Language Matters: Islam, a Definition

Language is to ideas what the body is to the soul. It is the physical manifestation of thought. It is the mortar with which we shape our understanding of the world.

But what happens when words are transmuted from one language to another and subjected to preconceived notions or limitations prevalent in the new language? Do they lose some of their original meaning?

If we are interested in gaining a better, more accurate understanding of Islam, its concepts, doctrine, and ideas, we must concede that there needs to be more robust scrutiny of the definitions that shape our discourse on Islam.

So with that in mind, I will be running a special series here, in which I will attempt to analyze definitions and translations of key Islamic terms to test them for authenticity. I am calling the series “language matters,” an intended pun on the importance of language in the understanding of faith constructs.

For this first installment, let us start at the root, the word “Islam” itself.

Islam is commonly translated into English, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, as simply “submission” (or “surrender”).

This is a simplistic translation that fails to convey the full meaning of the Arabic word.

There are namely two problems here.

First, “submission” and “surrender” in English contextualized usage imply a sense of coercion, a usurpation of one’s free will. When we say “surrender!” for example, it’s usually at gun point.

This contradicts a foundational criterion of Islam: freedom of will.

In Arabic, Istislam, not “Islam”, means surrender (noun). Like its English counterpart, “Istislam” implies coercion, and like its English counterpart it can be used to describe the act of one man vis-a-vis another. Conversely, “Islam” is used ONLY in the context of God, and ONLY in a state of free will (there is no single word in the English language that conveys this).

In other words, for a Muslim to be a Muslim, he or she must accept Islam free of force or coercion. God wishes for us to choose him because we want him, and for no other reason but that. This is a key point that is often misunderstood. Since faith is a matter of the heart, it can never be forced. It is technically impossible that Islam could ever be spread by the sword or by coercion, as some suggest, since even if at gun point (or at the sword blade), one could just as well proclaim to be a Muslim to avoid death, but reject Islam in their heart.

That is not to say that an “empire,” whether Islamic or otherwise, cannot be spread by the sword. But faith cannot. Just as no physical force can coerce you to love someone you do not love, none can coerce you to believe something you do not believe.

God understands this; in fact, he ordained that it be so. Since he is a judge of hearts first and foremost, it is logically necessary that he makes faith a matter of free choice, a matter of the heart and mind. Islam can only be spread by invitation (Da’wah) and persuasion (Hujjah), not coercion (Ikrah). The Qur’an explicitly states: “La Ikrah fel Deen” or “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith.” (Ultimately, Muslims believe that faith is decreed by divine guidance.)

The second problem this translation poses is that there is no linguistically derived relationship between the English “submission” and the English “peace,” unlike the case in Arabic where “Islam” and “Salam” (peace) are derived from the same root word “slm” (to be in peace).

This etymological relationship is critical and cannot be lost in translation. We submit willingly to God in search of peace. As Muslims, we cannot take the peace out of our relationship with God, we cannot be Muslims resigned to anger, trepidation, or bitterness. Human beings are free to choose God’s peace or reject it. The Quran puts generous emphasis on these themes. When we achieve peace with God whom Muslims regard as the ultimate Peace, only then can we be at peace with ourselves. And only when we are at peace with ourselves can we then be at peace with others.

In conclusion, a qualified translation is in order for the real meaning of the Arabic word “Islam” to be fully and faithfully conveyed in the English language. Islam does not mean “submission,” Islam means “to freely submit one’s will to God’s, in pursuit of divine peace.” A simpler version that carries the same meaning is “to enter into God’s peace,” as Professor Tariq Ramadan proposes.

It is ironic that two important characteristics of being a Muslim, in fact the two most basic criteria (freedom and peace), are two of the most misrepresented and conflated when it comes to the West’s conception of Islam. But that is of little surprise when you consider that the building blocks of our discourse and understanding – the language we use – is itself flawed.


Ahmed Rehab is a Chicago-based activist and writer specializing in American Muslim affairs.