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I think it is very important to have an idea of what certain terms actually mean. When one deals with the Islamic World or reads news about it, then it becomes evident that there are some terms, which are used quite often. For this purpose I made a list of the most important terms. I will continously update this site.
The Alawites (Arabic: علويون ) are a religious sect that were formerly called Nusairi. Ali ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, was in their view the reincarnation of the highest God. In the 19th century they gave themselves the name Alawiyun, or followers of Ali, to emphasize that they are Muslims since many Muslims deny this. Some of the Syrian Alawite community have been ruling the country since Hafez al-Assad took over the country in 1971, while some of their community have also been excluded from power. His son Bashar al-Assad is currently ruling Syria, giving the term Alawite broader popularity.
The Caliphate (Arabic: خلافة) is an Islamic form of government, which can be compared to a Theocracy. It describes the office or the land of the Caliph, God’s representative on earth. Both, the political and religious leader, come together in the person of a Caliph.
A Fatwa (Arabic: فتوى) is an Islamic legal opinion. Only Muftis can declare a Fatwa.
Fiqh (Arabic: فقه), which derives from Shari’a, is the science that deals with Shari’a and tries to give people advice how to live in accordance to God’s teachings – it thus can be translated with Islamic Jurisprudence. Shi’ites and Sunnis both have different Fiqh-schools, even in their particular denomination.
Hadith (Arabic: حديث) is an Arabic term, which can be translated as account or report and is used in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh). AHadith is a report about an action of the Prophet Muhammad or about actions that he approved. For Muslims this is important since they believe that if they live a life in a similar fashion to the Prophet’s then they live a life that is in line with God’s (or Allah’s) teaching.
Hijra (Arabic: هجرة) is dated back to 622 and describes the emigration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina due to persecution. It is also the start of the Islamic calender.
An Imam (Arabic: إمام) in Sunni Islam is equal to a priest in Catholicism – he leads the worship. In Shia Islam the term represents a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
Imamah (Arabic: إمامة) is the Shi’ite concept of the Caliphate. For Shi’ites a direct descendant from the Prophet Muhammad needs to lead the Ummah. It may be translated with ‚Prophethood‘.
Islamism is a sociological concept without a consistent definition. Some would define it with all ideologies that refer to Islam and some claim that one cannot separate the term Islamism from Islam since the religion Islam wants to create a state and is thus fundamentalist. On the other hand, there are also people that say we should abolish this term as it can include terrorists as well as democratic politicians that want to perform their religion.
Jihad (Arabic: جهاد) is an Arabic word that basically means struggle, but it can also be translated with fight. It describes the struggle or the fight on God’s path. Though in both, the Qur’an and the Hadiths it mainly means fight. Yet the usage of Jihad in the Qur’an doesn’t make it clear whether it is only the defensive fight or the aggressive fight, too. Many Muslims claim that it can also describe the inner struggle of a person to become a good Muslim.
A Madrasa (Arabic: مدرسة) is simply a school. It can be secular or religious, but the religious meaning gained popularity.
Martyr (Arabic: شهيد, Shaheed), like in every other religion, describes a person that is willing to die or suffer persecution for not wanting to abandon it. A martyr is thus considered to be a hero by his followers. In the Qur’an it mostly means witness though, but in one case it describes an actual Through Hadiths this meaning gained standard, and through Islamic terrorism we mostly set it equal with a terrorist. Formerly it described a Muslim that died while fulfilling religious commandments.
A Mufti (Arabic: مفتي) is a Muslim educated in religious law who knows how to use Fiqh to interpret Shari’a.
Muhammad (Arabic: محمد) is in Islam the last Prophet in a row of Prophets, that include Moses and Jesus. When he received his first transmissions, Muhammad kept them secret and once he told others, many people in his hometown Mecca turned against him. Tribes from Medina asked him to negotiate in their disputes and he left for Medina with his followers in 622 (Hijra). In 630 he was able to conquer Mecca and in 632 Muhammad died.
A Mujaheed (Arabic: مجاهد) is a Muslim performing Jihad.
A Mullah (Arabic: ملا) is a Muslim, male or female, that is educated in Islamic theology and divine.
The Qur’an, or Quran, (Arabic: القرآن) is the Holy Book of Islam. Muslims believe everything written there to be the word of God – unlike the Bible, which consists of narratives –, transmitted through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad.
Salafism (Arabic: السلفية) is a movement among Muslims that wants to live like the first Muslims, since they see the first generations of Muslims as the perfect example of how humans should live in accordance with God. In English Salaf means antecessor. A famous example for a Salafi is Muhammad Abduh who lived in the 19th century and stated that modernity and Islam can be declared compatible with another. Oh the other hand, there are Muslims that follow the line of Ibn Taymiyya, a scholar from the 13th century, and want to purify Islam from everything that they consider as new and as an illegitimate innovation.
Shari’a (Arabic: شريعة) stands for the divine law. It is important to note that one cannot think of it as a book in which Islamic laws are written down. Shari’a is based on the Qur’an and the Hadiths and is the method to get to God’s laws. To interpret it Muslims use.
Shi’a Muslims (Arabic: الشيعة) are such who believe that the Ummah should be lead by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. He only had one daughter, Fatima, that had children with the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abu Talib. The descendants from this line, also known as the Imams, are – in the eyes of the Shi’ites – the legitimate leaders of the Ummah. Thus their form of government is called the Imamah. For a more detailed explanation click here.
The Sunnis (Arabic: أهل السنة, meaning people of the tradition) think that the leader of the Ummah needs to be from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. For a more detailed explanation click here.
A Talib (Arabic: طالب) is a student or a person that seeks something. The Taliban are an Islamic fundamentalist group in Afghanistan and Pakistan that derive from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and got educated in Madrasas. Thus they called themselves Taliban or [religious] students.
Ummah or Umma (Arabic: أمة) is the Arabic term for the community of all Muslims in the world. Some Muslims think that nations should be abolished and the Caliphate in which all Muslims can live should be reestablished (e.g. Islamic State, Hizb ut-Tahrir).
Wahhabism (Arabic: وهّابية) is a form of Islam that goes back to Muhammad ibn ‚Abd al-Wahhab, an Arabic scholar from the 18th century. He was born in central Arabia and stated that everybody, who does not know the real meaning of the Islamic creed „There is no God but God“ is not a real Muslim. He wanted to purify Islam of everything new and was thus also a Salafi. Only people that follow their doctrine are considered as Muslims, the the others are declared as infidels. Today it is the dominant doctrine in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where it enjoys state support. Wahhabis call themselves Salafis and consider the name Wahhabi as an insult.