Muslim Vocab 101

One of the frustrating aspects of watching conversations about Islam in our largely-non-Muslim society is seeing people misuse words and go uncorrected, so I wanted to go through a few of the most frequently-misused words and discuss their actual meanings.

Infidel – This is a big one, and the main inspiration for this post. Living in Colorado Springs, I get to see “infidel” tshirts, bumper stickers, etc. just about every week. Here’s the thing: there is no word for “infidel” in Arabic. Infidel comes from the Latin for “those without faith”. It comes out of a Catholic/Christian tradition that divides the world into “We, the believers,” and “Our enemies, the unbelievers”. The word that gets incorrectly translated as infidel is “kafir”, which comes from the Arabic for “those who cover over”. It traditionally refers to the farming practice of plowing unwanted weeds into the soil, and it’s used in reference to powerful polytheistic families who wanted to break up the early Muslim community, plowing it back into the soil so that they could maintain their power. The distinction is important, because when some jihadi a-hole uses the word “kafir” and we translate it as “infidel”, it reinforces the idea that jihadi BS is a conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. It promotes radicalization among Muslim youth who feel like they need to pick a side, and American a-holes respond to it by going “Hell yeah, I’m an infidel.” A better translation would be “destroyer of Islam”. It better reflects what the word actually means, it makes it clear that the jihadi a-holes are misusing it when they apply it to everyone they don’t like, and it’s more likely to provoke a “huh?” than a “hell yeah” among the aforesaid American a-holes. TLDR: Your buddy with the “Proud Infidel” sticker on his truck might think he’s being anti-Muslim, but he’s actually being anti-Catholic.

Fatwa – A fatwa is a scholarly legal opinion, not some sort of religious death warrant. For example, the last fatwa I read was about whether it was ok to use toothpaste during the Ramadan fast. They are (suppose to be) issued by qualified scholars, and because of that they carry a bit more weight than “what some dude thinks”, but they aren’t binding. Muslims who are trying to figure out the permissibility of a particular action are encouraged to read a variety of fatwas and look at the arguments presented in each before making their own decision based on the evidence presented, which is one of the things I really love about Islam. TLDR: Most fatwas are actually really boring.

Sharia – Sharia is simply the Muslim system of religious law. It’s no different from Canon law in Catholicism, Halakha in Judaism, or any other system of religious moral and ethical guidelines. 90% of it comes down to things like inheritance rights and what is and isn’t a good idea to eat. Just like any other legal system that has been influenced by humans over long periods of time, it has developed bits that suck. Because humans tend to suck. And you will never find me defending the bits that suck. But some of the bits that don’t suck are actually really cool. Organized religion is complicated like that. This will probably have to turn into its own post some day. But in the meantime, the fact that some accountant in Tulsa wants to distribute his estate in accordance with Sharia is not a threat to our secular society any more than a Catholic priest deciding who’s eligible for communion is. TLDR: Neither Muslims nor the Pope are trying to overthrow the American system of government.

Taqiyya – I actually had to look this one up the first time I heard about it. Hint: if you’re reading something about Islam and it mentions Taqiyya in a non-debunking context, stop there. It’s one of the most reliable ways of spotting an Islamaphobe that I’ve ever found. Anyway, taqiyya is the idea that if someone asks whether you’re a Muslim, and you have reason to believe that they’ll hurt you if you say yes, you can say no without being considered an apostate. It’s basically the Muslim equivalent of the question of whether lying is wrong when the Nazis ask whether you’re hiding any Jews in your attic. In times of extreme duress, the importance of telling the truth takes a backseat to the importance of keeping vulnerable people alive. Islamaphobes have taken this idea and decided that it means “Muslims get to lie as much as they want whenever they want”. They are wrong and you should laugh in the face of anyone who tries to tell you this. TLDR: Islamaphobes like lying about lying.

Hijab – This one, I have to admit, is kind of on the Muslim community. Hijab can mean several different things. To go from broad to narrow, it can mean the overall concept of dressing modestly, it can mean a headscarf, and it can mean a particular type of headscarf. Hijab-the-overall-concept means dressing in such a way that only your face and hands are visible. An explanation of all of the different types of headscarf will have to wait for a later post, mostly because I’m kind of a headscarf geek and could go on all day. TLDR: Hijab does not mean face veil. Also, it’s not pronounced “ha-jeeb”.

Halal – Basically, the Muslim version of Kosher. The rules are largely similar, but without the Dairy/Meat division and with some extra anti-booze stuff. Anything that’s Kosher and isn’t booze is automatically considered Halal. Every couple of years there’s a freak-out on Fox News about whether XYZ product is “secretly Halal”, which I always find hilarious. For starters, quite a lot of processed food gets one Kosher certification or another, so about 90% of what you’d find in the average grocery store is Halal. Also, as far as I know we have 0 rules on fresh produce. TLDR: You might be able to give Laura Ingrahm scurvy by pointing out that all citrus fruits are secretly halal.

Madrasa – I’ve had *several* conversations with people concerned about how “They don’t send their children to school over in [Arab country], they send them to madrasas.” It’s gotten to the point where I’ve started replying, in a similarly conspiratorial tone, that they don’t have schools in Mexico either, they have escuelas. And they don’t have libraries in France, they have bibliothèques. And they don’t have hospitals in Germany, they have Krankenhäuser. You probably got the point a couple of examples ago, but Krankenhäuser is too fun a word not to use when you get the chance. Anyway, “madrasa” is just Arabic for “school”. Schools that practice religious indoctrination are bad, but they’re also bad when they’re in English and the religion is Evangelical Christianity. Most “madrasas” are perfectly normal schools that happen to be in Arabic. TLDR: You should never pass up an opportunity to say “Krankenhäuser”.

So that’s your Muslim Vocab 101 for the day. If there’s something I’ve left out that you’d like to see added, hit me up on Twitter and I’ll see what I can do.

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