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A short dictionary of Islam – General notions and terms

This is a short, and mostly random, list of Islamic terms. It is not a comprehensive one; it is merely meant to explain some general notions of Islam, which you might have heard but don’t know what they mean.



Mohamed (570-632 AD)

The last, and the most important, prophet that god used in order to deliver his message. A holy person, the founder of Islam and the writer of the Quran as it was recited to him by god. Originally a merchant, he received the first revelation at the age of forty, which led him to become a religious leader and a warlord. The name means “the most praised one”.


The Arabic word for god.  It is derived from ‘al-ilah’, meaning ‘the god’ and is related to ‘el’ and ‘elohim’, the Hebrew words for god and gods, respectively.

Allahu Akbar

Meaning ‘God is the greatest’. Used in prayer and as an expression of faith or determination. Takbir is the term for this expression.


Meaning ‘recitation’, sometimes referred to as ‘the Message’. It is compiled of the words of god, as they were delivered to Mohamed who merely wrote them down.


The word means ‘account’ or ‘report’. The hadiths are the sayings, actions and habits of the prophet Mohamed, as reported by people who knew him personally. There are various collections of hadiths, and Islamic scholars disagree on which are to be considered authentic. (There are also some Muslims, called Quranists, who reject the hadith collections as forged and consider the Quran as a clear and complete message.) The hadiths are made of thousands of pages (and can be found online at sunnah.com). Since ‘sunnah’ is the ‘habit’, or the ‘usual practice’ of the prophet whose example Muslims must follow, ‘hadith’ and ‘sunnah’ are usually used interchangeably.


The biography of Mohamed. Since the Quran explicitly says multiple times that a believer must emulate the prophet, both the hadiths and the Sira are taken very seriously by Muslims. Hence, the Quran, the hadiths and the Sira complete what can be called the “trilogy” of Islam. Roughly speaking, the Quran is 15% of the trilogy, the Sira is 25% and the hadiths compose 60% (as shown here). Therefore, since most of the Islamic texts concern the prophet (hadiths and Sira) and not Allah (Quran), some have said that Islam is mostly the worship of a person and not of god. Finally, there are tafsirs, or interpretations (the word means ‘exegesis’), of the Quran, as well as commentaries on the hadiths by scholars.



It is the practice of Muslims to give more importance to later material from the Quran and the hadiths rather than earlier verses and sayings of the prophet, in the case where they apparently contradict one another. Within the Islamic tradition it is considered that there can be no true contradictions in the Quran, since god cannot have made a mistake. But according to the Quran, god can replace something which is good with something which is better. The problem with abrogation is that the later verses of the Quran and the later sayings of Mohamed are more violent than the earlier ones. This is because after a point in the life of the prophet he became an influential religious leader and then a powerful warlord, and this is apparent in the violent nature of the later verses and hadiths. Therefore, abrogation means to set aside the milder verses of the Quran in favor of the most egregious and intolerant ones. This practice was established by the 9th century or earlier, but is not supported by everyone.


Struggle, strife, persevering. Jihad is the religious duty of Muslims to maintain and spread their religion. This is accomplished by differing means, such as holy war, migration, attacking cartoonists, suing critics etc. Some say the above compile the “lesser jihad”, while the “greater jihad” is an inner, spiritual struggle. Today, the term usually refers to a holy war or the acts of terror with religious motives. The person who is engaged in jihad is termed mujahid (plural: mujahideen); today, this term is reserved for guerilla type military outfits, such as the Muslim Afghan soldiers in the Soviet Afghan war, and others.

72 virgins

Paradise, as it is described in the Quran, is a sensual place and offers an abundance of women for the believing Muslim man to indulge his appetites, and one man with which the Muslim woman will be satisfied. The specific number 72 is mentioned in some hadiths (such as at-Tirmidhi 1663).


Infidel, non-Muslim, unbeliever (the plural of the word is ‘Kufar’). It is used in a derogatory manner. A Muslim cannot be a true friend of a kafir, as the Quran says in various places (such as in 3:28 and 5:51). This advice, to not make friends with non-Muslims, is repeated in some hadiths.


While the word means ‘a protected person’, the term describes a non-Muslim who has agreed to live under sharia; a submissive kafir. Dhimmis are to be humiliated and are considered second-class citizens. Several restrictions are enforced upon them -like not being allowed to hold public offices, forced to keep to the side of the streets, wear distinctive clothing, ride donkeys instead of horses or camels, and pay the Jizya tax (and many more).


A tax demanded from non-Muslims in Islamic states. The rate of this tax is not explicitly mentioned in the Quran or the hadiths. In Greece, while it was occupied by the Ottomans, Christian subjects would pay 13% of their agricultural income, and there was also a yearly tax which allowed those who paid it to keep their heads for one year.


The act of excommunication -a Muslim declaring another Muslim to be a kafir.


The practice of renouncing one’s faith when under duress, as in the face of persecution. Since the persecution can be only perceived and not actually real (think of Christians in America), the practice might allow a Muslim to feel it is allowed for him to lie to infidels in any number of occasions.


The Islamic religious law. Originally the word meant ‘path’ or ‘way’ in Hebrew (as ‘sara’). The particulars of sharia are derived from the Quran and the hadiths, and deal with every aspect of human life; politics, crime, marriage, trade, economics, hygiene, taxation, diet, prayer, fasting etc. The book ‘The reliance of the traveller’ of the 14th century is considered by many the definitive text on sharia. As is to be expected for a religious set of laws, the position of women under sharia is secondary in relation to men (to put it mildly), and violent punishments like chopping off the hand of a thief abound.



The domain of Islam – The domain of war / dar al-Islam – dar al-harb

According to the Islamic tradition, the world is divided in these two realms. The domain of Islam (also referred to as the domain of peace) is where Muslims can practice their faith and where other faiths are tolerated. Most believe this domain comprises of countries where sharia is implemented. The domain of war (or domain of heathens) is the rest of the world. This dichotomy is not referenced in the Quran or the hadiths, but was first used after the defeat of the Umayyad Caliphate at the battle of Tours in 732 which prevented the expansion of Islam to the north. The use of the terms, therefore, presents an aggressive tendency of Islam, with non-Muslims considered as de facto enemies and their lands as domains to be conquered.


The community of Muslims                        

Halal – Haram

Permissible – Forbidden. The words can be used to describe an object, such as meat, or an action, marking it as a sin or not; thus defining Islamic morality.

The five Pillars of Islam

Five basic mandatory acts in Islam, summarized in the hadith of Gabriel. The first one is the shahada, a declaration of faith. It is the set statement “There is no god but God and Mohamed is the messenger of God” (this is what is written on the flag of ISIS). This phrase is uttered by someone in order to convert to Islam. The second one is salat, or prayer. It consists of performing five daily prayers while facing in the direction of Mecca. The third one is zakat, or alms-giving. It is more of a tax rather than charity, since it is mandatory. Shias have mostly regarded it voluntary. The forth one is fasting, which includes the fast during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims must abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and engaging in sexual activities from dawn till dusk. The fasting of Ramadan commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to Mohamed. Infraction is punished by law in some countries, such as in Algeria, Kuwait and Iran. The fifth pillar is the hadj (see below).


The annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca –a mandatory religious duty that must be carried out at least once in a Muslim’s life, if they are physically and financially capable. The hadj lasts 5 days, is performed by more than 1.3 million people every year and involves a series of rituals, the most well-known of which is walking around the Kaaba seven times. The Kaaba is where all Muslims must face towards when they pray. It predates Islam, as does the Black Stone that resides in it, and has been venerated by pagans in the past. Islamic tradition claims the Black Stone fell from paradise to show Adam and Eve where to build the first temple on Earth. To some, especially within Sunni Islam, the ritual involving the Kaaba simulates pagan rituals and idol worship -that’s why the Saudi Arabia government has apparently made efforts to dismantle the structure and that’s why ISIS leader al-Baghdadi has called for its destruction. In effect, as some have said, mainstream Muslims who perform the ritual are not supposed to worship the Black Stone or the Kaaba, but to be reminded that they should not worship idols (though you wouldn’t be able to guess this by watching their faces as the building’s door opens or listen to their adulations).



Religious successor to the prophet Mohamed, ruler of the Caliphate and leader of all Muslims.

Sunni Islam

Sunnis believe that the first true caliph was Abu Bakr, Mohamed’s father-in-law. They constitute 87-90% of Muslims worldwide. The word comes from ‘sunnah’ which refers to the sayings and actions of the prophet (the hadiths as we saw before). Sunnis, therefore, believe that a true caliph is not someone who inherits the position (like Shias believe) but someone who most accurately follows the example of the prophet. Sunni Islam is sometimes referred to as ‘Orthodox Islam’.

Shia Islam

Shias believe that a caliph should be an Imam (holders of divine knowledge and authority) chosen by god from among those who are directly descended from Mohamed. Shias are 10-13% of Muslims worldwide. The word ‘Shia’ means ‘follower’, and to be a Shia is to be a follower of Ali, Mohamed’s first cousin and closest living male relative at the time of his death.

Hijab – Burqa – Niqab – Chador

The term hijab concerns a general standard of modesty and the seclusion of women from the public sphere, visualized in the well-known headscarf or other body covering clothing. The burqa covers the woman’s entire body along with the face. The niqab covers the head of the woman (the last two can be accompanied by a thinner cloth to cover the eyes). The chador covers everything but the face.



Within the Shia branch of the Twelvers, he is a high ranking cleric who is an expert in Islamic studies.


The migration of Mohamed from Mecca, where he was persecuted, to Medina in 622. This event is the reason the year 622 is used as the first year of the Islamic calendar. Hijra has also come to mean the migration doctrine of Muslims, who are called to migrate to non-Muslim lands (the house of war) in order to spread their religion.


The word actually refers to the rooms which were reserved for the women of the house, where only closely related men could enter. Though the harem system (as well as the veiling of women) was not strictly held by Muslims, but by Jews and Christians too, is has been mostly in effect within an Islamic context.


The word had many meanings in Semitic languages, such as nomad, desert, merchant and raven.

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