Mohammedan, not “Muslim”

Anyone who reads old books knows that Mohammedanism was until quite recently our preferred name for the Arab religion. Non-Mohammedans of course knew that Mohammedans called their religion Islam, and that they called themselves Moslems, but they rightly eschewed these terms because they were question begging.

The etymological root of Islam is aslama, a verb that means to surrender, hand over, or submit. Moslem is simply the participle of this verb and denotes a person who has surrendered, handed-over, or submitted. In use, these words of course have the specific meaning of surrendering, handing over, and submitting to the one true God.

This is why D. S. Margoliouth, one time Professor of Arabic at Oxford University, wrote that “the words are equivalent to ‘monotheism’ and ‘monotheist.’” And this is why the words were, until quite recently, generally eschewed by other monotheists.

It is not much of a stretch to say that to call the Arab religion “Islam” is to call it “True Religion,” and that to call a man a “Moslem” is to call him “Truly Religious.” Such terms would be fine for domestic consumption, but no one should be surprised if the market for exports is small.

If you are a Christian who acquiesces in the use of these terms, your debates with a Mohammedan really translate into this

“Christianity teaches X but the True Religion teaches Y.”

“Christians do X but the Truly Religious do Y”

That’s what I mean when I say these are question-begging terms. When you use a question-begging term, you concede that your interlocutor is correct.

Christians fought the same battle with “Freethinkers” in the eighteenth century, although not very hard or with much success. The Freethinkers claimed that their theological reasoning (which led to atheism or deism) was “free” of prejudice, self-interest, dogma, and authority, and that the theological reasoning of Christians was nothing but a clotted mass of post hoc rationalizations, wishful thinking, and sluggish habit. When Christians finally acquiesced and used the use the question-begging title claimed by the soi dissant Freethiners, the debate really translated into this:

“Christianity teaches X but the Intelligence teaches Y.”

“Christians do X but the Intelligent People do Y”

“Christianity” and “Christian” are not question-begging terms because they honestly indicate they are the names of a particular theory of monotheism and a particular species of monotheist. “Judaism” and “Jew” are similarly non-question-begging. Calling the Arab religion Mohammedanism puts it on equal onomastic footing with Christianity and Judaism. Calling those who profess the Arab religion Mohammedans puts them on equal onomastic footing with Christians and Jews.

Not only does it put them on an equal onomastic footing with Christians and Jews; it also makes clear why they are not Christians or Jews. A Mohammedan is not a Christian or Jew because he is:

“one who accepts the proposition that an Arab named Mohammed or Ahmad, son of Abdallah, of the city of Mecca, in Central Arabia, who died in A.D. 632 is the main and indeed ultimate channel whereby the will of the Creator of the world has been revealed to mankind.”*

If you accede to calling this man a Moslem (i.e. Truly Religious), I believe that you implicitly concede that this proposition is true. If you accede to calling his religion Islam (i.e. True Religion), I believe you implicitly concede that this proposition is true. To draw this to its sharpest possible point, a Christian who accedes to using the words Moslem or Islam is at least flirting with apostasy.**

Mohammedans should not be offended when we use this title instead of the question-begging title they understandably prefer. The title is not pejorative, misleading, or untrue. They are monotheists whose beliefs and practices follow the revelation propounded by the Prophet Mohammed, just as Christians are monotheists whose beliefs and practices follow the revelation that (Christians believe) came by way of Christ Jesus,  just as Jews are monotheists whose beliefs and practices follow the revelation that (Jews believe) came by way of the wise men of the Chosen People.

It is not rude or disrespectful to refuse to address a man you disagree with as Mr. Correct!

It is rude and disrespectful to be indignant and when men with whom you disagree refuse to address you as Mr. Correct.

If we are to engage Mohammedans as equals, we will call them Mohammedans and they will call us Christians. We will not insult them by calling them infidels, and they will repay the courtesy (whatever we think or say among ourselves). But if we are to engage them as equals—and that is the question—we will also eschew the words Islam and Moslem because to use them is to concede our dhimmitude.

Like Islam, dhimmitude is a form of submission. You will no doubt have read that dhimmi is the name given to “protected person” in a Mohammedan state. It is to be precise a person who is protected from Mohammedans, and this on condition that he pay some sort of ritual homage to the superiority of Mohammedanism.

Calling it by a name that means True Religion is part of this homage.

A Moslem is (by his own reckoning) a man who submits to God in the way that is most pleasing to God. A dhimmi is a man who submits to Mohammedans in the way that is most pleasing to Mohammedans. And to be called Muslims is one of the things that pleases Mohammedans most.


*) D. S. Margoliouth, Mohammedanism (London: Williams and Norgate, 1911).

**) Both words appear here as what philosophers of language call “mentions,” not “uses.” A “mention” is a word in real or assumed “scare quotes.”

13 thoughts on “Mohammedan, not “Muslim”

  1. Mohammedans should not be offended …

    As a Catholic, I LOLed.

    Isn’t “thou shalt be perpetually offended, never shall the chip on thy shoulder fall of its own accord, lest ye become unworthy of the Prophet (PBUH)” in one of the Suras?

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  4. Compliments to the author, and to ashv, whose recommendation of “Mahound” I have followed
    since finding it in Chaucer’s “Man of Laws Tale”. In other uses it reflects the reasonable
    Mediaeval idea that Mohammed was a demon.

  5. While I don’t object to the term “Mohammedan,” or have any special sympathy for the Religion of the Disfavored Endonym, I don’t agree with JM Smith’s characterization of the linguistic situation. If a non-Mohammedan uses the term “Muslim,” he is not making any kind of implicit concession, just as a Protestant who uses the term “Catholic” is not doing so, either.

    In the same way, when someone’s mother wishes that her daughter might marry a “nice man” and settle down, she is not “really” asserting that she wishes that for a son-in-law who is ignorant, foolish, weak, or any of the other contemptuous meanings borne by the word “nice” in English, both originally and for the majority of its history in the language. Nor are you admitting the inferiority of English — or even Hindi — when you use the term “Sanskrit.” In all of these cases, the word has passed beyond its origins. Its use is equivocal only to those with specialized knowledge, and even to them, only when they make special effort to bear this knowledge in mind and apply it to utterances for which it may be of little relevance.

    The numeric majority of “Muslims” who use the term don’t speak Arabic, and a large number of those who do lack knowledge of the fushha grammar and derivation that give it the original meanings that Mr. Smith accurately describes. So when these people speak this word, it’s the label for someone of the same religion as them — which of course they believe to be the One True Religion, for reasons that have nothing to do with the term used to refer to it.

    So I don’t object to the use of “Mohammedan,” or “Mahoundite,” or whatever, or the advocacy of these terms. But we should admit that we are asking people to move from a word that is currently neutral in general use, like “Catholic,” to a word that does make an implication beyond mere reference, like “Papist.” Nor should we assert that all who use the word “Catholic” are, in so doing, groveling to the Whore of Babylon.

    • You are right when you say that very few people understand the theological meaning of the words “Islam” and “Muslim,” and that use of these titles has grown customary. I am arguing that this lack of understanding and growing customary is the result of a regrettably ignorance, laziness, and indifference, and that non-Mohammedans would have a clearer understanding of Mohammedanism if they called it by this name.

      I find that serious non-Catholic Christians do tend to object to the name Catholic; and, although (Roman) Catholic myself, I think they are right to do so. I think the name Papist is pejorative, since it picks out one distinction and makes it the essence of the church, but we do the same with Baptists.

      The reason no one is particularly concerned with the names “Catholic” and “Baptist,” though, is that both churches are dormant. Mohammedanism, in contrast, is on the move. A secular slob sitting in his Lazy-Boy recliner does’t have to think much about Catholics and Baptists because they will be, to him, less important tomorrow than they are today. Not so Islam. He needs to think clearly about that, so he needs a name that tells him what it is.

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