Islam Means Peace? A brief etymological reflection

Hammer and Anvil

By Martin Accad

‘Islam Means Peace!’ So affirmed the flyer of a conference organized in the US that remains etched in my memory. And so affirm many books and websites you will find by simply googling the phrase. You will also find an equally large number of websites and books that claim that this is a lie, that when Muslims make that claim they are practicing taqiyya. Apparently taqiyya is some sort of intended dissimulation of the truth, which any Muslim saying anything positive or loving about Islam is accused of committing these days. Mind you, if they don’t say anything positive, they are then accused of terrorism. But I’ll leave that topic for another day…

I have read a good deal of literature written by some of the most significant figures of classical Islam over the past 20 years, and to be honest, I have never come across the argument that the word ‘Islam’ means ‘peace.’ I am not saying that the argument does not exist in ancient texts, and I am happy to stand corrected if anyone reading this begs to differ. But what I’m saying is that ‘peace’ does not seem to be the most straightforward meaning that Muslims have historically associated with the word ‘Islam.’ Quite simply, Muslims never felt the need to make that argument in the past. Perhaps Islam never found itself under as much pressure to align with global opinion about what it stands for until the present time.

Let us be clear. The etymological (linguistic) root of the word ‘Islam’ is not ‘salam’ (peace). It is the verb ‘salima,’ which means to find security, safety, or even a deeper sense of wellbeing. The word ‘salam’ is derived from that same verb salima, just like the word ‘Islam’ is derived from it. But in the case of ‘Islam,’ it is the so-called Form IV of the verb, aslama, from which it derives more directly. So in a sense, Islam is salam’s sibling, rather than its child. One child, Salam, goes on to express meanings of peace, wellbeing, good neighborliness and hospitality. Whereas the other child, Islam, moves on to generate derivatives of power, such as submission and surrender, with the purpose of finding safety and security. They are certainly close linguistic relatives, they influence each other mutually, but they cannot simply be merged.

At the end of the day, however, as linguistic debates fade in importance before the hard facts of life and history, people of faith tend mostly to be the product of their time.

Islam emerged in the seventh century, in a historical context heavy with political strife mingled with religious ideology. It carved its way between the hammer of the ‘Christian’ Byzantine Empire and the anvil of the ‘Zoroastrian’ Persians. As a product of its time, Islam took up this double challenge, standing both its political and religious grounds from the start. Throughout its mainstream history, it was often co-opted by leaders with strong political agendas who also waived the religious ideology, alongside an uninterrupted line of a more peaceful, contemplative Islam. However, in light both of its core meaning and of its founding history, it does not seem surprising that it is Islam’s undertones of conquest and subjugation that have been more prominent historically than its undertones of peace and wellbeing.

But let us take a quick look in the mirror. Christianity’s message began at the opposite end of the spectrum. Jesus taught about an unseen kingdom, which could only be demonstrated visibly through the love of his followers for everyone, including their enemies. Swords were to remain in their sheath and his followers were to bless those who cursed them and pray for their persecutors. Those who were ‘of Christ’ or ‘in Christ’ (Greek etymology of the word ‘Christian’) embraced death rather than combat in Christ’s name for nearly 300 years. Yet ‘Christian-ity’ eventually gave way to ‘Christian-dom’ after the faith conquered the political powers of the day, and with that shift, it nearly completely lost Christ himself.

If a first-century Christian met the average eleventh-century European Christian waving their crusader ideology, they would likely not believe that they had met a Christian at all. And as a twenty-first century Christian, when I think of eighteenth-century colonialist triumphalism, wielding its supposed ‘Christian’ ideology, I vainly search for any connection with the teaching and example of Jesus. But the scary thought is that if I were the product of one of these eras, I would likely be endorsing the same ideologies of violence, power, and dominance. Christianity without Christ is not Christian at all; it is merely Christendom.

Today there seems to be a growing contingent of Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are sweating blood in their attempt to salvage or redefine their faith tradition from the hands of violent extremists. In Palestine, to take one example, an increasing number of Muslims and Jews are struggling to recover the peaceful side of their faith from the conquering ideologies of Zionism and Jihadi Islamism. Palestinian Christians too are attempting to salvage their faith from the onslaught of western Christian Zionism. And the battle is far from being won.

To go back to our main topic and conclude this brief pondering, Islam means… Islam will mean whatever those currently struggling for its soul will be able to make of it in the decades ahead. Right now, can you blame an Iraqi, Syrian, or Egyptian Christian for having a hard time believing that Islam means peace, seeing as they are not sure that they will even survive the current jihadi onslaught against them and against their entire history and heritage? But if people of good faith from all traditions are able to pull together against the current streams of religious extremism, then we will perhaps be increasing the possibility that some time down the line, our children will be able to affirm together that their faith traditions stand for peace.

As one who struggles to be faithful in following in the way of Jesus, I long to see the impact of his teaching on love and forgiveness penetrate all religious traditions, perhaps even contemporary Christianity! And I hope that one day I will be able to affirm that Islam means peace. But for now, this will remain a hope and a prayer.

7 thoughts on “Islam Means Peace? A brief etymological reflection

  1. Martin,
    Thanks for a good, fair, and straightforward piece, reflecting much of the raging struggle in the heart of the Islamic land(s).
    T. Maalouf

  2. Thanks for this interesting insight from etymological view, Martin. Yes, we Christians should truly and painfully ask ourselves whther we follow Jesus or not today. I like to know more about taqiyya from authetic Islamic view, not from ‘drawing water to my mill’.’

  3. Thank you for a realistic yet hopeful article. It was a great, as always!
    May I ask a question/make a suggestion:
    Since both Islam and Salam (peace) derive from the root SLM (salima), can’t we say that another meaning of Islam is a giving of salam, peace? I know the direct way to say that is Sallama (which also means to greet), but the word aslama does hold the connotation of giving – it is used to say aslamaho al shay2 (he gave him the item). Can we then say that perhaps Islam is to give Salam? Or is my argument wrong?🙂

    • Thanks Nabil🙂. Actually, as you point out, “sallama” not “aslama” means “to give”. “Sallama” (form II) gives a more emphatic sense to the verb salima. Whereas form IV (aslama) has forceful causative connotations. Note that the meaning connotations of verbal forms in Arabic cannot be made into rules, but merely possibilities. Languages are dynamic and words bear the meaning associated with them through time and usage. Anyway, I’m not sure it’s very useful to overstate my case, and etymological arguments only go so far. In the end of the day, my point is that history and context make us into who we are and sometimes into who we wish we were. But it is more important to behave today in the way that we hope for future generations to understand us.

  4. Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    Martin Accad on what Islam means: Here is his punch line:~’As one who struggles to be faithful in following in the way of Jesus, I long to see the impact of his teaching on love and forgiveness penetrate all religious traditions, perhaps even contemporary Christianity! And I hope that one day I will be able to affirm that Islam means peace. But for now, this will remain a hope and a prayer.’

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