The great, 14th century Muslim scholar, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalaani once said, “you can’t take something that is a component of something and make it the whole of it”. Just because peace is a component of the religion of Islam does not give us the license to reinterpret the meaning of Islam to mean peace, or to say that the whole of Islam can be summarized as peace. Islam is no more or less peaceful than any other religion except maybe Christian Quakers who traditionally have been very dedicated to peace and non-violence.
Reinterpreting the meaning of the word ‘Islam’, which for over 1400 years had been understood by Muslim scholars, lexicologist, laypeople and the Prophet himself (صلي الله عليه و سلم)as submission, to all of a sudden mean peace, was a very risky although perhaps well-intended public relations gamble that did not turn out the quite the way that it was intended. This is because language in Islam and in the Quran has actionable legalities connected to it. There are distinct sharia (legal) ramifications), attached to the words and concepts found in the Quran. When you change the meaning of the word, you change the legal principle or creedal foundation that is attached to that word. When you change the meaning of Islam from submission to peace, the actionable verbal imperative of submitting is replaced by the passive non-imperative of being peaceful.
Being a Muslim who submits to Allah requires action. Being peaceful requires no action at all. You can be peaceful simply by remaining in your bed in the morning instead of getting up for the Fajr prayer. You can be peaceful by taking a warm bath, by watching a good movie, or taking a hike through the woods. You can be peaceful by popping a prescription muscle relaxer or a taking a dose of nighttime cough and cold medicine. In fact, you don’t even have to be a Muslim to be peaceful or to find peace and if a person can find peace without being Muslim, as many people do, then why should they bother with Islam in order to achieve what they already have?
In reality, Islam is not always peaceful and practicing Islam is not always peaceful. If we were so much at peace, we wouldn’t complain so much about how bad we’re treated, or try to make every incident of islamophobia go viral, and we wouldn’t have such high rates of depression. Think about that.
Islam is a “deen” (way of life) as Allah calls it, and if you say that Islam means peace, you’re saying that your deen is peace. Peace is not a deen unless you are a peacenik or pacifist who rejects jihad (holy war), self-defense, capital punishment, hunting, thabeeha slaughter during Eid al-Adhaa, or stoning Shaitaan (the devil) during hajj pilgrimage which are all without question, parts of Islam. However, none of the aforementioned constitute the totality of Islam.
Nowhere in the entire corpus of Islamic law and theology has the word Islam been used or considered synonymous with peace. If it did, then it would affect about twenty issues of fiqh. Some people say that Islam is, “peaceful submission”. However, you can’t take an adjective and apply it to a verbal noun and supplant the meaning of the noun. That’s pretty far-fetched. But then again, we live in crazy times. This is why instead of practicing Islam, many Muslims are just content on being peaceful , which for most folks, requires very little effort.
American Muslims, especially amongst many of our leaders, have a acquired a notorious reputation for not wanting to admit we were wrong, of hardly ever issuing a retraction, and for being reluctant to take responsibility for any of our failed public relations strategies. The end result being that although the lexical or sharia meaning of the word Islam will never mean peace, many of us insist on doubling down and sticking to the innovated meaning that we conjured up. So you have people trying to find round-about ways to make the meaning of peace work. Like; You can get peace when you submit, or the only peace is when you submit to Allah, or Islam is peaceful submission, or Muslims say peace be upon you , therefore Islam must mean peace, or Muslims are about peace, therefore Islam must mean peace. Or my favorite; Islam and peace share the same root, therefore Islam means peace.
Of course these are desperate, and intellectually dishonest lines of reasoning, but since we bought it, many of us are prepared to go down with it. We could’ve simply said; Muslims are generally peaceful people, or Muslims like peace, or all Muslims aren’t violent, or something to that effect but no, we have to go all the way down the Rabbit hole and throw a monkey wrench into our aqeedah (creed) and say; Islam means peace. Period. Funny thing though, when Muslims are in power, we proudly proclaim that Islam is submission to Allah. However, since we’ve been on the ideological defensive, we caved in an started to say that Islam means peace. We should not be so desperate for acceptance, that we unilaterally change the meaning of Islam from submission, to peace without any divine authority. Islam does not belong to us, it is the religion of Allah sub’haanahu wa ta’ala and we do not have the authority to change it’s meaning. Not for Da’wah, not for the press, not for our detractors, not for anybody.
So when we say Islam means peace and then people look it up in a dictionary or a lexicon, (because people can read) and see that it means submission, or look at the world and see that Muslims also believe in war, and participate in fighting and killing, it catapults our credibility out the window. People don’t even bother to argue the point with us.
So if you’ve run plum out of ideas and you are looking for a way to explain Islam to non-Muslims and you feel the need to ease it on them or feel you need to keep the peace thing in the forefront , then you can simply say that peace, is one of the many components within the religion if Islam. But if you insist on saying that Islam means peace or that the entire religion of Islam can be summarized as peace, then you’re dead wrong and you’re basically misrepresenting our faith.
Islam is what it is. People who know that and understand, accept Islam for what it is, and in the way it was revealed. Such people know that Islam is certainly bigger than peace. However, people who need Islam to be something else so they won’t have to take a moral position on contemporary issues or so they won’t have to offend anyone or because they want to hold on to a failed, morally bankrupt, public relations strategy, will find a lot of utility and maybe even some comfort in the Islam is peace thing.
Look we live in a time of ignorance, so a lot of Muslims just get caught up following slogans instead of having an actual aqeeda. Obviously, neither statement; “Islam means peace”, or, “Islam is peace” are scriptural truths, or prophetic axioms. They are more like political slogans or psychological pacifiers for Muslims, in order to deflect criticism and so we don’t have to address the real, deep-rooted problems of sectarian violence within our Ummah. Interestingly enough, non-Muslims in general, never fell for the Islam means peace line. You literally have to pay politicians and non-Muslims to say that Islam is the religion of peace or to publicly state that Islam means peace.
The late American soul singer James Brown made a song where he said, “talking loud, but sayin nuthin”. People who make these ridiculous triangular arguments to try to rove that the word Islam means peace, do just that. Saying that Islam is about peace does not mean that the word Islam means peace and mentioning that one of the names and attributes of Allah is peace (السلام) as many people do, does not mean that the meaning of the word Islam is peace either. While it is true that Islam is about peace when appropriate, Islam is also about war. In fact, Islam is about worship, about forgiveness, about punishment, about repentance, about fasting during the month of Ramadan, about charity, about feeding the hungry and about many other things in addition to peace.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand our dilemma. As Muslims, we have lots of violence in our history. Since 9/11 that violence has been highlighted, targeted and attacked repeatedly. So, in an attempt to sway public opinion, and being the image conscious people that we are, we changed the meaning of Islam from submission, to peace.
One of the unintended consequences of reinterpreting the meaning of Islam from submission to Allah, to peace, is that now a whole generation of Muslim children grew up believing that the meaning of Islam is peace. So, when you present the idea of submission to them, they look at you sideways and say; “look, I’m peaceful. What more do you want?” Muslim youth, as well as many adults have abandoned the traditional practice of Islam and now strive to be peaceful and not make any waves. Many of our youth are starting to look at peace as mandatory and prayer for example, as optional. Our kids don’t even raise their voices in public. So as we come to realize that by engineering this meaning makeover we may have embarked upon a path of moral bankruptcy, some of us might still find comfort some in the fact that we now have some of the most peaceful, docile, malleable and agreeable kids in the country.
Imam Luqman Ahmad
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Shaykh Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad, a Philadelphia native, is a writer, a researcher and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom, in Northern California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), and the CEO of ‘Mosque Without Borders’, an organization that address Muslim sectarianism in the United States. He is also and the author of the book, “Double Edged Slavery“, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States, and the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect “, a critical look at the ideological underpinning of modern Salafist extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.