The problem with ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’

INsights 020, Friday 29th July 2022

Peace be upon you.

Here are three insights that I’ve derived from examining the 70+ Qur’anic references to the word ‘islam’ in all its derived forms, adjectives, nouns and verbs:

1. No one ‘becomes Muslim’ or ‘converts/reverts to Islam’

2. God doesn’t want you to be ‘a Muslim’... He wants you to be ‘muslim

3. There is no such thing as a ‘non-Muslim’

Before I briefly explore each of these statements below, remember this: precision matters when it comes to language and terminology because these things inform the very frameworks we use to understand God, ourselves and the world around us. If our language and frameworks are skewed, then our understanding of even the simplest of ideas is likely to be inaccurate.

So to what extent have we understood the most basic of concepts – islam and muslim – in a way that our Lord wants us to?

What if the way we typically use the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ is at odds with the way these terms are used in the Qur’an?

What if, by only transliterating and not actually translating these words to their core meanings, we’ve lost the ability to internalise the states of being they represent, let alone convey these concepts to others in an accurate way?

I’ve been rethinking these ideas a lot recently because of what I’m about to teach in the next few sessions of Club Revelation, the online Qur’an exploration experience that I’ve been running since Ramadan ended. 

The doors to the programme are reopening for the next few days, so if you want to explore what God Himself has to say on the essential topics of islam (submission), iman (faith), ihsan (excellence), kufr (denial), shirk (association) and nifaq (hypocrisy) in the coming weeks...

Click here to find out more >

If you realise that it doesn’t make sense that we identify ourselves as ‘Muslims’ or ‘followers of Islam’ but we’ve never taken the time to study and think carefully about how these very words are used in revelation itself, then now’s the time to set things right!

You can listen to or download an audio file of this edition of INsights by clicking here.
Or if you prefer to read then simply keep scrolling.



1. No one ‘becomes Muslim’ or ‘converts/reverts to Islam’

We talk about people ‘becoming Muslim’ and debate whether ‘converting’ or ‘reverting’ to ‘Islam’ is more accurate so much that you’d think these are important elements of the Qur’anic narrative on the subject. 

It’s strange then that nowhere in the Qur’an is there a phrase in Arabic that can be reasonably translated to these common statements that we tend to say in English. 

Instead, there is a much simpler but revealing way by which God either invites someone to, or indicates that someone has, ‘become Muslim’ as we would say it. 

Take this classic verse (2:131) about Abraham for example:

إِذْ قَالَ لَهُۥ رَبُّهُۥٓ أَسْلِمْ ۖ قَالَ أَسْلَمْتُ لِرَبِّ ٱلْعَـٰلَمِينَ

‘Whenever His Lord said to him, ‘Submit (aslim),’ he would say, ‘I submit myself (aslamtu) to the Lord of all that exists.’

Notice that the verb from which the term 'islam' derives (aslama / yuslimu) is itself sufficient to represent what needs to be said: it’s about submission or devotion to God, not so much about taking on a title or joining a group.

Our way of describing the event of someone submitting themselves to the Lord of the universe suggests that it’s primarily a social, cultural or political event, rather than an existential one. 

Instead, why don’t we refer to the event of someone submitting themselves to God in the same way that this and many other verses suggest, not to mention reports of prophetic wordings to the same effect?

‘So-and-so devoted themselves to God today,’ feels more odd to us but is a lot more accurate and universal than, ‘So-and-so became Muslim,’ or, ‘So-and-so converted to Islam.’ 

After all in the verse above, God didn’t mean to say, ‘When His Lord said to him, ‘Become Muslim,’ he said, ‘I have become Muslim for the Lord of all that exists.’

Hopefully you can start to see what is lost by not fully translating the verse. If not, this will become clearer below.

2. God doesn’t want you to be ‘a Muslim’... He wants you to be ‘muslim’

Consider this famous verse (33:35):

إِنَّ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَالْمُسْلِمَاتِ وَالْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَالْقَانِتِينَ وَالْقَانِتَاتِ وَالصَّادِقِينَ وَالصَّادِقَاتِ وَالصَّابِرِينَ وَالصَّابِرَاتِ وَالْخَاشِعِينَ وَالْخَاشِعَاتِ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقِينَ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقَاتِ وَالصَّائِمِينَ وَالصَّائِمَاتِ وَالْحَافِظِينَ فُرُوجَهُمْ وَالْحَافِظَاتِ وَالذَّاكِرِينَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا وَالذَّاكِرَاتِ أَعَدَّ اللَّهُ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةً وَأَجْرًا عَظِيمًا

‘For men and women who are devoted to God (al-muslimin wal-muslimat), believing men and women, obedient men and women, truthful men and women, steadfast men and women, humble men and women, charitable men and women, fasting men and women, chaste men and women, men and women who remember God often, God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward.’

This is a very helpful verse for us to understand that what matters to our Lord is the state of being muslim (devoted to Him) as opposed to just holding the title of ‘Muslim’. 

Can you see that there is such a big difference in how we understand the beginning of the verse depending on whether we read the translation as it is above…

‘For men and women who are devoted to God…’

…versus translating it as follows:

‘For Muslim men and Muslim women…’

Now if you saw the latter as a translation, most likely you wouldn’t bat an eyelid because we’ve become used to using terminology in this way. But again, can you see what is lost when we do it like that?

And notice that it doesn’t really make sense to do it this way just as it doesn’t make sense to continue translating the rest of the verse as, ‘…for Mu’min men and Mu’min women, for Qanit men and Qanit women, for Sadiq men and Sadiq women…’ etc. 

The point is, we want to know – and He wants us to know – what these words actually mean!

And we can never remind ourselves enough of what we actually mean when we say islam (devotion to God) and muslim (being devoted to God).

As an illustration of how this becomes more important when we speak more publicly on such matters, can you see how there’s a big difference between saying something like, “God wants us all to be Muslims,” versus, “God wants us all to devote ourselves to Him.”

Ponder this for a moment and realise that the latter is not only more clear and direct, but also a much better reflection of the Qur’anic narrative too.

3. There is no such thing as a ‘non-Muslim’

We talk about ‘non-Muslims’ all the time but there is no such thing as ‘ghair muslimin’ (literally 'non-Muslims') in the Qur’an or in any of the reported prophetic statements.

The reason that the term has come about is because we have come to see ourselves primarily as a socio-cultural or perhaps political grouping and then we define others as those who don’t belong to our group. 

The interesting thing about the term ‘non-Muslim’ is that it contrasts others in relation to us. ‘They’re not one of us,’ or, ‘They don’t belong to us.'

But the words that God uses to refer to what we call ‘non-Muslims’ show that what matters more is where people stand in relation to Him, not in relation to us. 

This is why those we call ‘non-Muslims’ are in fact described in the Qur’an by terms such as ‘kafirin’ (those who deny God) or ‘mushrikin’ (those who associate partners with God) or perhaps ‘munafiqin’ (those who are hypocritical in their commitment to God). 

What’s even more interesting is that you realise that we, as ‘Muslims’, are also at risk of falling into the possibilities of ‘kufr’ (denial) or ‘shirk’ (association) or ‘nifaq’ (hypocrisy), just like the ‘non-Muslims’ we label.

You see, when you understand all these terms as states of being as opposed to fixed titles or groupings, you realise a lot more clearly that you could in reality be just as ‘non-Muslim’ as the next person if you’re not careful.

Whilst being worrying at first, this lays the foundation for a much healthier way of understanding our relationship with God, not to mention the possibility of salvation for others too, rather than writing them off altogether.

You find yourself much more consciously choosing to devote yourself to your Lord (being muslim) on a regular basis, rather than lazily and constantly doing injustice to your ‘Muslim’ label. 

You become more concerned about where you and others actually are in relation to God, rather than just in relation to each other. Yes, you maintain a concern for the social and political, but not at the expense of what is more substantial and existential. 

Ultimately, you start to see things more in the way that God Himself sees them. You further align your perspective with His. 

After all, why wouldn’t this positive transformation start to take place when you dive into revelation and take the time to see what He Himself has to say about the things that matter?

I hope that what I’ve laid out briefly in this edition of INsights has been a helpful start to understanding a topic that no doubt requires further explanation and discussion. 

If you’re interested in developing your knowledge of these core concepts in a way that is engaging, relevant and inspiring, then I invite you to join me for the next few weeks of Club Revelation.

There is no greater journey than the one through the words of God Himself, so don’t miss out on this unique opportunity...

Click here to discover more >

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Have a blessed fortnight. I'll see you in two Fridays, God willing.

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