Get the Labels Right

Language Issues – Islam, Islamic, and Muslim

Fortunately, the era when Islam was dubbed “Mohammadanism” as a parallel construct to Christianity and Buddhism has come to an end. Nowadays, the most frequent errors encountered relate to the use of the terms “Islam” or “Islamic” and “Muslim”.

Islam is the name of the religion whose final Prophet was Muhammad, and simply means a state of peace achieved through submission to God.

Muslim is the name used for an adherent of the Islamic faith.

The term Islamic is accurately applied only to what pertains directly to the faith and its doctrines (such as Islamic law, Islamic worship, Islamic celebrations, Islamic values, principles and beliefs). The term Islam belongs to the realm of aspiration, the ideal, the pure faith. We may acquire knowledge from this realm from authentic Islamic sources, and we may examine its constructs, interpret its doctrines and describe what is required of adherents of the Islamic faith; however, we may not describe a person or any historical phenomenon as Islamic.

To illustrate the problems inherent in usage, an author or educator might employ a seemingly benign formulation like “Islamic women” or “Islamic populations”, even “Islamic countries”, when “Muslim” women, populations or countries are clearly meant.

When the historical phenomenon and cultural content begin to diverge from what is Islamic (doctrinally speaking), the situation becomes more problematic. Some scholars have tried to identify and describe phenomena such as an “Islamic city”, “Islamic trade routes”, “Islamic villages”, as though the religion includes a blueprint for such cultural forms. At their worst, such incorrect adjectival constructions produce oxymorons such as “Islamic terrorists” and “Islamic millitants” or “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremist groups”.


The simplest solution is to use the terms “Islam”and “Islamic” solely for what pertains to the religion, and use Muslim as an adjective to denote the works and acts of Muslims, or groups of people and their institutions (such as Muslim women or men, Muslim population, Muslim countries or civilization, Muslim art, Muslim government leaders, Muslim extremists); human acts and constructs fall short of being purely Islamic, and therefore may not be denoted as such.