Islamic perspective

The key terms in the Qur'an


Every scripture, every religion and every ideology has its own terminology, some terms among them being, what can be described as key terms. These terms play very important role in understanding the scripture, religion or ideology. In case of a religion it is certain scriptural terms which play fundamental role.

Some of these terms even influence the hermeneutics of the scripture and help formation of basic dogmas of the religion. To understand the key terms of a religion is to understand properly the underlying spirit of that religion or that ideology.

However, every religious or ideological system has several terms. All terms do not play very seminal role as some terms play. But again there may be differences of opinion as to which terms constitute the key terms. These differences will always be there. The selection of these terms will also reflect the ideological inclination of the person who selects. But despite these differences some terms are bound to be common among various selectors. And, as long as these terms are directly from the scripture, one should not and cannot object to selection of these terms.

The Islamic terminology is basically derived from the Qur'an which is the revealed scripture according to Muslim belief. This terminology plays significant role not only in understanding the Qur'an but also deeply influences lives of Muslims both in terms of beliefs and practices. Though of course the selection of the key terms matters, as pointed out before, but whatever the terms, as long as they are derived directly from the Qur'an, they leave their impression the Muslim beliefs and practices. We have selected a few key terms for discussion in this paper which involve not only the Muslim beliefs but also the Islamic value-system.

The most basic term of course is din. It is generally translated as 'religion' in English. It is of course not entirely correct. This term is so basic that Allah says in the Qur'an "Today have I perfected your din and have bestowed upon you the full measure of My blessings, and willed that Islam shall be your din". Thus one can understand how important is this term din in the Qur'an.

What is the meaning of the term din in Arabic language? We come to know from the lexicographers that it is used in various ways. Some of the senses in which din is used is to conquer, power, governance, regime, law, constitution, law and order, judgement, reward and punishment etc. On the other hand, it also means, obedience and acceptance, according to lexicographers, Taj and Muhit. We also find in Lata'if al-Lughat that din means accountability, overpowering and managing. In Kitab al-Ishtiqaq, on the other hand, its meaning given is obedience and community (millat).

In the Qur'an this word i.e. din has been used in all these senses. In 2:131 it has been used in the sense of submission to the law of the Nourisher of this universe (aslamtu li Rabbil Alamin. And in 3:18 din is equated with Islam i.e. din means Islam which in turn means surrendering to the will of Allah. In 56:86 it has been used in the sense of authority. Similarly in 9:29 it has been used as submission to the Divine system. And in 12:76 it has been used in the sense of law (Din al-malik i.e. law of the king). In 24:2 the words Dinillah i.e. Law of Allah has been used. But in 24:25 the word din has been used in the sense of reward.

In the first chapter of the Qur'an we have the term yaum al-din. It can mean the day of accounting, the day when Allah will dominate and His servants will surrender. It can also mean the day of rewards and punishments.

In 82:18-19 the Qur'an first asks how do you know what is yaum al-din and the replies "The day when no soul controls aught for another soul. And the command on that day is Allah's. Thus the day of din is in fact the day of complete domination by Allah and Allah's set laws. Everything will be judged according to that law alone and rewards and punishments will be dispensed without any partiality or injustice. No soul can be saved on that day if it has done wrong and no soul can be deprived of its reward if it has done good. Thus din also means domination and absolute power which is Allah's alone.

The Qur'an also describes Allah as malik-e-yaum al-din i.e. Allah will be the master of that day and it will be Allah's power, Allah's law which will prevail. Yaum in Arabic does not necessarily mean one day but whole period. In that sense yaum al-din does not necessarily refer to one day but whole period, a period when Allah's law will prevail and in that period as in the verse 82:18-19 no human being will be dominated by another human being but by Allah's law alone which will be just. Thus in that period absolute justice will prevail and it will be an ideal period. Every human being will be free and subject only to the just law of Allah.

Din, as pointed out before, also means system and if we refer to din Allah it will mean the system given by Allah and this system fixes limits of our freedom and determination, our latitude and dependence. If human beings follow this system strictly they will be emancipated from slavery of selfish desire and will experience real spiritual freedom and contentment. In the first chapter Al-Fatihah Allah has been described as Rabb and Rahim i.e. who is Sustainer and Merciful or Compassionate.

Thus Allah, in His capacity as sustainer and merciful has provided abundantly for all living beings, be they humans or animals or plants. But it is human greed which destroys the just system of Allah and its sustenance for all and enslaves other human beings and misappropriates their share and also destroys the ecology of the system as well. The humanity can be freed and yaum al-Din can be enforced only if Allah's law dominates and absolute justice prevails and everybody is rewarded or punished only according to this Divine system called din.

The word madinah according to some authorities is also derived from din i.e. place of din. Thus madinah is the place where justice is dispensed according to divine law and where every one obeys the divine system. Madinat-un-Nabi was the city of the Prophet where the Prophet enforced the din of Allah. He made it a just place. Ibn Faris says that Madinah is derived from din because in city one has to follow the law of the government. No city can experience law and order without proper governance.

It is also important to note that no where the Qur'an describes Islam as madhab but it describes Islam as din. Madhab means a way whereas din as pointed out, is much more comprehensive term. Various schools of jurisprudence are referred to as madhab but not Islam. Islam can be described only as a din. Madhab can divide but not din. Din unites. That is why the Qur'an makes it clear that din is one i.e. the Qur'an talks of wahdat-e-din unity of din. If one follows din i.e. divine commands and divine system there will be no differences between religions. These differences have been brought about by human beings for their own vested interests.

The next term we want to take up is Islam. It is derived from the root s.l.m. It is interesting to note that salama from which Islam has been derived means to be purified from all defects and evils or to be protected from them. It means one has avoided these defects. For example we read in 2:71 about the cow belonging to Bani Israel that it is "sound without any blemish in her." Thus salema basically means to be perfect without any blemish and to bring all our good abilities into action rising above all weaknesses.

The second root meaning of it is to be protected from all eventualities, accidents and difficulties. This meaning of the word pertains more to health and security. It is in this sense that in Urdu language we say salamat i.e. to be secure. It is interesting that in Philipino language the word for thanks is salamat that is the sentiment of obligation is expressed by wishing desire for security of the obliging person.

In Arabic also it is said salima min al-afaati i.e. he remained secure from all troubles. In Qur'an one of the names of Allah is Salam (59:23) i.e. one who is perfect and above all defects. But the compiler of Taj al-'Urus does not agree with this meaning at all and maintains that Salam is one who can provide security to others and Saalim is one who is protected by others. Thus according to Taj al-'Urus Allah is Salaam because he protects all others and he saves His creation from disorder and disturbance.

It is used in yet another sense i.e. peace and order. One who lives in complete harmony and peace with others is called al-silm. To live in peace and harmony oneself and create such possibility for others. In other words to create peace and security for the world. Yet another meaning is to surrender oneself. It is only when one surrenders oneself to the forces of law and authority. It is only when human beings surrender to the laws of Allah and of nature that there can be peace and harmony in the world. It also means to adopt the middle path avoiding all extremes as extremes bring about disturbances and disorder. It also means to avoid what is absurd and meaningless. Also in Arabic usage al-salemah is a woman who is very delicate and beautiful. Thus it would also mean what is beautiful and appealing.

In this sense al-Islam would mean, as pointed out by Parvez in his Lughaat al-Qur'an that system of life which

  • removes all the defects in human beings and his capacities can flower to perfection;
  • in which he remains secure from all troubles and disorders;
  • and which ensures that he goes on developing himself and keeps on rising higher and higher in station;
  • and that he finds himself secure and peaceful and ensures peace and security for others and he does not create trouble or disturbance for others thus destroying the harmony in the social system;
  • that he obeys the divine laws to the utmost and surrenders himself to Allah with heart and soul;
  • he should adopt the middle way and never resort to either extreme;
  • thus he will create balance not only within himself but also in the society.
  • Thus it will be seen that to be a Muslim is not just to profess a set of beliefs and perform certain rituals but much more than that. This is also reflected in hadith literature wherein the Prophet has elaborated on ethical conduct. One of the Prophet's pronouncement is that a true Muslim is one in whose hands everyone is safe. This is possible only if one not only consciously strives for peace and harmony but also never desires what belongs to others and follows an upright path.

    Another key term of the Holy Qur'an is rahmah which is translated as mercy or also as compassion. The Qur'an lays great emphasis on compassion. Two of the Allah's names are Rahim and Rahman i.e. Merciful and Compassionate or Dispenser of grace. Mercy for Allah is so fundamental that "He has ordained mercy on Himself" (6:12). Which means that one cannot think of Allah without mercy. The Qur'an also describes the Prophet as "Rahmatun lil Aalamin i.e. mercy of the worlds. Thus both Allah and His Messenger represent mercy and compassion.

    It is quite interesting to note that rahem means mother's womb and while in mother's womb it is protected from all external influences. Mother's womb nourishes the foetus and it grows within its protected shell. Thus Allah is also nourisher and sustainer of the whole universe. Every species in the universe grows and flourishes under His protection and because of His rahmah. According to Taj al-'Urus rahmah is that innate quality which brings about hidden and manifest perfection in a being and it is available freely without any direct or indirect cost.

    The Qur'an also uses this word in various ways signifying nourishing, sustenance, growth, compassion and mercy. It also describes the food crops which grow as rahmah see verse 30:46. If parents bring up children it is also described as rahmah by the Qur'an (17:24). It is also important to note that in the very first chapter of the Qur'an i.e. Surah Fatihah Allah is described as Rabb al-Aalamin and Al-Rahman al-Rahim i.e. He is the Sustainer of the whole world and also the Compassionate and Merciful. Thus these are very fundamental attributes of Allah. Mercy and compassion are closely related with sustenance and nourishment.

    In fact rahim, according to Taj al-Urus is one who generally provides with the material for sustenance and growth in general and rahman means one who provides with all intensity and power the help with sense of compassion in an emergency situation. Thus it will be seen that Allah is provider and sustainer of life under all conditions to ensure growth and development. Rabb itself means one who ensures growth through various stages to perfection.

    Rahm also means softness and sensitivity as mercy can flow from one who is not hard hearted. Thus a person who has quality of mercy and compassion is quite sensitive to others suffering. This sensitivity is a sterling quality for a human being. One who is not sensitive to others suffering cannot qualify to be a good human being. The Qur'an wants to inculcate this sensitivity to suffering in human beings to its utmost degree. The prophet is also reported to have said that it is more meritorious to feed a hungry person than to pray. The message is clear. If a person who prays does not develop sensitivity to others hunger, his/her prayer is an empty ritual. Allah guarantees sustenance of the whole universe to avoid this suffering of living beings.

    It will thus be seen that Islam is deeply associated with compassion and mercy rather than violence. It is unfortunate that Islam, for historical and other reasons, has come to be associated with jihad rather than mercy and compassion, peace and harmony. As pointed out above, Islam itself means peace and security and hence mercy and compassion too, are very fundamental aspects of it. Those who associate Islam with jihad and violence are hardly aware of the real spirit of this religion. Jihad, itself does not mean war. It means to make efforts for truth and goodness to prevail. It is only in an extraordinary situation that jihad shall take form of war. The Qur'an, in fact, does not mention the word jihad in that sense at all. It only is used in the sense of making efforts.

    Yet another key term in the Qur'an is hikmah which is generally translated as wisdom. The Qur'an also uses 'aql, tafakkur and tadabbur which mean reason, thinking and reflection. Thus it will be seen that the Qur'an does not encourage blind following of any dogma or belief at all. It appeals to reason, thinking and reflection. It has also been pointed out by some that the Qur'an emphasises inductive reason and encourages study of nature. The Qur'an says that accept divine guidance after proper thinking and reflection.

    Wisdom (hikmah) in a way is a higher form of reason. Reason is not sufficient by itself as it has no criteria to judge. Thus reason can be used both ways for good as well as for evil. One can use reason to promote self-interest also, as is often done. Reason, it must be noted, is an instrument, not a goal. There is thus great emphasis in modern civilization on reason but not on values. Modern society has thus become totally directionless and the only concern is growth, development and increased gross product. The multi-nationals put reason to their own selfish ends. They do not even hesitate to use undesirable means for their own growth.

    But hikmah (wisdom) is reason synthesised with higher values. Hikmah is no mere concern with reason as an instrument but promotion of higher values as a goal. Justice, equity, equality, human dignity, compassion, humanism are some of these higher values which reason should strive to promote. Thus hikmah is higher than reason. Hikmah, however, can never degenerate into unreason. Reason remains its important component. Thus Allah is described by the Qur'an as Hakim, 'Alim and Khabir i.e. Wise, Knower and Informed. Wisdom, knowledge and proper information can never lead to unreason. If any religious belief is based on unreason or irrationality, it must be rejected. Any religious belief must fulfill the criteria of reason and higher values. Such beliefs alone can be compatible with spiritual growth, human values and inner peace and richness.

    The root of the word hikmah is h.k.m. which basically means to control and stop crossing the limit with firmness. Thus hakamat in Arabic means reining in the horse in a way which will not allow horse to get out of control (see Kitab al-Ishtiqaq ). The root of hakama also conveys the sense of stopping within the limits so that one does not commit excess. One should know what is the limit beyond which one should not go. And