Monday, August 25, 2008

What is Islam? Part II.

The word ‘s-l-m’ refers both to a name of a certain religion (Islam) and a more secular term translated as islam/aslama/muslim. However, as Jane I. Smith points out, there is no real differ­ence between the religious and secular mean­ings.[1] Arent Wensinck explains this combination as follows:

In the Koran the terms islam and iman (faith) are synonymous; muslim and mu’min [believer] comprise the whole body of those who had escaped from Hell by embracing Islam.[2]

When the Islamic Empire was firmly established and ‘secularism’ emerg­ed, the word ‘s-l-m’ came to be under­stood in two ways: both as a relig­ious and a secul­ar concept. Although funda­ment­­al­­­ists and secularists practised the relig­­ion (din) in different ways, they still pro­fessed the same creed and thus had to be recognised as Muslims, regardless of their convict­ion and adherence to its practices.

In fact, the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ were not used by Muhammed until a fairly late period of his prophetic career. The earliest possible date is 2 AH (624 CE) but it probably was later. Before the hijra to Medina, Muh­ammed’s followers were simply called believers (mu’minun) and that name was used even after Muhammed’s death. In fact, mu’minun “is both earlier and more frequently used, occurring 179 times in the Koran as against 37 occurrences of muslimun.”
It is logical to assume that trad­ition is correct when it quotes Muhammed’s words as: “Islam is external, faith belongs to the heart.” Thus, Islam presumably refers to some outward action, not to a mental or spiritual condition. Arent Wensinck continues:

It was the rapid course of events in the first decades following the death of Muhammad - the hostile attitude taken by the previously islamized tribes, the restoration of order by Abu Bakr and his generals, the splend­id feats of arms under Umar, which were followed by the islam­ization of large parts of the ancient world — that made clear to the Comp­­anions, and to the pious generation of their success­ors, that the term ‘Islam’ had obtained a temporal meaning. It seemed as if the narrow path, originally the only way by which the city of Islam could be reach­ed, had been enlarged and paved and become easy highway for the multitudes who came from all sides to embrace Islam.[4]

During the first years after Muhammed’s death, Islam changed its meaning from being a narrow path of warfare and strife, to become an accessible way for the common­er to walk. When Muhammed began to use the word ‘s-l-m’ he simply referred to sold­iers who were willing to die for the faith. In the light of the recent wars of terror­ism some Islamic groups have been waging against Israel, Jews, the West and ‘moder­­ate’ Muslims, one notices their attach­ment to Islam’s original mean­ing. Thus, one could argue that their ‘funda­mental­ism’ really means to turn back to the original meaning of Islam.

This theological question may be explained by referring to the double meaning of the word jihad (‘holy war’), which consists of both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ jihad. At first this word meant to ‘fight until the end’ — to the utmost of one’s capacity. When the Islamic Empire had been establ­ish­ed the ‘inner’ jihad of one’s personal fight against his ego and sinful desires came into being. The words ‘islam’ and ‘jihad’ took on new and more peaceful mean­ings when Islam developed. They were not only connected with ‘imperial­istic’ expans­ion by force, but the expansion of Islamic values inside oneself and a growing faith (iman) in ‘Allah’. Indeed, Muhammed described the three most important works a man could perform as faith, war in the path of ‘Allah’ and a blameless pilgrimage.


[1] Jane I. Smith, An Historical and Semantic Study of the term ‘Islam’ as Seen in a Sequence of Koran Commentaries (Montana, 1975), 1.
[2] Wensinck, Muslim Creed, 22.
[3] Watt, Early Islam, 35.
[4] ibid, 22-23.
[5] ibid, 27.


hvh said...

Are you saying that Islam was in the beginning rather a political movement than religious/spiritual and it should spread throughout the world through warfare? Can one compare Islam with communism in the way it was supposed to conquer the world through revolution?

SEO said...

Rather similar in my view, however, Communism was a secular movement; Islam turned from from being a "reformation" to a special religion...

...explain in next blogs.