Surah 3 (Al-Imran/The House of Imran): 19

True Religion, in God’s eyes, is islam (devotion to Him alone).

Those who were given the Scripture disagreed out of rivalry, only after they had been given knowledge – if anyone denies God’s revelations, God is swift to take account.

[Abdel-Haleem, 2004 (published in the Oxford World Classics series)]


The Arabic ‘salām’, like the Hebrew ‘shalom’, is normally translated as meaning ‘peace’, with broader connotations of wholeness, unity and safety. Unlike Hebrew, however, Arabic developed a verb form of the s-l-m root, ‘aslāma’, meaning to submit oneself, seen in the Qur’an verses:

{2.131}: ‘And when his Lord said to him: ‘Submit’ (Abraham) said: ‘I submit to the Lord of worlds’ and enjoined the same upon his children as did Jacob ‘… Die not except in submission’.

{6.71}: ‘Say: ‘Indeed the Guidance of God is the true guidance and we are commanded to submit to the Lord of the worlds’.’

From this verb is derived the noun ‘islām’, meaning ‘submission’, and, with the addition of the pronoun prefix ‘mu-‘, meaning ‘a person characterised by…’, this yields ‘muslim’ or ‘one who submits’.


The motif of a righteous person being a submitter to God would not have been in any way novel in Quranic times. The name Abd’Allah, literally the servant or slave of God, appears on many pre-Islamic inscriptions and was, so it is said, the name of Muhammad’s own father. Those who heed God’s message are referred to as His slaves throughout the Qur’an including Noah, {17.3}; Abraham, Isaaac and Jacob, {38.45}; Solomon, {38.30}; Job, {38.41}; Zechariah, {19.2}; Jesus, {4.172}, {19.30} and {43.59}; ‘al-Khidr’, {18.65-80}, and Muhammad himself, {72.19}. The word ‘islām‘ appears throughout the Qur’an and on five of these occasions, including {3.19} above and the following four verses, it is used to summarise the Qur’an’s core ethical principle:

{2.208}: ‘Enter into submission (islām) all together…’,


{3.85}: ‘Whosoever seeks a religion other than submission (islām) it shall not be accepted …’,


{5.3}: ‘… This day I have perfected for you your religion … and have approved for you as religion Submission (islām) …’, see 〈74.〉,


{6.125}: ‘Whomsoever God wishes to guide, he expands his breast for submission (islām)…’ (similarly {39.22}).


On each of these occasions, the obedience is stated as being owed to God, but how is one to know the divine will? A recurring theme of the Qur’an is that God’s will has always been made known to communities through human messengers. The personal nature of the messenger’s authority is emphasised particularly forcefully in Surah 26, where the phrase ‘Fear God and obey me’ is recited by no less than five prophets: Noah, {26.108} 〈20.〉, Hud, {26.126}, Saleh, {26.144} 〈26.〉, Lot, {26.163} 〈68.〉, and Shuayb, {26.179} 〈26.〉


Naturally, this sequence of prophets who must be obeyed culminates in the announcer of the Qur’an himself. Each of verses {3.32 & 132}, {4.13, 59, 69 & 79}, {5.92}, {8.20} and {24.54} employ the formula ‘Obey God and obey the Messenger’, and in {4.80}, ‘Whosoever obeys the messenger, obeys God’, as though, for practical purposes, the two claims upon a person’s obedience were to be regarded as synonymous. This conflation of the authority of God and that of His messenger is also evident in:

{48.10} in which the divine voice assures Muhammad that ‘those who pledge allegiance unto thee pledge allegiance only unto God’,

{9.29} which commands believers to fight those ‘who do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden〈50.〉,

{5.33} which prescribes harsh punishments for those who ‘wage war on God and His Messenger〈71.〉,

{5.55} which proclaims ‘Your protector is only God and His Messenger’, and

{8.1}, announced in connection with the ownership of the booty seized through warfare: ‘The spoils (of war) belong to God and His Messenger〈40.〉,


{24.51-54} hammers home the point that following orders is the ultimate, indeed ultimately the only, virtue, upon which we will be judged:

{24.51}: The only words of the believers, when they are called unto God and His Messenger, that He may judge between them, will be to say: ‘We hear and we obey.’ And it is they who will prosper.

{24.52} Whosoever obeys God and His Messenger and who fears God and reverences him, it is they who shall triumph.

{24.53} And they swear by God with their most solemn oaths that wert thou to command them they would surely go forth. Say: ‘Swear not! But give honourable obedience! Surely God is aware of whatsoever you do.’

{24.54} Say: ‘Obey God and Obey the Messenger’…


{4.136}, {24.62}, {48.9 & 13}, {49.15}, {57.7 & 21}, {58.4}, {61.11}, {64.8} even use the provocative phrase ’believe in God and His Messenger’, having the messenger positioned alongside God as an object of faith, whilst in {57.28} – ‘fear God and believe in His Messenger’ – the messenger even seems to supplant God as the focus of piety. In God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers, David Marshall even makes the point that when the phrase ‘God and his Messenger’ is followed by the pronoun ‘he’, the text can be ambiguous as to which o the two the pronoun refers back to.


The absolute duty to abide by the Messenger’s rulings is applied – particularly in Surah 4 verses {4.59, 65, 83 & 105} – to his judgments in the arbitration of private disputes, as well as his issuing of executive instructions:

{4.65} …By thy Lord, they will not believe until they have made thee the judge between them in their disputes, and find no resistance in their souls to what thou hast decreed, and surrender with full submission.

This is because the messenger alone is capable of judging between men ‘according to what God has shown (him)’, {33.36}.


In {4.59}, the duty to show obedience extends from obedience to the Messenger personally to people who exercise authority on his behalf:

{4.59} O you who believe! Obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.

And if you differ among yourselves concerning any matter refer it to God and the Messenger if you believe in God and the Last Day.

That is better and fairer in outcome.


But the caveat that any dispute concerning instructions issued by ‘those in authority’ should be referred back to the messenger to resolve, shows that this verse is referring to obedience to Muhammad’s lieutenants during the course of his lifetime. The Qur’an sets out no model for the exercise of power after its authors death. Needless to say, the unqualified exhortation from God to believers that they obey ‘those in authority among you’, without any structure or principles for determining who should have the right to exercise that authority, provides scriptural authority that multiple competing would-be rulers may try to rely upon in motivating their supporters.