Glossary of Terms

The following selection of words and definitions have been borrowed from Mohammed Ayoob’s book, The Many Faces of Political Islam, published by the University of Michigan in 2008, and they are often cited in the media.


dar al-Islam.  Literally, “the abode of Islam”; territories in which Islamic law is, in theory, applicable.  The opposite of dar al-Harb (literally, “the land of war”), which refers to all territories in which Islamic law is not applied and/or Muslims are not in political control.  Dar al-Islam is differentiated from umma, which refers to the community of Muslims.  Dar al-Islam refers to territories under Muslim political control. “Islamdon” is a good equivalent in English.

dawa.  Literally, “call,” that is, inviting others to Islam; the act of educating non-Muslims about Islam.  Also used to invite Muslims to become better practicing Muslims.


fatwa.  A legal pronouncement made by a scholar capable of issuing judgments on Islamic law.

fiqh.  Islamic jurisprudence, which covers all aspects of life.  In Sunni Islam, disagreement on authenticity of hadith to use as sources to arrive at a verdict on a particular issue has led to the emergence of several schools of jurisprudence.  The four most prominent are Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali, named after their most prominent founders.  Unlike the Sunni-Shia division, the schools do not transform into social and political identities.  Most Shia follow the Ja’afri school of jurisprudence, named after their sixth Imam, himself a great jurist.

fitna.  Mischief, dissension, and conflict within the umma.


hadith.  Words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad.  Collected and verified meticulously, they form the source for determining the sunna, the way of the Prophet.

hudna.  Truce, armistice, or cease-fire.  In Western parlance, the term is most frequently used in reference to an Israeli-Palestinian truce, particularly one that would involve such organizations as Hamas.


ijtihad.  Derived from jahada, which means to struggle to attain an objective.  The process of arriving at an Islamic legal decision through independent reasoning and interpretation of basic sources, such as the Quran and the sunna.  The opposite of taqlid, or following president or existing practice without questioning it.  A person who has the scholarly credentials to conduct ijtihad is called a mujtahid.

imam.  Literally, “leader.”  In everyday usage, a prayer leader.  In the Sunni tradition, a recognized religious leader or teacher.  In Shia Islam, a descendant of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali.  These descendants were recognized as spiritual leaders of the community.  According to Shia belief, the twelfth imam went into occultation and will return at the end of time to inaugurate an era of absolute justice in the world.  The Shias believe that all government is illegitimate pending the return of the Mahdi, the twelfth imam.

intifada.  Palestinian uprising to free the West Bank and Gaza from the Israeli occupation begun in 1967.  The first intifada began in 1987, the second in 2000.


jahiliyya.  Literally, “state of ignorance.” Refers specifically to the state of being ignorant of Islam, the condition in which Arabs found themselves in Arabian society prior to Islam.  Modern Islamist scholars such as Qutb and Mawdudi, used this term to describe Muslim societies where Islamic law did not prevail.

jihad.  Literally, “effort” or “struggle.”  The term has been conventionally interpreted as armed struggle by Muslims to defend or advance Islam against unbelievers.  After a saying of the Prophet, some traditions emphasize “greater jihad,” which means struggle against one’s inner temptations, as opposed to “lesser jihad,” which connotes armed struggle.

jihadis.  Muslim militants who favor and adopt violence as a means to achieve political ends, often in a transnational context.


madrassa.  School; more specifically, schools in which religious instruction is offered.

Mahdi.  The prophesied redeemer of Islam, who will change the world into a perfect Islamic society alongside the Prophet Jesus before the Day of the Resurrection.  The belief in Mahdi is shared by both Sunnis and Shiites; however, Twelver Shiites believe that the twelfth imam is the Mahdi and will reappear from his hiding.

muhajir.  Muslim refugee or immigrant who flees his/her homeland due to oppression and persecution.  The term was initially applied to the Muslims of Mecca who migrated to Medina with the Prophet in 622 CE.  Several groups in the past have also been referred to as muhajirs, including Muslim refugees from India who settled in Pakistan after independence in 1947.


Salafis.  Members of the Sunni puritanical movement of salafiyya.  Salafis favor a return to the practice of the salad al-salih (the “righteous ancestors”), the first three generations of Muslims.  Salafis are known by their strict interpretation of the Quran and the sunna and their strong opposition to traditional and Sufi practices.  In addition, salamis are known for their strong anti-Shia discourse.

sharia.  Literally “the way”; the body of Islamic law that governs individual and social aspects of Muslim life.  The two basic sources of sharia are the Quran and the hadith.  In the Muslim historical context, the term often refers more to rule of law than to a particular legal system.

Sheikh al-Islam.  (Seyhul slam in Turkish).  Highest authority on religious issues in the Sunni political tradition.  Title given to the highest Ottoman religious authority, in contrast to the political position of the sultan-caliph.

Shia.  One of the two major aspects in Islam.  Cf.  Sunnis.  The Shia view is that succession had to come from the family of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt): hence, Ali bin Abi Talib, son-in-law of the Prophet, had to be the first legitimate successor.  Shia’s believe that Imams are infallible spiritual guides.

shura.  Literally, “consultation.”  Muslim movements argue that Islam requires consultation as a decision-making principle, allowing for a synthesis of Islam and representative democracy.

sunna.  The deeds, sayings, and approvals of Prophet Muhammad and, according tot he Shia, those of the twelve Imams.

Sunnis.  One of the two major sects in Islam.  Cf.  Shia.  Sunnis accept election or selection by the leaders of the community as the means of choosing the caliph.  They regard the first four caliphs–Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali–as “rightly guided.”  Other than the question of succession, there are theological differences between the two.  Sunnis regard caliphs as fallible political leaders.


takfir.  The practice of denouncing as an apostate an individual who identifies himself or herself as Muslim.  In classical Muslim scholarship, conditions of takfir are extensively discussed.  In modern context, marginal and extremist groups accuse entire Muslim societies of being apostates.

taqlid.  The opposite of ijtihad; implies total acceptance of previous scholarly opinions on religious and daily matters without demanding a detailed justification of them.


ulama.  (pl. of alim).  Religious-legal scholars of Islam.

umma.  The worldwide Muslim community, including majority and minority Muslim populations.


vilayat-i faqih.  Guardianship of the jurisconsult.  The concept establishes the authority of the faqih, or expert in fiqh (jurisprudence), over religious as well as political matters.  It was first developed by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1963 and incorporated into Iran’s constitutional system of in 1979, establishing him as the highest authority in the country.


Wahhabism.  An Islamic puritanical doctrine of reform and renewal attributed to Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-87), who allied himself with the House of Saud.  Wahhabism has served as the official ideology of the Saudi regime.  The term was coined by ibn Abdul Wahhab’s opponents; his followers prefer to call themselves Muwahhidun (Unitarians).