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Towards a Definition of Islam

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Towards a Definition of Islam

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq

Introduction

Islam has been variously translated by both Muslims and non Muslims alike. Some detractors of Islam have gone so far as to suggest that Islam is not a religion at all, but a “political ideology masquerading as a religion”. From the outset though, in terms of relevance, we need to understand that how Muslims themselves define Islam yields the most accurate meanings. With this in mind we can begin to discuss the various approaches to defining Islam, based in part on the varied approaches to define religion itself. In the academic arena, these approaches are:

1. Theological

2.Typological

3.Historical

4.Philological

5..Literary Criticism

6. Anthropological

7. Cultural

8. Sociological

9. Marxist

10. Psychological

11. Phenomenological

12. Philosophical

13. Feminist

14. Modernist

15. Post modernist

We will discuss each of these approaches and their conclusions and efficacy in yielding a viable definition of Islam. To begin we will link a decidedly theological definition with its etymological and linguistic considerations.

First and foremost, theologically, Islam is Din and Iman. Din is best understood in relation to its antinomian, dunya, as anthropologist Gabriele Marranci contends. Dunya is usually translated as “world”, but it also connotes “profane” or “mundane”, therefore, “secular”. So Din carries the meaning “spirituality” or “spiritual experience”, rendering Islam primarily an experiential religion by definition, even though belief and doctrine are eminently important. What many Westerners regard as “religion”, can properly be understood really as ibadat and aqeeda in Islam. Ibadat refers to acts of worship, which includes, but is not limited to, ritual. Aqeeda is a word that simultaneously means belief, creed, and theology. As a result of the compartmentalizing of religion into a separate, private sphere of life in secular Western societies it has became difficult for many, Islamophobe or not, to understand just exactly how Islam can be regarded as a religion. This is not just a matter of a culturalist ethnocentrism resulting from Western views on separation of church and state. It also translates into a disdain for a religion that deals with every aspect of human life. Indeed Muslims declare that Islam is a “total way of life”, while Western detractors call it “totalitarian”. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

As anthropologist Daniel MartinVarisco contends, haters of everything Islam disparage Islam or lack the ability to understand Islam quite simply because of a possible hubris, since Muslims are seen as not “enlightened” enough to relegate their religion into irrelevance through secular reform in the same way the West has. So quite simply when asked what is Islam, one can reply Islam is three things at once, even if the answer does not encompass all that is Islam. Islam is: Din, Iman, and tradition. Din, although suggesting a primarily experiential understanding of Islam, encompasses ibadat, aqeeda, and tazkiya (spirituality). Iman must be understood as “Faith”, and by tradition it is meant discursive tradition. If discourse is understood as a formal, ordered, extended expression of thought, then discursive should be understood to mean proceeding from topic to topic in a coherent manner.

The Language of Islam

Another way to understand the meaning of Islam is to approach it from a somewhat (crude) linguistic analysis. The role of language, translations, and definitions is one of the major factors in shaping Western public perception and discourse on Islam. Quite often what occurs when words are translated from one language to another that doesn’t contain the same precise concepts is distortion. Many are opposed to the Muslim idea that it is necessary to read and understand the Qur’an in Arabic to fully understand it. Yet just from an analysis of the word Islam, we can see how meaning can be altered. Advocating learning Islam from Muslims is what we are doing here.

Many translate the word islam as either peace or submission, depending on their ideological loyalties.  But does either definition convey the true meaning of the word as embodied in the Qur’an through the Arabic language? I would argue that something indeed is lost in translation. In English the word submission directly connotes a sense of coercion. In reality the Arabic word istislam means surrender or more properly submission, so why is Islam translated as such as well. Is it simply because they share the same root?

In order to be a Muslim, one must accept Islam free of force or coercion. This is where the relational aspect is lost in translation. The word submission in English implies coercion on the part of one human to another. But in Islam the same word used to denote submission, when translated into English, refers to submitting one’s will to Allah. In Islam, there is a rejection of submitting one’s will to another human being over submitting to Allah.There is no word conveying this concept in English, so the same word, “submission” is used to mean both submitting to God and submitting to man.

The main issue with translating the word islam centers on the fact that there is no linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace,” unlike in in Arabic where islam and salam (peace) and istislam( submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace). This is an etymological relationship that should never be lost in translation, yet it is, as commonly held notions of the meaning of islam attest. Islam means “to freely submit one’s will to God’s, in pursuit of divine peace,” according to Ahmed Rehab. A simpler version that carries the same meaning is, as Professor Tariq Ramadan proposes, “to enter into God’s peace”. We can then propose a modified definition of Islam, along linguistic and etymological considerations. Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah. This submission is what brings one into a state of Peace. In this way the ideas of islam meaning Submission and islam meaning Peace are reconciled. So now we have two different but complementary definitions of Islam, based on theological understandings.