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Official Islam Glossary


Introduction to Religion

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The Abbasids--a dynasty of Sunni Moslems--took over the Caliphate from the Umayyads in 750 and held it until 1258. They established their capital in Bagdad. During their reign, Islamic arts, literature, and culture blossomed and flourished. The location of the capital in Bagdad had a big impact on Islam, transforming it from a distinctly Mediterranean religion to one with more eastern elements.
Called Ibrahim in Arabic, Abraham is considered to be the first Moslem, that is, the first person to submit himself to Allah. He was also prophet. According to moslem belief, he and his son Ismail (i.e., Ishmael) built the Kaba and established the practice of Hajj.
Abu Bakr*
The first of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, Abu Bakr was an early believer and follower of Mohammed who became a close advisor to him. When Mohammed was ill towards the end of his life, Abu Bakr lead the congregational prayers and the nineth Hajj. In 632, he became the first successor to Mohammed following Mohammed's death. Abu Bakr died in 634.
The call to prayer, which traditionally the muezzin calls from a mosque's minaret five times a day. This lets moslems know it is time to pray, whether they come to the mosque or pray where they are. The muezzin faces Mecca when he calls the Adhan.
At the age of ten, Ali Ibn Abi Talib was the second person to belief in the teachings of Mohammed, after Khadija. A close associate and advisor of Mohammed all his life, Ali was renowned as a pious man, an honest judge, a warrior, and a leader. Shortly after the hijra (the moslem exodus to Medina), he married Mohammed's daughter Fatima, thus making him Mohammed's son-in-law as well as his cousin. After Mohammed's death, Ali became the focus of the first major split among Moslems. On the one hand, he became the Fourth Rightly Guided Caliph in 656, for which Sunni Moslems still revere him. On the other hand, Ali thought that the caliphate should have gone to him because he was Mohammed's closest male relative. Those who agreed with him became known as the Shia (i.e., the "party"). After his murder in 660, his followers split from the other Moslems and became known in English as the Shiites. Shiite belief elevates Ali to the position of a "Friend of Allah"--next to Mohammed--and the center of the differences between the Shiites and the Sunnis. In Shiite belief, Ali is the first Imam.
Allah is the one, single god of Islam; he is considered to be the same god as that worshipped by the Jews and the Christians (although Moslems believe the Christian Trinity misrepresents his nature). The word "Allah" is a contraction of the Arabic words "al illah" which mean "the god"; thus, like Christianity which calls its god "God," Moslems called their god "The God." According to Mohammed, Allah is a singular being who was neither born nor gives birth (in contrast to Christian beliefs). He is the Creator, the Merciful Judge who will bring the believers into heaven and put the unbelievers and sinners into hell. In Islam, he is the object of submission; that is to say, in accordance with the meaning of "Islam," Moslems submit to Allah.
Almsgiving (zakat in Arabic) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, almsgiving constitutes one of the main means by which Islam strives for an economically just society. It is an obligatory "poor tax"--reckoned at somewhere between two and ten percent of income and holdings--which can be given directly to the poor or to a distribution official. The money is used for hospitals, schools, helping indigent debtors and freeing slaves, as well as poor support. From the perspective of the giver, "zakat" (as it is known in Arabic) purifies the giver and the remainder of his "wealth." It is also envisioned as a loan to Allah, who will repay it double.
In Islam, angels are thought to be created out of light. Their main job is to praise Allah, and they obey him perfectly. Gabriel is considered the chief angel. Angels are not Jinn.
The Arabs are the Semitic peoples who originally lived in the Arabian Peninsula (i.e., modern day Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc.). Today, large groups of them also live in northern Africa, as far west as Morocco. They all speak the Arabic language and share a number of cultural commonalities. Most Arabs are Moslem, the rest (only three or four percent) are Christian.
A Shiite who is learned in Sharia, Koran, and the Hadith, and who is known for their piety. This person is considered by his followers as the most learned person of his time period, which gives him the authority to make independent judgments.




Caliph (Arab. kalifa) was the title used by the people who took over the leadership of the Umma (the Moslem community) after the death of Mohammed. It means something like "vice-regent" and implies that they are the temporal leader, fulfilling roles such as judge, administrator, and general. However, they are neither the spiritual leader of the community (in Sunni Islam there is no spiritual leader for the entire community) nor are they a prophet like Mohammed. The institution of the caliphs is called the "Caliphate." The office of caliph was held first by the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, then by the Umayyads, and then the Abbasids. The death of the last Abbasid emperor ended the caliphate for all intents and purposes.
Charity *
The third of the Five Pillars of Islam is more accurately called almsgiving. In Islam, charity (Arab. zadaqah) is better known as the voluntary giving of money, food, etc. to the poor. It differs from almsgiving, which is obligatory.
See People of the Book.


Islam views King David as a prophet.
Dome of the Rock *
The Dome of the Rock is the shrine in Jerusalem which makes Jerusalem the third holiest city in Islam. It is set over an outcropping of bedrock on which the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple supposedly rested. It is from here that Mohammed rose into heaven on his Night Journey. Although the shrine is sometimes called "The Mosque of Omar," the Dome of the Rock is technically not a mosque.


Eid al-Adha
This is one of two main religious festivals in Islam (not including Ramadan and the Hajj), the other is Eid al-Fitr. It is also known as the Festival of the Sacrifice or the Major Festival. It is called the Festival of the Sacrifice for two reasons. First, the first day is the 10th day of the month Dhul al-Hijja, the day when the pilgrims on Hajj offer the sacrifice in the valley of Mina, which is one of the final acts of the Hajj. Second, the festival commemorates the day on which the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) tried to fulfill Allah's command to sacrifice his son Ishmael (Ismael), but was prevented from doing so by an angel. The festival lasts for four days and is a time of feasting, rejoicing and remembrance.
Eid al-Fitr
This is the second of the two main religious festivals in Islam (not including Ramadan and the Hajj), the other is Eid al-Adha. It is also know as the "festival of the breaking of the fast" or the Minor Festival. It is a time of celebration and rejoicing for it officially brings the observance of fasting during Ramadan to a close. Although called the "Minor" festival, it is often celebrated with much more rejoicing and gaity than the "Major" festival.


In general, "faqir" means "poor." In Islam, it is particularly applied to a Sufi who has voluntary become poor. In Sufism, it also applies to one who is "poor in spirit," who has according to Sufi belief humbled himself before Allah.
Fasting (sawm in Arabic) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. All healthy and sane Moslems are expected to fast (to abstain from food, drink, smoking and other bodily pleasures) during the daylight hours throughout the entire month of Ramadan. This means that they rise before dawn to eat breakfast and then eat a large meal after dusk. While they fast during the day, Moslems are expected to reflect on themselves and their standing before Allah, and ask for forgiveness for their sins. The evening meal, by contrast, is often a time of enjoyment and the gathering of friends and relatives.
The daughter of Mohammed and Khadija. She married Ali who became the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph and the leader of the Shia.
Five Pillars*
The Five Pillars of Islam indicate the main values and practices of Islam. They are: the Shahadah, Prayer, Almsgiving, Fasting, and the Hajj.
Four Rightly Guided Caliphs*
These are Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. They are the first four leaders of Islam after the death of Mohammed. They took the title "caliph" to make it clear that they were not a prophet like Mohammed; it is often translated as "vice-regent," which indicates that the holder is an administrator (as well as a warrior). After the killing of Ali, the Umayyad dynasty became the leaders of the Islamic world. See also Caliph.
Friday Mosque*
On Friday, moslems are expected to gather in community prayer at noon. This is usually done in a large, centrally located mosque called a "Friday Mosque." For further discussion, click here.


The angel who served as a messenger between Allah and Mohammed to bring him the visions and the Koran. The Arabic word for Gabriel is Jabreel (=Jabril).
See Allah.


The stories about and sayings of Mohammed. After his death, these were tested for accuracy and collected into an organized body of material. They provide examples of proper behavior and instances of Mohammed's understanding of his role.
The fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam. It lays out the goal of each Moslem performing a pilgrimage to Mecca to worship at the Kaba and to rededicate themselves to Allah at sites important in his life. The Hajj is immediately followed by the festival of Eid al-Adha.
A pre-Islamic term referring to certain individuals in the Hejaz region who pursued experience of and interaction with the gods of the region. Mohammed, for example, was initially a hanif of Allah.
The mountainous region of the Arabian Pennisula that is located along the north-east coast of the Red Sea. It is here that both Mecca and Medina are located. At the time of Mohammed's birth, it was populated by numerous, rival Arab tribes.
The exodus of Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622.


Ibrahim, Ibraheem
See Abraham.
(1) In Sunni Islam, the leader of worship in a mosque. (2) In Shiite Islam, a spiritual leader whose authority comes from Mohammed through his son-in-law Ali. According to Shiite belief, there is an unbroken succession of Imams after Ali, although particular Imams may be hidden by Allah for protection. The line of Imams living in the world has now ceased, although most Shiites believe that the final one, the Mahdi, is alive in hiding (occultation) and will return.
The son of Abraham, Ishmael is known as Ismail in Arabic. For Islam, Ishmael is the ancestor of the (northern) Arabs. He is a prophet, and assisted Abraham in building the Kaba. He is seen as the most important of Abraham's two sons; this is the reverse of Judaism and Christianity which sees Isaac as the dominant son. Indeed, in the story about Abraham almost sacrificing his son, Islam identifies the son as Ishmael, not Isaac.
The religion which focuses on the human submission to Allah. The term "Islam" itself derives from two different roots, one which means "submission" and the other which means "peace." A person enters Islam by saying the Shahada. Approximately 80% of Moslems follow the Sunni line, while something over 15% are Shiites. According to Islam, Allah is the god of the Jews and the Christians--indeed, many Jewish and Christian figures are considered Islamic prophets, such as Abraham, David, and Jesus--but Mohammed is the final prophet, who managed to bring to humanity the complete and true understanding of Allah.
See Ishmael.


Jabril, Jabreel
See Gabriel.
The third most holy city in Islam. This is due to its importance to the prophets of Islam that are also recognized by Judaism and Christianity. It also comes from the belief that Mohammed's night visit to heaven began from the ruined Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In 691, Moslems built the Dome of the Rock over that specific location. In the earliest years of Islam, Moslems prayered towards Jerusalem, until the direction was changed to Mecca.
In Islam, Jesus is considered an important prophet who came to deliver Allah's message to humanity. Unfortunately, that message was not transmitted accurately and, in Moslem eyes, resulted in the false notion that Jesus was more than a prophet.
See People of the Book.
There are two types of Jihad. The Lesser Jihad is the expectation that Moslems will defend their homeland and Islam from attack. The Greater Jihad is the inner battle which Moslems continually fight within themselves to submit to Allah and to fulfill his expectations of humans.
Invisible begins, in Islamic belief, who were created from fire. They can be good or bad, are held eternally accountable for their actions.


A rectangular structure (about 20 feet by 30 feet and about 50 feet high) which is build with a special holy stone as its cornerstone. It is in the center of a large mosque in Hajj. The Kaba serves as the center of the Moslem world and all Moslems pray towards it, whereever they may be in the world.
Khadija was Mohammed's first wife and his first follower. She was a moderately wealthy widow who hired Mohammed to manage the caravan business left to her by her first husband. Five years later, when Mohammed was 25 and Khadija was 40, she proposed marriage to him. They had a happy marriage with several children, including daughter, Fatima. During her lifetime, Mohammed took no other wives. She died in 619.
According to Moslem belief, Allah composed the Koran (=Quran) and had his angel Gabriel transmit it to sura by sura. These transmissions--called recitations--began in 610 and continued until Mohammed's death in 632. Gabriel would teach each recitation to Mohammed, who would memorize it and then teach it to his followers, who would also memorize it. The third Caliph Uthman had the Koran written down, with the help of Islam's best memorizers, thereby establishing a fixed text. The Koran is Islam's sole sacred text; to be sure, the hadith, the sunna, and other writings are important, but they are the work of humans whereas the Koran comes from Allah himself. Since the Koran is the direct words of Allah, it provides God's final and definitive revelation.
At the time of Mohammed's birth, the Koreish tribe controlled Mecca and the area around it, including the Kaba. Since they gained income both from trade that passed through their territories and from pilgrimage to the Kaba, they opposed Mohammed's message of monotheistic worship of Allah. After the Moslems left for Medina, the Koreish tribe led armies out to defeat the Medinans. After their own defeat in 630, the Koreish tribe converted to Islam.




See Mosque.
Mecca, Makkah*
This is the town in the Hejaz where Mohammed was born. It was the stronghold of the Koreish tribe and the location of the sacred site of the Kaba. After Mohammed was driven out by the Koreiysh tribe in 622 for teaching the monotheistic worship of Allah, the Meccans tried to kill Mohammed through military attacks. In 630, the Meccans were definitively defeated by Mohammed's Medinan forces, and the Moslems took over Mecca and the Kaba. Since then Mecca has been the most holy site in Islam (followed by Medina and Jerusalem) and the destination of the Hajj.
Medina, Madina*
Originally called Yathrib, in 622 the elders of this town asked Mohammed to come and govern them. He agreed on the conditions that they accept him as a Prophet and allow him to bring his followers. Mohammed governed this town until his death in 632. During his stay, the town came to be known as Medinat al-Nabi ("City of the Prophet"), or Medina for short. The Moslem exodus to Medina is known as the hijra. The year of the hijra, 622, became the first year of the Moslem calendar. Since Mohammed was buried in Medina, it is considered the second most holy city in Islam, after Mecca.
The minaret is a tower attached to a mosque from which the muezzin issues the call to prayer (the adhan). Although the tower can be any shape, it is typically round.
Mohammed, Muhammad*
Mohammed was born in Mecca in 570 CE. He was orphaned early in his life and was raised by his uncle. Mohammed worked in his uncle's business and quickly established a reputation as a highly honest person. At the age of twenty he was hired by a wealthy widow named Khadija to manage her late-husband's caravan business. When Mohammed was 25, Khadija proposed marriage and Mohammed accepted. Although several children were born to them, only one survived into adulthood, their daughter Fatima. In 610, Mohammed sought out and began to have visions from Allah. Through the angel Gabriel, Allah transmitted the entire Koran to Mohammed. When Mohammed began to preach his new religion, the rulers of Mecca were strongly opposed. In 622, Mohammed was approached by the elders of a town some 250 miles to the north and asked to be their ruler. Mohammed accepted on the conditions that they would also accept him as a prophet and that he could bring his followers. The exodus to this town, Medina as it later came to be known, was called the hijra. The Meccans attacked the Medinans several times, but the Medinans always managed to drive them off. In 630, the Meccans were defeated by Mohammed's forces and the Moslems returned to Mecca to rule there and cleanse the Kaba of all its idols. Mohammed continued to rule Medina, where he died in 632. Islam considers Mohammed the last of a long line of prophets of Allah and has given him the title of the Seal of the Prophets.
The mosque (masjid in Arabic) is a house of prayer for community worship. The main prayer hall of a mosque is usually fairly empty; having floors covered with fine carpets rather than chairs. The hall has a niche--called a mihrab--which indicates the direction of Mecca, towards which prayers are offered. Although the prayers which Moslems pray five times a day can be said in private--or whereever a person happens to be--the mosque is seen as the place for communal prayer, especially on Friday. To call worshippers to prayer, the muezzin climbs the mosque's minaret and chants the call. As a religious center, a mosque may have a number of institutions attached to it; these may include a college, an alms kitchen for the poor, a hospital, a library, a primary school, a cemetery, and so on. See also Friday Mosque.
Moslem, Muslim*
(1) A person who practices Islam. (2) The adjective of the noun "Islam."
The muezzin calls moslems to prayer five times a day from a high place, usually the minaret of the local mosque by crying out the Call to Prayer (Arab. adhan).
In Sunni Islam, a mullah is a scholar who is learned in the Sharia.


Night Journey *
In the Night Journey of Mohammed, Gabriel took Mohammed from Medina to Jerusalem. They stopped momentarily on the spot that later became the Dome of the Rock. From there, Mohammed ascended into heaven to visit with prophets who had gone before him. For a long story about the journey, along with a picture of the Dome of the Rock, click here.




People of the Book*
Islam considers the Jews and the Christians to be People of the Book. This gives them a special legal status within Islamic regions, essentially one of second-class citizenship, but with clearly defined rights and responsibilities. In Arabic, this status is that of dhimmi. In contrast to other non-Moslems, they could worship as they wished, own property, and had legal rights in Moslem courts. They could also serve in government. By contrast, they could not build new synagogues or churches, proselytize, or serve in the military. These rights gave them a place in Moslem society and protected them from persecution.
See Hajj.
Prayer (salat or salah in Arabic) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. All Moslems are expected to pray five times a day. These are fixed prayers (including the Shahada and the opening Sura of the Koran) which can be said in private, where ever one happened to be when the time for prayer comes, or with the community in a mosque
Since Islam considers Allah to be the god of the Jews and the Christians (see also People of the Book), it views the important figures of those two religions as prophets of Allah. Some of the figures Islam considers prophets are: Adam, Abraham, Ishmael, David, and Jesus. All these prophets delivered Allah's message, but somehow it was corrupted or shortened and so their work was only partially successful. This is why Mohammed is considered the Seal of the Prophets, because he brought the complete, final, and uncorrupted message of Allah to humanity.


See Koran.
See Koreish.


A woman who was an important eighth-century Sufi. She introduced the emphasis on love of Allah into Sufism. From her perspective, selfless love of Allah was all important, and was vastly superior to loving him because of fear of hell or desire of heaven.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year. It is considered holy because it was during this month that Mohammed received the first revelation of the Koran. During this month, Moslems fast during the daytime. At the end of the month, the festival of the Breaking of the Fast (Eid al-Fitr) occurs. It lasts for several days, during Moslems exchange gifts and greetings, and engage in feasting.


See Prayer.
Seal of the Prophets*
Mohammed is considered the "Seal of the Prophets." That is, he is the final prophet--the "Seal"-- in the line of Islamic prophets that goes back through Jesus, David, and Moses to Adam. The teachings Allah gave through him--the Koran-- are the final revelation to humanity.
The Shahada is the central Moslem statement of faith. It is short, but in two parts. The first is: "There is no god but Allah" (Arab. "La illahah illah 'lla"). The second is: "And Mohammed is his Prophet" (Arab. "Wah Mohammadan rasulu 'llah"). Saying the Shahada in Arabic with the intent of becoming a Moslem immediately makes a person a member of the Umma (i.e., the Islamic Community).
Shaikh, Sheikh*
(1) The leader of a town or village. (2) The head religious (Islamic) functionary in a town or region. (3) In Sufism, a spiritual master. This individual collects disciples around him to teach them the way of Sufism, and ultimately how to become a shaikh themselves.
(1) Historically, the term "Sharia" refers to all the elements of a proper--i.e., righteous--Islamic life; these include proper moral behavior, proper respect towards Allah, correct belief, proper personal piety, and so on. In other words, it means the right way to life one's life as a Moslem. (2) In more recent times, it has come to refer to a much narrower notion, that of "Islamic Law." This usage is quite common in the Western press.
The term "Shia" means "party" or "partisans," and refers to the followers of Ali who held that Mohammed had appointed Ali as his successor. After Ali's assassination, they split from their fellow Moslems (who became know as the Sunni Moslems). In English, this branch of Islam is called Shiite Islam.
Shiite Islam*
Today, Shiite Moslems make up about 15 percent of all Moslems (the rest are Sunni). The main reason for their split from the rest of the Umma lies in their different understanding of the proper succession after Mohammed's death. The Shiites believed that Mohammed had designed Ali as his successor and spiritual heir. There are two important aspects here. First, the idea that Mohammed's heir should be from Mohammed's family. Second, that unlike the caliphate, the successor should be a religious and spiritual leader as well as a wielder of worldly and temporal power. Thus the leader was called Imam rather than caliph. The Twelver Shiites believe in the ongoing succession of Imam, although the last living Imam was the twelveth (born in 873); he has become the Hidden Imam, the coming messianic figure whose arrival will usher in the end of time (and the Day of Judgment).
Sufi, Sufism*
Sufism is a term that designates Islam's mystical and ascetic movements. A Sufi is one who practices Sufism. Sufis attempt to go beyond the restrictions of a "typical" Moslem life and to seek Allah in more intimate ways. They strive to break down the barriers between themselves and Allah by replacing their human characteristics with divine ones. In many ways, this is similar to the Buddhist's attempts to reach enlightenment (the realization that all is one). Since Allah is one himself, the attempt to reach him can become the realization of the oneness of all things. Sufis focus on three kinds of mysticism to accomplish this: love mysticism (see Rabia), ecstatic mysticism, and intuitive mysticism (see Smith, pp. 259-261). There has always been a tension between Sufism and classical Islam because many of the beliefs, actions, and statement of Sufism appear heretical to non-Sufis.
The sunna is the paradigm of the behavior of the perfect Moslem, based on the example set by Mohammed. It includes aspects of ethics and morality, purity, prayer and worship, as well as matters of social and familial relations. This paradigm is derived from the hadith, the stories and about sayings of Mohammed.
Sunni Islam*
The followers of Sunni Islam make up the vast majority of Moslems, some 80 to 85 percent. Indeed, when people speak about "Islam," or say "Moslems believe..." or "Moslems do...", they are usually referring to Sunni Islam. The basis for the difference between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam lies in their beliefs about the successor to Mohammed. Sunnis believe that Mohammed did not appoint a successor, and therefore one had to be appointed by the Moslems themselves. This lead to the establishment of the Caliphate, a series of men who took over Mohammed's worldly and temporal power, but who made no claim to be Mohammed's spiritual successor.
The Arabic term for a chapter in the Koran.


Twelvers *
The Twelvers are the largest branch of Shiite Islam, and are also known as the Imamiyya. They are named after their belief that the twelth Imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi disappeared, being taken by Allah. They expect him to return before the Judgement Day as a messiah figure. The Mahdi is know as the Hidden Imam.


See Mullah.
The entire community of Moslems, those who have submitted themselves to Allah. (See also Islam.)
Umar was the second of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. He took over after Abu Bakr's death in 634 and ruled until being killed by an angry slave in 644. He began the administrative and religious regulations that enabled the expansion of the Islamic empire.
After initially opposing Mohammed, the Umayyad family became strong Moslems. They became rulers of the Islamic Empire (as Caliphs) from 661-750, after the death of Ali, the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Headquartered in Damascus, they ruled the entire Islamic Empire--from Spain, across North Africa into the Middle East and beyond--until they were overthrown by the Abassids.
Uthman was the third of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and ruled from the death of Umar in 644 to 656. Under Uthman, the Quran was edited into its final form. Uthman was a controversial appointment as Caliph, since his extended family--the Umayyads--had been fierce opponents of Mohammed. He was assassinated in 656.




Wali An Islamic term for saint.






See Almsgiving.

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For more information, please email PFlesher@uwyo.edu.
Copyright 1996 Paul V. M. Flesher.

This glossary was written by Paul V. M. Flesher; it is not drawn from any published work. It is for use with the course RELI 1000, Introduction to Religion, taught at the University of Wyoming. The main textbook for this course is Huston Smith's The World's Religions. It has influenced both the vocabulary choices and the definitions, which are designed to be compatible with the text.