The Arabic word commonly translated as “religion” is deen. “Religion” is a fairly good translation, but as many will point out, there is a problem in the modern idea of religion that diminishes the value of the word for this translation. (This is a linguistic argument, not a point to make against modernity.) Religion has come to mean different things because of secular cultural pressure, a common influence in definitions: Religion may mean certain hollow rites that people do during certain seasons of the year; or peculiar acts taken over by culture or family pressure, although they once were connected to devotion; or charming involvement with some vague tradition, with shades of transcending meaning or none at all, stuff that add color to how we live. The relationship of religion binding with the unseen and the Hereafter has become almost vestigial. That really creates a translation problem for deen (although “religion” is still hard to replace, if not impossible). “Religion” means literally to “reconnect” or “form a bond,” namely, to bind one’s will with God (“lig” as in “ligature,” to tie together something, and “ligament,” the connective tissue that binds bone to bone). “Religion” has lost its sense of a way of life, for if you connect with God, it becomes a relationship that takes over.
Sermon-talk aside, way of life really does inform what the Arabic word deen implies, for deen is actually a short explanation as to why we live at all, if we look closely at the word’s original meaning. Linguistically, deen comes from root word dayana, from which dayn derives-"debt" that must be paid back. So there’s connection between debt and religion, as one considers that we are essentially accountable beings who come into this world with a debt to fulfill, a debt due to God-a debt that grows as we mature into adults, charged with volition and discernment. Daily in our prayers, we recite that God is Malik Yawm al-Deen: Master of the Day of Judgment- a day in which all debts are settled, a day of retribution-pay back in other words. Sermon-talk resumed, had it not been for His mercy and grace, it would be impossible to fulfill that debt to God. Yet He makes it easy through religion, which magnifies the small things we do: He reveals human obligations and a Sacred Law that has a mighty purpose, live right (live a good life) and to prepare us for a Day of Debt-a day in which there is no mercy but His, no refuge but with Him. To devote some time in a day, an hour of a week, or a month in a year, by all logic, should appear to be short in paying our debt, especially when we consider the payoff in the Hereafter of an eternity in Gardens of amazing peace, bliss, and constant fulfillment, with never a burden or fear-always lucky. Today, I have perfected your religion [deen] for you, and completed My blessing upon you, and I have chosen Islam as your religion (Quran, 5:3). Clearly, deen is the medium through which we understand our purpose and the path that helps us fulfill a purpose that, on our own accord, would be beyond reach, hence the grace of deen, a religion that multiplies a small investment into what is beyond calculation. We tend to forget, at a deep level, that God created us, blessed us with existence, and has given us all that we make use of, all that we see, all that we spend and consume, all the senses that we apply to learn and find relief-all of everything. If we reflect on what we owe to our parents for their care and nurturing, then imagine what we “owe” to God?
Ibrahim N. Abusharif is a Chicago-area editor and writer. He’s currently working on a concise vocabulary reference to the Quran. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may visit his blog: http://fromclay.blogspot.com/