The “Focus on Early History of Islam (A Refreshing Look at the Seerah)” uniquely views the birth of Islam and its expansion placing more emphasis on issues relevant to Christianity and Judaism. The extent of common ground among the three monotheistic religions is far more than what is commonly known. This commonality is crucial to the fraternity and peace of the entire human race.

In the 21st century, we would like to see coalition and comradeship rather than animosity and collision experienced previously.

This writing is a study intending to explore facts of history, as they were, and interpret them in the light of the culture of those societies.

Even though Islam was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), in the light of history in the early period of the seventh century CE, it is one of the most misunderstood religions in the West.

A rational fresh look into the faith of Islam from its inception and understanding its principles and beliefs is timely and essential in this fast-merging world.

The “vast” world we used to know decades ago is soon becoming a small village. Thanks to the advances in technological communication and transportation, and exemplary writing intending to remove misinformation and clarify misunderstanding. Learning about the cultures of the nearly fifth the population of this world is elemental to a peaceful survival.

Terms and Definitions

To begin our study of the rise and contribution of Islam to our civilization, we will first explore certain terminologies and the effect of culture differences on people’s behavior.

Culture and Linguistic Terms

The culture of a group of people is directly linked to their language. The usage of some equivalent linguistic terms in one culture, however, can mean different things in another culture. The vast geographical distances separating peoples and nations on earth are prime contributors to the make-up of localized customs and linguistic terms.

The possible difference of the meaning of like-terms by each culture often leads to misunderstanding and mistakes. In this respect, Islam in the west suffers considerably. Theological terms of a typical western understanding are thought to have the same equivalent understanding in the eastern cultures. Nevertheless, when the issues are deeply explored, one finds both sides are actually in agreement, but the local usage of terms made them look far apart.

Examples of this are the terms “Jihad” and “Islamic Fundamentalist.” The term “Jihad” is interpreted by western writers as “Holy War.” In Arabic the term “Jihad” means to strive and exert effort. This meaning is not equivalent to “Holy War.” The term “Holy War” is often used in association with the Crusades wars, while the term Jihad is not limited to actual war, and is certainly no substitution for “Holy War”.

We have dedicated the section “The term Jihad”, below for a full account and explanation of this term. In a similar manner the term “Islamic Fundamentalist” often used by the western media for stereotyping Muslims as the “bad guys” or “bad.”

In the Islamic teachings, however, Islam is defined as the “middle of all roads.” Therefore, a typical Muslim, who takes the middle of all roads, which is the most accepted way for both eastern and western cultures, becomes a “fundamentalist” or a “bad guy”. Thus, the middle of the road or “good guy” has been misread to be the “bad guy.”

Inaccurate and improper usage of terms is at best misleading. Better yet, Islam denounces extremism, which is what is really intended by the media in the term “Islamic Fundamentalist”. This example illustrates an actual reality that we must be aware of. If “knowing the problem is half the solution,” in our case, knowing the problem is very much its cure.

Frequent usage of the terms “Islamic Fundamentalist” and “Jihad” in the western media and literature have induced an unnecessary animosity between Muslims and the west, especially Christians and Jews. This type of misunderstanding, which was raised by ignorance, must have no place in today’s intellectual societies.

Based on this understanding, we will explore the meaning of the terms, Allah, Islam, Jihad and Prophet within the Islamic culture and Arabic language to further eliminate what may have been construed as different or foreign to this western culture.

1. The Term Allah

The Arabic word Allah is the proper name of God, Lord of the creation, Maker and Sustainer of this universe and beyond. Allah is the same God that Prophets Abraham, Moses, and Jesus worshipped and submitted to. The name Allah is unique, given to no one else other than Allah. Furthermore, the word Allah cannot be made plural or gender based.

Muslims believe that Allah is a limitless and boundless entity. Allah cannot be defined by shape or form. Shapes or forms constitute limitation that contradicts the basic definition of the limitless. I equate Dr. Hassan Hathout, author of “Reading the Muslim Mind” who said:

“God is infinite, but human beings are finite and the finite cannot comprehend the infinite.” All Glory be to Allah, God. He is the Wise and Merciful. Allah has many names or attributes. Some of the ninety nine attributes common to Muslims are: Most-Loving, Most-Caring, All-Knowing, Clement, the Pure, the Forgiver, the Compassionate, the Grantor of Mercy, the Tender, the Full-of-Pity, the Subtle, the Aware, the Peace, the Lord of the Throne of Glory, the Judge, the Just, the King, the Owner, and the Most Powerful…

A believer is one who honors these attributes, then sincerely applies and practices them in spirit and in action. For a better feel for some of God’s attributes, the following Quranic verses are related.

{But ask forgiveness of your Lord and turn unto Him (in repentance): for my Lord is indeed full of mercy and Loving-kindness (wadood).} (11:90)

The Arabic term wadood has no English equivalent. The closest English word is “loving”. However, loving does not convey the hearty meaning of the term wadood, which implicates deep and cheerful affection, most caring, most cuddling with full and deep kindness.

Those who are familiar with the Arabic language can appreciate the difficulty the translators are having in translating this term. Yusuf Ali, for example translates it as “Most Loving-kindness,” Daryabadi as “Full of Loving-kindness,” and Pickthall, settled for only “Loving.” Similarly, the Arabic terms lateef comes from lutf, and ra’oof comes from ra’fa. Again, these terms have no English equivalents. Lateef is an attribute of Allah describing His ability to guard with care and protect with love, especially during catastrophes. In much of the Muslim world, it is customary to hear the word Lateef or any of its forms surrounding accidents and catastrophes. Lateef is often associated with the attribute Khabeer, meaning the Aware (of the unexpected, hidden or upcoming). Let us read the following verse:

{Vision comprehendeth Him not, but He comprehendeth (all) vision. He is the Subtle, the Aware (Who masters tenderness and pitifulness on His creation).} (6:103)

2. The term Islam

The word Islam is the name of the Religion revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the early part of the 7th. century Common Era. God gives this name to Prophet Muhammad as seen from the following Revelations:

{This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favor unto you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.} (5:3)

{Lo! Religion with Allah is (Islam), the Surrender (to His will and guidance).} (3:19)

The Linguistic Meaning of the Word Islam

The Arabic word Islam is a derivative of the word Silm. Silm can take three meanings: 1) To remove, cure or purify from external and internal harmful matter. 2) Peace or serenity. 3) Submission.

The Religious Meaning of the Word Islam

The religious meaning of the term Islam is a total submission and surrender to the Will of God through conviction. Therefore, a Muslim is he who submits and obeys wholeheartedly the commands of God. From this belief, one can easily establish why Muslims consider Abraham, Moses, Jesus as well as the rest of the prophets as Muslims. A total submission of all creatures to the Sustainer and Originator of this universe is beautifully illustrated in Chapter 3, Al-‘Imran:

{Seek they other than the religion of Allah, when unto Him (aslama) submitteth whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly, or unwillingly, and unto Him they will be returned.} (3: 83)

The Holy Quran interpreters explain that people, whether believers or unbelievers, willingly or unwillingly, submit to God by means of His natural and physical laws, such as the wind, oceans, illness, health, gravity, life and death, and the Day of Resurrection. Thus, those who choose to submit to God willingly, their submission comes in harmony with nature, but those who repulse the guidance of God will be returned to His Will in submission, despite their unwillingness. Muhammadism and the like names are thus misnomers for Islam. Writers who related Islam to Muhamadanism copying the convention: Christianity for Christ erred when they applied it to Islam. In fact, the usage of the term Muhammadanisim cannot be found anywhere in the Islamic literature.

3. The Term Jihad

Many people in the West are wrongly accustomed to the term jihad to mean “Holy War.” This assumption implicates terror and bloodshed incurred by Muslims to Christians, since the term “Holy War” is mainly the result of the 250 years long Crusade wars. By all means “War” in Islam is not “Holy.”

Investigating the nature of the term jihad we discover that people in the west have been quite misinformed about its meaning. The word Jihad came from the Arabic root-word Juhd, which means: exertion of effort, strive or struggle. (See Al Munjid Dictionary, page 106). Furthermore, its usage in the Holy Quran does not certainly reflect the Western meaning of “Holy War.”

{As for those who strive in Us (jahadu), We surely guide them to Our paths, and lo! Allah is with these who do good.} (29: 69)

Interpreters of the Holy Quran explain this passage to be saying: those who strive with might and main, with constancy and determination, the light of guidance and mercy of God will come to assist them and cure their defects and shortcomings. Striving to be closer to God, to cure an illness of the heart or to do good for others cannot be construed in any way as “Holy War.” Let us take another example. Allah said:

{And (jahidu) strive for Allah with the endeavor which is His right. He hath chosen you and hath not laid upon you in religion any hardship; the faith of your father Abraham (is yours). He hath named you Muslims of old time and in this (Scripture), that the messenger may be a witness against you, and that you may be witnesses against mankind. So establish worship, pay the poor due, and hold fast to Allah. He is your Protecting Friend. A blessed Patron and a blessed Helper!} (22:78)

In these verses, striving is certainly called out for spiritual gain. As Prophet Muhammad is a guide and exemplar among Muslims, Muslims ought to be exemplars for mankind; they must strive to do good, to pay charity, to establish formal prayer, and to hold on tight and be closer to God.

Again, there is no direct implication to “Holy War” against Christians or Jews. In fact, one might even be surprised to learn that Allah used the word jihad in association with the disbelievers against the believers. Let us read:

{We have enjoined on man kindness to parents; but if they strive (jahadu) to make you join with Me that of which thou hast no knowledge, then obey them not. Unto Me is your return and I shall tell you what you used to do.} (29:8)

In this verse the word jihad is used for an un-Godly purpose. Unbelieving parents are striving to force (by the act of jihad) their offspring to make associates with God. One just cannot see how the word jihad can be interpreted as “Holy War,” even when used for something unholy.

During the Crusades, Muslims defended themselves against the invading Christian Crusades that marched all the way from England and France to Palestine, Syria and Egypt to “liberate” Jerusalem. The Muslims act of defense was certainly jihad, but still could not be taken to mean “Holy War.”

The term “Holy War” translated to Arabic is “al Harb al Muqadasah.” This term does not exist in the Arabic culture or literature. Islamic philosophy regarding the soul is to safeguard it and to prevent bloodshed. See our posted article, “Islam: Legacy of Peace.” It is important to note that the policy of Islam regarding the declaration of any war is to defend freedom of belief and for justice against evil and tyranny. Such principles many of us in the west hold in high esteem. See the upcoming topic: “Islam’s Policy for Initiating a War.”

False understanding of the word jihad as a “Holy War” declared by Muslims against Christians and Jews is only a myth. In fact, no rational mind can find a good reason for the 250 year Crusade war that left scars of ill feeling on millions upon millions of people from both Islamic and Christian faiths.

4. The Term Prophet

The usage of the term “prophet” in the Islamic and Judeo-Christian cultures is frequent and common, but the definition of “prophet” is quite different in the two cultures. In the Islamic culture the word prophet is given only to people who are appointed by God to receive and deliver His Message.

To a Muslim, a prophet is one who is divinely inspired, close to God, and exhibits the highest moral standards and ethical values. Characters such as purity of the heart, dignity, honesty, and clarity of the mind are viewed by Muslims as primary elements of a prophet of God. Hence a prophet is respected, reverenced, and is taken as a beautiful and sacred model for Muslims.

Since prophets represent the highest level of moralities, to a Muslim, they cannot commit major sins that would incur the wrath of God. Hence a Muslim may be offended if he or she learns of lower standards associated with prophets.

In the western culture, however, the word “prophet” can be given to any person gifted with more insights than the ordinary people as well as holy prophets of God. For example, the word “prophet” is given to the Prophets of the Old and New Testament, and in the meantime the word “prophet” is given to poets, philosophers and scholars throughout the western literature.

Thus, according to the western standards, holiness criteria can no longer be a stature of the word “prophet,” since any imperfect human being can be a prophet. Broadening the usage of “prophet” beyond the sacred dimension can damage the perfect model standard for Muslims. For example, the Judeo-Christian literature describes Prophet Solomon as committing a major sin. See (TBA). To a Muslim Solomon is an example to ensue. This creates a conflict – a person of mischief is not an example of inspiration.

Furthermore, to a Muslim, committing major sins by common people is considered an extremely offensive act, nonetheless, a Prophet, the foundation of spiritual and moral behavior is absolutely offensive.

Un-disclosing the differences of the meaning of the word “prophet” in both western and eastern cultures has significantly contributed to the agitation between Muslims and Christians. It is shameful for such an advanced world to have this kind of flaw.

5. The Holy Quran

The Glorious Quran is the word of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years, and stands today as it has been since it was revealed. The Quran is a complete code of guidance for the Muslims and the source of spiritual nourishment. Muslims base their civil laws on the guidance given to them in this Holy Book. As a sign of its miraculous power, the Holy Quran attracts people of all faiths to God. People find an inward joy of its surface as well as the in-depth meanings of its passages. The deeper the study and the discovery of its refreshing and wonderful meaning, the greater the joy and attraction to God. Here is an example of the story of Noah and the arch:

{(Thus it was) till, when Our commandment came to pass and the oven gushed forth water, We said: Load therein two of every kind, a pair (the male and female), and thy household, save him against whom the word hath gone forth already, and those who believe. And but a few were thy who believed with him. So he said: Embark ye on the Ark in the name of Allah whether it move or be at rest! For my Lord is be sure Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful! And it sailed with them amid waves like mountains, and Noah cried unto his son and he was standing aloof: O my son! Come ride with us, and be not with the disbelievers. He said: ‘I shall betake me to some mountain that will save me from the water. (Noah) said: This day there is none that saveth from the commandment of Allah save him on whom He hath had mercy. And the wave came in between them, so he was among the drowned. And it was said: ‘O earth! Swallow thy water and, O sky! withhold (thy rain)!’ and the water abated, And the commandment was fulfilled. And it (the ship) came to rest upon (the mount) Al-Judo and it was said: A far removal for wrongdoing folk!} (11: 40-45)

The verses of the Holy Quran cannot be translated from Arabic into other languages, but the meanings of these verses can be. The composition of the verses is just not mere letters and words in a sentence. As the verses of the Quran are read, a heart tranquilizing tone is also transmitted. Anyone who hears the recited words is affected by it regardless of the language they speak.

In addition, the style of reading and rhythm associated with each passage gives its words a more meaningful sense of the case or situation it is relating. To explain to the reader the type of inspiration Muslims take from the Quran and its stories of the Prophets, we dedicated the Section: The Prophets of God: Source of Inspiration, in Part II, Few Basic Concepts, next.

By Faysal Burhan

This paper first appeared at It is republished with the author’s kind permission.