Five years ago I took a course called The Qur’an and Its Interpreters, taught by the amazing Hamid Mavani. On the first days of class, he would write words on the board in both Arabic and English — explaining the root word, the pronunciation, and the definition.  He told us to write them down and memorize them in preparation for a pop quiz at some point in the coming weeks. This was my first semester of grad school, so I studied those words. I made notecards and ran through them a few times a week. And as those words became more familiar, I began to notice them in the texts he assigned us to read and I realized how much more I understood the context with these vocabulary words in mind.

Then, a couple of summers ago, I embarked on one of the most challenging academic endeavors of my career. I took an eight-week online Arabic course through Bayan Claremont. Now, don’t be fooled by the word “online.” We met online face to face for four days of each of the eight weeks we met, and from day one we were required to speak Arabic. Most days, I wanted to close my computer and cry. But in the end, I was overjoyed by how much I’d learned and that I’d actually completed the course. I now love Arabic – the way it looks, the way sentences are structured, the root words, and the variations in how it is spoken throughout the world, the way it feels to write it, and the way I feel when I can actually sound out a word or sentence.

Today, I hear many of these words thrown about in the public sphere with various interpretations or inferred, yet unspoken meanings. So for this post, I’m going to begin defining commonly used Arabic words that may not mean what you think they mean. Let’s begin with Allah.

Allah: God. That’s it. Allah is the Arabic word for God. Just as Dios is God in Spanish or Dieu is God in French. This means that Allah is used by Christians and Jews in Arabic-speaking countries. This is not “another” God. This is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jesus. (As a Christian, I believe there is only one God, so when I hear other Christians saying that Muslims believe in a different God, I’m confused. And, I wonder just how many Gods they believe in.) (Pronounced, alll-lah, emphasis on the l sound)

Islam: Etymologically, islam is a noun originating from the root s-l-m, salaam. The word is therefore connected to a whole range of words from peace to wholeness, to submission. In the religious sense, islam refers to submission or surrender to God. When it is capitalized (which is the only way spell checker likes it) it refers to a specific monotheistic, Abrahamic religion that originated in 7th-century Arabia through a prophet named Muhammad.

Muslim: Muslim has the same root as Islam, s-l-m, so it has the same connotations. It is an adjective that describes one who submits. Therefore, a muslim (with a lower case m) can be used to describe anyone who submits, particularly to God — Christians, Jews, Muslims alike. With a capital M, Muslim, describes a person who adheres to the tenets of the religion of Islam.

**NOTE: In Arabic, both Islam and Muslim are pronounced with an S sound — as in sweet, soar, silent. Islam is pronounced, iss-laam (like, lamb); and, Muslim is pronounced, mooss-lim (like, moose and like limb).

Jihad: to struggle, to strive, to put forth an effort. A person could “jihad” to raise her children or could “jihad” in school. It could be a spiritual struggle to be true to God. Linguistically, this is the meaning. However, it is most commonly used by the media and politicians to mean a holy war. For the average Muslim, jihad is an internal struggle, however, the term has been co-opted by some terrorist organizations who have framed their cause under its auspices. (Pronounced, gee-had, as in I “had” a cold.)

Jihadist, Jihadi, Jihadism: These are actually all terms created by English speakers to describe people with a particular ideology. These are not Arabic words at all. The BBC News website describes these 21st-century neologisms as “the ideology to which Islamic State, al-Qaeda and its offshoots subscribe.” The idea in the use of this term is to connect Islam and Muslims with a particular worldview — one that is pitted against “the West.”

That’s it for today. As I hear/remember/learn of other words that may need clarity, I will add them. I definitely feel like I’m forgetting something.

(The image of the Arabic word, although a little blurry, is actually Kendra. If you’d like to see your name in Arabic script, check out

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