What is Islam?

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

What is Islam?

  1. Islam – the traditional perspective
  2. Is islam a proper name?
  3. Was Muhammad the founder of islam?
  4. What is the shahada?
  5. Who attain salvation?
  6. How did world religions emanate?
  7. Is allah God’s proper name?
  8. Which sect is on the right path?
  9. What are the virtues of islam?

Islam – the traditional perspective

Traditionally, the word Islam has been used to as the proper name of an organized religion said to be founded by Muhammad in Mecca, Arabia in 610 CE. The word encompasses the umbrella of different sects that branched off from the original community of Muhammad. Adherents of this religion are called Muslims. Entry into the ‘fold’ of Islam is said to entail a ceremony of testifying to the shahadatayn – the dual declaration of faith – that “there is no god except Allah”,1 and that “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”.2 The path to salvation involves following the Quran – God’s scripture revealed through Muhammad – and following the legacy of Muhammad. For Sunni Muslims, this legacy is the Sunnah – the tradition and practices attributed to Muhammad, as transmitted through early generations of Muslims. For Shia Muslims, this legacy is the Ahlul bayt – the family and the descendants of Muhammad, Imams among whom are divinely authorized interpreters of Muhammad’s teachings. Each sect asserts status as the rightful flag bearer of the legacy of Muhammad. Some deny salvation to adherents of other sects of Islam,3 while others frown upon such an attitude.4 But by and large, there is consensus that salvation is restricted to Muslims, and closed to adherents of other faith traditions unless they “convert to Islam”.

It is through this lens of exclusivity that verses of the Quran like 3:85 and 3:19 are usually understood and interpreted, to stake the claim that this organized religion of Islam (with the official carveout of ‘accepted sects’, that varies with sectarian identity) is the only religion acceptable to God. The word ‘Islam’,  usually untranslated, nominally excludes all those who did not testify that ‘Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’. Here, we will take a fresh look at the Quran without these preconceptions, examine the picture of ‘Islam’ that emerges. Is it exclusivist as tradition teaches us, or pluralist in its outlook?


Is islam a proper name?

The words islam and muslim are used in the Quran to describe the state of being at peace with God, and to a person who has attained this state. It is not used as the proper name of an organized world religion or those who identify themselves as adherents of such a religion. It comes from the root aslama meaning submit/surrender/make peace with, and shares the same root as the word salaam meaning peace. The Quran qualifies muslims as being “muslims to God (2:128,133,136; 3:84 etc.), indicating that it is descriptive of a relationship with God. The word muslim is used descriptively, to indicate possession of a quality, along with words truthful, fasting, patient, charitable etc. (33:35). The action aslama is consistently described in the Quran as the process of submitting to or becoming at peace with God, rather than a ceremony by which one “converts” to the religion of Islam in the traditional sense.


Was Muhammad the founder of islam?

The Quran teaches us that all messengers from God through history, and their righteous followers were all muslims (submitters / peace offerers) to God (2:128, 22:78). Muhammad did not found a new religion or bring a new message. What he brought was the same timeless, universal religion that all messengers before him also brought.

قُلْ مَا كُنْتُ بِدْعًا مِنَ الرُّسُلِ وَمَا أَدْرِي مَا يُفْعَلُ بِي وَلا بِكُمْ إِنْ أَتَّبِعُ إِلا مَا يُوحَى إِلَيَّ وَمَا أَنَا إِلا نَذِيرٌ مُبِينٌ

Say: I am not a novelty (بِدْعًا) amongst the messengers and I do not know what will happen to me or to you. I am to follow only what is inspired to me and I am only a clear warner. (46:9)

شَرَعَ لَكُمْ مِنَ الدِّينِ مَا وَصَّى بِهِ نُوحًا وَالَّذِي أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ وَمَا وَصَّيْنَا بِهِ إِبْرَهِيمَ وَمُوسَى وَعِيسَى أَنْ أَقِيمُوا الدِّينَ وَلا تَتَفَرَّقُوا فِيهِ كَبُرَ عَلَى الْمُشْرِكِينَ مَا تَدْعُوهُمْ إِلَيْهِ اللَّهُ يَجْتَبِي إِلَيْهِ مَنْ يَشَاءُ وَيَهْدِي إِلَيْهِ مَنْ يُنِيبُ

He decreed for you the same religion that He decreed for Noah, and what We inspired to you is the same as what We decreed to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus; you shall uphold this religion, and do not be divided therein. Your call is heavy to bear for those who set up partners for god. God chooses for Himself whomever He wills and guides to Himself those who repent. (42:13)


What is the shahada?

The testimony of faith (shahada) that the Quran teaches is simply

There is no god but God‘,

without attaching anybody else’s name to it (3:18, 47:19, 37:35). It is mentioned in different forms (‘there is god except Me’, ‘there is no god except Him’ or ‘there is not god except You’) about 30 times in the Quran, but it is always a standalone clause (2:255, 21:25, 59:22-24 etc.). This is the message that was delivered by all of God’s messengers, and none of them sought to append their own names to this testimony.

شَهِدَ اللَّهُ أَنَّهُ لا إِلَهَ إِلا هُوَ وَالْمَلائِكَةُ وَأُولُو الْعِلْمِ قَائِمًا بِالْقِسْطِ لا إِلَهَ إِلا هُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

God testifies that indeed, “There is no god except He” and so do the angels and those who possess knowledge; this is standing up for justice.  There is no god except He, The Almighty, The All Wise. (3:18)

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ قَبْلِكَ مِنْ رَسُولٍ إِلا نُوحِي إِلَيْهِ أَنَّهُ لا إِلَهَ إِلا أَنَا فَاعْبُدُونِ

And We did not send any messenger before you except with the inspiration that indeed; “There is no god except Me; therefore, worship Me”. (21:25)

فَاعْلَمْ أَنَّهُ لا إِلَهَ إِلا اللَّهُ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لِذَنْبِكَ وَلِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَتِ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مُتَقَلَّبَكُمْ وَمَثْوَاكُمْ

Therefore, you shall know that, “There is no god except God“, and ask forgiveness for your sins and for that of the faithful men and the faithful women. And God fully knows your path and your final destiny. (47:19)


 Who attain salvation?

The Quran teaches us that salvation is for anyone who is righteous and makes peace with God. When some of Muhammad’s contemporaries claimed exclusivity to salvation, God corrected them and clarified the true conditions for salvation. Whoever believes in God, the last day and is righteous will have their reward, regardless of their faith tradition or background. The only condition is not to set up partners to God (4:48,116; 12:106). 

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالنَّصَارَى وَالصَّبِئِينَ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَلِحًا فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

Indeed the faithful, those who are Judeans, the Nazarenes, the Converts, anyone who believes in God, the Last Day and leads a righteous life, then their reward is kept for them at their Lord, they have nothing to fear nor will they grieve. (2:62)

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالصَّابِئُونَ وَالنَّصَارَى مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَلِحًا فَلا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

Indeed the faithful, those who are Judeans, the Converts, and the Nazarenes, anyone who believes in God, the Last Day and lead a righteous life, they will have nothing to fear nor will they grieve. (5:69)

 ο وَقَالُوا لَنْ يَدْخُلَ الْجَنَّةَ إِلا مَنْ كَانَ هُودًا أَوْ نَصَارَى تِلْكَ أَمَانِيُّهُمْ قُلْ هَاتُوا بُرْهَنَكُمْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَدِقِينَ

 بَلَى مَنْ أَسْلَمَ وَجْهَهُ لِلَّهِ وَهُوَ مُحْسِنٌ فَلَهُ أَجْرُهُ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِ وَلا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

And they said no one will enter paradise except those who are Judean or Nazarene. This is their wishful thinking. Say, bring your proof if you are truthful. ¶ Yes indeed, whoever makes peace with God while being righteous, then his reward is at his Lord. These have no fear nor will they grieve. (2:111-112)

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ وَأُنْثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ

O you people, We surely created you from one male and one female, and rendered you groups and tribes, that you may recognize each other. Indeed the most honorable amongst you in the sight of God is the most god-fearing of you. And indeed God is All Knowledgeable, All Cognizant. (49:13)


How did world religions emanate?

God has sent messengers to every nation and community. The message through all these messengers was the same, to make peace with God (islam) and worship Him alone. Then people disputed this message over time and became distinct sects. Thus all faith traditions in the world emanated from the same source – islam – the same universal religion that God sent through all His messengers. The pure message from God, stripped off sectarian innovations, is accessible to whoever sincerely makes peace with God.

إِنَّا أَرْسَلْنَكَ بِالْحَقِّ بَشِيرًا وَنَذِيرًا وَإِنْ مِنْ أُمَّةٍ إِلا خَلا فِيهَا نَذِيرٌ

We sent you with the truth; a bearer of good news, and a warner. There is no community but a warner has passed through it. (35:24)

وَلِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ رَسُولٌ فَإِذَا جَاءَ رَسُولُهُمْ قُضِيَ بَيْنَهُمْ بِالْقِسْطِ وَهُمْ لا يُظْلَمُونَ

And there is a messenger for every community, then, once their messenger comes, they will be judged equitably, without the least injustice. (10:47)

وَلَقَدْ بَعَثْنَا فِي كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ رَسُولا أَنِ اعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَاجْتَنِبُوا الطَّغُوتَ فَمِنْهُمْ مَنْ هَدَى اللَّهُ وَمِنْهُمْ مَنْ حَقَّتْ عَلَيْهِ الضَّللَةُ فَسِيرُوا فِي الأرْضِ فَانْظُرُوا كَيْفَ كَانَ عَقِبَةُ الْمُكَذِّبِينَ

And indeed, We raised a messenger for every community in order for them to worship God and avoid idolatry, then there were those whom God guided and there are those whom deserved to go astray. Therefore, you shall roam the land and see the consequence for the rejectors. (16:36)

وَيَقُولُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لَوْلا أُنْزِلَ عَلَيْهِ آيَةٌ مِنْ رَبِّهِ إِنَّمَا أَنْتَ مُنْذِرٌ وَلِكُلِّ قَوْمٍ هَادٍ

And those who disbelieved say; why has not a sign come to him from his Lord?  You are not but a warner. And every people has a guide. (13:7)

وَمَا أَنْزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَبَ إِلا لِتُبَيِّنَ لَهُمُ الَّذِي اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً لِقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ

By God, We have indeed sent messengers before you to various communities, then Satan adorned their works, therefore he is their ally on that day and awaiting them is a painful suffering. And We revealed to you this scripture only to clarify for them what they disputed, as well as guidance and a mercy for people who have faith. (16:64)

οوَإِنَّ هَذِهِ أُمَّتُكُمْ أُمَّةً وَحِدَةً وَأَنَا رَبُّكُمْ فَاتَّقُونِ οيَا أَيُّهَا الرُّسُلُ كُلُوا مِنَ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَاعْمَلُوا صَالِحًا إِنِّي بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ عَلِيمٌ

فَتَقَطَّعُوا أَمْرَهُمْ بَيْنَهُمْ زُبُرًا كُلُّ حِزْبٍ بِمَا لَدَيْهِمْ فَرِحُونَ

O you messengers; eat from the clean things and lead a righteous life. Indeed I know all that you do.¶ And surely this is your community, a single community and I am your Lord, therefore you shall fear Me.¶ However, they divided themselves into sects, each party happy with what they had. (23:51-53)


Is allah God’s proper name?

Arabs from diverse religious traditions all use the word allah for God. For instance, Coptic Christians in Egypt use the word allah. The Arabic translation of the Torah uses the word allah. The Quraysh referred to the Creator as allah, even before the Quran (13:16, 39:38, 29:61, 31:25). So allah is the word for God in the Arabic language, and not a “proper name” of God instituted through Muhammad. All languages have a word for the Almighty, the Creator, like khuda in Farsi, ishwar in Hindi, Dios in Spanish or Dieu in French etc.

The Quran celebrates the diversity of world languages, and describes it as one of God’s signs. The Quran also teaches us that every messenger was sent in the language of his own people. So all messengers  would have used the word for God in their own native language, and not the word allah. Since Muhammad was Arab, the Quran uses the Arabic word. Depending on which language we are speaking in, it is appropriate to use the word from that language, when referring to God.

وَمِنْ آيَتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَوَتِ وَالأرْضِ وَاخْتِلفُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لآيَتٍ لِلْعَلِمِينَ

And amongst His signs is that He created the skies and the land and the variations of your languages and your colors. Indeed in this there are signs for the knowledgeable. (30:22)

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ رَسُولٍ إِلا بِلِسَانِ قَوْمِهِ لِيُبَيِّنَ لَهُمْ فَيُضِلُّ اللَّهُ مَنْ يَشَاءُ وَيَهْدِي مَنْ يَشَاءُ وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

And We did not send any messenger except in the language of his people in order to clarify for them, thereafter, God sends astray whomever He wills and guides whomever He wills. And He is The Almighty, The All Wise. (14:4)


Which sect is on the right path?

In the Quran, God tells the messenger that he has nothing to do with those who divided themselves into sects (6:159). We are repeatedly warned against breaking up into sects (3:105, 30:30-32; 23:51-54), and rather exhorted to hold on to the rope of God (3:103, 2:256). Then to state that it is acceptable to break up into sects, or that salvation is achieved by sectarian affiliation is contradictory to the Quran. We have seen that God has corrected this fallacy in 2:112.

So “Which sect is on the right path?” is the wrong question to ask.

God intended us to be one ummah  (community) – the ummah of humanity (42:13, 10:19, 2:213). Right from the dawn of humanity, God’s plan for us was to follow His guidance when it comes, hold fast to His message, and worship Him alone (2:38). God warned us repeatedly that Satan is our most ardent enemy and not to follow in his footsteps (7:22; 36:60; 43:62; 17:53; 2:168,208; 6:142). But people became divided (19:36-37, 43:63-65, 2:253), propping up their own idols, pitting idol against idol, messenger against messenger, and clergymen and religious scholars against each other. God commands us to treat all messengers equally, without making any distinction between them (2:285). God forbids us from taking religious leaders  and scholars as lords besides God (9:31), nor seeking them for religious laws (sharee’ah)  not authorized by God (42:21).

قُلْنَا اهْبِطُوا مِنْهَا جَمِيعًا فَإِمَّا يَأْتِيَنَّكُمْ مِنِّي هُدًى فَمَنْ تَبِعَ هُدَايَ فَلا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ

We said, go down from here all of you.  Then when you receive guidance from Me, whoever follows My guidance has nothing to fear nor will he grieve. (2:38)

وَمَا كَانَ النَّاسُ إِلا أُمَّةً وَحِدَةً فَاخْتَلَفُوا وَلَوْلا كَلِمَةٌ سَبَقَتْ مِنْ رَبِّكَ لَقُضِيَ بَيْنَهُمْ فِيمَا فِيهِ يَخْتَلِفُونَ

And the people used to be one single community but they disputed. If it were not for a preordained word from your Lord, they would have indeed been judged regarding their disputes. (10:19)

… كَانَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَحِدَةً فَبَعَثَ اللَّهُ النَّبِيِّينَ مُبَشِّرِينَ وَمُنْذِرِينَ وَأَنْزَلَ مَعَهُمُ الْكِتَبَ بِالْحَقِّ لِيَحْكُمَ بَيْنَ النَّاسِ فِيمَا اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ

The people used to be a single community. Then God appointed prophets, as bearers of good news as well as warners and revealed with them the scripture truthfully in order to judge among people regarding their disputes. ….(2:213)


What are the virtues of islam?

The virtues and commandments ordained by God are repeated throughout the Quran. At a high level, a sampling of these virtues include:

  • not associating partners with God; commemorating God often; reflecting and contemplating His signs in nature and scripture; observing the contact prayers (salaat); 
  • giving generously to the poor, relatives, orphans, needy, hungry, homeless, refugees; providing freedom to slaves;
  • not to kill; not to steal; observing chastity, truthfulness, perseverance, appreciativeness, kindness, humility, forgiveness, repentance, trustworthiness, honesty;
  • avoid backbiting, slander, gossip, spying on others, making fun of others or calling people names;
  • being fair in trade and business, giving full measure, not grabbing wealth belonging to others, not covet the wealth bestowed upon others;
  • standing firm in justice even against our own selves and relatives, and without being prejudiced by hatred of others; being truthful in our testimonies; being faithful to our promises and pledges;
  • honoring our parents and treat them kindly;
  • not being greedy, stingy, nor extravagant;
  • fasting in month of Ramadan; pilgrimage to the House in Mecca;
  • using one’s intelligence, and not accept any information one does not have knowledge of or cannot verify with our own senses.
  • Some examples of passages that list Quranic commandments are 2:177, 25:63-77, 23:1-9, 17:22-39, 70:22-35, 49:11-13 etc.

As is apparent, these are timeless, universal virtues that are foundations of all faith traditions in the world, although the Quran places a strong emphasis on monotheism and the worship of God alone. Also, there is little resemblance between these virtues described in the Quran, and the rules and regulations that constitute the subject matter of the schools of Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh) in traditional Islam.5 



  1. The Arabic word Allah is ubiquitously used as the proper name of God, and Islamic religious discourse customarily avoids using words for God from other languages. The Persian word Khuda that gained acceptance in the early days of Islam before such linguistic biases became prevalent, is a rare exception.
  2. Shia Muslims additionally testify that “Ali is the patron of Allah”. 
  3. hadith attributed to Muhammad that his nation will break up into 73 sects, 72 of which are destined for hell and only one sect will be in paradise, is frequently discussed in this context.
  4. Referred to as takfir – the process of declaring other Muslims as disbelievers or apostates, based on sectarian identity. The Amman Message is a declaration released by the King of Jordan in 2004, on the basis on fatwas issued by a conglomeration of scholars belonging different sects of Islam. It defines the official list of sects that one should be “an adherent of”, to be classified as a Muslim. The Message forbids the declaration (takfir) of an adherent within any of these sects as an “apostate”. The message is notably silent on what treatment can be meted out to adherents of sects outside this official list, whom they implicitly deem permissible to declare “apostate”.
  5. Examples of topics that are subject matter of fiqh are the rules on beards, hijab, gender segregation, ritual impurity, personal hygiene, toilet etiquettes, minutiae of prayer, ablution and dietary rules, restrictions on religious observances during menstruation, specific incantations (duas) for various circumstances, which hand to eat, which leg to put first into the toilet, permissibility of music, dogs, pictorial art, chess, gold, silk etc. These links have examples of the usual questions that are addressed by fiqhislamqa.info,  shafiifiqh.com, islamqa.orgislamic-laws.com (shia).