What Is A Muslim?
By Joel Winter
The word Muslim is greatly misunderstood in today’s society, but simply refers to someone who submits to one God. It is not defined by nationhood, race or ethnicity, nor is it solely restricted to those who exhibit all the outward signs of the faith such as going to a mosque, praying five times a day or reading the Quran. On the contrary, it is possible for someone to have the essential belief in one God, and yet never have heard of the Quran or even the word “Muslim”. There can be Muslims among any ethnic, racial or religious group.
The Quran says,
“Surely those who believe, those who are Jews, the Christians, and Sabians [monotheists who may not belong to a particular “religion”] - whoever believes in God and the last day and does righteous deeds - shall have their reward with their Lord and Sustainer; and no fear need they have and neither shall they grieve.”
This passage shows that the first requirement for being a Muslim is belief in one God. The Christians who are referred to are those who believe in the divinity of God instead of Jesus. The second requirement is belief in the day of judgement. The third condition is that one lives a righteous life.
According to this definition, some people who call themselves by another religion such as Judaism and Christianity are actually Muslims. This realization alters the perception towards these and other groups, in that it enables one to not negatively judge others by what they call themselves, but to consider the true intentions of their hearts, as demonstrated by their words and actions.
We can also seek to understand the ideas of those who have belief in one God, but do not call themselves by any certain name. Given the above definition of a Muslim, it is not impossible to visualize people living in a remote area, who have no concept of the Quran, using their intellect to discover that there is one God and a day of judgement. This reasoning would enable these people to create a just and truthful society, and indeed, according to the above verse, such people would be Muslims.
In defining what belief in one God means, it is important to remember that a Muslim is not a polytheist, and does not attribute any saints, partners, helpers, sons, or daughters to God. Muslims believe that no one has a share in God’s power, since God is one and indivisible, the all-powerful. If someone believes in anything or anyone being divine other than God this person is committing what in Arabic is referred to as “shirk”.
Unfortunately, shirk takes place in so many so-called Muslim countries. In some places it has become very confused with the true practices of the faith. It is not uncommon to see people praying at a gravesite of some venerated person or “saint”. They believe that the “saint” can dispense God’s mercy. This is, of course, a form of shirk, because it is an attempt to divide Gods power and attributes ultimate power to something other than God. The Quran states clearly:
“Knowest not that to God belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth? And besides Him you have neither patron nor helper.” (2:108)
“God does not forgive one who sets up partners with Him; but he forgives anything else, to whom He pleaseth; to set up partners with God is to devise a sin most heinous indeed.” (4:48)
Associating anything with God is such a serious offense that, although God may forgive other acts, He will not forgive anyone who does this. If, however, someone who performs shirk becomes aware of his or her ignorance and repents, then it is possible to receive Allah’s forgiveness:
“God accepts the repentance of those who do evil in ignorance and repent soon afterwards; to them will God turn in mercy: For God is full of knowledge and wisdom.” (4:17)
It is feasible, therefore, for people who call themselves Muslims to be living in a state of ignorance. If they continue to commit shirk after clear evidence is presented to them, they are not truly Muslims, but are referred to in Arabic as a kafir. A kafir is one who covers up or denies the truth. In the Quran it states:
“We have sent them the Truth: But they indeed practice falsehood!” (23:90)
It is not important what someone is called or referred as. One who calls himself a Christian, Jew, etc, and yet is righteous, believes in one God and the day of judgement may indeed be a Muslim. The criteria for being a Muslim is not decided by membership in a particular group or country, but by whether one chooses to think, investigate and confirm the truth.
“Whoever submits his whole self to God and is a doer of good, he will get his reward with his Lord; and there shall be no fear come upon them, nor shall they grieve.” (2:112)
Islam as submission to one God did not originate with Muhammad, but has been the outcome of a long history of prophethood throughout the ages, from Adam through Noah, Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus, to name a few. All nations and peoples have been exposed to the concept of belief in one God throughout time. Those who accepted it became Muslims, in the sense that they submitted to one God. Some of them retained this belief over the ages, while others have gone astray from it.
All the true prophets of God throughout human history came carrying the banner of the belief that God is one and that they were the messengers of God. And like many things in the planning of God, the message developed with the development of humanity until it was completed with the book that is the Quran and the human example that is Muhammad the last messenger** of God.
“Today I have perfected for you your belief and completed over you my favours and I am satisfied with Islam (accepted) for you as a belief” (5:3).
**According to the Quran, in the context of this planet Earth, Muhammad is the last prophet.