The Arabic verb yuslim means “to surrender” or “to submit.” It is used in a special way in the Qur’an to mean to surrender (one’s self) to God. The derived Qur’anic noun, Islām, thus means surrender or submission to God. To be a Muslim is to believe in God, whom the Qur’an calls “Allah,” as the One Lord, submit to His will, and carry out His commandments.
Contrary to the common misconception that it is the religion that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad only, Islam is the name of the universal religion that God commanded, through His various messengers, all people to embrace.
The Qur’an tells us that the name “Muslim” was in fact coined by God who used it long before Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an:
Do jihad [O you who believe!] in the way of Allah the kind of jihad that is due to Him. He has chosen you and has not laid upon you a hardship in religion; it is the faith of your father Abraham. He [Allah] has named you al-Muslimīn (the Muslims) earlier and in this (the Qur’an), so that the Messenger be a witness over you, and you be witnesses over people. Therefore keep up prayer, pay the obligatory alms, and hold fast to Allah. He is your Master; so how excellent a Master and how excellent a Supporter! (22.78)
God has named the followers of His religion “Muslims” not only in the Qur’an but also in books that He revealed to previous prophets, such as the Torah of Moses and the Injīl of Jesus.
The following verse states that prophet Noah, who lived long before prophet Abraham, told his people that God ordered him to be “one of the Muslims”:
But if you [O people!] turn away [from my call], I have not asked you for any reward; my reward is only with Allah, and I have been commanded to be one of the Muslims. (10.72)
Thus, previous divine books and prophets used terms equivalent to “Islam” and “Muslim” in their respective languages.
Islam is the name of the one religion that Allah, the One and only God, revealed to every prophet He sent to people since the first man and prophet, Adam. For instance, all of the following prophets were Muslims who taught Islam to people: Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Zechariah, John, and Jesus. The following verse describes Israelite prophets as “Muslims”:
Surely We revealed the Torah in which there was guidance and light; with it, the prophets who became Muslims judged for the Jews. (5.44)
These are other verses about the prophets Abraham and his sons and grandsons:
And who turns away from the religion of Abraham but he who makes himself a fool; and surely We chose him (Abraham) in this world, and in the hereafter he is surely among the righteous. (2.130) When his Lord said to him: “Be a Muslim”; he said: “I have become a Muslim (I have submitted) to the Lord of the people.” (2.131) And Abraham enjoined the same on his sons, and so did Jacob (Abraham’s grandson): “O my sons! Surely Allah has chosen for you the [true] religion, therefore die not except as Muslims.” (2.132) Or were you [O People of the Book!] witnesses when death visited Jacob, when he said to his sons: “What will you worship after me?” They said: “We shall worship your God and the God of your fathers Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, [who is] one God, and to Him we are Muslims (submit).” (2.133)
Significantly, Muhammad’s followers are usually called “those who believe,” in reference to the fact that they believed in Muhammad. Another term that is used much less is “believers.” Clearly, the term “Muslim” is universal and not restricted to those who followed Muhammad. Here is another instructive observation: even when naming specific religious groups, such as the Jews and Christians, the Qur’an never identifies the followers of Muhammad as “Muslims” as a way to differentiate them from the other groups. The Prophet’s followers are called “those who believe,” as in the following verse:
Those who believe, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans — whoever believe in Allah and the Last day and does good — they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve. (2.62)
The commissioning of Muhammad was not an unprecedented or unique event. It was another instance of God sending a prophet, which is how He communicated with people:
Say [O Muhammad!]: “I am not a novelty among the messengers, nor do I know what will be done with me or with you. I only follow that which is revealed to me; I am but a manifest warner [of hell].” (46.9)
The revelation that Muhammad received came from the same source of the earlier divine revelations:
We have revealed to you [O Muhammad!] as we revealed to Noah and the prophets after him; and as We revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the children of Jacob, Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon. And We gave David a Book. (4.163) And [We gave revelations] to other messengers whom We have mentioned to you before and other messengers whom We have not mentioned to you. And Allah spoke to Moses — certainly spoke to him. (4.164)
He has ordained for you [O you who believe!] the religion that He enjoined on Noah; that which We revealed to you [O Muhammad!]; and that which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus: “Establish the religion, and make no divisions therein.” What you call the polytheists to is hard for them. Allah chooses for Himself whom He wills, and guides to Him who turns to Him. (42.13)
Muhammad’s message was a continuation of the previous messages, in the same way that Jesus’ message continued on from Moses’, Moses’ message continued on from Joseph’s, Joseph’s continued on from Jacob’s, and so on. All messengers taught the same creeds, such as the oneness of God. But their teachings had some different practices and behavioural codes, which were also commanded by God. These reflected cultural differences between the societies to which they were sent, were intended to respond to certain events, or were simply tests for the believers. As we shall see later, Jesus made lawful some foods that had been declared unlawful by the Mosaic law.
What distinguishes Prophet Muhammad from other Muslim prophets is that he is the last prophet of Islam, which means that the Qur’an is the last divine Book:
[O people!] Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the last of the prophets; and Allah is aware of everything. (33.40)
In addition to the belief in the oneness of God, the hereafter, and the angels, the Qur’an requires the Muslim to believe in all previous messengers and the books and messages that God revealed to them. This is consistent with the Qur’an’s affirmation that all messengers taught the same religion and were sent by the one and same God. The Muslim is commanded to hold all prophets in high esteem and reverence. The failure to believe in any prophet is a failure to believe in all prophets, and a failure to be a Muslim:
The Messenger [Muhammad] believes in that which has been revealed to him from his Lord, and so do the believers; they all believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, and His messengers; we do not discriminate between any of His messengers; and they say: “We hear and obey [Allah’s commandments]; grant us Your forgiveness, our Lord. And to You is the eventual course.” (2.285)
This brief introduction should help in understanding the Qur’an’s description of Jesus as a Muslim prophet.