Islamic Terms

The Arabic language is central to the Islamic faith. When reading about Islam and Muslims you will encounter terms of Arabic origin. To facilitate proper articulation, a pronunciation key has been provided in brackets next to the most-preferred spellings of the terms.

- A -

Adhan [ad-haan]: The Muslim call to prayer. The adhan consists of specific phrases, recited aloud in Arabic prior to each of the five daily prayers times. Upon hearing the adhan, Muslims discontinue all activity and assemble at a local masjid for formal communal worship.

Allah [al-lah]: Literally, "The God." Muslims use this Arabic term as the proper name for God. Muslims view Allah as the Creator and Sustainer of everything in the universe, Who is transcendent, has no physical form, and has no associates who share in His divinity. In the Qur’an, God is described as having at least ninety-nine Divine Names, which describe His attributes.

“Allahu Akbar” [al-lahoo ukbar]: “God is Most Great”.

"As-Salaamu Alaykum": The traditional, time-honored greeting of Muslims, meaning "Peace be upon you." The appropriate response is "Wa Alaykum As-Salaam," meaning, "And upon you be peace also."

- B -

“Bismillah” [bis-mil- lah]: “In the name of God”.

- E -

Eid [eed]: Eid is an Arabic term meaning "festivity" or "celebration." Muslims celebrate two major religious holidays, known as Eid al-Fitr (which takes place after Ramadan), and Eid al-Adha (which occurs at the time of the Hajj). A traditional greeting used by Muslims around the time of Eid is "Eid Mubarak," meaning "May your holiday be blessed." A special congregational Eid worship, visitation of family and friends, new clothing, specially-prepared foods and sweets, and gifts for children characterize these holidays.

- F -

Fasting: See Sawm.

Five Pillars of Islam, The: A term referring to the five core religious practices incumbent upon all Muslims, and which demonstrate a Muslim’s commitment to God in word and in deed. They are as follows: Shahadah (declaration of faith), Salah (formal worship), Zakah (mandatory alms-giving tax), Sawm (fasting during Ramadan), and Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah).

- G -

God: See Allah.

- H -

Hadith [ha-deeth]: Unlike the verses contained in the Qur’an, Hadith are the sayings and traditions of Prophet Muhammad himself, and form part of the record of the Prophet’s Sunnah (way of life and example). The Hadith record the words and deeds, explanations, and interpretations of the Prophet concerning all aspects of life. Hadith are found in various collections compiled by Muslim scholars in the early centuries of the Muslim civilization. Six such collections are considered most authentic.

Hajj [huj]: The pilgrimage (journey) to Makkah (in modern-day Saudi Arabia) undertaken by Muslims in commemoration of the Abrahamic roots of Islam. The Hajj rites symbolically reenact the trials and sacrifices of Prophet Abraham, his wife Hajar, and their son Isma’il over 4,000 years ago. Muslims must perform the Hajj at least once in their lives, provided their health permits and they are financially capable. The Hajj is performed annually by over 2,000,000 people during the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Dhul-Hijjah.

Hijab [hee-jaab]: Commonly, the term hijab is used to denote the scarf or other type of head-covering worn by Muslim women throughout the world. However, the broader definition of the term refers to a state of modesty and covering that encompasses a woman’s entire body, excluding hands and face.

Hijrah [hij-rah]: The migration in 622 C.E. of Prophet Muhammad and members of the Muslim community from the city of Makkah to the city of Yathrib, later renamed Madinah an-Nabi (city of the Prophet) in honor of Muhammad. The Islamic lunar calendar, often called the Hijri calendar, is dated from this important event, which marks the beginning of an Islamic state (in Madinah) in which the Shari’ah (Islamic Law) was implemented.

- I -

Imam [ee-maam]: Generally, the term imam refers to one who leads congregational worship. More broadly, the term also applies to religious leaders within the Muslim community. While imams lead worship, give sermons, and perform other duties such as officiating marriages, they are not ordained clergy, nor do they belong to any kind of hierarchy. Also, imams do not act as intermediaries between individual worshippers and God. The term Imam has specific authoritative connotations for Shi’ah Muslims.

“Insha Allah” [in-sha al-lah]: “God-Willing”.

Islam [iss-laam]: Islam is an Arabic word derived from the three-letter root s-l-m. Its meaning encompasses the concepts of peace, greeting, surrender, and commitment, and refers commonly to an individual’s surrender and commitment to God the Creator through adherence to the religion by the same name.

- J -

Jihad [ji-haad]: Jihad is an Arabic word which derives from the three-letter root j-h-d, and means "to exert oneself" or "to strive." Other meanings include endeavor, strain, effort, diligence, struggle. Usually understood in terms of personal betterment, jihad may also mean fighting to defend one’s (or another’s) life, property, and faith. Because jihad is a highly nuanced concept, it should not be understood to mean "holy war," a common misrepresentation.

Jum’ah [joom-ah]: The congregational worship performed on Fridays in place of the midday worship. On this special day, Muslims make a extra effort to go to their local masjid to listen to the khutbah (community address) by the imam (worship leader) and to perform the formal worship with their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters.

- K -

Ka’bah: An empty cube-shaped structure located in the city of Makkah (in modern-day Saudi Arabia). Built by Prophet Abraham and his son Prophet Ishma’il about 4,000 years ago, the Ka’bah stands as the first building dedicated to the worship of the One God. The Ka’bah is made of stone, and is covered by a black and gold cloth embroidered with verses from the Qur’an.

Koran: See Qur’an.

- M -

Madinah [ma-dee-nah]: Formerly named Yathrib, Madinah became the center of the first Islamic community and political state after Prophet Muhammad migrated there from Makkah in 622 C.E. The people of Madinah welcomed the persecuted Muslims of Makkah with open arms, establishing a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood viewed as a tangible ideal for Muslims today. Prophet Muhammad died in Madinah in 632 C.E. and was buried in his room adjacent to the city’s central masjid, which he established.

Makkah [muck-ah]: An ancient city where Abraham and Ishma’il built the Ka’bah. Muhammad, a member of the Quraysh tribe, which traced its lineage back to Abraham, was born in Makkah in 570 C.E. After migrating to Madinah to further the message of Islam, Muhammad returned to Makkah in 629 C.E. with fellow Muslims to reinstitute the age-old monotheistic Hajj. In 630 C.E., after the Quraysh violated a peace treaty, Muhammad marched on Makkah and gained control of the city peacefully, thereafter clearing the Ka’bah of idols and reintegrating the city into the fold of Islam.

Masjid [mus-jid]: A term meaning "place of prostration," masjid designates a building where Muslims congregate for communal worship. The term comes from the same Arabic root as the word sujud, designating the important worship position in which Muslims touch their forehead to the ground. Often, the French word mosque is used interchangeably with masjid, though the latter term is preferred by Muslims. The masjid also serves various social, educational, and religious purposes. There are three sacred masjids in the world which Muslims hope to visit and pray within: Masjid al-Haram in Makkah; Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah; and Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

Mecca: See Makkah

Medina: See Madinah

Moslem: See Muslim

Mosque: See Masjid

Muhammad [moo-hum-mud]: The prophet and righteous person believed by Muslims to be the final messenger of God, whose predecessors are believed to include the Prophets Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and others. Born in 570 C.E., Muhammad grew up to become a well-respected member of Makkan society. In 610 C.E., he received the first of many revelations that would eventually form the content of the Qur’an. He then began calling people to righteousness and belief in One God. Muhammad died in 632 C.E., after successfully (re)establishing the religion known as Islam and providing Muslims with a model for ideal human behaviour.

Muslim [moos-lim]: Literally (and in the broadest sense), the term means "one who submits to God." More commonly, the term describes any person who accepts the creed and the teachings of Islam. The word "Muhammadan" is a pejorative and offensive misnomer, as it violates Muslims’ most basic understanding of their creed — Muslims do not worship Muhammad, nor do they view him as the founder of the religion. The word "Moslem" is also incorrect, since it is a corruption of the word "Muslim."

- P -

Pilgrimage: See Hajj.

Prayer: See Salah and Du’a.

- Q -

Qur’an: The word Qur’an means "the recitation" or "the reading," and refers to the divinely revealed scripture of Islam. It consists of 114 surahs (chapters) revealed by God to Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years. The Qur’an continues to be recited by Muslims throughout the world in the language of its revelation, Arabic, exactly as it was recited by Prophet Muhammad nearly fourteen hundred years ago. The Qur’an is viewed as the authoritative guide for human beings, along with the Sunnah of Muhammad. Translations of the Qur’an are considered explanations of the meaning of the Qur’an, but not the Qur’an itself. The spelling "Koran" is phonetically incorrect; the more accurate Qur’an should be used.

- R -

Ramadan [ra-ma-daan]: The ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan is important because it is the month in which the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to Muhammad. Thus, it is considered a blessed and holy month. Furthermore, Ramadan is the month in which Muslims fast daily from dawn to sunset to develop piety and self-restraint.

- S -

Salah [sa-laah]: Salah refers to the prescribed form of worship in Islam, and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Muslims perform the salah five times throughout each day as a means of maintaining God-consciousness, to thank Him for His blessings and bounty, and to seek His assistance and support in one’s daily life. All five prayers are spread out throughout the day and shift in time as the sun’s relative position changes. The first prayer (Fajr), is before sunrise, the second (Zuhr) occurs shortly after the sun reaches its zenith, the third (Asr) occurs in the afternoon, the fourth (Maghrib) is prayed after sunset, and the fifth (Isha) is at night.

Salaam: Peace, See As-Salamu Alaykum.

Sawm [so-um]: Sawm refers to the daily fast Muslims undertake during the month of Ramadan, and is one of the "five pillars" of Islam. For Muslims, fasting means total abstinence from all food, drink, and marital sexual relations from dawn to sunset. Muslims fast for many reasons, including to build a sense of will-power against temptation, to feel compassion for less fortunate persons, and to reevaluate their lives in spiritual terms.

Shahadah [sha-haa-duh]: An Arabic word meaning "witnessing," Shahadah refers to the declaration of faith ("La-Ilaha-Illa-Lah Muhammadur-Rasul-Allah") which all Muslims take as their creed — namely, that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. The Shahadah constitutes the first of the "five pillars" of Islam.

Shari’ah [sha-ree-ah]: Literally "the path to water," this term refers to guidance from God to be used by Muslims to regulate their societal and personal affairs. The Shari’ah is based upon the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Muhammad, and is interpreted by scholars in deliberating and deciding upon questions and issues of a legal nature.

Sunnah [soon-nah]: Literally, this term means habit, practice, customary procedure, action, norm, or usage sanctioned by tradition. More specifically, Sunnah refers to Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, practices, and habits. The Hadith of the Prophet constitute a written record of his Sunnah. Sunnah prayers are extra prayer, apart from the five compulsory daily prayers. (Also called Nafl prayers)

- V -

Veil: See Hijab.

- Z -

Zakah [za-kaah]: Zakah literally means "purification," and refers to an alms-giving tax, roughly 2.5% of one’s accumulated wealth, that eligible Muslims pay annually. Zakah is one of the "five pillars" of Islam, and is usually collected by local masjids or charitable organizations. The funds are distributed to poor and needy persons in the Muslim community. Paying the zakah reminds Muslims of the duty to help those less fortunate, and that wealth is a trust from God rather than something to be taken for granted.