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Glossary of Islamic Terms

Terrorism related terminology


Glossary of Islamic Terms

A 1993 Fatwa on Tree Conservation

A host of Arabic terms related to Islam has accompanied the upsurge of news about Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian terrorism in the last few years. Islamist radicals have hijacked the original intent of many Islamic terms, and Western media often misuse them. Here is a short list of those appearing frequently in the media, and in government speeches and documents.

Even though most of the world's Muslims are not Arab, Islam originated in the Arabian peninsula among Arabic speakers. Arabic is the language of Islam in the same way that Greek is the language of Orthodox Christianity, and Hebrew the language of Judaism.

Term: Allah
Meaning: The proper name for God in Arabic, interchangeable with "God" as we use it in English. Christians and Muslim Arabic speakers use the word to refer to the monotheistic supreme being presumed to be God of the Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Term:Fatwa, or fetwa
Meaning: A formal legal opinion issued by a recognized religious legal authority. Fatwas are most frequently issued in response to questions about living everyday life in accordance with religious law, such as proper diet, gender relations, or the use of new technologies, for example.

Term: Caliphate
Language: Englishization of Arabic khalifa
Meaning: An Islamic form of governance encompassing both administration of state affairs and leadership of the universal community of Muslims. The caliph, or successor (to Muhammad, Islam's prophet and the first leader) heads this community. The last Islamic caliphate was the Ottoman Empire, which was abolished in 1924.

Term: Jihad
Meaning: Struggle. Jihad refers, in many instances, to the internal struggle to live one's life in ethical accordance with God's will. Its secondary meaning is external struggle—which might include war, but doesn't have to—to defend Islam against unbelievers. In its original usage, unbelievers only referred to other monotheists, Christians and Jews, and jihad was only contemplated in contexts where Islam was threatened.

Term: Mujahid/ Mujahideen
Meaning: Struggler or striver on behalf of his faith. The term is associated most firmly with the Afghan guerrilla fighters who organized to oust the Soviet Army from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Term: Salafi/ Salafist
Meaning: Someone who belongs to a reform movement with the goal of returning a corrupted Islam to its original ideals. Salafi movements have included a 19th century reform movement in Egypt, and the Saudi Salafi movement often called Wahhabism. Salafi movements have begun as efforts to reform Islamic practices they believe stray from Islam's original intent. Some have become militantly anti-Western, but not all.

Term: Sharia
Meaning: Islamic canonical law, based on the Quran (Islam's holy book) and other texts. Most observant Muslims living in Islamic societies find Sharia and secular laws compatible. Militant extremist groups and governments, such as the Taliban in 1990s Afghanistan, use Sharia law as a pretext for authoritarian rule.

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