What Is The Difference Between “Muslim” And “Islamic”?
Abstract: Social labels and categories are exercise in control. They help us learn and compartmentalize information. However, labels also describe opponents, create boundaries, exclude social groups, justify discrimination, and promote persecution. They are imbued with sociopolitical power. Muslims used labels, internally for the first time, during the formative period of the community to privilege the elite and marginalize dissenters. They called those who challenged the established order, Khawarij [Outsiders]. Today, Muslims living in Western societies are often labeled radical Islamic extremists. But aside from this politically charged phrase, even common adjectives, such as Islamic and Muslim, are misused. So in what contexts should these adjectives be appropriately used and why is it important to use social labels judicially?
Though 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.
The 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.
The 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 Islamiccan 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 non-Muslims.
It 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.
To 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.
With 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 two terminologies.
This 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.
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