'Islam', 'Muslim' & 'Shari'ah' as Understood from the Qur'an

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is written by Shaykh Abdul Ghafoor bin Abdul Raheem.

Throughout the Qur’an, the term ‘islam’, as well as its derivatives such as ‘aslama’, ‘aslamu’, ‘muslim’, ‘muslimun’ and such, has been used in the literal sense of ‘submission to God’.  In this sense, there are two meaning elements involved: belief in one God and moulding one’s life in the light of this belief that is, living righteously.

The Qur’an does not use the term ‘islam’ and its derivatives in an institutionalised sense, meaning the religion propagated by the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) with its specific belief system and law.

This is why the Qur’an describes past prophets such as Ibrahim (a.s.), Musa (a.s.) and ‘Isa (a.s.) and their followers as muslimun, ‘those who submitted to God’, that is, they believed in one God and lived righteously.  For example:

Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian, but he was true in faith and bowed his will to Allah's (which is Islam) and he joined not gods with Allah. (Surah Ali ‘Imran:67)

Ibrahim (a.s.) is described as ‘being a muslim’, ‘kana musliman’, that is, ‘having surrendered to God’.


When Jesus found unbelief on their part, he said, “Who will be my helpers to (the work of) Allah?"  Said the disciples, “We are Allah's helpers we believe in Allah and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims.” (Surah Ali ‘Imran:52)

The disciples of ‘Isa (a.s.) are reported as having said, “Be witness that we are muslimun,” “ishhad bi anna muslimun”, that is, “we have surrendered ourselves unto God.”

In highlighting the importance of understanding the meaning of religious terms used in the Qur’an in its proper Qur’anic context without confusing their meanings with later ideological developments they accrued, Shaykh Muhammad Asad (r.a.), a modern translator and exegete of the Qur’an, stated in The Message, “One must be aware of rendering, in each and every case, the religious terms used in the Qur’an in the sense which they have acquired after Islam had become ‘institutionalised’ into a definite set of laws, tenets and practices.  However legitimate this ‘institutionalisation’ may be in the context of Islamic religious history, it is obvious that the Qur’an cannot be correctly understood if we read it merely in the light of later ideological developments, losing sight of its original purport and the meaning which it had – and was intended to have – for the people who first heard it from the lips of the Prophet (s.a.w.) himself.  For instance, when the contemporaries of the Prophet (s.a.w.) heard the words ‘islam’ and ‘muslim’, they understood them as denoting ‘man’s self-surrender to God’, and ‘one who surrenders himself to God’, without limiting these terms to any specific community or denomination.”

On the usage of the term ‘islam’ in the Qur’an, it was pointed out that the Qur’an uses the term ‘islam’ in the literal and non-institutionalised sense of ‘self-submission to God’ which meant belief in Him and living a righteous living.  Now, in the light of this, we need to have a close look at two key Qur’anic verses in which the term ‘islam’ occurs in order to determine their meanings.

The Religion before Allah is Islam (submission to His will)... (Surah Ali ‘Imran:19)

And the second is verse:

If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah) never will it be accepted of him... (Surah Ali ‘Imran:85)

Commonly, these two verses are interpreted to mean, ‘the only religion in the Sight of God is Islam’ and ‘He who seeks a religion other than [the religion of] Islam, it will never be accepted from him’.  In both these translations, the term ‘islam’ has been erroneously interpreted in an institutionalised and a denominative sense referring to a particular religion, that which the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) propagated with its specific system of beliefs and laws.  Now, what would be the meaning of these verses if the term ‘islam’ was interpreted in the sense the Qur’an uses it?  But before that one must also have a clear understanding of the term, ‘diyn’.

Diyn, generally translated as religion, has three inter-connected meanings in the Qur’an: ‘worship’, ‘acts of worship’ and ‘judgement and recompense’, the end result of committing or omitting the ‘acts of worship’.  The key idea underlying ‘worship’ is ‘obedience’.  The believer, through acts of worship, ‘obeys’ God, that is, the believer relates to God and makes themselves conscious of God.  Now keeping this in mind, as well as the meaning of islam as ‘self-submission to God’, the Surah Ali ‘Imran:19 would mean, ‘the only acceptable way to worship and obey God is through self-submission to Him’; similarly Surah Ali ‘Imran:85 would mean, ‘he who seeks to worship God and obey Him except by surrendering himself to Him, it will not be accepted from him’.

In both cases, the meaning comes to this: the way to relate to God and connect with Him is through belief in Him and doing good to oneself and others.  In commenting on Surah Ali ‘Imran:19 and emphasising the non-institutionalised meaning of islam, Shaykh Muhammad Rashid Ridha, who edited, published and commented on the voluminous, though unfinished exegesis of the Qur’an by Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh, a modern exegete and, perhaps, the most outstanding of modern Muslim thinkers, explained that anyone who is a monotheist and does good works with sincerity would, according to the Qur’an, be qualified as a muslim regardless of their religion, time or place.  This was found in al-Manar, (v.3 p.258.).

Shari’ah is a commonly heard term, especially, in the context of the Islamisation-of-society debate.  It is generally translated as ‘Islamic Law’ and perceived as a set of Divinely Prescribed laws that are not subject to change.  Let us explore the concept of shari’ah.

In its origin, the term ‘shari’ah’ refers to the gaps and breaches in a river bank through which there is access to water and hence its literal meaning as a ‘path leading to water’.  The Qur’an uses the term ‘shari’ah’ and its derivatives four times.

Twice, it is used in its verbal form:

The same religion has He Established for you as that which He Enjoined on Noah - that which We have Sent by inspiration to thee - and that which We Enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus... (Surah ash-Shura’:13)


What! have they partners (in godhead), who have established for them some religion without the permission of Allah?... (Surah ash-Shura’:21)

Twice, it was as a noun:

…To each among you have We Prescribed a law and an open way... (Surah al-Ma’idah:48)


Then We Put thee on the (right) Way of Religion: so follow thou that (Way), and follow not the desires of those who know not.― (Surah al-Jatsiyah:18)

In its verbal form, shara’a, it means to chalk out or mark a way to be followed; as a noun, in one instance, the Qur’an uses it as ‘an instance of such marking’ and in the second instance, meaning ‘the marked way’.

Let us look at this last instance more closely.  The Qur’an in Surah al-Jatsiyah:18 reads: “And finally, We Provided you with a shari’ah – a way-to-be-followed – by which the purpose [of faith] may be fulfilled”.  Imam Qatada ibn Da’ama (r.a.), who died in 118 AH, gives us the earliest extant definition of shari’ah.  He defined it as: ‘The obligatory duties and the prohibited actions of what was Commanded to be done or to be avoided.’  This is recorded by Imam ath-Thabari (r.a.) in his Jami’.  From this, it is apparent that the term ‘shari’ah’ refers to the sum total of Qur’anic laws and principles as they are in the Qur’an.

However, these laws, in general, are not in a form that can be implemented or acted upon; they need explanations and elaborations.  These elaborations were provided first by the Prophet (s.a.w.) himself and which were later referred to as his sunnah, that is, his normative behaviour, the documentation of which is known as ahadits.  After the death of the Prophet (s.a.w.), Muslims further elaborated on the shari’ah laws and principles using, of course, the Qur’an, the sunnah, and, in addition, the interpretative tools of ijtihad, independent reasoning, and qiyas, analogy, and the legitimising tool of ijma’, consensus.  This human intellectual endeavour which roughly was completed in the first three centuries of hijrah, Islam’s formative period, and culminated in the formulation of fiqh, Islamic law.  With this development, shari’ah laws and principles were given a concrete form and as a result, shari’ah came to be used interchangeably with fiqh.

However, it must be borne in mind that shari’ah and fiqh are not one and the same: shari’ah provided the data, the raw material for the development of fiqh or Islamic law; fiqh is an interpretation of shari’ah.  While shari’ah laws and principles are Qur’anic and thus Divine and Immutable, fiqh or Islamic law is not as it is an outcome of human intellectual activity carried out within a certain historical and cultural context and thus mutable and subject to change.  And even though the shari’ah laws and principles are Divine and not subject to change, they are open to interpretation and re-interpretation.

Like any other text, the shari’ah laws, too, fall within a certain context, that is, the circumstances or the framework, that form the setting for the text within which the text can be, and should be, understood.  The shari’ah law context, broadly speaking, can be categorised into two: firstly what may be described as the ‘human condition’ and secondly the ‘socio-historical condition’.

The human condition here refers to that unalterable part of the human being which is inherent and innate to him; it not based on, or influenced by, prevalent cultural norms, and thus, the human condition does not change with time or place.  The Qur’an refers to this:

By the soul, and the proportion and order Given to it; and its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right; ― (Surah ash-Shams:7-8)

In Surah ash-Shams:7-8, it states: “Consider the human self and its formation; it is imbued with immoral doings as well as (doings driven by) God-consciousness.”  In other words, the human being has the capacity to act as a moral being and do good as well as the capacity to commit evil and fall into utter immorality.  A large portion of the shari’ah laws, such as those related to religious rituals and al-halal wa al-haram laws, address this human condition and aim at creating from the individual, in Qur’anic terminology, a person with taqwa, that is, a God-conscious person, simply, a morally good person.  And, to create such a moral being, as with other religions, is one of the two main objectives of the Qur’an and Islam.  As the human condition referred to above does not change with time or place, the shari’ah laws related to this condition are immutable and cannot change.

In addition to the above category of individual-related laws, some of the shari’ah laws relate to the social sphere and came within a certain socio-historical context.  Even though, their objective was to create a just and egalitarian society, an objective worth pursuing at all times and in all places; their ‘forms’ were very much influenced by the existing cultural and social norms of the day.  For example, we have a look at the Qur’an’s prescription of amputation of limbs for the offense of theft:

As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands: a retribution for their deed and exemplary Punishment from Allah and Allah is Exalted in Power, full of Wisdom. (Surah al-Ma’idah:38)

Amputation was the socially accepted norm current in society at the time of Revelation.  Its purpose, the Qur’an explains, are threefold: the offender must face the consequence of their actions and they as well as others must learn from this wrong-doing.  Thus it is there to serve justice as well as it being a reformative and exemplary exercise.

In the case of these culture-specific shari’ah laws, the Qur’an emphasises that, what is important is their objective rather that their forms; for example, the amputation-verse, as well as other hudud related verses, are immediately followed by the statement that if the offender repents and reforms, God Forgives them.  According to Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.), whose writings influence many modern day Salafis and neo-Shari’is, and Imam ibn al-Qayyim (r.a.), Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah’s (r.a.) foremost pupil, repentance can waive punishment.  This is mention in Imam ibn al-Qayyim’s (r.a.) ‘Ilam al-Muwaqi’in.

The culture-specificity of such laws are also indicated by how the earliest generation of Muslims such as the swahabah and the tabi’in dealt with these laws.  Sayyidina ‘Umar (r.a.), the second caliph waived amputation in some cases of theft and suspended it in Year 18 AH due to famine.  This is also recorded in Imam ibn al-Qayyim’s (r.a.) ‘Ilam al-Muwaqi’in.  Sayyidina ‘Ali (k.w.), the fourth caliph, voiced against its implementation in certain circumstances, as recorded in Imam ash-Shafi’i’s (r.a.) Kitab al-Umm.  Sayyidina ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (r.a.), regarded as the fifth rightly-guided caliph, also waived it in certain cases, and this is documented in Imam ibn Hazm’s (r.a.) al-Muhallah.

Fiqh seems not to be very keen to implement amputation as a punishment for theft; it lays down so many conditions which are almost impossible to fulfill.  If this is the case, if these laws are influenced by the cultural norms of the day, then their forms cannot be regarded as immutable; they can be interpreted and given new forms in order to achieve their objectives – fairness, justice and equality.


  1. No wonder the writers name is Abdul Ghofoor bin Abdul Raheem. MasyhaaAllah


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