What does the Koran mean by the word Islam and its derivate Muslim? The root meaning of both words in Arabic refers to something human beings are called to do: surrender themselves to God. It is only since the 19th century that the word Islam has been used in reference not to an action one should perform, but to a thing (the community of Muslims throughout the world, classically called the umma, or their doctrines and practices). According to the Koran, Islam is the action of those who, like Abraham and his son Ishmael, beg God to make us people surrendering ourselves [muslimina] unto You (Koran 2.128).
The reflexive verbal noun Islam occurs only eight times in the Koran. One of these occurrences is sometimes interpreted by Muslims in modern times as God giving the name Islam to a religion, another word that has suffered much from reification since at least the 18th century. A typical modern translation of these words from the Surat al-ma’idah (Koran 5.3) runs as follows: This day I have perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you as religion AL-ISLAM. This English rendering by a British convert to Islam, Marmaduke Pickthall, distorts the sense of the original Arabic. What God, the speaker of the Koran according to Muslims, wants to specify in this passage is not the title of a religion, in the modern sense of that word, but the prescription, for Muhammad and his followers, of what true religiousness should be all about: the surrendering or submitting of one’s selfhood to God. These words of the Koran should be translated as follows: Today I have perfected your piety for you and fulfilled my graciousness toward you and have approved surrender of self as your piety. In other words, true piety is total submission of oneself, total surrender of oneself to God.
Non-Muslims are often puzzled when they discover that Muslims consider Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and many of the other messengers and prophets known in the Jewish and Christian scriptural sources (as well as at least two Arab messengers before Muhammad’s time, Hud and Salih) to have been Muslim. This does not mean that they were followers of Muhammad, who lived long after them, but that they surrendered themselves to God’s command, even before the time of Muhammad. All of us, whatever form of monotheistic faith we practice, are called to surrender ourselves to God. In the aftermath of what Muslims consider the final and complete deliverance of the message of God to Muhammad in the 7th century A.D., they define Islam as surrender of self to God as well as obedience to God’s final messenger, Muhammad. But people were Muslim before Muhammad’s time, as the Koran itself attests. Although there is a doctrinal content to the Islamic religious tradition, much more important for defining Islam is the characterization of a Muslim as one who surrenders the whole of himself or herself to God’s commands (known principally from the Koran) and to Muhammad’s sunna, his path or customary way of doing things.
Christianity, as a way of life, leaves certain things to individual choice that other religious traditions, most notably the Jewish and the Muslim, do not. Thus, despite the fact that Jesus was circumcised (Lk 2.21), a male Christian may be circumcised or uncircumcised. That liberty of choice was guaranteed after much controversy in the first Christian generation between James, the head of the Jerusalem community, and Paul, with Peter taking each side at one time or the other, but finally coming down on Paul’s side (Acts 15.1-35; Gal 2.1-21). But a male Muslim must always be circumcised, even though the Koran decrees nothing about circumcision. Muslims consider male circumcision (khitan) a part of natural religion (fitra), and its written prescription derives not from the Koran but from hadith, the legal traditions detailing Muhammad’s sunna. But for Jews male circumcision remains to the present day the central physical symbol of covenantal belonging to God’s people. For Muslims, male circumcision does not have this same covenantal significance, but it has a religious meaning that is particularly strong as signifying membership in the Muslim community in those areas of the world where male circumcision is not already and antecedently part of traditional hygienic and cultural practice of the people. (So-called female circumcision is a cultural practice predating Islam in some parts of the world, especially in Africa, that has only somewhat dubious justification in Islamic law.)
Islam, then, is the submission or surrendering of oneself to God’s command and the Prophet Muhammad’s exemplarity, not mere membership in a worldwide political entity called the Muslim community. Likewise, the faith of Israel centers on vassal fidelity to the Lord’s covenant with his people, not mere social adherence to the State of Israel or some diaspora congregation of Jews. Christian faith likewise goes beyond membership in one or another ecclesial body and demands of us conformity to Jesus the Christ and his selfless love. In the clashes of Jews and Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere in recent times, this deeper-than-tribal meaning of our respective religious identities has too often been obscured or even defaced.
A Jew may keep faith with the Lord who gave God’s people the covenant more fully on some days than on others. A Christian may be more selflessly Christlike on some days than on others. A Muslim may be more surrendered to God’s will on some days than on others. Jews and Christians and Muslims, as people of faith, should look to God to help them define how faithful to the covenant or how Christlike or how surrendered to God’s will they are on a particular day. Many of our problems as Jews or Christians and Muslims occupying the same small blue planet derives from our forgetting, day by day, that we are not called primarily to be members of religious groups but to be genuinely religious, devout people of faith, whether as Jews or Christians or Muslims.
Instead of embarking on war with one another, Jews and Christians and Muslims need to return to the basics of their own religious traditions, the elements that link us in a fellowship of faith, faith centered first and foremost on God and not on our respective communities of faith. The Jewish people, the Muslim umma and the Christian church are all important themes of our respective forms of faith, but none of these shares the ultimacy of God, with whom finally we are called to keep faith.