The follower of Islam is called a Muslim (‘one who submits’), not a Mumin (‘one who believes’), and with good reason, ‘The Arabs say: We believe! Say rather: We have submitted! For the faith hath not yet entered your hearts’ (Q.49.14).
The first of Muhammad’s titles — his ‘titles of Glory’ – is not ‘Messenger’ or ‘Prophet’ but ‘slave’ (abd) for man must be a slave to the truth before he can be its messenger, and the slave is, by definition, one who submits body and soul to his master, claiming no rights, asking no questions and owning nothing that he can call his own. It is for the master, if he will, to raise him to a higher status.
A great deal of misunderstanding has surrounded these images of submission. Partly from prejudice, but partly also from the genuine difficulty that one culture has in grasping the deepest motivations of another, the West has often pictured the Muslim as cringing before a tyrant Lord and submitting as a beast submits to its incomprehensible fate. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Muslim fears God because he is a realist; he knows that there are things to be feared and that all things — the bitter as well as the sweet — have but one Creator. He submits because he believes that there exists a divine pattern or scheme of things which is both intelligent and beautiful, and he wishes to find his place in this pattern and conform to it; he knows that he cannot do so without instructions — which must be followed meticulously in view of their sacred origin. He does not simply resign himself to the divine Will; he seeks it eagerly and, when he finds it, delights in it.
Muhammad is ‘abdu llah’ the ‘slave of God’. Modern translators usually prefer the word ‘servant’ because of the ugly and even sinister connotations which the word ‘slave’ has in the West, due on the one hand to the racialism which was the basis of slavery in the Americas, and on the other to the cruelty and exploitation associated with it. Slavery in the simple society of ancient Arabia had none of these features and was not therefore a term of dishonor. Although the word ‘servant’ has obvious advantages in this context, it weakens and even falsifies the meaning of the Arabic term ‘abd’, A servant works for his wages, he may depart if the conditions of his service do not please him, and he may, if he chooses, set his will against that of his employer. But God is not an employer, nor are His messengers employees. The ‘slave of God’ surrenders his will to that of his Master, exemplifying the quality of spiritual poverty (fiqr) which lies at the very root of Islam.
This quality of ‘slavehood’ —of obedient passivity —is a pre-condition of the messenger’s activity in the world. The truth of the message itself would be brought into doubt if there were the slightest suspicion that a human will had intervened in the process of revelation. In his recorded sayings Muhammad spoke as the man he was and, except when he was directly inspired, acknowledged his own fallibility, but as the instrument by which the Quran was conveyed from heaven to earth his aim was to be an attentive and accurate ‘scribe’. He said: ‘A simple verse of the Book of Allah is worth more than Muhammad and all his family,’ and because his conduct in every aspect of daily life exemplified these qualities of receptivity and attentiveness, he was himself an aspect of this message from God to man. Seen from an unprejudiced Christian point of view, ‘in its finest form, as exemplified by the Prophet himself, this relation of the ‘abd’ to his Lord means a constant quality of consciousness and will unique to Islam’ ; and in his translation of the Quran, Muhammad Asad renders the key word taqwah usually translated as ‘fear of God’ as ‘God-consciousness’, thereby emphasizing the qualities of constant awareness, recollectedness and readiness which characterize the Muslim who is true to his faith.