A Guide for the Misled — On Islam

By Timothy Furnish Published on July 11, 2021

Long ago, in an undergrad philosophy class, I read E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed. In that vein, but much more modestly, allow me to present this glossary on major Islamic terms. This is important because the media, the educational system, and our political leaders treat the world’s second-largest religion with kid gloves. And rather less than total honesty. Well, candidate Joe Biden said that we need to teach more about Islam in this country. So consider this my contribution to that cause, Mr. President.

Defining Terms

Allah: “the god” in Arabic. Often translated “God” and portrayed as the same deity Jews and Christians worship. Problematic for Christians, especially, because this same deity denies the Trinity, Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

`Alim/Ulama: An expert on religion and law. The many Sunni ulama are roughly equivalent to pastors and priests.

Caliph: “successor” to Muhammad as political and military leader, but not as “prophet.” Reestablishing his office, the “caliphate,” is a goal of many Muslims. Not just “extremists.”

Dhimmi: a Jew or Christian under Islam law. “Protected” but second-class, lacking the rights of Muslims.

Extremist/Radical: habitually applied to any Muslim taking the teachings of Islam literally: jihad, beheading, polygamy, etc. Except those practices are approved by the Quran and Hadiths.

Fatwa: a legal decision on a matter of Islamic law, rendered by a mufti.

Hadith(s): an alleged saying of Muhammad. Many book-length collections exist, although many are unreliable. Second only to the Quran in authority. But some Muslim scholars have noted discrepancies between Hadiths and the Quran. And Turkey’s religious leaders even culled the former.

Imam: for Sunnis, leader of Friday prayer. For largest branch of Shi`is, one of twelve descendants of Muhammad who should have led all Islam. And the final of which will return as the eschatological Mahdi.

Islamist: the most misleading term here. (Despite Associated Press’ dislike of it.) Used even by conservatives to draw a line between regular Muslims and those who politicize the religion. But Islam is inherently political. So “Islamist” simply means mainstream Muslim.

Jihad: holy war against non-Muslims. Personal “struggle” is a secondary meaning.

Madrasah: a school for ulama. Quran, Hadith and their interpretation are taught here. As well as, sometimes, bomb-making.

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Quran: the scriptures of Islam. For the vast majority of Muslims, the literal words of Allah. Non-literal interpretations are “radical.” Those who take it at face value are mainstream.

Ramadan: month of fasting from dawn to dusk. Rotates throughout the year, as do all Muslim months. Usually portrayed by Western media as a peaceful time for Muslims. When in fact, jihad has often been advocated and waged during this month.

Salafi: those who want Islamic society to copy the early 7th century one. “Fundamentalists,” that is. All Sunni jihadists are Salafis. But not all Salafis are jihadists.

Shari`ah: Islamic law, in which the teaching of Quran and Hadiths are applied. There are some variations in interpretation, most notably between the Sunnis and Shi`is. But all agree that Allah’s revelations should outrank any secular laws.

Shi`i: second-largest branch of Islam, behind Sunni. All the Shi`is together make up about 15% of Muslims. Over 80% of Shi`is are Twelvers, mostly in Iran and Iraq. These believe in the twelve divinely-guided Imams descended from Muhammad, the last of whom didn’t die and will return as the Mahdi. Other Shi`is (like the Zaydis in Yemen) are less eschatological. Despite popular misconceptions, most of the world’s terrorists are Sunni, not Shi`i. And Shi`ism actually is more moderate in some ways. The Twelvers allow more latitude in interpreting Quran and Hadiths than Sunnis. And their Hadiths include the sayings of the Imams, not just Muhammad.

Sufi: a Muslim mystic. Sufis can be Sunnis or Shi`is, but most are the former. About 10% of modern Muslims belong to a Sufi order. They are somewhat akin to charismatics in the Christian world. Salafis hate Sufis, because they seek mystical contact (usually via intense prayer) with Allah, over and above regular worship. And because Sufis follow non-literal Quran interpretation. Sufis are not pacifists, however. In Islamic history some of the most violent jihads have been led by them.

Sultan: a ruler ranking below the caliph. Unless the two titles are combined, as with the Ottomans.

Sunni: the largest branch of Islam. Literally, those who follow sunnah, or “custom.” They rejected the Shi`i reverence for the family of Muhammad in favor of what the larger community believed and practiced. There are four major interpretive schools of thought in Sunnism. And many sects.

Four Overall Essential Truths

In Schumacher’s book, he described four essential truths about life. I shall, likewise, leave you with four essential truths about Islam:

1. It is a religion, despite those who claim otherwise. With a deity, “prophet,” holy book, eschatology, etc.

2. It is political. Very. Probably the most political religion on earth.

3. It is far too often violent. That does not mean all Muslims are. In fact, most are not. But that’s not because the Quran and Hadiths don’t promote violence. They do. It’s because most Muslims are rational human beings, and have better things to do than chop off their neighbors’ heads for “insulting” Islam. But if they want to, they can certainly find sanction for such.

4. Moderate Islam does exist. I define “moderate” as reading Islam’s holy texts non-literally, and thus not being bound by the letter of its law. But you have to go to the sects to find it.

There you have it: 20 crucial terms, and four indispensable truths, dealing with Islam. I hope this helps. I have done my best, although I will never be mistaken for an austere religious scholar.


Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS).

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