The 5 Most Misunderstood Words with Islam And What They Mean

Nearly two decades after 9/11, words associated with Islam are often linked with terrorism. In August, at a homeland security conference, I delivered two talks on Islam to law enforcement agencies and defined the historical root of the top 5 words in the Muslim vocabulary that is still misunderstood, misplaced, and misused in the West. Even some Muslims don’t know how to explain their faith to Westerners with clarity and grace. 

Here are some of the most commonly misused words and what they really mean.

  1. Allah The Arabic word for God. When Muslims shout “Allah Akbar” (God is Great), it is praise. Not a call to a terrorist attack (yes, terrorists use this same phrase in their propaganda to celebrate suicide missions; yes, terrorists use this phrase on their flags, etc But they have misread Islam. God’s name is sacred and not to be used or abused.) 
  2. Islam From the word root ‘sa la ma’, Islam means ‘peace.’ Not militancy, terrorism, violent extremism, political Islam, etc. Islam is a way of life for Muslims. And every action and word begins with the intention to do good, be kind and live peacefully as a community.
  3. Muslim A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God by following the revelations in the holy book, the Quran, and the Hadith (0ral traditions–sayings and deeds of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, who spread the religion in 7th century Arabia until his death in 632 AD). By the way, you don’t need a bushy beard or a burqa (veil) to be a Muslim believer. Muslims are a diverse group of people ranging from numerous countries and cultures.
  4.  Jihad  From the root word ‘ja ha da,’ the Arabic word refers to struggle. For every Muslim, this is a living, breathing concept. Many Muslim scholars believe that the highest jihad is the struggle of the soul and the heart (or jihad bil nafs)–the struggle with oneself to do good with acts of charity and sincere worship. Extremists and the media have loosely defined as ‘holy war’ which is inaccurate and incomplete–when Muslims were allowed to fight the pagan Arabs after 13 years of persecution, this was defensive jihad and going to battle was only allowed for those who had been persecuted. By the way, fighting also has its limits and ROE or rules of engagement. (And for those who want to learn more, there are many kinds of jihad, such as jihad bil-qalam, or jihad of the pen; jihad of the heart; jihad of the tongue; jihad against the devil and so on. The word ‘jihad’ is too comprehensive and rich to be diluted to a simple stereotype.)
  5. Hijab The Arabic word is ‘to cover.’ Some Muslim women cover their hair; others do not and still believe in the concept of modesty. These days, hijab has become a political tool used by male leaders to dominate women; in other countries, such as France, the hijab is feared and banned because it is seen as a security threat and a contradiction to secular rule. Whatever it is, the hijab is just a sign of piety. It’s amazing how a piece of cloth can make so much noise! 

For more depth, each one of these terms is further explained by the Muslim scholarly community. You can learn more by clicking  here.






Don't Forget to Read 'The Awakening'

Sign up to receive free books and alternative analysis on global threats and conflicts you won't find anywhere else. 

You've successfully subscribed! Be sure to look for "The Awakening" chapter in your inbox.