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What is the linguistic and technical meaning of the Arabic term 'deen'?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
The term deen (دين) encompasses several meanings, generally used to refer to full ownership, subjugation, obedience and submission to something or someone. The Qur'an used this term to refer to some of these individual or collective meanings. When referring to Islam it refers to full submission, subjugation and servitude to Allah alone, individually and collectively emphasising something common and public, in its embodying beliefs and obligations that are, in principle, incumbent on every believer.

Linguistic Meaning
The famous classical Arabic dictionaries Al-Qamus al-Muheet and Lisan al-Arab state there are four meanings of the term deen (دين) pl. adyaan, which derives from the root dana (دَانَ):

  • Subjugation and dominance: ownership, government, administrative or legislative authority
  • Obedience and bondage: subordination and dominance, under the powers of others
  • Rules and regulations: doctrine, ideology, tradition or religion
  • Reward and repayment: justice and accountability

The Arabs used the term generally when they referred to full submission as when they say (دان للحاكم) he submitted himself to the ruler. The poet al-Asba'i said:

ِولَا أَنْتَ دَيَّانِي فَتَخْزُون
"You are not my (ديان) lord, man of power to subjugate or rule me."

Mu'jam al-Ma'ani al-Jami' adds the meaning (دَيَّنَ) "believing something is true or someone is truthful" whilst the Mukhtar as-Sihah notes the term is also used in (مَدِين ومَدِينة) coming from the same root meaning 'a male or female slave.' This then gives the meaning of ownership, so this one owns your life and actions.

The term also has come to mean a custom and a way of life where the Arabs used to comment on things they did not do:

لَيْسَ هَذا دِينِي

"this is not my deen (what I used to do)." (al-Mu'jam al-Mughni).

The Arabic poet an-Naddr bin Shumayl asked a nomad Arab about something and received the response:

َلَوْ لَقَيْتَنِي عَلَى دِِينٍ غَير َهَذِهِ لَأَخْبَرْتًك
"If I find myself having a deen other than this, I would have told you." (Mahmud Shakir, Abattil wa Asmar, p. 414)

From the above, the term "deen" is the state of long term or short term submission, ownership and obedience. This can be individually or collectively, depending on the context in which the term is mentioned. It also depends on the context as to who submits to whom.

Scholarship

A cursory review of the literature suggests the term deen is general and wide. Its cognate millah refers more specifically to a shari'ah sent by God to guide the people and the principles (usul) of a religion. (Tafsir al-Biqa'i, Vol. 4, p. 322, ibn al-Athir, an-Nihayah, Vol. 4, p. 360)

Asfahani (d. 502 A.H.) said:

المِلَّة كَالدِينِ، وهُوَ اسْمٌ لِمَا شَرَعَ اللّهُ تَعَالَى لِعِبَادِهِ عَلَى لِسَانِ الأَنْبِيَاءِ لِيَتَوَصَّلُوا بِهِ إلِى جِوَارِ اللّهِ، والفَرْقُ بَيْنَهًا وبَيْنَ الدِّينِ أنَّ المِلَّةَ لا تُضَافُ إَلَّا إِلَى النَّبِيّ عَليه الصلاة والسلام الذِي تُسْنَدٌ إِلَيْهِ ... ولا تَكَادُ تُوَّجَدُ مُضَافَةً إلَى اللّهِ، ولَا إِلَى آَحَادِ أُمَّةِ النَّبِيّ صلَّى اللّهُ عَلَيْهِ وسَلَمَ، وَلَا تًسْتَعْمَل إلَّا فِي جُمْلَةَ الشَّرَائِعِ دُونَ آَحَادِهَا.

"The term millah is similar to the word deen, referring to what Allah has legislated to His servants via the Prophets (saw) to reach paradise. The difference between the two terms is the latter is only attributed to the Prophet (saw) … and it can't be attributed to Allah nor to follower of the Prophet (saw). It is only used to refer to collective shari'ahs, not individual ones." (al-Mufradat fi Ghara'ib al-Qur'an, Vol. 1, p. 471)

Ghazali however argued millah refers to the foundational principles of revelation, common to all shariahs, saying:

ِوالمِلَةُ عِبَارَةٌ عَنْ أَصْلِ الدِينِ والتَوْحِيدِ والتَقْدِيسِ الّذَيِ تَتَفِقُ فِيهِ جَمِيعَ الشَرَائِع
"Millah is the principles ('usul) of deen, monotheism (tawhid) and canonization that all the other shari'ahs agreed on." (al-Mustasfa, Vol. 256)

Marudi said:

والفَرْقُ بَيْنَ المِلَّةَ والدِينِ أنَّ المِلَّةَ مَا شَرَعَهُ اللهُ، والدِينِ ما اعْتَقَدَهُ النَاسُ تَقَرُّبًا إلَى اللهِ، فَصَارَ كُلَ دِينٍ مَلَةً، وليْسَ كلَ مِلَةٍ دِين
"The difference between millah and deen is: millah is what Allah legislated, but deen is what people believed in as a kind of servitude to Allah. Thus every deen is considered millah, but every millah is not considered deen" (Tafsir al-Marudi, Vol. 2, p. 239)

The Maliki scholar Qurtubi holds a similar view in his tafsir (Tafsir Qurtubi, Vol. 2, p. 91)


Deen in Islam
The Qur'an used the linguistic meanings of the term "deen" both individually or collectively. It appears in 43 verses of the Qur'an and the the following verses illustrate its usage:

1. Deen is the authority and power of domination:

كَذَٰلِكَ كِدْنَا لِيُوسُفَ ۖ مَا كَانَ لِيَأْخُذَ أَخَاهُ فِي دِينِ الْمَلِكِ إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ
"Thus did We plan for Joseph. He could not have taken his brother under the deen (power and authority) of the king except that Allah willed." (Qur'an 12:76)

2. It is the public communal way of life, servitude and worship:

ِلَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيّ دِيْن
"For you is your deen, and for me is my deen." (Qur'an 109:6)

3. The rule and legislation of Allah that must be obeyed:

وَقَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّىٰ لَا تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ وَيَكُونَ الدِّينُ لِلَّهِ
"And fight them until there is no fitnah and (until) the deen, all of it, is for Allah. And if they cease - then indeed, Allah is Seeing of what they do." (Qur'an 8:39)

شَرَعَ لَكُم مِّنَ الدِّينِ مَا وَصَّىٰ بِهِ نُوحًا
"He has ordained for you of deen what He enjoined upon Noah…" (Qur'an 42:13)

الزَّانِيَةُ وَالزَّانِي فَاجْلِدُوا كُلَّ وَاحِدٍ مِّنْهُمَا مِئَةَ جَلْدَةٍ وَلَا تَأْخُذْكُم بِهِمَا رَأْفَةٌ فِي دِينِ اللَّهِ
"The (unmarried) woman or (unmarried) man found guilty of sexual intercourse - lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the deen of Allah." (Qur'an 24:2)

4. The absolute submission to Allah:

وَإِذَا غَشِيَهُم مَّوْجٌ كَالظُّلَلِ دَعَوُا اللَّهَ مُخْلِصِينَ لَهُ الدِّينَ
"And when waves come over them like canopies, they supplicate Allah, sincere to Him the deen." (Qur'an 31:32)

Deen is a collective meaning of all of the above categories best translated as lifeway, way of life or embodied social tradition.

وَمَا كَانَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لِيَنفِرُواْ كَآفَّةً فَلَوْلاَ نَفَرَ مِن كُلِّ فِرْقَةٍ مِّنْهُمْ طَآئِفَةٌ لِّيَتَفَقَّهُواْ فِي الدِّينِ وَلِيُنذِرُواْ قَوْمَهُمْ إِذَا رَجَعُواْ إِلَيْهِمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَحْذَرُونَ
"And it is not for the believers to go forth (to battle) all at once. For there should separate from every division of them a group (remaining) to obtain understanding in the deen and warn their people when they return to them that they might be cautious." (Qur'an 9:122)

It is the deen with all of its aspects as Allah revealed to the Messenger (saw) before his death:

الْيَوْمَ يَئِسَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ مِن دِينِكُمْ فَلاَ تَخْشَوْهُمْ وَاخْشَوْنِ الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ الإِسْلاَمَ دِيناً
"This day those who disbelieve have despaired of (defeating) your deen; so fear them not, but fear Me. This day I have perfected for you your deen and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as deen." (Qur'an 5:3)

Allah also says that this only accepted deen in front of Him is only the deen (the comprehensive term) of Islam:

إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِندَ اللّهِ الإِسْلاَمُ
"Indeed, the only accepted deen in the sight of Allah is Islam." (Qur'an 2:19)

وَمَن يَبْتَغِ غَيْرَ الإِسْلاَمِ دِيناً فَلَن يُقْبَلَ مِنْهُ وَهُوَ فِي الآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ
"And whoever desires other than Islam as a deen - never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers." (Qur'an 2:85)

Conclusion

Deen in the comprehensive sense refers to what Allah has prescribed upon his servants as a kind of servitude and worship to him via revelation to his Messenger (saw) - a collective way of life, an embodied social tradition or a lifeway.

The meaning of "following the deen of Islam" is to submit oneself and the society of which one is a part to Allah and willingly accept His legislation, to allow Allah to be the Owner of yourself, your people and your way of life.

Allah ordains Muslims to seek the knowledge and understanding of deen (everything Allah revealed to his messenger) and to meet Allah believing in this deen, because it is the only accepted deen.

References

al-Qamus al-Muheet
al-Mu'jam al-Mughni
Lisan al-Arab
Mahmud Shakir, Abattil wa Asmar
Md Jahirul Haq, Deen in Islam - A conceptual Analysis
Mu'jam al-Ma'ani al-Jami'
Mukhtar as-Sihah


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