What Does “Islam” Mean?

You’ll often hear that “Islam means peace!” You may see it on flyers, various websites, on social media, and other mediums. You’ll also find an equally large number of websites and other media asserting that this a lie and all Muslims who say this are simply practicing taqiyya. Apparently to them, taqiyya is a dissimulation of truth, in which any time a Muslim says anything remotely positive or loving about their faith, they are accused of lying. Of course if they don’t say anything positive, then they’re accused of terrorism. Talk about a rock and a hard place.

In classical Islamic texts and dictionaries, you won’t find an argument that “Islam” literally means peace. Muslims never felt the need to make such an argument in ages past, either. But as Muslims feel pressure to correct its image problem in the media, such well-meaning but accidental obfuscations are not surprising. After seeing the horrors they have no association nor agreement with in the news, telling people that “Islam [really] means peace [and not terrorism]” is an attempt to rebuff both the wrongdoers themselves as well as the multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry. Can you blame them?

And yet, with more added nuance in exploring the linguistic ocean of Arabic, we’ll find that they may not necessarily be wrong, either.

Linguistic Meaning

Now let’s get into the fun part: dictionaries, morphology, and vocabulary. The word “Islam” is the form 4 verbal noun (masdar) of the root س ل م s-l-m. The verb itself lends to different usages of this form, and the masdar itself typically has its own related definition.

In Hans Wehr, the verb has connotations of leaving, forsaking, deserting, to let sink/drop, to hand or turn over, to leave, abandon, deliver up, surrender. And then we find the more direct religious connotation: to commit or resign oneself (to the Will of God).

So you could say أسلم نفسَه لِلهِ aslama nafsahu lillahi – he committed himself to God. In the Qurán we also have an example with the term face وجه:

وَمَنْ أَحْسَنُ دِينًا مِّمَّنْ أَسْلَمَ وَجْهَهُ لِلَّهِ وَهُوَ مُحْسِنٌ وَاتَّبَعَ مِلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا ۗ وَاتَّخَذَ اللَّهُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ خَلِيلًا – 4:125

(And who is better in religion than one who submits himself (lit. his face) to Allah while being a doer of good and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth? And Allah took Abraham as an intimate friend.)
(Translation: Sahih International)

Here we find the form 4 usage as submission. Ar-Razi said “and that is because of Islam” that they submit themselves, knowing/recognizing his Lord in his heart.

When used alone, intransitively, it means to declare oneself committed to the Will of God, or more literally to embrace Islam and become a Muslim.

Form 4 verb usage when used alone, intransitively

The masdar has simple definitions: submission, resignation, and reconciliation [to the Will of God]. When used with the definite particle ال it refers to the religion of Islam.

Masdar

Another Phrase: As-Silm

You’ll find in dictionaries this little gem as well: دَخَلَ فِي السِّلْمِ :- : فِي الإسْلاَمِ – “He entered as-silm” implies “he entered Islam.” Silm means both peace and also the religion of Islam, according to Hans Wehr.

Side note: Comically, we also find that حب السلم, or “love of peace,” is how the Arabs say “pacifism.”

War in Islamic Religion and History

Now let’s get to the religion and history of Muslims. This warrants an entire series of books and articles in itself, but I’ll try to make this a concise summary, insha’Allah, without getting into the nitty-gritty details of scripture and history.

We find from the prophetic biography that when the Muslims lived under a non-Muslim state, they tended to patiently endure tribulation, enduring even torture and murder, without any reciprocation. Self-defense on a personal level (like if you’re mugged by highway robbers or a home invasion) outside of this context of state-sanctioned persecution is advocated, however. Muslims always respected the laws of the state and the rights of their non-Muslim neighbors, exemplified in the Muslims who lived in Christian Abyssinia or among various other pagan tribes of Arabia.

During and after the Medinan period, you find that war, termed jihad or struggle, indeed has a place in a proper Islamic state, just like any other historic empire, tribe, or even modern nation states with their armies and police. Every major religion in history has a history of war, from the Dharmic religions of Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism to the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity to even the various folk religions around the world with tribal warfare. War is quite a topic in the Old Testament. It’s in Hindu scriptures, too. War and conquest is in Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Native American, Roman, Greek, Persian, African, and Aboriginal history. It’s part of humanity, throughout all of history to today, in every region and continent of the Earth.

With deeper study, though, you’ll find that Islam has rules of warfare which are very acceptable even in a modern context. You cannot harm non-combatants, you must treat POWs well, you cannot destroy fruit-bearing trees, you cannot slaughter livestock, you cannot harm women or children, you cannot massacre a fleeing enemy, etc. Only in few instances in history do you find an anomaly that breaks from this, typically by deviant sects such as the Khawarij, and only after the 18th-century rise of Wahhabism and later Salafi Jihadism do you find a contemporary break from such rules. It’s not that these extremists are “following traditional Islam” too closely, but rather that they aren’t. I’ll also note that a careful study of imperial expansion in Islamic history versus the West is quite an eye opener. Non-violent resistance also has quite a beautiful history in Islam, such as Ahmadu Bamba and Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

So why the fuss? The rise of terrorism and the War on Terror is what demanded certain narratives, from both the war-mongering neoconservatives of the Bush Jr. era to the anti-war folks to the various Muslims fighting for various reasons, including in the microscopic, yet loud and attention-grabbing, terrorist organizations. Note that not every Muslim who fights is a terrorist (though 80% of the victims of terrorism are Muslims). For example, there were Malaysian and Pakistani Muslims under the UN banner who helped save American rangers in Mogadishu. There’s thousands of Muslims involved in the Iraqi government fighting ISIS. There’s Muslims fighting for the US-backed Afghan government. There’s Muslims working as interpreters for the US military. Muslims even have a long history of service in the US military going back to the American Revolution. So yes, just like any other human being on Earth, you’ll find Muslims participating in wars today and throughout history. Nothing surprising here.

And there’s also a tiny microscopic percentage of all these different Muslims worldwide–equating to not even 1% in comparison to worldwide Muslim military service members–who joined Salafi jihadist terror organizations. They’re on a microscopic fringe and most of the time their targets are actually other Muslims. But their exploits grab all the attention from news outlets and provide cannon fodder for pro-war propaganda–exactly the purpose of terrorism. Even Bin Laden’s purpose behind 9/11, carried out mostly by Saudis, was to instigate an invasion of Afghanistan which he (incorrectly) hoped would result in a similar fate as the Soviets in the 80s. It’s a tactic typically against more powerful enemies to achieve political means, though it usually fails to that end. Terrorism is usually only effective to subjugate a weaker people, such as against African Americans in the history of the Atlantic Slave trade and American chattel slavery. Though it is morally wrong to every normal person and diametrically opposed to the Shari’a.

Now, the War on Terror is a very long story with roots in European colonialism of Muslim lands centuries ago to the War in Afghanistan, the rise of Wahhabism, and the American-Saudi alliance. Entire books are written on this issue, Bulliet’s The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization is a good starter, which is basically a history book.

The point being, there is no reason to be ashamed of Islam nor of Islamic history, and the average Muslim has nothing to do with what’s going on in the news. It’s a product of recent history and colonialism more than Islam itself. Muslims themselves simply want peace, but that doesn’t necessitate defining Islam as peace. There’s no reason to be ashamed of its definition as submission to God, which means daily ritual practices and avoiding vice for the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. Even for Muslims who are serving in their nations’ militaries worldwide, IE. Malaysia or Morocco etc, there’s usually nothing wrong with viewing service to your country as an act of service to God, as long as oppression is not on the agenda. Many Americans also see their own service in this way.

conclusion

So we found that the masdar Islam means submission and resignation to the Will of God, and also as a general reference to the religion of Islam. The verbal form 4 usage can mean to convert to Islam and/or submit your will to God. With a brief touch on history, we also find that there is no reason to be ashamed of the fact that Islam means submission. We also found that the noun silm means peace and also means the religion of Islam. We found Arab idioms stating that “he entered as-silm” means “he converted to Islam.”

Putting the two together, silm and Islam, you could say that the religion of Islam in a way can mean peace, but the word “Islam” means submission, linguistically. So conclusively: By submitting one’s will to the Will of God, you will find inner peace. This is Islam.

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