What does “Islam” mean?

Institute for Islamic Studies of the Evangelical Alliance in Germany - 19 January 2016 - From PROF. CHRISTINE SCHIRRMACHER
What does “Islam” mean?

The word “Islam” means “commitment” or “surrender” to God and his will, revealed, according to Muslim thought, in the Koran. A Muslim has “surrendered” to God, is to show him gratitude, and carry out the commands contained in the Koran, as well as Muslim tradition.

Muslims believe that the Koran was sent down to mankind from God, and relayed to the prophet Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. The Koran is a faithful rendering of the original heavenly revelation (The “mother of all scripture”) and has, as such, divine authority. Muhammad counts as the last and most significant prophet in history, (“The seal of the prophets”, surah 33: 40) whose predecessors were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, Job, Saul, David, Solomon, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ, who proclaimed the coming of Muhammad.

All of these prophets, according to Islam, were proclaimers of Islam, and always preached one and the same message. However, after their message had been delivered, the people quickly turned away from Islam, falsified the revelations contained in the divinely inspired scriptures, threw the warnings and rebukes of the prophets to the wind, and turned again to idolatry.

God then sent another prophet, who preached anew the “pure” message of Islam and called the people back to submission to the one almighty God. According to Islam, Christians have also falsified the original message which they had received, in that they claim that Jesus is God (or a son of God) and that Mary is the “Mother of God” - this demonstrates the attitude and understanding of the Koran towards the Christian belief in the trinity.

Muhammad, the proclaimer of Islam

Muhammad (The name means “The acclaimed one”) is seen as prophet and messenger of God, but only a mortal man, possessing no supernatural abilities. Only after Muhammad’s death did Muslim theologians develop the teaching that Muhammad and all other prophets should be considered as morally perfect (“sinless”) even though the Koran itself describes how various prophets (including Muhammad himself) pleaded with God for forgiveness for their mistakes and failures. (7:23; 11:47; 14:41; 28:16; 38:24; 110:3; 48:2; 9:43; 94:2) The one exception is Jesus Christ, of whom no sin or mistake is reported in the Koran. This dogma of the “sinless prophets” probably came into being during the 10th century, and is today generally accepted by Islamic theology.

Unfortunately, very few really historically reliable records concerning the life of Muhammad are available. He was born in about 570 AD in Mecca, on the Arabian peninsula, and belonged to the family of Banu Hashim, from the tribe of Quraish. Muhammad was orphaned very early on in his life, and grew up with his grandfather, Abd al Muttalib, and then after his death a few years later with his uncle Abu Talib. The Bedouin tribes of Arabia in the 6th century AD believed in a wide variety of Gods, spirits, and demons. Stones, trees, and water - springs were held to be the residence of gods, who must be appeased through sacrifice (e.g. animals). Spirits and demons could be influenced by seers, and could themselves influence human affairs, for good or bad. At least one of the Arabian tribes believed additionally in a supreme God, a creator - God, whom they honoured as “The God” (Arabian: al-ilah, or Allah = The God, or The Divinity.)

When Muhammad was about 25 years old he married Hadija bint Huwaylid, the widow of a merchant, who was considerably older than him. Hadijah is seen as Muhammad’s first follower, and it was she who encouraged him to perceive the very powerful feelings and impressions that are said to have come to him, as he meditated in a cave when he was about 40 years old, not as a sign of demon possession, which is what Muhammad himself is said to have thought, but messages from God, containing rebukes and commands to repent, as well as warnings concerning a pending day of judgement. Later, according to the Koran and Islamic tradition, Muhammad received the assurance that it was the angel Gabriel who had spoken to him, and commanded him as a warner and prophet for his people to “instruct” or “recite” (Arabian: qara’a, thus Qur’an - Koran) the revelations of God.

Muhammad’s earliest messages are concentrated around the proclamation of the one almighty God, the creator of heaven and earth, people and animals, and the stern command to submit to this God, so as not to be suddenly and unexpectedly overcome by judgement.

When Muhammad first turned to his fellow countrymen in his hometown of Mecca, in about 610 AD, he attracted only a few followers, and experienced mockery, rejection of his mission, open enmity and persecution. The situation became so threatening, that in autumn of 622 AD, he and his small group of followers fled to a neighbouring town called Yathrib (later renamed Medina). This event is described as “hijra” (the “migration”) and marks the year “0” at the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

In Medina, a community which contained not only members of various Arabian tribes, but also Christians, as well as three large Jewish tribes, it became possible for Muhammad to assert himself more and more as a military, as well as religious leader of his rapidly increasing band of followers, against a backdrop of evolving political power struggles. He led his followers into various battles (most of which he won) - especially against the three Jewish tribes of Medina. Towards the end of his life Muhammad had not only attained status as the ruler of Medina, and most important power in the whole region, but managed also, shortly before his death, to return to his hometown of Mecca, and conduct a pilgrimage to Ka’ba, which was already honoured in pre - Islamic times. This also increased his recognition as a religious and political leader.

Muhammad continued to receive revelations concerning various subjects. (questions of law, revelations concerning God and his dealings, the roles of men and women, crime and punishment, regulations concerning property inheritance, etc...) These revelations, however, were not put together to form the complete Koran text, until some decades after Muhammad’s death. Probably an “editorial team” comprised of various of his successors (caliphs) ordered the writings into 114 surahs, not sorted according to themes, but determined by the length of each chapter, in order of decreasing length.

The significance of the Koran, and Islamic traditions

The Koran is, from a Muslim point of view, the inspired and verbally passed down word of God, binding for all people everywhere. Not just the Koran, however, but also the Islamic traditions (Arabic: hadith) possess divine authority, that is, the accounts collected after Muhammad’s death, discovered by Muslim scholars, and sorted into six large collections. (The hadith collections) These traditions contain individual instructions concerning religious obligations (observing the five pillars of Islam: confession of faith, prayer, fasting, alms giving, and pilgrimage) as well as religious festivals, instructions concerning clothing, food, general behaviour, also concerning punishment and legal matters (inheritance and marriage laws, property laws and religious trusts) and the position of women etc. ...

The teaching demonstrates, through short accounts and examples, how Muhammad and his closest adherents thought and behaved in certain situations and questions, and which decisions they made.

The traditions and teachings which have been recognised by Muslim authorities as genuine (that is, originating from Muhammad, or his closest followers) concerning matters of law are, in all points of detail, just as compulsory as the Koran itself. They have, indeed, together with religious practices of Islamic people-groups (at least a certain store of knowledge, passed on by word of mouth) an even greater influence on daily life than the Koran, which, being written in Arabic, and containing much specialised terminology, is only really studied and understood by a minority of individuals.

The five pillars of Islam

Muslims believe in Allah, the one God, eternal, almighty and merciful, the creator of heaven and earth, and, as God’s concluding act, the sending of the prophet Muhammad. God is not only the creator, but also the judge of each individual. In the final judgement, when all people will be “returned” (30,12) then each person will be answerable to his creator and sustainer. In this judgement he will be judged according to his “faith and good deeds” - which are mentioned by the Koran repeatedly, as the basis on which anyone can hope to enter paradise. (2:25; 11:23; 13:29; 18:107; 22:56; 32:19; 34:37; 85:11, etc. ...) “Good deeds” means first and foremost observing the “Five pillars of Islam” - a binding obligation for every man and woman, from the age of puberty onwards:

  1. Reciting the confession of faith (shahada) “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”
  2. Ritual prayers (salat) five times a day in the direction of Mecca, whilst observing ritual washing, the set prayer-text, the prescribed clothing, and prostration’s. (onto the knees, and lying flat on the ground)
  3. Charitable giving (alms) - approximately 2% of income, to be given to the poor and needy.
  4. 30 days fasting (saum) in the month of Ramadan, as daily abstinence from food, drink, perfume, gossip, cigarettes, and sexual intercourse, as long as there is enough daylight to distinguish a black from a white thread (Surah 2:187). The month of fasting is concluded with the two day festival of ’Id al-fitr, the breaking of the fast.
  5. Conducting a pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in a lifetime, during the set-month for pilgrimage. The detailed rituals for the pilgrimage are to be concluded with ceremonial animal sacrifices, (‘Id al - adha’) the slaughter of the animal, as well as the distribution of the meat. This part is to be carried out by the pilgrims, as well as those at home.


There remains, however, a degree of uncertainty, whether an individual person has really pleased God, and is able to enter paradise at the end of his life, even if he has faithfully observed the five pillars of Islam. Islam emphasises actions carried out, on an equal basis with belief, and as Muslim theology sees any predetermined decrees by God concerning salvation as a limit on his omnipotence, there remains an element of doubt concerning salvation on the day of judgement. Islam teaches that no-one can know, when his good deeds are laid on the scales, whether they will outweigh the bad deeds. The statements concerning the mercy of God in the Koran are viewed as general language used to describe God, rather than containing any clear promise for an individual sinner.

Alongside his qualities of mercy and grace, is to be seen his unlimited power, which renders any predetermined decree in his judgements as impossible, God is completely free to act toward any individual as he sees fit. It therefore follows then, that his decrees concerning individuals cannot be determined in advance, as this would constitute a limitation on God’s sovereignty, and cause him to be limited to certain courses of action.

The only certain way to enter paradise, is to die the death of a martyr, in “jihad” - fighting for God, for the one who dies fighting for his faith is promised immediate entrance to paradise (see 2,154; 47,4-6).