The Term “Islam” & Its Derivatives in the Qur’an

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ 

Shaykh ‘Abd al-Ghafur ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahim wrote, on the 10th August 2014, on the usage of the term “islam” in the Qur’an.  He said that throughout the Qur’an, the term, “islam”, as well as its derivatives such as “aslma”, “aslamu”, “muslim”, “muslimun” and others, 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 “muslims”, ‘those who submitted to God’, that is, they believed in one God and lived righteously. 

For example: 

سُوۡرَةُ آل عِمرَان

مَا كَانَ إِبۡرَٲهِيمُ يَہُودِيًّ۬ا وَلَا نَصۡرَانِيًّ۬ا وَلَـٰكِن كَانَ حَنِيفً۬ا مُّسۡلِمً۬ا وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ ٱلۡمُشۡرِكِينَ (٦٧) 

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 kaana musliman, “being a muslim”, that is, “having surrendered to God”. 

سُوۡرَةُ آل عِمرَان

۞ فَلَمَّآ أَحَسَّ عِيسَىٰ مِنۡہُمُ ٱلۡكُفۡرَ قَالَ مَنۡ أَنصَارِىٓ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ‌ۖ قَالَ ٱلۡحَوَارِيُّونَ نَحۡنُ أَنصَارُ ٱللَّهِ ءَامَنَّا بِٱللَّهِ وَٱشۡهَدۡ بِأَنَّا مُسۡلِمُونَ (٥٢) 

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 you bear witness that we are Muslims.” (Surah Ali ‘Imran: 52) 

The disciples of ‘Isa (a.s.) are reported as having said, ishhad bi anna muslimun, “be witness to the fact that we are muslims”, 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 Leopold Weiss, 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.’” 

Shaykh ‘Abd al-Ghafur ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahimfurther wrote, that 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 first is this verse: 

سُوۡرَةُ آل عِمرَان

إِنَّ ٱلدِّينَ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ ٱلۡإِسۡلَـٰمُ‌ۗ وَمَا ٱخۡتَلَفَ ٱلَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ ٱلۡكِتَـٰبَ إِلَّا مِنۢ بَعۡدِ مَا جَآءَهُمُ ٱلۡعِلۡمُ بَغۡيَۢا بَيۡنَهُمۡ‌ۗ وَمَن يَكۡفُرۡ بِـَٔايَـٰتِ ٱللَّهِ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ سَرِيعُ ٱلۡحِسَابِ (١٩) 

The religion before Allah is Islam (submission to His will): nor did the people of the Book dissent therefrom except through envy of each other, after knowledge had come to them.  But if any deny the Signs of Allah, Allah is Swift in Calling to Account. (Surah Ali ‘Imran:19) 

سُوۡرَةُ آل عِمرَان

وَمَن يَبۡتَغِ غَيۡرَ ٱلۡإِسۡلَـٰمِ دِينً۬ا فَلَن يُقۡبَلَ مِنۡهُ وَهُوَ فِى ٱلۡأَخِرَةِ مِنَ ٱلۡخَـٰسِرِينَ (٨٥) 

If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah) never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter, he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good). (Surah Ali ‘Imran:85) 

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 verse in Surah Ali ‘Imran:19 would mean, “the only acceptable way to worship and obey God is through self-submission to Him”; similarly verse in Surah Ali ‘Imran:85 would mean, “he who seeks to worship God and obey Him except by surrendering himself to Him 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 ‘Abd al-Ghafur ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahim wrote, on the meaning of the term “shari’ah”, that “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. 

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. 

Shari’ah” is twice referred to in its verbal form: 

سُوۡرَةُ الشّوریٰ

۞ شَرَعَ لَكُم مِّنَ ٱلدِّينِ مَا وَصَّىٰ بِهِۦ نُوحً۬ا وَٱلَّذِىٓ أَوۡحَيۡنَآ إِلَيۡكَ وَمَا وَصَّيۡنَا بِهِۦۤ إِبۡرَٲهِيمَ وَمُوسَىٰ وَعِيسَىٰٓ‌ۖ أَنۡ أَقِيمُواْ ٱلدِّينَ وَلَا تَتَفَرَّقُواْ فِيهِ‌ۚ كَبُرَ عَلَى ٱلۡمُشۡرِكِينَ مَا تَدۡعُوهُمۡ إِلَيۡهِ‌ۚ ٱللَّهُ يَجۡتَبِىٓ إِلَيۡهِ مَن يَشَآءُ وَيَہۡدِىٓ إِلَيۡهِ مَن يُنِيبُ (١٣) 

The same religion has He Established for you as that which He Enjoined on Noah - that which We have Sent, by inspiration, to you - and that which We Enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus: namely, that you should remain steadfast in religion, and make no divisions therein: to those who worship other things than Allah, hard is the (way) to which you call them.  Allah Chooses to Himself those whom He Pleases, and Guides to Himself those who turn (to Him). (Surah ash-Shura’:13) 

سُوۡرَةُ الشّوریٰ

أَمۡ لَهُمۡ شُرَڪَـٰٓؤُاْ شَرَعُواْ لَهُم مِّنَ ٱلدِّينِ مَا لَمۡ يَأۡذَنۢ بِهِ ٱللَّهُ‌ۚ وَلَوۡلَا ڪَلِمَةُ ٱلۡفَصۡلِ لَقُضِىَ بَيۡنَہُمۡ‌ۗ وَإِنَّ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ لَهُمۡ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ۬ (٢١) 

What!  Have they partners (in godhead), who have established for them some religion without the permission of Allah?  Had it not been for the Decree of Judgement the matter would have been Decided between them (at once): But verily the wrongdoers will have a Grievous Penalty. (Surah ash-Shura’:21) 

Shari’ah” is twice referred to as a noun: 

سُوۡرَةُ المَائدة

وَأَنزَلۡنَآ إِلَيۡكَ ٱلۡكِتَـٰبَ بِٱلۡحَقِّ مُصَدِّقً۬ا لِّمَا بَيۡنَ يَدَيۡهِ مِنَ ٱلۡڪِتَـٰبِ وَمُهَيۡمِنًا عَلَيۡهِ‌ۖ فَٱحۡڪُم بَيۡنَهُم بِمَآ أَنزَلَ ٱللَّهُ‌ۖ وَلَا تَتَّبِعۡ أَهۡوَآءَهُمۡ عَمَّا جَآءَكَ مِنَ ٱلۡحَقِّ‌ۚ لِكُلٍّ۬ جَعَلۡنَا مِنكُمۡ شِرۡعَةً۬ وَمِنۡهَاجً۬ا‌ۚ وَلَوۡ شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ لَجَعَلَڪُمۡ أُمَّةً۬ وَٲحِدَةً۬ وَلَـٰكِن لِّيَبۡلُوَكُمۡ فِى مَآ ءَاتَٮٰكُمۡ‌ۖ فَٱسۡتَبِقُواْ ٱلۡخَيۡرَٲتِ‌ۚ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ مَرۡجِعُڪُمۡ جَمِيعً۬ا فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمۡ فِيهِ تَخۡتَلِفُونَ (٤٨) 

To you, We sent the Scripture in truth, Confirming the scripture that came before it, and Guarding it in Safety; so judge between them by what Allah hath Revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the Truth that has come to you.  To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way.  If Allah had so Willed, He would have Made you a single people, but (His Plan is) to test you in what He has Given you: so, strive as in a race in all virtues.  The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will Show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute. (Surah al-Ma’idah:48) 

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”. 

We take a closer look at Surah al-Jatsiyah:18: 

سُوۡرَةُ الجَاثیَة

ثُمَّ جَعَلۡنَـٰكَ عَلَىٰ شَرِيعَةٍ۬ مِّنَ ٱلۡأَمۡرِ فَٱتَّبِعۡهَا وَلَا تَتَّبِعۡ أَهۡوَآءَ ٱلَّذِينَ لَا يَعۡلَمُونَ (١٨) 

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

It could read, “And finally we provided you with a shari’ah – a way-to-be-followed – by which the purpose of faith may be fulfilled”. 

Imam Abu Khaththab Qatadah ibn Di’amah as-Sadusi (r.a.) gave us the earliest extant definition of “shari’ah”.  He defined it as, “The obligatory duties and the prohibited actions, that is, what was Commanded by God to do or to avoid”.  This is found in Imam Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir ath-Thabari’s (r.a.), 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 hadits.  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  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: 

سُوۡرَةُ الشّمس

وَنَفۡسٍ۬ وَمَا سَوَّٮٰهَا (٧) فَأَلۡهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقۡوَٮٰهَا (٨) 

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) 

Here 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, 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, the Qur’an’s Prescription of amputation of limbs for the offense of theft: 

سُوۡرَةُ المَائدة

وَٱلسَّارِقُ وَٱلسَّارِقَةُ فَٱقۡطَعُوٓاْ أَيۡدِيَهُمَا جَزَآءَۢ بِمَا كَسَبَا نَكَـٰلاً۬ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ‌ۗ وَٱللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ۬ (٣٨) 

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) 

The form of punishment – amputation – was the socially accepted norm current in society at the time of Revelation.  Its purpose, the Qur’an Explains, are twofold: 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 Taqi’ ad-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.), and Imam ibn al-Qayyim (r.a.), Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah’s (r.a.) foremost pupil, repentance can waive punishment.  This is mentioned in Imam ibn al-Qayyim’s (r.a.), I’ilam al-Muwaqi’in an Rabb al-A’alamin. 

The culture-specificity of such laws are also indicated by how the earliest generation of Muslims such as the companions and the followers dealt with these laws.  Sayyidina Abu Hafsw ‘Umar ibn al-Khaththab al-Faruq (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 mentioned in Imam ibn al-Qayyim’s (r.a.), I’ilam al-Muwaqi’in.  Sayyidina ‘Ali ibn Abu Thalib (k.w.), the fourth caliph, voiced against its implementation in certain circumstances.  This is found in Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i’s (r.a.) Kitab al-Umm.  Imam ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (r.a.), regarded as the fifth rightly guided caliph, waived it in certain cases.  This is found in Imam Abu Muhammad ‘Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Hazm’s (r.a.), al-Muhallah bi al-‘Aththar. 

Even fiqh seems not very keen to implement amputation as a punishment for theft; it lays down so many conditions which are almost impossible to fulfil.  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.



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