I don’t like the word “religion”.
This may seem odd, considering that I am a Muslim and consider myself a religious person. But one thing I’ve learned from studying the English language is that a single word can carry with it many unpleasant connotations.
Today, after centuries of being associated with bloodshed, indoctrination and scandal, the word “religion” has taken on the same love and affection as “politics”. Many see it as a harsh word, which conjures up images of fanatical preachers and mindless followers. After all, its Latin root, “religare”, means “to bind”. Oddly enough, its derivative, “religious”, has actually managed to keep some air of reverie about it. After all, it’s easier to say “I am religious,” than “this is my religion”; or if you say “I do this because of my religious beliefs” rather than “I do this because of my religion”. That slight change in wording actually changes the overall feel of a sentence. If you say to someone “let’s talk about religion”, they’ll probably imagine you as a door-to-door preacher.
Faith, on the other hand, is something you can actually talk about. That and it’s a pleasant word to say. Say it slowly: faaay-thhh. There’s no hard dropping “g” in the middle of the word that makes it sound like a commandment. “Faith” is, instead, a single syllable of hope and trust. The word itself comes from two sources: the Old French “fede” or “foi”, which stands for “belief, trust, confidence or pledge”; and its Latin root, “fides”, also means “trust… confidence, reliance, credence, belief,”. This is my preferred word whenever I’m talking with someone about Islam or about being a Muslim. I’ll say, “this is part of my faith” or “in my faith…”. It’s a much more pleasant, easily digestible word than that stodgy old “religion”. This word is about as close as you can get—in English—to the idea behind any established religion: putting your trust in a higher power. That’s not to say it’s perfect, though. Similar to its synonyms, “belief”, “creed”, and “conviction”, the word “faith” can be used in nearly any context, not just religious. After all, an atheist can say “I have faith in you”, an agnostic can say “just have faith”, and anyone really can just say “I have faith”, and none of those sentences can refer to God or any specific religious belief. So “faith”, really, must be taken with context.
Now, let’s depart for a moment from the shape-shifting clusterfunk that is the English language.
Arabic is a Semitic language, belonging to the same family of languages as Hebrew and Aramaic, and originated in the Near East. There is a metaphorical richness that is rooted in the Arabic language itself. I won’t go into such detail, but suffice it to say that a single word in Arabic can carry sentences worth of meaning. The word in question here—the word I feel is superior to all other words to describe religion— is the Arabic word “deen”. It is a word that has no proper English equivalent, but is often limited to being translated as “religion”. And I say limited because its meaning is far more than that. Take, for instance, this translated passage from the Qur’an: “To you be your deen, and to me be my deen.” (109:6). If we substitute “deen” for religion, we come across an interesting problem with the translation: it says, “To you be your religion…” But what if the person doesn’t have a religion? Then the translation doesn’t really make sense. The Arabic language is, undeniably, a pivotal aspect of the Islamic faith. Hence why English Qur’ans are only considered “English translations of the meaning of the Qur’an”, due to the impossibility of perfectly translating Arabic to English. The word “deen” is the only word used throughout the Qur’an to refer to the concept of religion. However, as I said before, Arabic is a rich language and is difficult to translate into English. So to reconcile this, scholars and linguists have opted, instead, for a more holistic translation: “way of life”.
Way of Life
The phrase “way of life” accomplishes the intended meaning behind all other English words related to religion. It removes the stigma surrounding the word “religion”, and gives a more concrete form to the rather abstract (and sometimes chameleonic) word “faith”. It refers not only to what you believe, but also how you express that belief. It’s in everything, from who you are, to what you do, to why you do it and beyond. “Deen” refers to a holistic approach to worship and religiosity, and not just something you do once a week, or whenever the need arises. It is something permanently ingrained in you, not just a temporal, sporadic behavior. Your “deen”—your way of life—is a part of you, regardless of what religion you follow, if any.
This is only a sliver of the meaning of the word “deen”, and just one small example in the Arabic language itself. Now permit me one final tangent, one I feel is necessary at this point because it is one few people understand (even among Muslims). “Christianity” was named so because its followers worship of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him); “Judaism” got its name from Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel; what about “Islam”? Islam itself is not a title, but an operative word with several meanings. The word is derived—like all Arabic words—from a core set of letters (in this case, s-l-m). Linguistically, “Islam” means “submission”, but its deeper meaning is much richer. From those core letters (s-l-m) we also derive “salam”, meaning “peace”. So “Islam” literally means “peaceful submission to God”. And one who practices Islam is, both linguistically and literally, a Muslim (notice the s-l-m). In the Qur’an, God says “On this day I have perfected your deen for you and conferred My favour on you and chosen for you the deen of Islam.” (5:3). Hence a Muslim is one whose deen is Islam— peaceful submission to the way of life prescribed by God.
A Single Word…
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to use the word “faith”. In all honesty, I’d like to use the word “deen” but then the discussion would be evaporated by me explaining the linguistics and meaning behind the word “deen”. Plus, English is my native language, and so “faith” becomes my comfortable middle-ground. It sounds pleasant, everyone’s familiar with it, and they understand that it’s referring to Islam.
But look at all that: everything above is just a small analysis of only a few words. More importantly, it demonstrates the power that just one single word can have. A single word can carry with it the power of history, the sensuality of emotion, and the essence of—faith. All that in a single unit of language—in any language.
And when you start stringing them together, why, you can change the world.
Origins of Semitic languages (Yes it’s a Wikipedia page)