Islam: A Glossary

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 24 2001 6:40 PM

Islam: A Glossary

Over the past several weeks, the news has been filled with words and terms relating to Islam and Islamic culture. Here's a short guide.

Allah: The Arabic name for "God"; the word refers to the same God worshipped by Jews and Christians.

Caliph: The prophet Muhammad's successors were known as caliphs, and their empire was the caliphate. (Muhammad was a political as well as a religious leader.) The first four caliphs are known as the rashidun (the "rightly guided" caliphs). Sunni Muslims consider the rule of the rashidun to be the golden age of Islam. Shii Muslims believe that the fourth caliph, Ali, was usurped by the first three caliphs and that his descendants were the proper heirs to the caliphate. (One sect of Shiis set up a rival caliphate in Egypt in 983. It lasted nearly 200 years.) Umar, the second caliph, decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from Arabia. (Such an expulsion was much rarer than the evictions of Jews and Muslims from medieval Christendom.) Since Umar's decree, Islam's holiest sites have been off-limits to non-Muslims.

Hajj: The pilgrimage to Mecca, which Muslims with the physical ability and financial means should perform at least once in their lives. It is one of the five pillars of Islam. The others are shahada (profession of faith), salat (prayer), zakat (alms giving), and sawm (fasting).The hajj takes place during the 12th lunar month of the Islamic calendar and focuses on rituals around the Kaaba. A pilgrimage that takes place at another time is called the umra. Around 2 million Muslims carry out the hajj each year.

Islam: In Arabic, the word means "surrender" or "submission" to the will of God. Most Westerners think of Islam as one of the three major monotheistic world religions (the others being Judaism and Christianity). But the historian Bernard Lewis observes that "Islam" means both a religion (analogous to "Christianity") and the civilization that developed under that religion (analogous to "Christendom").

Islamic calendar: The first year of the Muslim calendar is 622 A.D., the year of Muhammad's flight to Medina. The Islamic calendar consists of 12 lunar months. Common years last 354 days, and leap years last 355 days.

Jihad: An Arabic word meaning "to struggle" or "to exhaust one's effort." The "effort" can mean preaching Islam and living virtuously in accordance with God's commands. But it can also apply to actual fighting to defend Muslims. Even military jihad, however, is supposed to be fought with respect for the rules of war.

Kaaba: The most sacred shrine of Islam, it is a cube-shaped stone structure in Mecca. Traditionally, Muslims believe the Kaaba was built by Abraham and his son Ismail. On the outside of one corner is the sacred Black Stone, kissed by pilgrims. The angel Gabriel gave the Black Stone to Abraham, according to one Islamic tradition; according to another, the stone was set in place by Adam.

Koran/Qu'ran: The holy book of Islam, recorded by the prophet Muhammad beginning in the year 610 A.D. Muslims consider it to be the word of God. Islam teaches that the Christian and Hebrew scriptures are also holy books, though they had become distorted over time. The Koran is the primary source of Islamic law, followed by hadith (teachings attributed to Muhammad that are not recorded in the Koran) and the sunna (the habits and practices of Muhammad's life). The word Koran means "recitation."

Mecca: Islam's most sacred city, located in what is now western Saudi Arabia. Mecca is the birthplace of Muhammad and the site of the Kaaba.

Medina: Also located in western Saudi Arabia, Medina is Islam's second-holiest place. Muhammad migrated to Medina with 70 Muslim families in 622 after being persecuted by the Meccan establishment. It is also the site of Muhammad's tomb.

Mosque: The Arabic word is masjid, meaning "place of prostration" before God. Muhammad built the first mosque in Medina. A mosque should be oriented toward Mecca. In many Islamic societies, mosques serve social and political functions in addition to religious ones.

Muslim: In Arabic, "one who surrenders to God"; a follower of Islam. There are 1 billion Muslims in the world and 6 million in the United States.

Shii: The "partisans" of Ali, the fourth caliph, the Shiis eventually became a distinct Muslim sect. The largest Shii Muslim sect is the "Twelver Shii," named after the first 12 leaders (or imams) of Shii Muslims. Twelver Shii believe that the descendants of Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, were the legitimate leaders of Islam. Shiis believe the last imam is in hiding, and they await his return. Shiis are the majority in Iran, and many can be found in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Pakistan. There are more than 165 million Shii Muslims in the world. (Also known as Shia or Shiite Muslims.)

Sunni: Unlike Shii Muslims, Sunni Muslims believe that Islamic leadership is vested in the consensus of the community, not in religious and political authorities. Their name comes from the word sunna, which is thought to mean "middle of the road." The religious scholar Karen Armstrong emphasizes that, despite their differences, Sunnis and Shiites alike observe the five pillars of Islam. "Like Judaism, Islam is a religion that requires people to live a certain way, rather than to accept certain credal propositions," she writes. "It stresses orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy."

Umma: The worldwide community of Muslims.

Wahabbism: A puritanical form of Islam that flourishes primarily in Saudi Arabia. It is named after Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab, an 18th-century Islamic reformer who wanted to return Islam to its beginnings by emphasizing a fundamentalist approach to the Koran.

Explainer thanks Karen Armstrong's A History of God and Islam: A Short History, Bernard Lewis' The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, and Encarta Online.