Salam, Islam and a camel

Salam caligraphy

For as long as I’ve been studying Islam, I know that 'salam' means peace and that the word ‘Islam’ comes from the same root (more specifically, the consonants ‘s’, ‘l’ and ‘m’). I also learned, however, that, literally translated, ‘Islam’ means ‘surrender’ or ‘submission’. Those that want to show Islam at its most beautiful emphasize the underlying root of peace. Yet critics put the focus on the word ‘submission’ because it arouses a sense of distrust or even disgust in the ears of many secular westerners. For the word ‘submission’ seems to indicate that this religion is indeed some sort of opium of the people.

Being a religious thinker, I’ve always had a lot of problems with the wrong interpretation of the word ‘submission’ because its true meaning – surrender to the divine undercurrent of existence – is a very beautiful and even fundamental spiritual concept. Yet I hadn’t really understood the specific connection between the linguistic root of peace and the literal translation of submission myself. Until one day I was patiently waiting for a train and all of the sudden a simple answer spontaneously presented itself. In English, I realised all of the sudden, the same connection exists. For we all know the expression ‘to be at peace with something’. 'To be at peace with something' means to accept a certain reality we were confronted with or, differently put, that we 'surrender' to a certain situation. But then in such a way that those tensions that were in the way of our acceptance fell away and brought us inner peace.

Throughout history there has been lots of discussions of course about the words ‘Islam’ and ‘salam’ and many scholars offered different nuances. Yet I had not gone deeper into these discussions before and it also does not seem necessary to understand this one small aspect. Even more so, the connection between peace and surrender is a lot more clear for Arabic speakers since there is no need for an idiom. The similar sound of the words immediately brings about the association. So my lack of knowledge and feeling of the Arabic language made me miss this insight. Now that I do see the connection, the deeper meaning of Islam and salam are a lot more clear to me. Besides that it strengthens my personal understanding of the word 'Islam' and the concept of spiritual surrender that lies behind it.

One surrenders to the divine of course. That goes without saying within Islamic thinking. But the consequence of not understanding the connection between the words 'salam' and 'Islam' is that people often don't think about the fact that this surrender doesn't happen because the prophet said to do so, because the Koran obliges it or simply because tradition prescribes it. No, one gives oneself to God because one 'is at peace with it'. At peace with what? As far as I can see, with the fact that we are not the centre of the universe. We are at peace with the fact that prophets and sages were right when they said that the centre of the universe is of quite another order and that we should better go and look for that centre. We are at peace with the fact that we should put our egoism aside and shouldn't constantly run after our own desires. We are at peace with the idea that a focus on the divine offers us a lot more than a focus on the egocentric 'I'.

The word 'Islam' therefore does not mean a sort of 'submission' that puts all critical thinking aside (like many Islamophobes often claim) and is also quite something else than the 'surrender' that mainly occupies itself with strictly following some rules and regulations (like certain Muslims sometimes interpret it).


Like this it becomes clear once again how important it is to search for the subtle parts of certain religious elements if we truly wish to find their spiritual depth. In this case it was about a linguistic connection but often its about a correct comprehension of the precise historic context in which a sage or a prophet said or did something. Even more so, when we try to derive the specific linguistic or historical context of certain sayings and actions, often exactly those aspects that bring us inner peace become more visible. For when taken out of their context, sayings or actions can seem needlessly strict or dogmatic and because of that arouse aversion or bring people to exaggerated behaviour.

One of the examples I often give in this respect is Jesus' saying: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mt. 19, 24). These words are not just some poetic metaphor. Neither are they a rigorous rejection of every form of possession. For the eye of the needle was the name of the portal of Jerusalem in Jesus' time. The portal had this nickname because the entrance in the city wall was known to be very small and narrow. When a rich merchant came to the city portal with heaps of goods on the back of the camel, he was obliged to take down the goods so that the camel could lower itself and go through the gate. The symbolism should therefore be clear: a camel does not have much trouble getting rid of its goods, kneel down and go through the gate, yet the rich often find it very hard to get rid of their greed and possessions and to kneel in front of God.

So those who know the context of the saying of the camel do not think “what an exaggerated and all too idealistic statement of Jesus”. Neither do they inappropriately try to be as poor as they can in order to follow Him blindly. For it isn't poverty itself that leads to 'the kingdom of God', but humbleness. Those who understand the context, see that Jesus above all implies that we should stand still once in a while, that we should get rid of wanting more and more all the time and that we sometimes should remove the burden of being busy-busy-busy so we can kneel in front of what is truly important.

As such a better insight into context mostly leads to a more satisfying and peaceful understanding of religion. Prophets and sages tried to calm the minds and hearts of people. So those who become fiercely adamant when reading the sayings of prophets or thinking about the actions of sages, most probably haven't comprehended some part of their context.

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