Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – As used in the Qur’an, Islam (al-islam in Arabic) doesn’t mean what people think it means. It doesn’t mean “peace,” though it is from a common root. It doesn’t mean the religion of the Prophet Muhammad. It doesn’t mean submission to God.
I’ve come to believe that the accretions of later generations have obscured for us the original meaning of many words in the Qur’an, the Muslim scripture believed to have been recited by the Prophet Muhammad (c. 567-632 AD). The most influential readings of these words come from the Abbasid Empire (750-1258 AD), i.e. from centuries after the Qur’an itself. I talk about this context in my book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires.
The Qur’an grew up in late antiquity, at a time when the Christian Roman Empire, then ruled from Constantinople, had dominion over the Near East– Greater Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia — while the Zoroastrian Sasanian Empire ruled Iran, Iraq and Yemen. The Qur’an contains Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Persian words, reflecting that context (not to mention Ethiopian Ge’ez and Yemeni Sabaic vocabulary). The great medieval Muslim scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti admitted the Aramaic inheritance in the Qur’an.
In later centuries, in the Abbasid Empire, Muslim scholars no longer knew Aramaic or Greek, and lost contact with the realities of the early seventh century. They constructed an Inner Arabian origin for Arabic and Islam that downplayed the role of the great number of Christian Arabic-speakers in the Near East.
The late classicist Fergus Millar argued that Greek remained an urban standard in Near Eastern cities like Petra, Philadelphia (Amman), Jerusalem, Bostra and Damascus into the fifth and sixth centuries, and I would say into the seventh. It was spoken alongside western Aramaic and in some places I think people were trilingual in Greek, Aramaic and Arabic. (Nowadays a lot of people in Beirut speak Arabic, English and French). Arabic-speakers lived in northern and eastern and southern Syria as well as in the Transjordan. Millar’s thesis is supported by the Petra Papyri, discovered in the 1990s and now published in 5 volumes, which consist of letters by an Arabic-speaking elite family written in Greek.
I use these new findings in my just-published article at BSOAS, Paradosis and monotheism: a late antique approach to the meaning of islām in the Quran. (The article is available through Cambridge Core, to which your local college or public library may have a subscription).
I argue that “islam” in the Qur’an is a loanshift from the Aramaic mashlmanuta and the Greek paradosis, which mean “tradition,” not submission.
The abstract says,
- “Both the Muslim exegetical tradition and most Western scholarship have posited that the term islām in the Quran means “submission”, i.e. to God, and that it refers to the religion brought by the prophet Muhammad. This paper argues that neither of these assertions is correct. Rather, the abstract noun islām as used in the Quran means “tradition”. It is underlain by the Aramaic mashlmānūtā, which in turn was the term generally used to translate the Greek paradosis. That the Greek usage had a direct impact on Arabic is also considered. The wide range of mean- ings given paradosis by Greek and Syriac authors is surveyed. A close reading of Quran verses in which the word islām appears shows that it refers to the prophetic tradition of monotheism rather than the surrender of an individual to God. It is synonymous with the Logos of Abraham, in which all the monotheistic religions participate.”
I write in my article,
- “Let me begin with a verse that I think makes the meaning of the term especially clear. In The Ranks 61:6, the Quran criticizes Jews for rejecting later prophets: “And when Jesus the son of Mary said to the children of Israel, I am the messenger of God to you, confirming the Torah that you possess, and giving good tidings of a messenger who will come after me, called ‘the Praised One.’ But when he came to them with clear signs, they said, ‘That is manifest sorcery’.” The Quran then adds, “And who does a greater wrong than one who fabricates lies about God, even while God is calling him to islām? And God never guides evildoers.” Note that Jesus is depicted as calling the adherents of Second Temple Judaism to islām. It makes no sense to translate islām here as submission to God, since God’s existence and authority are not at issue – the Quran recognizes that Jews in the time of Jesus worshipped the one God. Rather, it implies that first-century Jews, by rejecting Jesus, declined the summons to the fullness of the serial prophetic tradition (and here Jesus not only announces himself but points to a future successor).”
That is, “islam” as it is used in the Qur’an means the prophetic tradition of monotheism, which is an ongoing tradition. Jews who rejected Jesus, the Qur’an argues, have fallen short with regard to islam, inasmuch as they did not adopt the whole tradition. The tradition is like a book still being written, such that it would be wrong to read only the earlier chapters and reject a later one as it appeared. On the other hand, you could get the necessary gist from the earlier chapters.
So Jesus called second-temple Jews to “islam,” to the fullness of the Abrahamic monotheist tradition, of which he was the latest exponent.
Quite obviously, then, “islam” as the Qur’an describes it existed centuries before the Prophet Muhammad and is not a term for his religion in specific. Jesus summoned his contemporaries among the Jews of Roman Palestine to “islam,” i.e. to accepting his paradosis or continuing prophetic tradition.
I also argue that “muslim” in the Qur’an when it is not accompanied by the preposition “li” is best translated not as “submitter” but as “monotheist,” as someone who accepts the monotheistic prophetic tradition in the line of Abraham.
I also write,
- “The late Meccan passage Stories 28: 52–3 refers to the adherents of the previous scriptures and praises them for their attitude to the Quran: “Those on whom we bestowed the Book aforetime believe in it. When it is recited to them they say, ‘We have believed in it. It is the truth from our lord. Even before it, we were monotheists (muslimīn)’”. This verse unquestionably makes it clear that being muslim does not mean following Muhammad’s religion, and also makes it clear that not only the ancient children of Israel and the disciples in the time of Christ but also the Jews and Christians contemporaneous with Muhammad are muslims.”
The Qur’an has these Christians say that even before they encountered the Qur’an, they were muslim, i.e. had accepted the monotheistic tradition.
The article goes into a lot of other examples of how the Qur’an uses the term “islam” and “muslim,” which is very different from the way they are typically used today.
The Qur’an has an ecumenical view of the other monotheistic communities, and that “islam” means paradosis or the prophetic tradition of monotheism allows us better to understand The Cow 2:62,
“Those who believed, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, and whoever has believed in God and the Last Day and performed good works, they shall have their reward with their Lord.” (The Sabians were likely God-fearers, pagan monotheists who associated with Jews and Christians).
In the Qur’an, righteous monotheists are all saved regardless of their specific religion, precisely because they all accept the monotheistic tradition (paradosis) in whole or part. That, and good deeds, seem to be the basics necessary for salvation.