What is the difference between “Muslim” and “Islamic”?
even advanced students and scholars of Islamic studies use the words Muslim
and Islamic interchangeably, it is a mistake to do so in all contexts.
The two words are both adjectives, but they have fundamentally different
meanings and are properly used in very different contexts.
word Muslim [مسلم] is Arabic in form
and function. It is a descriptive active participle [ism fā`il] derived from the verb, aslama.
This Arabic form connotes agency being embedded within the description. Therefore,
it describes a person or a group of persons who consciously follow or adhere to
the religion called Islam [الإسلام].
Since it is an Arabic term in origin, form, and meaning, the word should be
used in the context appropriate in that language. The word Muslim is
never used in Arabic to describe a thing, and idea, or an event. Rather, it is
used to describe human beings who believe in and practice Islamic teachings. It
is therefore incorrect to say Muslim architecture, Muslim music, Muslim
art, Muslim thought, etc.
word Islamic is an adjective that takes its meaning from the fact that
it reflects some characteristics of Islam, in varying degrees. It can be used
in two contexts. First, the adjective Islamic describes things, ideas,
and events whose origins are in Islam. In this sense, it complements the
adjective, Muslim, which describes persons. Second, the word Islamic
can be used to describe things that are present in Islamic societies and
cultures, even if their origins are not rooted in Islam or produced by Muslim
peoples. The Islamic civilization came to existence because Muslims’ ideas and
ideals were dominant, but they were not the sole engines that produced its rich
legacy. Therefore, the adjective Islamic was broadly used to account for
all the productions of this civilization, authored by all–Muslims and
must be noted that it is possible to apply the adjective Islamic to a
person or group of persons, but such use must be deliberate. For example, some people often
ask the question, “are you Islamic?”, Instead of, “are you Muslim?”. This is a common
mistake. However, it is possible that the questioner used Islamic as it
is used in Arabic, islamiyy [إسلاميّ],
in which case it would mean Islamist (discussed below).
Such use would be appropriate, though unlikely to be the intended meaning.
illustrate the different usages, let’s consider the phrases Islamic architecture and Muslim architecture. The phrase Islamic
architecture refers to architecture that is broadly influenced, limited, inspired,
informed by Islamic values, even if it is produced by non-Muslim
persons. Islamic architecture might consist of purely Islam-inspired
elements, but it might also consist of elements that are not inspired and influenced
by Islam or Muslim architects. By contrast, the term Muslim architecture is attributive, not descriptive. It refers to
architecture created by Muslim persons. Where Islamic architecture is a broad descriptive term, accurate use of
the term Muslim architecture requires
a specific context.
this distinction in mind, it becomes clear that the adjective Muslim is
exclusive whereas the adjective Islamic is inclusive. Not all Islamic things are produced by
Muslims, but Muslim-produced things must be things produced by individuals who
are Muslim. A musician who is not Muslim may produce an Islamic song. A Muslim
band, meaning a band whose members are all Muslim, may produce and play songs
that have no roots in Islam or in Muslim communities of any era of any
background. Though in both examples Islam is present through the expressions, experiences,
and backgrounds of the persons involved, that link is insufficient to merge the
distinction is not merely technical. Rather, the misuse of these terms reflects
and perpetuates power structures that elevate Western colonial thought and
diminish the rich cultural, political, and social legacy of Islamic thought and
the many peoples who have contributed to it. Conflating the meaning of the
words Islamic and Muslim forces some to invent new words to
communicate aspects that are already embedded within the meaning of these
words. I will cite three examples of unnecessary descriptors whose use
creates other conceptual and practical problems. First I discuss the use and
utility of the words Muhammadan, Islamicate, and Islamicist.
Second, I explore the conceptual, practical, and theoretical implications of
conflating the meaning of the words Islamic and Muslim and the
ensuing general problems.
colonial Europe moved into Asia and Africa picking up the pieces of the
collapsing Islamic civilization, which by then has morphed into an empire, its thinkers
and intellectuals made up new labels like, Muhammadan religion and Muhammadan
people, instead of Islam and Muslims, as if these communities
were obscurely unknown, being defined and introduced by the enlightened, sophisticated
Western discoverers. To my knowledge, besides its use mostly in modern Islamic
thought as a rhetorical tool, the adjective Muhammadan was never used in
classical Islamic religious and non-religious texts as a name for Islam. It is
therefore bizarre that Orientalist scholars coined it to introduce a religion
that has been organized, established, and defined for nearly 1400 years.
the period when the use of the word Muhammadan was in decline, another Western
scholar came up with the word, Islamicate, ostensibly, to meet the need
for a descriptor that account for the productions of non-Muslims in Muslim
majority communities. Marshall Hodgson invented the word, Islamicate,
and many scholars and students of Islamic studies have used it ever since to
describe things, ideas, or events that are influenced by Islam but whose
origins or ownership cannot be fully attributed to Muslim individuals or Islamic
values and teachings. I believe that the adjective Islamic accommodates
this need when used consistently and appropriately.
last example of made-up labels is the designation of academic specialization
focusing on the study of Islamic societies and Islamic thought from the
formative period until modern times: Islamicist. Some scholars and
commentators have coined this term, perhaps for specificity purposes. However, in
doing so, they reduced the academic study of the rich and complex legacy of all
Islamic societies to a single approach that explores the Islamic civilization
through the religious lens only, and often from within the discipline of
religious studies. In doing so, they denied the fact that scholars from other
academic disciplines like anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists,
historians, political scientists, jurists, economists, philologists,
philosophers, and others do in fact engage in the study of the legacy of the
Islamic civilization from the perspective of the relevant theoretical and
of the context and justification of coining labels and categories to catalog
and discuss the legacy of Islamic societies, such actions end up producing
serious methodological, conceptual, and political problems.
conflating Muslim and Islamic obscures the meaning of and
difference between phrases like, Muslim cultures versus Islamic
cultures and Muslim civilization versus Islamic civilization.
However, by keeping in mind the origins of the words Muslim and Islamic,
in the English language, the phrase Muslim cultures can be used in the
attributive context: cultures of the Muslim people, which is different from Islamic
cultures, which would be partially influenced, limited, inspired, or
informed by Islam but Muslims did not necessarily produce or live them. Islamic
cultures are not necessarily filtered through Islam’s value and judgement
systems. However, Muslim cultures, generally, are filtered and approved
by some of Islam’s value and judgment systems since Muslims must reconcile them
with their lived faith. The distinction becomes even more compelling when
considering the often used phrases, Islamic civilization and Muslim
scholars of Islamic studies have applied the descriptor Arab
civilization instead of Islamic civilization, effectively denying the
contributions of non-Arabs, like African Berber and Touereg peoples, Asian
Kurdish peoples, Turkic peoples, Persian peoples, Indian peoples, and thousands
of other ethnic and racial communities. Similarly, some use the label Muslim
civilization, instead of Islamic civilization, willfully ignoring the
role and contributions of non-Muslim communities including Jews, Christians,
Zoroastrians, Copts, and hundreds of other religious communities who lived as
full productive members of Islamic societies.
with proper definition and understanding of civilization, it becomes
evident that there could be no Muslim civilization. A civilization
consists of the collective achievements and contributions (negative and
positive) of all ethnic, racial, religious, ideological, economic, and national
communities. One religious community might be dominant and contribute significantly
more than the other communities, making its culture ever present and influential.
However, a single culture can never become a civilization without borrowing
from, incorporating, assimilating, and appropriating other communities’
the adjective Muslim and the noun Islam are Arabic words, the
rules governing how they are used in that language might shed some light on
their use by Muslim scholars and grammarians of Arabic language as well. Since
the rise of religiously inspired political parties in Arab and Islamic societies,
the adjective Islamic [islamiyy] has been coined to refer to a person
affiliated with Islamist movements, but the adjective Muslim kept its
original meaning, referring to followers of or adherents to the religion,
Islam. In a sense, this conventional naming confirms at least two things about
the word Islamic: (a) The adjective Islamic is a broader
descriptor than Muslim, and (b) it signals that the thing or idea may
not necessarily have roots in Islamic traditions, but it is part thereof.
fact, its application in Arabic by some governments to describe Islamists suggests
that Islamists’ ideas may not be rooted in Islam. These governments’ actions are
reflected in their use of labels: Islamist groups are referred to as being Islamic
[Islamiyyun], distinguishing them from being Muslim [muslimun].
These groups are often accused of corrupting Islam, making it possible for
governments to ban their activities and imprison or kill their leaders. In
other words, Muslims themselves have been keenly aware of the existence of a
plurality of Islamic expressions (in politics, literature, arts, etc.)
produced both by Muslims and non-Muslims, that may or may not conform to
Islamic teachings. However, they also recognize cultural or artistic productions
that are directly derived from Islamic traditions and filtered through Islamic
value and judgement systems that can be said to be Muslim arts and Muslim
cultures. Such things, however, are very specific and limited and are often
produced and undertaken exclusively by Muslims.
the richness and specificity of the words Islamic and Muslim make
it unnecessary to invent new words to describe the legacy of the Islamic
civilization. The adoption of these adjectives and their proper application
relieves scholars of Islamic studies, especially those working within the
confines of religious departments in state universities where they have to be mindful
of the exigencies of Establishment Clause, from the burden of having to define
who is Muslim and who is not. Importantly, when Western scholars manufacture
adjectives or use adjectives carelessly, they perpetuate the diminutive,
reductionist myth that other communities lack the necessary vocabulary to
describe themselves, account for their rich legacy and acknowledge, and give
credit to the diverse peoples within.
Indeed, misuse of
adjectives and labels could be unintentional errors. But some made-up labels
are deliberate and are often motivated by politics and prejudice. Labels and
categories are consequential tools often used by those in power to keep certain
social groups in check and to impose a specific narrative about them.
Adjectives are qualifiers, and as such, they are instruments that are used to divide
society into social classes, impose legal limitations on certain social groups,
and draw boundaries between those with power and those who lack it. The capacity
of labels to be used as tools of discrimination make it even more compelling
that those who use such descriptors and those being described are aware and mindful
of the potential social and psychological harm they could inflict and the legacy
of inequality they help preserve.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His teaching and research interests cover both classical and modern legal and political thought in Islamic societies. He is currently documenting and writing about the social movements and armed conflicts triggered by the events popularly known as the Arab Spring. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.