Gender & Identity, Life

7 Islamic words you might think you understand but probably don’t

No, jihad does not mean "holy war."

Don’t you love hearing words from your religion being thrown around to attack your beliefs?

Yeah, me neither.

After going through this frustration too many times, I’ve taken it upon myself to compile a list of terms I’ve heard used incorrectly or just without a full grasp of the meaning. News outlets, hate groups, protestors, and even friends might not understand the full picture of these words as well as how they tangibly apply to Muslims’ lives, which is why I’m here.

Get ready for some ~*scary*~ words with some not-so-scary definitions.

1. Islamist

Let’s clarify something basic.

Muslim = person practicing Islam (equivalent to Christian, Jew, Buddhist)

Islam = the religion (equivalent to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism)

Islamic = adjective of the religion (equivalent to Christian, Jewish, Buddhist)

There is no such thing as Muslamic. I am not an Islam nor do practice Muslim. And I do not go to a Muslim church; I go to a mosque.

Islamist = adjective form of a political application of Islam, which may actually have very little to do with the very principles of the religion. I am not knowledgeable at all on the topic since it is mostly irrelevant to the practice of Islam, but just know that a Muslim is not the same as an Islamist.

2. Allah

I find it funny (sad) when a devout Christian tells me that Allah should burn in hell because that is an insult to his/her own beliefs.

Allah means God in Arabic. Arab Christians use it, too. The word is also related to Elohim, a Hebrew term for God. So to think Allah is some specifically Muslim God makes no sense, and to insult Allah is to insult the God of all Abrahamic religions.

3. Sharia Law

Sharia means Islamic law and ethical guide. The word itself is literally translated to “path to be followed” or “path to water” and is derived from the Hebrew word sara’, meaning “pathway.”

Now when most people think of the law, they think of a set of rules to follow and punishments for not following them. It might be more helpful to think of sharia as “the pathway” since the majority of the rules are private, like how to wash for prayer and how much charity you should give annually.

The rules aren’t as important as the principles guiding those rules, which are the Quran and Prophetic practice.

This means that if we are looking at a specific incident and have to deliver a punishment, there is no set rule on what to do, but a specific analysis of the case guided by “the pathway.”

Think of the American judicial system.

It’s more run on a case-by-case ruling system framed by the general principles of American law. So, though there have been incidents in the past where cutting someone’s hand off for thievery (and them not repenting) would have been just, now, in a time and society where poverty is prominent, it seems it would not be the right thing to do. Rulings of corporal punishment in Muslim-majority countries are often politically motivated more so than religiously.

Another aspect most people don’t know about Sharia is that one of its principles is to follow the law of the land you are on. So while, yes, your Muslim neighbors are likely practicing Sharia by praying in their homes and fasting Ramadan, they cannot overturn their country’s judicial system.

And in fact, a lot of the American judicial system aligns with Sharia.

4. Fatwa

This is a jurisprudential decision from someone who has received training in Islamic sciences based on a specific case presented towards them.

I have once heard it compared to rulings from the Supreme Court. We have these scholars knowledgeable on the legal code and history of decisions to where they can give an opinion on the particular situation before them. It is not strict law sent to these scholars by God.

But, because anyone can have an opinion on a case, theirs is considered most relevant since they have this entire background of knowledge to rely on.

5. Madrasa

This is not a word that has to do with Islam, but a common Arabic term. It means “school.”

A madrasa can be Islamic, just like a school can be, but it is not necessary. Any time an Arab, Muslim or not, goes to school, they say they are going to their madrasa.

It’s as innocent and simple as that.

6. Jihad

Almost all Muslims experience some form of jihad. No, not “holy war” or whatever else it’s commonly translated as. It means to struggle or effort. This could be internal or external, but the most misconceived one is often the external kind.

“Struggle” can be sort of vague so let me give you two examples.

Fasting in Ramadan while going out to the popcorn-scented movie theater with friends who aren’t fasting is hard. You experience a struggle inside of whether to easily take one bite of popcorn without anyone knowing or to maintain your commitment to God to fast the entire day. This internal conflict forces you to evaluate why you’re doing what you’re doing and hence allows you to develop as a person.

People think of violence when it comes to external jihad, but that is usually not the way people practice it. An example of an external effort may be seeing something unjust in the world, let’s say the condition of refugees in this country, and trying to reform it because of the morals your faith teaches you, perhaps in this case by creating a refugee tutoring program. Being uncomfortable when witnessing any form of discrimination or injustice is the first step, and getting up and doing something about it is the second. Fighting and using weapons is jihad only as a last resort when it is combatting some evil in the world, like oppression, with moral motive.

7. Hijab

The word hijab is in fact not found in the Quran in the context we mean today. When it is used, it means barrier, like “hijab of the heart.” The notion of physical covering up is described by another term in different parts of the Quran (which would take too long to explain here).

So, now, when we say “hijab,” we think of the headscarf worn by women when in actuality both men and women practice hijab. Men have barriers on how they should dress (modestly covering naval to knee) as do women. But more importantly, hijab goes beyond a physical barrier. It is the practice of modesty, of respecting people for their personalities and minds rather than their bodies. The essence of hijab is found in action. So, for example, a guy catcalling a girl goes against that (as does the opposite).

As far as the physical headscarf we refer to as hijab, the most important thing is the modest dress (covering the body). Different women choose to cover differently than others (which is why you see a variety of styles – from turban to burka). Forcing a woman to wear one is not allowed. It is worn in front of non-family males.

So, no, don’t ask me if I shower or sleep in it.