What Does “Islam” Mean?

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It’s a common statement, used to counter non-Muslims’ erroneous idea that Islam is a warlike religion, that “Islam Means Peace.” Others, including many scholars and translators, assert that “Islam means submission——to submit to Allah.” But do either of these words convey the meaning of Islam in Arabic as used in the Quran? An examination of the possible translations for a Quranic word can often lead to a better understanding of Islam and/or the Quran and its message. And so I will introduce what I believe to be another possible interpretation/ translation of the word “Islam” in English, which is the word “surrender.”

The problem is really with the connotation of the English words, and one can find an argument for either “submit” or “surrender,” but I prefer the latter because it is:
1. An act of free will, as is, and should be, conversion to Islam, the religion;
2. An act of total commitment, or one could say a complete and total giving of oneself, not holding anything back;
3. An act not done under coercion or force whose net result is peace; and
4. An act similar in kind to an act of love, being done of one’s free will, a giving of the total self, and without reservation, and like love, life-changing and powerful.

The Quran compares the act of “surrender” to Islam as a kind of trade/ commerce:

Quran 61:10
‎يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا هَلْ أَدُلُّكُمْ عَلَىٰ تِجَارَةٍ تُنجِيكُم مِّنْ عَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ

O you who have believed, shall I guide you to a transaction/ trade that will save you from a painful punishment?
61:11
‎تُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ وَتُجَاهِدُونَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ بِأَمْوَالِكُمْ وَأَنفُسِكُمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ

[It is that] you believe in Allah and His Messenger and strive in the cause of Allah with your wealth and your lives. That is best for you, if you would know.

Here the word “islam” is not used, but instead it is compared to a kind of trade or transaction, an exchange. Note the lack of force or of being subjugated. A transaction is devoid of such connotations, and of course, deliberately so, telling us that to “islam” (the verb form is pronounced with an accent on the first syllable and the noun accents the second) or “submit/ surrender” to Allah is an act of free will, like commerce freely entered into, and has clear and valuable benefits.

Although “surrender” in wartime is in a sense done under the duress of an imminent loss, one could say that “submit” can be an act imposed by a superior on an inferior power, in the sense of “submit to my authority.” One can recommend surrender, as Allah recommends this “transaction,” but not impose a surrender. The opposing force has the option to fight till the finish even if it is a lost cause. But one can submit against one’s will. It is this sense of free will in the case of surrender as opposed to imposition in the case of submission that leads me to prefer the word “surrender” to “submit.”

However, the sense in which it is used in the Quran is so clearly made in the original that translations using “submit” can be readily understood as being acts of free will. Nonetheless, there are always those, as one can find in the history of Islam after the Prophet’s era, where autocratic leaders in the Middle Ages conducted wars they referred to as “jihad” which were not wars of defense, as is allowed in Islam, or wars against oppression, also a war of defense in its own way and also allowable, but wars to conquer and increase lands or wars for political gain, both of which are prohibited. Such autocratic leaders justified conversion by force using certain ayat from the Quran taken out of context, which are still used today by anti-Muslim activists to smear the Islamic world with the stereotype of terrorism as a mission to impose conversion on non-Muslims. The Quran clearly prohibits this, but that confusion, sowed by self-styled “enemies” of “Islam” (a word they use pejoratively) to discredit the religion and its faithful.

Quran 2:256
لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ ۖ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ ۚ فَمَن يَكْفُرْ بِالطَّاغُوتِ وَيُؤْمِن بِاللَّهِ فَقَدِ اسْتَمْسَكَ بِالْعُرْوَةِ الْوُثْقَىٰ لَا انفِصَامَ لَهَا ۗ وَاللَّهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ

There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.

As for the idea that “Islam means peace,” the word is actually “salam” and comes from the same root as Islam. So whoever surrenders themselves to Allah will bring about peace first within themselves, having given up the struggle between their ego and worldly selfish desires without consideration for others, whose advocate is the devil, and Allah Himself and His messages and believers and worshippers (including angels and the whole of creation). If one looks at it this way, the way the Quran puts it, clearly surrender of that puny insignificant selfish part of oneself is mindless, crazy, in comparison to the beauty, wondrous presence, grace, and true Love one receives in the simple but momentous transaction/ trade of surrendering oneself freely and wholeheartedly to the Almighty, All-Merciful. But unlike surrendering to people, which results in loss and humiliation or captivity in war for example, surrendering to the All-Merciful results in survival of that very self through the ultimate cataclysm, the coming of Eternity and the Hereafter, through which only those survive who surrendered to Allah. Having surrendered themselves and all they have and are to His face freely and without reservation, and having kept their salat, or connection/ contact with Allah on a daily basis, remembering Him, when all that is left is the Face of Allah, their Lord will keep that sole connection alive through the cataclysm, and thus it will survive, and the souls of the faithful with it.

Quran 2:112
بَلَىٰ مَنْ أَسْلَمَ وَجْهَهُ لِلَّهِ وَهُوَ مُحْسِنٌ فَلَهُ أَجْرُهُ عِندَ رَبِّهِ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

Yes [on the contrary], whoever surrenders his face to Allah while being a doer of good will have his reward with his Lord. And no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.

Quran 2:208
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا ادْخُلُوا فِي السِّلْمِ كَافَّةً وَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا خُطُوَاتِ الشَّيْطَانِ ۚ إِنَّهُ لَكُمْ عَدُوٌّ مُّبِينٌ

O you who have believed, enter into Islam completely and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy.

The peace in this case is in the heart of those who have surrendered themselves to Allah; and who in doing so, bring peace to those around them, except the oppressors, who must be opposed and resisted.

And “Satan” here represents the selfish desires and cruelties and oppression that ensue. Surrender to Allah here then also means resistance against Satan, whom one then recognizes as an enemy. It is not desire in and of itself that is the enemy, but rather it is the rejection of truth, compassion, the rules that protect against oppression, and faith in our Creator and the Hereafter of eternity, rejection of all this leads to one’s demise. You’d think the choice is obvious, and it is, unless one chooses to obfuscate: a word which means kaffir in Arabic. This is the one case where surrender leads to victory, the only victory that ultimately counts.

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