Is "Islam" really the Arabic word for peace?

For some time now, and especially since the attacks of 9/11, many Muslims have made the claim: Islam means peace. (Not that it's the word for peace, but that it comes from the word for peace, and so signifies peace.) In fact, this claim has been made so often that it's already a hackneyed saying.

It is true that the triliteral root S-L-M is found in both words: SaLaM and iSLaM, peace and submission. Yet arguments from etymology (historical roots and meanings of words) prove little. To illustrate, earlier this year I debated Sheikh Shabir Ally, a prominent imam (teacher of Islam). He was determined to distance himself, and Islam, from violence, and threw out the claim "Islam is peace."

I already knew that islam is Arabic for submission. What words come from the SLM root?

  • Salam (or salaam) and islam, peace and surrender, are familiar Arabic words.
  • Salama (the infinitive form) derives from a word referring to the stinging of a snake. (Sound peaceful?)
  • Aslim Taslam (Arabic أسلم تسلم‎‎) means meaning "submit (to God) by accepting Islam and you will be safe" (Wikipedia and elsewhere). These were Muhammad's words to the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Heraclius, urging capitulation.

I also suspected that Hebrew, as a Semitic language related to Arabic, might shed some light on the discussion. Going back to my Hebrew lexicon, I looked up ŠLM, the triliteral root for shalôm (שָׁלוֹם), peace. ŠLM is also the root for bribe, as well as for wall-builder. So what? Does that mean that bribery is necessary for a harmonious society, or that wall-builders are men of peace? (Instead of the exact opposite?)

So much for the claim Islam = Salam. To see the violent streak in the Qur'an, simply read it! It's about 80% the length of the NT, so it won't take you long. For the violent history of Islam and its founder, learn the truth about jihad. You may also want to learn about violence in the Hadith, the record of the words and deeds of Muhammad approved by his followers. Both sources can easily be found online.

Of course it may reasonably be asked why, if this is true, Muslims don't protest. But few read the Qur'an cover to cover. They are more used to the sounds of Quranic Arabic than to interpreting the words for their meaning -- and especially since most Muslims don't speak Arabic in the first place. Rather, they are familiar with certain passages -- just as most "Christians" are familiar only with only a handful of passages, and vaguely familiar with rest. And few Muslims read the Hadith. If they did, they wouldn't praise Islam as "a religion of peace."

Historically, those who did not submit to the Muslim sword were subjugated: executed, enslaved, or relegated to second-class citizenship and heavily taxed (Qur'an 9:29). "... Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free..." (Qur'an 9:5). Islam is not peace. It is submission. Or else.