The Difference Between Millah and Deen
Whilst millah is used to refer to certain religions or entities, the term deen is a more general and wider. Millah refers more specifically to 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)
The Shafi'i scholar 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)
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)
So, Islam is a deen and a millah.
Millah refers either to deen (in a reduced meaning) or to the Divine shari'ah that was revealed by Allah in order to guide the people. It also refers to the principle beliefs upon which the deen is established. Deen is a wider term that encompasses the meaning of the term millah as well as other concepts; such as submission and obedience to Allah, ownership of ourselves to Allah and all kinds of worships not only the principles of certain revelation.
al-Asfahani, al-Mufradat fi Ghara'ib al-Qur'an
Marudi, Tafsir al-Marudi
Qurtubi, Tafsir Qurtubi
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