Glossary of Names and Terms

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Abbasids: Line of caliphs starting with Abbas al-Saffah in 750 and lasting until the Mongol takeover of Baghdad in 1258. (See The Abbasids)

Abu Bakr: the first caliph, 632-634 CE. Muhammad's father-in-law, the father of Muhammad's wife A'ishah.(see The Prophet's Family)

adah: Muslim customary law, sometimes in conflict with the Shari'ah or used in conjunction with it.

A'ishah: Muhammad's favorite wife, daughter of Abu Bakr. (see The Prophet's Family)

Allah: Arabic word for "the Lord." In Muslim theology, the same God whom Christians and Jews worship (under the name Jehovah/Yahweh). Allah has 99 attributes, or descriptive names, such as "the Compassionate" and "the Merciful."

Ali: Ali b. Abu Talib, Muhammad's first cousin and son-in-law, husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatimah. (see Shi'ism) (see The Prophet's Family)

'alim (pl. ulama): a Muslim religious scholar.

amir (also emir): a general or military commander.

Amir al-Mu'minin: "Commander of the Faithful." A title applied to the caliph.

'aql: "reasoning" in Muslim law.

Arab League: founded in 1945 with seven nations: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan (now Jordan), Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. This alliance, supported by the British, was intended to maintain peace between hostile Arab nations and achieve lasting stability in the Middle East.

asceticism: deliberate self denial of bodily pleasures, usually food and sex.

Asharites: theological followers of Al-Ashari (d. ca. 935 CE), who asserted the uncreated, eternal character of the Qur'an and the complete and utter agency of God.

atabeg: originally applied to the guardians of minor Seljuk Turkish rulers; later, any independent minor ruler of Turkish origin.

Ayatollah: "Sign of God" or "Shadow of God." In Twelver Shi'ism, a religious authority assumed to be supported by the power of the Imams. (See Shi'ism)

Ayyubids: Egyptian ruling dynasty founded by Salah ad-Din b. Ayyub in 1171, ending only with the rise of the Mamluks in 1250

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bey (also beg):  a Turkish military leader.

bid'a: "innovation," used to refer to any new idea contrary to the Shari'ah.

Bismillah (also Basmalah): the phrase with which Muslims bless a work about to be undertaken: "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate." All surahs of the Qur'an except the first one begin with this phrase. In Arabic:    It can be found many places, and is incorporated into much Muslim art. (Offsite examples at

buraq: the mythical beast upon whom Muhammad made his trip to Heaven. (Image)

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caliph (Arabic: Khalifa): "successor" of Muhammad in Sunni Islam.

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Dar al-Islam: the "house of Islam," that is, all the territory that is subject to Muslim rule.

Dar al-Harb: the "house of war," that is, territory not under Muslim rule.

devshirme: A tax in children levied for the Ottoman army. See janissaries.

dhimmi: "protected people," followers of a tolerated religion under Islam. Normally, dhimmi are allowed to practice their religion in private but not to seek converts. The dhimmah (protection) was established under the caliph Umar through the Pact of Umar.

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emir: see amir.

Epistles: letters which form part of the Christian New Testament. There are twenty-one Epistles in the NT, many of which are attributed to the Apostle Paul (though some erroneously).

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Fatimids: Sevener Shi'ite dynasty that controlled Egypt and much of the Middle East from 909 to 1171, named according to their claimed descent from the Prophet's daughter Fatimah. (map)

fatwa:  the decision of a judge or mufti. A fatwa is issued in a case of conscience and should be based in the Shari'ah.

fez: a hat made of red felt used in the nineteenth century by "modernist" Ottomans instead of a turban.

fiqh: Muslim jurisprudence; the interpretation of the Shari'ah.

fitnah: "time of trial" or "tribulation." Used to describe the difficulties within the Ummah after the death of Muhammad. The first fitnah is 656-61; the second 680-692; the third 744-750. (see timeline)

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ghazi: a holy warrior participating in jihad. In Ottoman history, the term applied to traditional nomadic Turks.

Gospels: the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which provide the story of the life of Jesus.
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hadith (pl. ahadith): an oral tradition of the Prophet, usually a story or anecdote about his reponse to a situation. A hadith is considered authoritative based on its original source; those attributed to A'ishah are among the most authoritative. The term for the transmitters of hadith is isnad or sanad. Ahadith provide the Sunnah or "way" of the prophet.

Hafsa: wife of Muhammad, daughter of the caliph Umar. According to tradition, she is the one who kept the authoritative copy of the Qur'an after Muhammad's death. (see The Prophet's Family)

hajj: the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which takes place in the twelfth month of the Muslim lunar year. The fifth pillar of Islam; every able-bodied Muslim must perform it once in a lifetime if possible. A person who has made the pilgrimage is called a hajji.

halal: something that is approved as religiously proper for a Muslim.

Hanifite school: one of the four Sunni schools of Muslim jurisprudence, beginning with Abu-Hanifah (699-767 CE)

Hanbalite school: one of the four Sunni schools of Muslim jurisprudence, beginning with Ahmad ibn-Hanbal (780-855 CE)

Hashimids: the family of Muhammad, usually divided between Abbasids (descendants of Abbas) and Alids (descendants of Ali). (See The Prophet's Family)

haram: something that is forbidden to a Muslim, such as eating pork. (More serious than makruh).

harem: a Turkish word designating the women's quarters of a household, into which male guests may not go.In India a similar arrangement is called a zenanah.

Hellenism: term used to describe the spread of Greek ("Hellenic") culture under Alexander the Great.

heresy: an unorthodox religious belief held deliberately and with knowledge of its unorthodoxy. A Christian term which westerners sometimes use to discuss different forms of disagreement within Islam.

hijab: modest dress, for both men and women, although the emphasis is usually on the female. What "hijab" actually means varies widely from place to place.

Hijaz: the western side of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, containing Mecca and Medina. (See map)

hijra (also hegira): the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Yathrib (later Medina) in 622. The beginning of the Muslim calendar; years are designated AH.

Husayn: son of Ali, grandson of Muhammad. (See The Prophet's Family  and Shi'ism).

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ihram: the white, seamless garment worn by Muslims during the Hajj.

ijma': in Muslim jurisprudence, "consensus" or "agreement" related to interpretation of the Shari'ah.

ijtihad: "personal judgment" applied to the Shari'ah.

imam: a religious leader. In Sunni Islam, the person who leads prayers in the mosque. In Shi'ite Islam, the direct-line successor to Muhammad via his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali (in which case it is capitalized). (see Shi'ism)

iman: religious faith.

Islam: "submission" to God.

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jahiliyyah: the "time of ignorance." Used to refer to the period before Muhammad in Arab Bedouin history.

Janissaries: from Turkish "yeni cheri," "new soldiers." This word refers to the slave soldiers of the Ottoman Empire between 1389 and 1826. Male children were recruited via the devshirme, a tax in children levied upon non-Muslim communities, and raised as professional soldiers. The corps began to decline in the 16th century and by 1600 was a bastion of hereditary privilege and intrigue. The janissary corps was forcibly disbanded in 1826 by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II.

jihad: sometimes called the "sixth pillar of Islam," this word has two meanings:
1. The "greater jihad" is "striving" of any kind, particularly moral; the struggle to be a better person, a better Muslim, the struggle against drugs, against immorality, against infidelity, etc.
2. Holy war in agreement with the Shari'ah: only undertaken when the faith is threatened and at the approval of a religious authority such as a mullah, though this is a difficult distinction (the "lesser jihad").

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Ka'bah: a building attributed to the prophet Abraham; the holiest site of Islam. See the hajj.

Khadiyah: Muhammad's first wife. (See The Prophet's Family).

khan: Turkish title for a military leader used first by the Mongols and later by residents of Iran and Turkey.

Khedive: the title of rulers of Egypt in the nineteenth century, who ruled as representatives of the Ottoman Sultan.
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madrasa: a school or college, often founded through a waqf, designed to provide religious and legal education. Early madrasas were based on the combination of a mosque and a dormitory for students (ca. 1090 CE).

Mahdi: the "rightly guided one" who will usher in the Day of Judgment. For Sunni Muslims, the mahdi will follow the return of Jesus and usher in a period of peace before the Last Judgment; for Twelver Shi'ite Muslims, the mahdi is the Twelfth Imam.

makruh: something that Islam strongly discourages, but does not forbid.

Malikites: One of the four Sunni schools of Muslim jurisprudence, beginning with Malik ibn-Anas (713-795).

Mamluk: a term used for professional slave soldiers in the Abbasid and Seljuq era, later adopted for the professional Turkish warrior class in Egypt during the Mamluk period. The Mamluk sultanate, started by Baybars (1260-1277) was distinguished from other sultanates by an almost total lack of family continuity between the sultans.

mawla (pl. mawali): in early Umayyad times, a word used to refer to non-Arab converts to Islam, adopted into Arab tribes.

mihrab: a small cavity in the wall of a mosque that shows worshippers what direction to face during prayer.

millet: name used to refer to ethnic groups under the Ottomans. The main millets of the late Ottoman period were Turkish Muslim, Jewish and Christian. Non-Muslim millets paid the devshirme.

mosque (masjid): any place of Muslim worship. A jami-masjid or Friday Mosque is a major mosque where weekly prayer services are performed and a sermon or khutbah is given.

Muezzin: the person who announces the daily prayers from the minaret (tower) of a mosque.

Muhammad: the last prophet of Islam, often called the "Seal of the Prophets." God revealed the Qur'an to Muhammad starting in the year 610 CE. When Muslims write the Prophet's name, they usually include the figure , or the abbreviation (pbuh) or (saas), meaning "Peace be upon him."

mufti: an expert in the Shari'ah who gives legal judgments called fatwas. Usually one mufti in a given geographic area is called the Grand Mufti.

Mu'tazilites: a ninth-century minority group who believed in the free will of the individual and rejected the infallibility and eternal, uncreated status of the Qur'an. Although one Abbasid caliph supported this point of view, the opposite view, that of the Asharites, prevailed.

Muslim: "one who submits" to God. A follower of Islam.

mysticism: direct communion with the divine through behavioral practice

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nationalism: loyalty and devotion to a nation or ethnic group that places emphasis on promoting the interests, cultural and social values, or religion of one group above all others

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Original Sin: term for the sin committed by Adam and Eve when they ate the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Traditions about this sin vary in Christianity, Judaism and Islam and between different sects within the faiths.

Ottomans: the Turkish dynasty descending from Osman (1258-1326) which came to power in Anatolia in the fourteenth century and continued to rule a large territory until the 1920s. (See offsite: the Ottomans)

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Patriarch:  title given to the bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem in the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox church, who have power over other bishops; also the title given to the head of Orthodox churches.

Pact of Umar: agreement which formed the dhimma, or protection, for non-Muslims under the early Ummah. (See offsite: Pact of Umar)

Pan-Arabism: theory in the brotherhood of all Arabs under Islam, growing out of early twentieth-century Arab nationalism.

People of the Book (ahl al-Kitab): people with Scriptures; that is, Jews and Christians, to Muslims.

Pillars of Islam: see this site.

Pope (from papa, "father"):  title given to the bishop of Rome. The head of the Roman Catholic church.

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qadi: a judge who judges according to the Shari'ah.

qibla: the part of the wall in a mosque that faces Mecca and contains the mihrab.

qiyas: "analogy" in Muslim jurisprudence; in other words, using analogy to problems discussed in hadith to make legal decisions

Qur'an (also Koran): "the recitation," the holy book of Islam. In Islamic theology, the author of the Qur'an is God (not Muhammad) and contains the exact words given to Muhammad between 610 and 632 CE. For this reason, translations of the Qur'an into any other language are called "interpretations" or "explanations" of the Qur'an.

Quraysh: the Arab tribe to which Muhammad and his clan, the Banu Hashim, belonged.

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ramadan: The fourth pillar of Islam is that Muslims shall fast from sunrise to sunset during this month. The end of ramadan is a three-day celebration called Eid al-fitr, the Lesser Feast.

Rashidun: the "righteous" or "rightly guided" caliphs. Used to refer to the first four caliphs to succeed Muhammad: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. (See The Prophet's Family).

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Safavids: Term used for the Shi'ite shahs of Iran, beginning with Isma'il (1501-1524) and lasting until 1721.

salat: the second pillar of Islam, ritual prayer, performed five times daily.

Shafiites: One of the four schools of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, beginning with Muhammad ibn-Idris, 'al-Shafi' (767-820).

Shahadah: the first pillar of Islam, the statement "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet."

Shajar ad-Dur: "Tree of Pearls," a slave woman originally sent as a gift to the Ayyubid sultan, controlled the Ayyubid sultanate from May to July of 1250, until she was forced to marry a Mamluk chieftain. In 1260 she and her husband were murdered and Baybars (1260-1277) became the first Mamluk sultan of Egypt.

Shari'ah: Muslim sacred law, or the rules that guide a Muslim's life. These rules are determined through fiqh, based on the Qur'an and the sunnah, and (in Sunni Islam) ijma and qiyas.

shaykh (also sheikh, sheik): a title applied to the patriarch of a Muslim family group; also used as a term of respect for religious leaders and elders.

Shi'ah: "party" of 'Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam. (See Shi'ism)

sipahi: a soldier. In the Ottoman empire, used to refer to calvary soldiers as opposed to janissaries. In India, "sepoy."

Sufi: a Muslim mystic, called so for the suf or wool robe usually worn by devotees. Sufis commonly practice ascetic abstinence and believe in a mystical relationship with the divine. There are many orders, or tariqas, of Sufis. Some live in a self-contained community called a ribat. The words "fakir" (Arabic) and "dervish" (Persian) are sometimes used to refer to Sufis. (Links for Sufism)

Sultan: Turkish title originally used to distinguish a military leader from the caliph; later, the title used for any Muslim ruler.

sunnah: custom as embodied in hadith literature

Sunni: "people of the sunnah," in other words, the majority of Muslims, who accept the descent of the caliphate from Ali (d. 661 CE) to Mu'awiyah, governor of Syria.

syncretism: the combination of different beliefs or practices by cultures when they interact with one another.

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Tanzimat: series of reforms in the Ottoman Empire promulgated between 1845 and 1876. They culminated in the promulgation of an Ottoman Constitution in 1876, but Sultan Abdulhamid II declared the Constitution invalid two years later.

tariqah: the mystical "way" of the Sufis; a word used to refer to any of the Sufi orders.

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ulama: see alim.

Umar: the second caliph of the Rashidun, caliph 634-644. According to tradition, he is responsible for the Pact of Umar.(See The Prophet's Family)

ummah: "community" or "nation," a word used to refer to the community of believers founded by Muhammad.

Umayyads: line of caliphs starting with Mu'awiyah (661-680) and lasting until 750.

Uthman: the third caliph of the Rashidun, 644-656, assassinated in 656. According to tradition, he is responsible for the standardization of the Qur'an into one authoritative version. (see The Prophet's Family)
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vizier: see wazier
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waqf: a pious foundation or endowment provided for a school, a hospital, or a mosque.

wali: 1. a "friend" of God, used to refer to a Muslim saint, frequently a Sufi. The tombs of such saints are often places of pilgrimage. Also used to refer to the legal guardian of a minor.
2.  the title given to an Ottoman governor of a province such as Egypt.

wazir (also vizier): an officer, similar to a Prime Minister, who administered a kingdom on behalf of a ruler. Some administrations had only one wazir at a time, while others had several at once.
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Yathrib: the city in the Hijaz to which Muhammad fled in 622 during the hijra. Later named Medina, or al-Madina, "the city (of the Prophet)."

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zakat: the third pillar of Islam, a voluntary tithe on property paid by a wealthy Muslim for the support of the poor.

Zionism: philosophy of Theodor Herzl, late nineteenth-century German Jewish author of Der Judenstaat (1896). Herzl theorized that growing hatred of Jews in Europe and the slow assimilation of Jewish culture into wider European culture could only be stopped by the establishment of a Jewish homeland.

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Other offsite glossaries:
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