As regards the meaning of the word deen in the Arabic language, we’d like to cite the following summary of the elucidation of this term by the late eminent Muslim scholar, Sayyid Abul A`la Maududi, in his book, Four Basic Quranic Terms. It reads: “One of the basic Qur’anic terms, namely, deen, had different connotations among the Arabs, and their use of it and its various derivatives revolved round one or other of the following four basic concepts or relationships, etc., namely:
a. Dominance, or sway, on the part of someone in authority.
b. Obedience, servitude, or worship on the part of the one submitting to the authority.
c. Laws, rules or regulations or code imposed, and required to be observed, in the context of the above relationship; and
d. Calling to account (for obedience or non-obedience to the Authority or for compliance or non-compliance with its dictates), passing judgment, and pronouncing reward or punishment.
The word had not, however, attained the status of a formal term as such before the revelation of the Qur’an. The Arabs were not very clear in their minds as to the concepts involved nor were their ideas lofty in this context and that is the reason why the word had not found its way into the terminology of any systematic and recognized school of thought. It was in the Qur’an in which, obviously because the word was particularly suited to its purpose, that it was given very clear-cut and definite connotations, and it was this aspect which made the word one of the most important in the Qur’anic terminology. In that terminology, it stands for the entire way of life, of which the composite factors are:
1. Sovereignty and supreme authority.
2. Obedience and submission to such authority.
3. The system of thought and action established through the exercise of that authority; and
4. Retribution meted out by the authority, in consideration of loyalty and obedience to it, or rebellion and transgression against it.
And, as in other cases, the Qur’an employs the term, on different occasions, in one or more of the above four senses, but where the intention is to imply the whole way of life, it uses the definite article ‘al‘ before the word, to make it read ‘ad-Deen‘.
For example, Almighty Allah says: “Verily We have sent down to you (O’ Muhammad) Book, with Truth; therefore, make your DEEN exclusive for Allah, and give your `ibadah to Him alone. Hark! DEEN pertains exclusively to Him (and Him alone).” (Az-Zumar:2-3)
In the above example the word has been employed to signify the vesting of the Supreme authority in Allah alone, tacit acknowledgement of that fact, and complete unquestioning obedience and submission to that authority. The making of one’s deen exclusive for Allah means that one should not treat anyone other than Allah as having the ultimate authority, domain, and rulership over the universe and should so make one’s obedience and submission exclusive for Him that there is no association of anyone else with Him in this respect.
An example of the use of the word deen in the third sense is Allah’s saying: “Have they taken some people to be partners (with Allah) who prescribe ways for them in the nature of DEEN, for which they have had no permission from Allah.” (Ash-Shura: 21)
In this verse, the word deen has been used to mean the law, rules or regulations, Shari`ah, or code of conduct, or that system of thought and action which a person subscribes to and lives by.
In the fourth sense, Allah says: “And what do you know of the Day of DEEN? Yea, what (little) do you know of the Day of DEEN. That is the Day when no human being shall be able to be of any service to another, the Day on which all authority and dispensation will tangibly be in the hands of Allah.” (Al-Infitar: 17-19)
Obviously, the word has been used to imply both the final reckoning when men shall have been raised from the dead as well as the reward or punishment which will follow.
To give a few examples of the use of the word to mean a whole way of life in which a person gives his submission and obedience to someone whom he regards as having the ultimate authority, shapes his conduct according to the bounds and laws and rules prescribed by that being, looks to him for recognition honour, and reward for loyal service, and fears the disgrace or punishment that could follow any lack on his part. There is perhaps no word in the terminology of any country or people – other than Muslims – which would comprehensively embrace all these factors. The word ‘state’ as employed in our own day does, to some extent, approximate to the sense, but even this word lacks the far wider connotation which would bring it on a par with the word deen. Examples of the Qur’anic use of deen in this comprehensive sense are as follows:
1. “And, said the Pharaoh: Leave me to slay Musa, and then let him call upon his Rabb (to save him). (I must slay him for) I am very much afraid that he might change your DEEN or disturb the peace of land.” (Ghafir: 26)
In the light of all the details contained in the Qur’an of what transpired between the Pharaoh and Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), it is clear that the word deen as used here does not stand only for ‘religion’ but covers also the whole politico-social and cultural set-up. The Pharaoh’s contention was that if Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) succeeded in his mission, there would come about a revolutionary change in which the prevailing way of life with the Pharaoh as the ultimate authority, together with all the laws, rules, and customs etc., would be uprooted, and either a whole new way of life would take its place on completely new foundations, or no new way of life would establish itself at all and the land would fall a prey to anarchy.
2. “And whosoever seeks any DEEN other than ‘Islam’, it shall never receive acceptance.” (Al `Imran: 85)
3. “It is He (Allah) Who sent his Messenger with true Guidance, and with the True DEEN to make it triumph over other deens, caring naught what annoyance this may cause to those who associate others with Him.” (At-Tawbah: 33)
In all these verses, the word deen stands for the complete way of life, including man’s beliefs, his moral principles, and his behaviour in all walks of life.”