Friday, August 22, 2008

What is Islam? Part I.

What is Islam? If someone would ask an orientalist this question, he would probably respond by saying: ‘It is a combination of islam and iman.’ This answer provokes another question; what do these concepts mean?

Iman is usually translated as a ‘personal faith’ or ‘belief’, yet it is not very similar to the Judeo-Christian understanding of that word. It is probably best defined as ‘a shelter from danger’ or ‘protection from enemies’. In the pre-Islamic Arabian society, an outlaw would seek iman after being expelled from his tribe. It refers to his trust in his protector, who would guard him as any other member of his tribe. For an early Arab believer in ‘Allah’, iman simply meant a change of identity. He did not belong any longer to his blood-tribe but to the Islamic umma (community) and would seek protection from ‘Allah’ and his Apostle. It must be noted that there are two kinds of iman; eternal and temporal. ‘Allah’ is believed to be the only one on whom the eternal iman is bestowed and to his creation the temporal iman is given.

The term ‘islam’(s-l-m) on the other hand, is more difficult to explain. At the present time, the universal acceptance of its meaning is ‘submission.’ Many scholars have attempted to describe this term differently and it seems that broader meanings have been established. The most extreme view was proposed by D. S. Margoliouth, who argued that the term ‘Muslim’ (s-l-m) originally referred to the followers of the Arab prophet Musaylimah, who was Muhammed’s con­temp­­or­ary. This view has been turned down by most, if not all, authentic schol­ars. Probably the most logical explan­ation was given by Max M. Brav­mann, who argued that s-l-m meant ‘defiance to death’ and ‘self sacrifice’, related semantically to the word ‘jihad’ (war­like effort). Daniel Easterman suggests that “Muhammed transmogrified the idea, so that it now meant ‘defiance of death for the sake of God [‘Allah’] and His Prophet’.”[2] Thus Islam could very well mean jihad and iman – fight and believe. Bravmann continues:

For it is inconceivable that a man should have joined Muhammad and
his religion without being ready to sacrifice his life in battle (and also his
property) for God [‘Allah’] and His prophet.

According to this interpretation, ‘islam’ (like jihad) was originally a secular
concept, denoting a sublime virtue in the eyes of the primitive Arab: defiance
of death, heroism, in the fight for honour or for what seemed to him the most
notable aspirations. His ideal was to be killed in battle... while surrender to
the enemy was considered ignominious.

Another distinguished authority, Helmer Ringgren, discussed in broad terms this Arabic word and concluded that “the stress lies on totality, not on sub­mission.”
[4] The Koran never does explain this word suff­iciently and therefore we cannot conclude with certainty that, in the beginning, Islam was supposed to mean ‘submission’. However, it also points out that the Arabs knew its meaning and did not need any explanation.

D. Z. H. Baneth asks himself: “Is not a word expressing ‘surrender’, ‘sub­miss­­ion’, ‘resignation’ as a name for the new religion far too spiritual for the social envir­on­ment in which Muhammad had to preach?” His con­clusion is that ‘submiss­ion’ was hardly the concept Muhammed had in mind when he call­ed his religion Islam.
[5] In fact, the passive and peaceful asceticism which was common among Muhammed’s earliest follow­ers and Arabian Christians was denounc­ed by the Prophet. He even took another step and declared: “There is no monasticism (rahb­aniya) in Islam; the monasticism of this community is the Holy War (jihad).”[6] The expans­ion of Islam was to be carried out by force, not peace­­ful pers­uasion, and thus it was only logical to chose an aggressive term for the new religion, which based its existence on warfare and the use of force.


[1] Jeffery, Islam, 157.
[2] Daniel Easterman, New Jerusalems. Reflections on Islam, fundamentalism and the Rushdie affair (London, 1992), 150.
[3] M. M. Bravmann, The Spiritual Background of Early Islam. Studies in Ancient Arab Concepts (Leiden, 1972), 8-9.
[4] Helmer Ringgren, Islam, ‘Aslama and Muslim (Lund, 1949), 13.
[5] D. Z. H. Banath, ‘What Did Muhammad Mean When He Called his religion ‘Islam’? The original meaning of aslama and the deriavatives’, Israel Oriental Studies 1 (1971), 183-150.
[6] Quoted in Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law (Princeton, 1981), 123, 128.

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