Understand News Reports About Islam and Islamism

by Sheri_Oz

Become familiar with terminology related to Islam in order to better comprehend news reports and op ed articles concerning what is happening in the Middle East.

Recently, news reports and op ed articles are beginning to have an Islamic, rather than purely political-diplomatic twist as the world tries to digest what is happening in the current conflict between Israel and the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza. Articles dealing with the Syrian uprising originally focused mainly on politics and animosity among sects of Islam; however, the full extent of the importance of the various interpretations of the Islamic religion as a factor in the fighting and bloodshed is gaining center stage as an understanding of Islamism is growing.

Islamism is spreading around the world, imported to Europe and the Americas from the Middle East, and promises or threatens (depending on your world view) to take over the entire globe. Therefore it is important to understand certain terms and phrases related to Islam in order to be able to make sense of the increasing number of news reports, analyses and op ed pieces published in the media and social media posts.

Islamic versus Islamist or Islamism

Including an explanation of Fundamentalist Islam

The word, Islamic, is an adjective describing a belief, a people, or an object. For example, the Islamic religion, an Islamic book, an Islamic practice, an Islamic nation, etc. It is not judgmental, merely descriptive, showing that something or someone is, in some way, related to Islam. In fact, the word, Islam, means "submission to God".

Islamism, on the other hand, is a noun. It describes a degree of adherence to a certain interpretation of the basis of Islam. It is an extreme version of Fundamentalist Islam, which merely means a belief in the return to the basis of Islam as originally set down by Mohammed, the Prophet. Fundamentalist Islam rejects secularism and modernity as represented in what is commonly referred to as "the West". Fundamentalists do not reject the advances of technology, but seek to remain loyal to the principles of their faith regarding attire, relations between the sexes, sex roles, and religious practice. They prefer to interact with other Moslems rather than with adherents to other faiths or secular individuals. Fundamentalists do not necessarily see it as their goal to convert others to Islam or to enforce Islamic Law in countries in which they are not the majority of the population.

Islamism, or Radical Islam, on the other hand, does see it as its duty to convert the entire world population to Islam and to enforce its own particular version of Islam on others. They believe that it is their right and duty to torture and kill those who do not accept, not only Islam, but their particular brand of Islam. They do not hide the fact that their goal is the re-establishment of the Caliphat (defined below) and the deletion of all international borders around the globe. This will be accompanied by the elimination of democracy as a form of government and global law will be Islamic Law.

Islamist Organizations

Here is a list of some of the better known Islamist bodies that are essentially all working toward the same goals and form branches of the same over-reaching political organization wreaking havoc and committing terrorist acts around the world:

Moslem Brotherhood - Founded in 1928 in Egypt, this organization formed the basis upon which all (or most) other Islamist organizations were developed, including Hamas. The Moslem Brotherhood is regarded as a terrorist organization in many Arab states.

Hamas - The word, Hamas, is an acronym for "Islamic Resistance Movement".

Al-Queda - established by Osama Bin Laden and other militants after the Afghan-Soviet war of the late 1980s. The name means "The Base".

Boko Haram - A group supported by Al-Queda and located in Nigeria. The name means "Forbidden Western Education".

Taliban - The word means "students". The Taliban emerged in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan in the mid-1990s. They were a governmental power from 1996-2001 and were brutal to their own population, especially women and girls. After the Sept 11 terror attack in NYC, the Americans attacked and took them out of power. They continue to exist as an insurgent group.

ISIS - The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (previously called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is a self-proclaimed Caliphate. They are also known by their acronym in Arabic: Daesh. As a result of their participation in the Syrian civil war they have grown in power and the area over which they rule has expanded. Their callous murder of Christians, Moslems of other sects (they are Sunni) and adherents to other religions is unsurpassed by anything known to man.

Liberal Islam

Synonyms for Liberal Islam are: Reform Islam, Modernist Islam, Progressive Islam, and there may be others. Adherents to this approach accept the basic principles of their religion and at the same time believe that Islam was established in a particular context at a particular point in human history. That context is not longer extant today and the liberal Moslem believes that re-interpretation of the Holy Texts is incumbent upon modern societies in view of advances in human understanding and interactions. They do not agree with the Islamist goal of reviving the Islam that arose in the cruel and barbaric context of life 1500 years ago. They feel that democracy is not contradictory to Islam and support Human Rights as declared by the UN.

Islamic Holy Writings

The Quran and the Hadith

Moslems believe that the Quran (also spelled Koran) is the word of God as revealed to Mohammed through the Angel Gabriel beginning in the year 610 CE. It is organized into chapters, called sura.

The Hadith is a collection of teachings , sayings and deeds attributed to Mohammed, including reports from his personal and family life, as recorded by individuals close to him during his lifetime. Each Hadith includes both the saying, teaching or deed itself, and evidence of authority for attributing it to Mohammed. As such, it was part of an oral tradition until it was compiled in written form within 300 years after his death. There are different versions of the Hadith, most notably the set accepted by Sunni Moslems and that accepted by Shi'a Moslems. While not the word of God, the Hadith form an important basis for Islamic Law.


God - Allah

In Arabic, the word for God is Allah.

Moslems call out "Allahu Akbar", meaning "God is the Greatest" before they begin their prayers. The fact that extremists cry out this statement just before committing an act of terror does not mean that that is the intention of the phrase.

Sunni Versus Shi'a Moslems

Just as in many other religions, there are different sects, or denominations, in Islam. Sunni and Shi'a (or Shiite) are the two major branches under which the other sects fall. For a detailed description of the origins and differences between Sunni and Shi'a Moslems, consult the article: Understanding Islamic Sects: Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi.

Dhimmi and Kfir

Dhimmi are members of groups that the Quran declares must be protected within the Islamic countries within which they live. Usually referring to Jews and Christians, but also can include members of other religions that predate Islam, these communities need to pay special taxes (called jizya) to insure their protection. They are not given the same rights as Moslem citizens of the country. In fact, they are often subjected to humiliation and oppression and sometimes, as is currently happening under ISIS, those that cannot run away fast enough are horrifically slaughtered.

If you want to read more about the history of Dhimmitude, you might be interested in this article, called Protected Peoples Under Islam .

Kfir are those who do not ascribe to Islam, or to the "right" sect of Islam.

Terms Connected with Islamic Law

The moral and ethical code of Islam is called Sharia. It is based upon the Quran and the Hadith. It is not so much a legal code as an evolving system for determining judgements in all areas of law, including criminal, civil and family law. Islamic scholars continue to develop the Sharia in their attempt to, with time, grow closer to the purity of God.

Fatwa - A legal opinion announced by a religious leader that is binding on all his followers. Evidence has surfaced that ISIS (defined above) issued a fatwa ordering all girls in Mosul between 11-16 years of ago to undergo female genital mutilation. There are some in Iraq, however, who say that no such fatwa was proclaimed. More recently, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa proscribing marches that support Hamas. Fatwas can concern any aspect of community or personal life.

Mufti - Islamic scholar who interprets the law and can issue binding fatwas.

Qadi - a judge who rules according to Islamic law. The Qadi is appointed by a ruler in the country or region and bases legal decisions on deep understanding of the Quran and Hadith.

Halal - something that is permitted or lawful. For example, you will see this word on restaurants that cater to Moslems and it indicates that the food served is in accordance with Moslem dietary laws.

Haram - something that is against Islamic law. This can include murder, sex outside of marriage, eating pork or foods not killed according to Islamic slaughter rules, drinking alcohol, and more.

Terms Connected with Attire

Hijab means "covering" and it refers to the head and neck scarf that the Moslem woman wears in order to be modest.

Niqab - fabric covering the face below the eyes, worn in conjunction with a hijab.

Chador - this is the Persian covering for women reaching almost to the ground and held closed in front with her hand. There is a circular opening for her face that can ensure that all her hair is hidden from view.

Burqa - the burqa covers the entire body, including the face. A square opening through which the woman can see is covered with a mesh fabric so that her eyes cannot be clearly seen by others.

Terms Related to War

Hudna - temporary ceasefire.

Jihad means the fight against evil and a striving to attain goodness and a Godly way of life. Most people associate Jihad with violence and the murder of non-Moslems or Moslems of different sects, but I was told that that is not the true purpose of jihad. A member of the Achmedi sect of Islam told me that jihad is meant to mean the struggle of the individual against his or her own evil inclinations.

Shahid - refers to a martyr, someone who died while fighting for Islam. Today, it can also refer to a victim who was not an intentional fighter, such as a child who was killed by an enemy soldier.

Terms Related to Community

Imam - this is a leader in religious of community life. The Imam is well-educated in Quran and Islamic Law.

Mullah - an educated Moslem who has studied the Quran and Hadith. Mullahs have varying degrees of education and some are no more than barely literate. They can lead prayers or teach in schools.

Sheikh - usually an elder. Can be an educated leader or a wealthy man with political or social influence.

Wakf - trusteeship of property, such as a mosque or school, or needy people. An administrator is assigned to manage the funds and ensure that the wakf is properly taken care of. A famous example is the Wakf of Jerusalem, whereby the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Islamic Council oversee the maintenance of the Dome on the Rock.

Caliphate - Caliphs were intended to be successors to Mohammed. They were not to be recognized as prophets, but as political leaders. The Caliphate is the area under the rule of the Caliph and there were to be no other national boundaries. ISIS, the new body attempting to reinstate the Caliphate system has already captured a large part of Iraq and Syria and merged them into one Islamic State. Their goal is to turn the entire world into one Caliphate.

Updated: 08/13/2014, Sheri_Oz
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Has this helped clarify some terms for you? Are there any I have forgotten? Is there a definition with which you do not agree?

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frankbeswick on 08/09/2014

Yes, this was informative, thanks.

Sheri_Oz on 08/09/2014

Hi Pam. Glad this is helpful. Actually, putting it together helped me sort things out for myself as well.

dustytoes on 08/09/2014

I get my news from the FOX news channel and hear these terms all the time. It's so difficult to keep track of it all, so YES, this page is very helpful.
I've been wondering about how you are doing over there during all this turmoil.

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