to achieve the perfect equilibrium in life the way we witness it in our universe, we must also submit to the decree of our Creator. Allāh (subhānahu wa ta’ālā) says:

“Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do.” (16:97) 

Submission and humility (tawāḍu’)

Submission and humility (tawāḍu’) necessitate one another since submission naturally humbles a person if the submission was sincere. Sincere humility also leads to submission. Therefore, if a person lacks humility or his heart is not capable of carrying such a lofty trait, it makes submission extremely difficult.

Al-Fuḍayl Ibn ‘Iyāḍ (raḥimahullāh) was asked as to what humility really meant and he replied: “It is to submit and surrender to the truth and be lead by it and to accept it regardless of who said it.”[13]

Ibn al-Qayyim in his magnum opus, Madārij as-Sālikīn, discusses this point in some detail. He mentioned that humility towards the religion means to submit to the teachings of the religion in three ways:

  1. By not opposing the religion with any of the four prevalent opposing factors, one’s personal judgment (ma’qūl), juristic analogy (qiyās), spiritual experience (dhawq) and politics (siyāsah).
    1. The first applies to those who went astray from the arrogant scholars of speculative theology; those who opposed revelation with their corrupted judgments. If they found a conflict between the intellect and text, they would always accuse the text of deficiencies and therefore reject the text by claiming its meaning is only known to Allāh or by giving it a figurative meaning.
    2. The second applies to the arrogant who attribute themselves to fiqh, who would give preference to juristic analogy over divine scripture.
    3. The third applies to the arrogant who attribute themselves to Sufism and asceticism. If there was a conflict between divine injunctions and ‘spiritual experience’ they would give precedence to spiritual experience over divine injunctions.
    4. The fourth applies to the arrogant rulers who have gone astray. If there was a conflict between the sharī’ah and (man-made) politics, they would give precedence to the latter and would not be concerned about the ruling of the sharī’ah.

These four groups of people are the people of arrogance and pride and to achieve humility is to free oneself from all of those traits.

  1. By not having doubts or to question religious texts by suspecting them to convey invalid meanings, or to think that there is something more deserving to follow. If this was to occur, then let him accuse his own understanding and let him know that the problem lies with him and not the text.
  2. By not finding a way to oppose the text, whether internally, by his tongue or his limbs. If a person was to feel some form of opposition, then it is like the opposition to the teachings of the religion that lead people to commit adultery, drinking wine and murder… It is this type of opposition that the great scholars of Islām feared for themselves.[14]

What Ibn al-Qayyim mentioned many centuries ago is very applicable to today. As a Muslim community in the West we likewise face many matters that challenge our submission to the teachings of the religion.

Whether it is related to our financial dealings, family law, gender relations and so on, we find areas of differences and conflict. For many of us, we do not realise that due to our upbringing in the West we may find it more appealing or suitable to adhere to what is prevalent in our societies rather than to submit to the teachings of Islām. It has to be acknowledged that sometimes our judgments are clouded by the desire to conform to the norms around us. Therefore, if we do not seek to treat this attitude, our submission to Allāh (subhānahu wa ta’ālā) will begin to waver.

 “Will you then be of those who surrender (muslimūn)?” (11:14)

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Or harms or defects

[2] Lane’s Lexicon, 4/136.

[3] IbnManẓūr, Lisān al ‘Arab, p.2077, Dār al Ma’ārif.

[4] Ar-Rāghib al Aṣfahāni, MufradātfīGharīb al Qur’ān, p.315

[5] Agreed upon.

[6] Ibid. p.317

[7] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/peace?q=peace

[8] Imām aṭ-Ṭabari said: “The al(origin) of Islām is Istislām…” Tafsīraabari2/432.

[9] Ibn Manẓūr, p.2080

[10] Ibid.

[11] Imām aṭ-Ṭabari mentions a number of different views as to how one submits by compulsion. Amongst those views was that: “The compulsive submission of the disbeliever refers to the prostration of his shadow.” (5/550) i.e. the disbeliever has no control as to whether his shadow follows him or not.

[12] Al-Qur’ān 24:63

[13] Madārij as-Sālikī3/113

[14] Ibid 3/120-123

About Sheikh Alomgir Ali

Ustdah Alomgir has a BA in Arabic & English language and has studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Cairo. He is currently pursuing a degree in Shariah at al Azhar University in Cairo. He has translated a number of books and holds weekly Tafseer classes in London and is a regular Khateeb in a number of mosques in London. He also taught Arabic and Islamic studies at the Tayyibun Institute in London and is currently an instructor for the Sabeel retreats and seminars.


  1. Reform India’s Muslim Personal Law, Breach the Stagnation in Muslim Religious Thought, Use the Opportunity to Work out A New Islamic Theology of Peace, Pluralism and Gender Equality

    Sultan Shahin, Editor, New Age Islam

    It is for the government of India to take a call in the matter. Why should Indian Muslim women not deserve the protection of Islam provided to their counterparts in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere, practically in the entire Islamic world, except Saudi Arabia. … Why should Indian Muslims suffer the indignities imposed by the British in our land under an Anglo-Mohammedan law? …
    A debate kick-started by Personal Law reforms may then provide us an opportunity to take the issue of theological reforms to other areas too, which are far more important to the community and our religion. Personal Law debate would bring out the obscurantism of our ulema to the fore. It would bring out their lack of concern for Islam or Muslims.
    We have to virtually create, find acceptance for and popularise a new Islamic theology of peace, coexistence, inclusiveness, pluralism and gender equality.
    The stagnation, total lack of any theological debate, in the Muslim community, just has to be breached and broken. The stagnation suits the Islamist extremists who have a very coherent, well-designed, well-thought-out theology of violence and exclusivism, hatred and intolerance, as well as gender inequality and discrimination.

  2. Taalib ul Hammuda

    Very educational and eye opening article.

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