“Muslim” – What it Means to Me


"What does the word 'Muslim' mean to you?"


What the Word “Muslim” Means to Me

By Wael Abdelgawad, Zawaj.com Editor
March 21, 2010

The word alone triggers such different reactions in different people.

The literal definition of the word Muslim is “one who submits,” meaning one who submits to Allah, believing in Him and obeying His commandments.

More specifically, the word Muslim is the participle of the same Arabic verb of which Islam is the infinitive. The feminine form is Muslimah, though a female Muslim is often referred to as simply a Muslim.

There are many stereotypes about Muslims in the West, or one might say in the non-Muslim world in general, but I will not go into those in this article.

Instead, I’d like to share my thoughts and feelings on hearing the word Muslim and contemplating its meaning. I am using the word in a gender-inclusive sense.


Faithful. Allah is his Master, and the Quran is the wellspring of his life. Muhammad (pbuh) is his beloved Messenger, and all the Sahabah * (see glossary at bottom for explanations of many terms) are his guiding stars. Tawheed is his creed, taqwa his rugged garment, imaan his cool summer rain, and ihsaan his aspiration.


Harmonized. She has chosen to live the way Allah created us to live, in harmony with everything around us, including nature, other people, and the earth itself. Plugged into the reality of the universe.


Peaceful. His manner is gentle. He is not angry or violent. He would never raise his hands except to defend himself, his family, or other innocents.

Malcolm X in prayer

Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz (Malcolm X) in prayer


Generous. If I knock on his door, he will invite me in and bring me honey tea and baklawa, ask about my family, and be a believer with me, remembering Allah so that his house remains a place of life. When the salat time arrives he’ll spread the musallas and pray with me.


Kind. His eyes are soft and smiling. He shakes my hand firmly, but with a brotherly openness. If I need help, offers it. He is charitable, ready to give his last coin to someone hungry or ill, knowing that it will come back to him seven hundred fold, and that everything is recorded and nothing is lost.


My brothers and sisters. Arab, African, Indian, Thai, Filipino, Chinese, European, American, Latino, and everyone around the world who says, “Laa ilaaha il-Allahu, Muhammadan Rasul-ullah” (There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah)… they are my family, my Ummah, my people. If they are free, I breathe easy. If they are fed, I sleep well. If they are mentally aware and spiritually conscious, I am liberated.


Feeling each other’s pain. If she is suffering or oppressed, I feel it like the pain in my own body. If she is sad, lonely or confused, I do what I can to guide and help. I can never ignore her agony, any more than I could ignore a sliver in my own eye.


Friends, compatriots. When I see him, I feel comfortable and at ease, whether I know him or not. I greet him with “As-salamu alaykum” and I smile. I can engage him in conversation, even if I know nothing about him. I know his language no matter what it is. If he tells me something good I say ma-sha-Allah. If he mentions some blessing or favor in his life, I say Alhamdulillah. If he mentions something he hopes to do, I say Insha’Allah. We understand one another.


At home in Allah’s house. He can walk into a masjid anywhere in the world and feel at home. He can perform wudu’, prostrate himself to Allah, read the Quran, stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer with strangers, and feel a sense of rightness and belonging.

Noha Abd Rabo, Muslim female Olympic athlete

Noha Abd Rabo of Egypt reacts after her fight against Sarah Stevenson of Britain in their women's + 68 kg taekwondo bronze medal match during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in Beijing on August 23, 2008.


An Islamic worldview. She shares my world view and cultural understanding, no matter her nationality or race. She knows that this life is only a test, a moment of activity between a sleep and a sleep, a flower blooming and wilting in a single afternoon. She knows that the aakhirah is the home that calls; her heart is filled with hope and fear of Judgment.

She steps out of her door and does the right thing, because that is her covenant with Allah, and because she loves to do good. She sees signs of Allah in the miracle of a hummingbird or the majesty of Mt. Everest; in the swirls of her fingertips, and in the knowledge of Allah that exists in her heart.


Pursuing excellence. Doctor, lawyer, farmer, engineer, human rights worker, driver, tour guide, seamstress, Olympic athlete. Striving for excellence in all things as a matter of worship and a way of life. Truth-telling, fair, honest in business and in love.


Family. Mother, father, giddo (grandpa), nena (grandma), niece, nephew, cousin, wife, daughter, son. Respecting their elders, kind to their youth. Full of love like the sunrise. Embracing like the warm Mediterranean. Laughing like light on the water. Supporting like the granite of the earth.


Seeker and guide. Da’iyy, Imam, Quran reciter, submitting in prayer, fasting, performing the Hajj. A voice calling in the darkness. Footsteps to follow in the sand. A bringer of truth. Commanding good and forbidden evil, with the hand, the tongue or the heart.


Patient and grateful. Striving her utmost but never trying to force the outcome because that belongs to Allah. Never giving up, patient, strong.

If she has suffered, if she has been beaten or hurt, if she has been hungry or confused or lost in the dunya, she comes through it stronger, knowing that Allah is on her side.

If she has been blessed to live in comfort and ease, to have a loving family, rich food, tailored clothing and quiet cars, then she thanks Allah, knowing that everything she has is a blessing and a trust from Him, and knowing that the way to show thanks is to give and share.

No matter what, she is humble before Allah, never arrogant, never looking down on others.

Chinese Muslim girl from Xinjiang, China

A Chinese Muslim girl from Xinjiang, China. Muslims are found everywhere, but are one Ummah (nation).


Standing up. He is angry that the image of his religion has been hijacked by extremists, and by those who practice ignorant cultural traditions. He stands up for human rights, freedom, and the dignity of all human beings. He stands against terrorism in all forms, oppression of those who follow other religions, “honor killings”, racism, female genital mutilation, intolerance, and destruction of churches or monuments of other religions.


Suffering. Battered by war. Torn apart by sectarian strife. Oppressed by tyrants and dictators. Invaded by foreign powers. Massacred. His land stolen, his holy places demolished, his leaders arrested, his people driven from their homes.

Starving. Politically imprisoned. Tortured by his own police, tortured by foreign invaders.

Crying out for freedom, struggling valiantly, never giving up, never accepting subjugation, never submitting to anyone except Allah.


Submitting to Allah.

What does the word “Muslim” mean to you?


Glossary of Terms:

  • Aakhirah – the eternal life herafter, the life after our worldy death.
  • Alhamdulillah – “Praise be to Allah.” Something Muslims say to thank Allah for any good thing, large or small. Also, what a Muslim says when he sneezes.
  • As-salamu alaykum – “Peace be upon you.” The greeting of Muslims.
  • Baqlawa – a Middle Eastern sweet with honey and nuts.
  • Da’iyy – a caller to Allah. One who works to propagate Islam by preaching and setting a good example.
  • Ihsaan – perfection or excellence. Showing one’s inner faith in action.
  • Imam – a Muslim prayer leader, community leader or scholar. Not to be confused with Iman.
  • Imaan or Iman – faith or belief, a state of being made up of more than 70 parts which consist of all kinds of virtuous behavior.
  • Insha’Allah – “If Allah wills.” Something Muslims say when discussing future actions.
  • Ma-sha-Allah – “What Allah has willed.” Something Muslims say when praising something good, or sometimes just as a way of saying, “That’s just the way it is.”
  • Masjid – a mosque, a Muslim house of worship.
  • Musalla – place of prayer. Also used for small prayer rugs that many Muslims use.
  • Sahabah – the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
  • Taqwa – consciousness of Allah in all one’s actions.
  • Tawheed – the Oneness of Allah, and belief in that principle.
  • Wudu’ – the ritual ablutions or washing up that a Muslim performs before prayer.
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About the Founder


  1. P.S. I’d really love to know what you thought of this piece. Is it too long, too dull, too obvious? Or is it interesting or inspiring in any way? Thank you, may Allah reward you!

  2. Asalaamualaikum,

    This is an excellent piece of writing maash’Allah and really and honestly describes the ideal Muslim.

    It’s thought provoking and acts as check list for us to take accountability of our words, actions, intentions and priorities.

    It’s inspiring and reminds us of Allah(swt)’s Miracles and Blessings bestowed on us.

    ‘The swirls of her fingertips’ – so beautifully said, triggers us to think… So many millions of people have come and gone, but not one swirl of the finger tips matches another’s.

    ‘Arab, African, Indian, Thai, Filipino, Chinese, European, American, Latino, whatever… they are my family, my Ummah, my people…’ Everyday at work I meet so many people, we may not speak the same language, but still we share a mutual understanding conveyed through our common belief. We greet each other with Asalaamualaikum or say Alhumdulillah and although we can converse not much further, those phrases speak alone so much and bring us together.

    In Mecca, whilst standing on the top floor of the Harem, and admiring the Kaaba and the beauty of the millions of pilgrims circumbulating it, I had a conversation with a Palestinian sister, although neither one of us knew each other’s language. Then we hugged before departing.

    Your description of being Muslim is what I want to be. May we all strive to be insha’Allah…

    May Allah unite us through our hearts and minds to be one Ummah, wherever we at all times – Aameen

    PS: So no, it was not too long, dull or obvious : )

  3. Ps: How can anyone after reading this think that Islam preaches anything but Peace?

    Well I suppose we all hold a responsibility to be that shining example, huh 🙂

  4. Thank you, Striving soul! What would I do without my one fan? Lol. I was worried it was too long and in fact it’s about half as long as it was originally. I kept paring it down and down.

    I never thought of it as a checklist. These are just the thoughts and feelings I have about what a real Muslim is.

    Your experiences at work and in Makkah really described perfectly the universal language of Islam. Jazak Allah khayr.

  5. I see it as a subtle checklist – because while reading it, it prompts me to ask myself – am I happy with what Allah has given me? Do I thank Allah from deep down? Do I react patiently to certain situations? Am I good to my family? Do I try my best at work? Do I really trust Allah? And many more…

    & am I a good example of a Muslim???

    Hmm, lol, well, its something positive for us all to strive towards becoming insha’Allah…

  6. Alhamdu lillah masha allah i thank God to be wiz dis site coz i learnt more about lyf nd i want learn again from you tnx you all.

  7. I am very new to the Muslim family. I want to thank you for making it simple to understand, to know what it is to be a good Muslim. It is not to long, i wish there was more….the Glossary of Terms was especially helpful.
    As-salamu alaykum

  8. annne, wa alaykum as-salam. I am glad you enjoyed it. And Ramadan Mubarak!

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