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Islamic Terminology:  Its Use and Misuse

Presented by Sedki Riad <sriad@vt.edu> as part of the Seminar:

Understanding Islam and Muslims, Blacksburg, VA, Oct. 16, 2001


Good Evening and Peace be with You (Assalamu Alaykum)

Islam is 1.2 Billion people strong world wide, and there are (an estimated) 7 Million Muslims in the US; yet its most basic tenets remain mysterious and confused to the great majority of Americans.

A great deal of the misinformation and misconceptions about Islam come from misunderstanding its terminology.  As it is originally in Arabic, mistranslations, unintentional and intentional, lead to portraying the wrong image of this beautiful and highly ethical religion.

In an attempt to set the stage for our presentations tonight, as well as to help the reader/audience sort out media stereotyping and other misinformation, we have prepared for you this presentation with some Islamic Terms and their translations.  Tonight, I will go over a few of those which I believe are most critical.

The terms I chose for tonight are Allah, Islam, Muhammad, Quran, Hadeeth, Muslim, Kafir, and Jihad.

I will also attempt to address misnomers like Islamic Fundamentalism, fanatism, conservatism, and Islamic Terrorism.

Before we start, I want to warn against reducing the Islamic belief to a set of terms and their meanings.  The religion of Islam is a way of life that addresses every aspect of human physical and spiritual needs.  While addressing how Islam integrates these “seem to be conflicting” needs is very engaging and stimulating, it is beyond the scope of an introductory session like ours tonight, and requires tonight’s presentation as a prerequisite.

Now, let us begin with defining Allah as understood by the Muslims:


Allah is God’s name as revealed to us in the Quran.  He is the One God.  Our Creator.  The Lord of the Universe. The God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. (Arabic speaking Christians and Jews refer to God as Allah).  Although Muslims use Allah in reference to God almost always, I will use “God” here as a convenience to the audience/readers.

We know Allah through what He revealed to us in the Quran, and I chose for you the following verses.

From the TOM of the Quran (112: 1-4)

“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only (1); Allah, the Eternal, Absolute (2); He begetteth not, nor is He begotten (3);  And there is none like unto Him (4).”

And (59:22-24):

     "Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god- who Knows (all things) both secret and open; He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god- The Sovereign, The Holy One, The Source of Peace (and Perfection), The Guardian of Faith, The Preserver of Safety, The Exalted in Might, The Irresistible, The Supreme: Glory to Allah! (High is He) Above the partners they attribute to Him. He is Allah, The Creator, The Evolver, The Bestower of forms (or color). To Him belong The Most Beautiful names: Whatever is in the heavens and on earth doth declare His Praises and Glory; and He is The Exalted in Might, The Wise.”

Also (85:14):

"And He is The Oft-Forgiving, Full of loving-kindness."

     The Islamic teachings emphasize the Balance in God's Attributes. The Balance between His Magnificent Powers and Might, on one hand, and His Compassion, Mercy, Love, and Forgiveness on the other.  He is Just. He is All-Knowing.

His balance is beyond our understanding and His wisdom is beyond our comprehension.

He is the only deity to be praised whether one be in health or in sickness, in richness or in poverty, in times of ease or in times of hardship.




Islam is an Arabic word derived from the words submission and peace.

Submission: total submission to and acceptance of God and His will. 

Peace: inner peace (peace with oneself), peace with the Creator, as well as peace with all humans and other creations.

It is through the total submission to the Will of God, (accepting His Wisdom, His Might, His Justice …) that one reaches this form of peace.  

With this definition and understanding of Islam, all of God's Prophets, peace be upon them (pbut), received the call to "Islam" since all of them preached the same message: acceptance of God and total submission to His Will.

In other words, Islam is not a new religion. What we refer to as Islam is nothing but the final revelation of the series that started with Adam (pbuh), and continued with Abraham (pbuh) through Jesus (pbuh) to Muhammad (pbuh).

Islam acknowledges all previous Prophets and Messengers from God, starting with Adam (pbuh) and ending with Muhammad (pbuh). Islam acknowledges the messages of Abraham (pbuh), Moses (pbuh), and Jesus (pbuh), to name just a few.

Islam is a way of life that addresses every aspect of human physical and spiritual needs.  The Islamic teachings provide a balanced integration of the two.  This integration is emphasized in the Islamic belief, prescribed worships, as well as the Islamic lifestyle.  Islam presents a way of life for humanity on all levels, for the individual, the family, the community, as well as for the whole world.  The teachings of Islam do not separate religion from human affairs.  Politics, economics, law, and all other aspects of human affairs are integrated into one system with a well defined code of values and ethics, and with one unique objective, that is the worship of God. 

Through Islam, ethics, righteousness, legitimacy, correctness, and similar fundamentals are well defined and are not left to individuals to experiment with or differ about.  Having been legislated by Allah, the Creator of this world, the Islamic way of life is the most suitable one for us to follow.

An example of the Islamic balance and integration, Islam teaches that true belief and righteous deeds are two key elements for one to attain God's acceptance. It takes both elements to establish healthy individuals and healthy societies.  Belief alone is not sufficient; it must be practiced.  Practicing the belief by doing righteous deeds maintains that belief and nourishes it.

Muhammad (Pbuh)

(Peace be upon him)


The final Prophet and Messenger of God.  Muslims recognize Muhammad as a man who was chosen by God to deliver the message with no divine attributes.

Muhammad was born in 570 AD, in Mecca, at that time a backward area of the world, far from the centers of trade and learning. Arabs at that time were mostly pagans, who believed in many gods.  Orphaned at age six, he was reared in modest surroundings, and was illiterate. He was regarded as the “Honest and Trustworthy” by his community members. Muhammad received the first Quranic revelation while meditating in the Mountains of Mecca when he was forty years old.

Muhammad preached in Mecca for 13 years with a small group of followers.  He and his companions then migrated (Hijra) to Medina (200 miles north of Mecca), where the first Islamic state was formed.  After 8 years, the Meccan hostilities were ended with the Muslims' bloodless triumphant return to Mecca. The remaining two and one-half years of his life witnessed rapid conversion of the Arab tribes to Islam. When Muhammad died, in 632, Islam have spread over all of southern Arabia.


The Qur'an is the Word of God.  It is the last revelation from God to human beings and is the principal source of Islamic teachings and laws.

It was revealed in Arabic to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and was scribed during his lifetime.  Quran was preserved with no alterations or editing neither textually nor orally/vocally.  The Quranic text and recitation that we have today are identical to those at Prophet Muhammad’s time.

There is only one Quran (in Arabic).  Being the Word of God, only translations of the meanings as understood by scholars (interpretations) are available in other languages.  There are translations of the meanings of the Quran is almost all world languages, usually more than one in the same language, these are not to be referred to as The Quran.  Non-Arabic speaking readers find a great benefit in having different translations as it helps the reader develop a more accurate understanding of The Quranic verses.

Hadith (Hadeeth)

The sayings, teachings, and traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  These are documented in separate books; the books of Hadith and are distinguished from the Quranic revelation that was given to Muhammad by God through the Angle Jibril (Gabriel).  Hadith complements the Quran.  Hadith provides interpretations to the Quran, applications of Islamic principles, as well as complementary Islamic teachings and laws.


“S” sound

A person who acknowledges the Islamic testimony: that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is his last prophet and messenger.   Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) tells us that “an infant is born as Muslim [naturally/by instinct]. It is his/her parents who make him/her a non-Muslim.

The Islamic belief is that we are born sinless and we are only accountables for the sins that we commit intentionally (after the age of puberty)

There is no clergy in Islam.  The relationship between the Muslim and God is a direct one, with no mediators.  In this direct relationship, the Muslim recognizes that there is no other party which can help, give, take, support, provide, or grant forgiveness but God (Allah).  Muslims do not associate any other deities with God.

The fundamentals of Islam are laid out very clearly in the Quran.  It is so clear that they are not subject to different interpretations and that everyone understands them the same exact way, be it a lay person or a scholar, be it in Arabic or any other language or interpretation world wide.  All Muslims worldwide subscribe to the same fundamentals and have the same Quran.

In some matters, the Quran and Hadith leave room for varying interpretations.  Recognizing human need, these variations gives the flexibility of application as per the circumstances and the needs.  Interpretations are only allowed through scholarly efforts of well learnt scholars.  Justification and reasoning based on the Quran and Hadith have to be referenced before any interpretation is acknowledged.


(plural: Kuffar or Kafireen, or Kafiroon)


Quranic term for a non-Muslim.  It is derived from the root word of Ka-fa-ra (cover in English).   The term is to indicate a person declining (denying) any of the principles of the Islam.

Often mistranslated as “infidel” which is the term the crusaders used to refer to the Muslims and not the other way around.  The Islamic term used to refer to the crusades was the “war of the foreigners.”

Muslims are encouraged to follow the Islamic example in referring to Christians and Jews as “Ahlel-Kitab: people of the book.”


Professor Charles A. Kimball, Chair of the Dept of religion at Wake Forest Univ., Winston-Salem, NC, stated “Religious scholars approach the term fundamentalist in different ways.  Some argue that term is rooted in a particular form of protestant Christianity that it can not be used in relation to Islam, Judaism, etc...

In other words, this term does not apply to and should not be used for Muslims.

It is relevant to state that Muslims adhering to the strict fundamentals of their faith will have the utmost tolerance to all other humans; Muslims and non-Muslims.  Same applies to Islamic “fanatism” and Islamic “conservatism.”


Now, we come to the term Jihad


Struggle, strive, or exert... in the cause of God and in His way, physical or inner, using peaceful means and at times resorting to the use of power.  Often mistranslated as "holy war."

Muslim are to use Jihad in all aspects of life, particularly in defending and protecting God given Rights, be it the Muslim rights or a non-Muslim rights with equal commitment.  The rights for every one of us and every newborn to earn his spot under the sun and live free from oppression and injustice.  Protecting these Rights is an Islamic religious duty. 

We are to use whatever means accessible and available to provide relief to God’s creations from oppression and injustice however they exist and wherever they exist.  This duty is not limited to Muslim’s homelands; it extends to ensure a free world for all humans.  A free world that affords all humans the right to choose their own faith and belief, the right to freedom, to dignity, to justice and balance, to brotherhood/sisterhood, the right to fair play, as well as the right to opportunities based on effort.

From TOM of Quran [4.75]

And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: "Our Lord! rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!”

Peaceful means are to be exhausted before any physical use of power is attempted.  Even when the use of arms is a must, Muslims are constrained by the highest code of ethics; the divine law of Islam.  Muslims are only to fight the oppressors, the aggressors, and the forces of injustice.  Killing, molesting, or abusing civilian elderly, women, and children is prohibited at any time.  

Muslims are not to press heavier than necessary nor are they to exceed the necessary limits if they must fight.  Destroying farms, factories, infrastructure, houses of worship, etc. is not allowed.  Prisoners of war are treated in the most humane way. Peace must not be withheld when the enemy comes to terms.

For 13 years, in the midst of some of the worst forms of torture and oppression the world has ever known, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions observed an unparalleled practice of nonviolent resistance.  When the revelation did come to the Prophet for military defense, it came with the following admonition: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors.” 

Simply put: Muslims are to observe the highest code of ethics that would leave the door open for the "defeated enemy" to voluntarily and willingly join Islam later on with no bitterness or bad feelings. 

Mujahid (pl:  Mujahideen)

Often translated as freedom fighter.  Proper translation is a person in the state of Jihad, or the fighter in a jihad battle.  See Jihad above


Finally, we come to Terrorism:




Political use of violence and intimidation


Justice Conformity to the principles of righteousness;

The upholding of fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law;

Fairness and Equity.      



A state of quiet or tranquillity; Freedom from disturbance or


The absence of war or other hostilities.

Islamic Terrorist and Islamic Terrorism are misnomers.  Unfortunately, both are short hand terms that are in use.  I am certain that we all understand how stereotyping can be used to lead the way to influence public policy.  Unfortunately, because of the widespread disinformation about Islam and active Muslims in the west in general and the US in particular, people are led to believe that: (a) every legitimate freedom fighter who opposes the state policy is a terrorist; (b) Islam embodies an aggressive, violence-prone, bloodthirsty ideology; and lastly (c) there is some genetic or sociological defect in the very nature of Arabs and Muslims which makes them prone to terrorism. 

Islam is a religion of peace and moderation.  It recognizes the critical need for human tolerance and acceptance.  We read in Surat Al-Hujurat verse 49:13 in the Quran, (the translation of the meanings is)

"O mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).  Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you (with most piety).  And, Allah has full knowledge and is well-acquainted (with all things)."

These Quranic verses shed the light on the Islamic attitude of tolerance beyond any doubt.  They distance this beautiful religion from any use of unethical approaches to resolve disagreements and differences.

Islam has sought historically to spread its message, first and foremost through reasoned argumentation and reflection.   Arms were only used to remove oppressive regimes that stood in the way of religious freedom.  Even at war times, the conduct of Muslims is governed by divine law and strict limits must not be transgressed. 

The essence of Islam is to protect God-Given Rights for all Humans, Muslims and non-Muslims. The use of terrorism is in complete contradiction of the Islamic objectives.  Muslims are obligated to protect individuals and societies from fear and terror.

I like to quote the Professor of Ethics, Dr. James Sherer in his 1993 presentation in Chicago stating that “terrorism is a non-religious issue, it is important to look at the root causes.”  Also, “terror based on religion usually has a basis in social injustice.

Islam also recognizes that peace can not be maintained until justice is served.  Justice is emphasized in Islam as one of Allah’s attributes, and as a prerequisite to achieving peace. 

History shows us examples of how oppression, unfairness, and injustice pushed individuals and societies to the use of force for resistance, self defense, and violence and terrorism at times.  Religions and ethical codes play a nontrivial role in tempering human reactions and encouraging self control. 

Islam teaches Muslims that God is Fair and Just.  He Champions Fairness and His Justice will prevail.  However, Islam also teaches Muslims to do their part in reacting to unfairness and injustice within the Islamic bounds and the Islamic code of ethics.  It is important to recognize that in Islam The end does NOT justify the means.

When oppression and injustice exceed the human limit, when the pressure exceeds the tolerance of Islamically enhanced individuals and nations, breakdown occurs.  Evil takes control, and crimes do take place.

When subjecting such crimes to analysis, it is only fair to examine the root causes for these crimes and the factors that led to the breakdown.  Insisting that the solution is to only prosecute the criminals is unfair and is an abuse to the very spirit of justice.  Such practice may lead to a short term solution, but will never result in a long lasting fair and equitable peace.


I like to conclude Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark (a man who has studied Islam closely and who has traveled extensively throughout the Muslim world) made the following observation in a 1995 address before an audience of Muslims and non-Muslims: “Islam is the best chance the poor of the planet have for any hope of decency in their lives; for any hope for dignity in their lives.  It is the one revolutionary force that cares about humanity!” 

I close with the supplication: May God Make us among those who listen and adopt the truth.  Peace be with us all. 


More Islamic Terminology



Thanks and Praise are due to Allah


Allah is Greater


The City of Medina in Arabia, where Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) immigrated to and established the first Islamic community


The leader of a group. Also, Arabic word for prince



Peace be upon you

Assalam-u-Alaykum Warahmatullah Wa-Barakatuh


Peace be upon you, and Allah's Mercy and Blessings to you

Bism-i-Llah Arrahman Arraheem


In the Name of Allah The Compassionate The Merciful. An opening statement used by Muslims at the beginning of functions

E'sa (Pbuh)

Arabic Name of Jesus (pbuh) as Stated in the Qur'an


Pilgrimage to Mecca. One of the Pillars of Islam for those who are able financially as well as physically


Immigration (The flight of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina)

Hijri Calendar

The Islamic (Lunar) calendar, started in 623 A.D.


Arabic word for worships

Ibraheem (Pbuh)


Arabic name for Abraham (pbuh) as stated in the Qur'an


The leader of the community.  Also, the leader of a congregational prayer


Arabic word for faith or belief


Allah Willing (God Willing)


Place of gathering (Friday Mosque)


The testimony that there is only One God (this term is often used by non Arabic speaking Muslims)


The House of Allah, rebuilt by Ibraheem (Abraham), pbuh, in Makkah (Mecca)

Khalipha (Caliph)


Arabic word for Successor (of the Prophet). The leader of the Islamic Nation


Mecca, Arabia


Place of Prayers (Mosque)


Moosa (Pbuh)

Arabic Name of Moses (pbuh) as stated in the Qur'an


An improper title or description for Muslims since Muslims worship Allah and not Muhammad (pbuh)

Pillars of Islam

The corners of the Religion: Testimony (Shahadah/Kalimah), Prayer, Alms Giving, Fasting, and Pilgrimage


The fasting month for Muslims, the 9th month of the Hijrah (Lunar) Calendar


Arabic for Messenger (of Allah)

Salah (Salat)

Arabic for Prayer. An act of physical and spiritual communication of submission to Allah. To be distinguished from Invocation (Du-a'a in Arabic). One of the Pillars of Islam

Shahadah / Shahadatein

Testimony (that there is only One God and Muhammad (pbuh) is his Messenger).  The first Pillar of Islam. See also Kalimah

Shari'ah (or Shar'i)


Islamic Law as legislated by Allah


Arabic for an elderly man or an Islamic scholar. Often used to describe a knowledgeable and wise people, e.g. a scholar


Arabic for Shi'ite


Arabic is She'ah. A division started by those who championed Ali (the Cousin and Son-In-Law of Prophet Muhammad, pbuh) as Caliph


Fasting. One of the Pillars of Islam is to fast the month of Ramadan. Fasting involves abstention from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activities from Dawn to Sunset


The traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)


A person who commits to the traditions and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  Also refers to the followers of the main-stream Islam



Response greeting to Assalamu-Alaykum. Means: And peace be upon you as well

Zakah (Zakat)

Alms giving. One of the Pillars of Islam. Giving money to the needy. One form is to pay 2.5% of wealth saved for over 12 months


E-mail icb@islamview.org with questions or comments.
Last modified: 06/26/06