Islam: Terminology

Figure 1.--

Islam is new to most Americans. Ironiically the first foreign war fought by America was fought against Muslim pirates in North africa. This set American attitudes toward Muslims and this was fortified by Muslim attacks on the Christian minotity in the Levant. The first Arabs to reach America were Arab Christians fleeing Muslim attacks. Few Muslims emigrated to America until the immigration reforms of the 1860s. America now has a small and growing Muslim minority. Few Americans, however, have read the Koran and other Islamic religious texts and thus know very little about Islam. There are are number of terms used in connection with Islam, many of which are commonly used correctly. We thought it might be a good idea to present some of these terms. While some of the terms are commonly used incorrectly, there is also widespread disagreement as well on some of these terms. Here we want to dismiss common falacies as well as to adress some of the controversial terms used in connection with Islam. Her we welcome reader comments if you care to enter the discussion. Our interest here is no theological issues, but rather historical and political matters.



Christianity was of course an offshoot of Judaism, devloping out of the Jewish Jesus Movement and within the Roman Empire. As a result of St Paul and other early Christian leaders, Christisnity was stronly influenced by classical Greek and Roman thought--diluting the initial Jewish theology. And for three centuries it was a religion operated outside of the Roman imperial state. Rome refused to recognize it as a religion and persued a series of persecutions. This was followed by nearly a millenium when the Christian Church was essentially a state religion (although the Roman state in the West disappared. It was a time when Christianity, especially after the rise of Islam, became intolerant toward other religions. Only gradually did Christianity come to develop the secular ideal of separation from the state and toleration of other religions. Here three key movemebts were central: the Renaissance, Reformatiin, and Enlightenment.


The Hadiths are Islamic religious texts. Unlike the Koran, they are not seen as thge diinely-inspired word of God. Rather they are man's falible attempts to undersatand God's will. They are thus subject to debate and wide and selective interpretation.


Islam is one of the world's most widely followed religion. There are an estimated 1.6 billion adherents around the world. The central statement of Islam is the Koran / Quran which is seen as the undeniable word of God. There is also a body of ancillary scripture, the Hadiths. The Hadiths are important, but do not carry the same weight as Koranic texts with Islamic religious scholars. The furnace of history as significantly the three related religions that emerged out of the Middle East. Islam emerged out of the Arabian Peninsula where Aran tribes had a long history of warring with each other. At the time, a kind of primitive animistic religion was prevalent among the Arab tribes, but there were also Jewish and Christian influences. Islam can be seen as Mohammed's attempt to bring peace to the Arabs and unite them. Islam soon became a conquerers religion as it rapidly expanded into the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike Christianity, Islam never underwent modernizing movements like the Renisaance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. Not only did Islam not undergo these movements, but the vast majority of Muslims over the centuries never had the experience of living under non-Muslim leaders where the rights of other religions were respected. The Arabs were conquered by the Ottoman Turks and lived for centuries inder Ottoman rule, but the Ottomans were fellow Muslims. Unlike its sister religions (Judaism and Christianity), Islam has never developed a process of reformation and separation from the state. Rather Islam developed differing relation with each secular Islamic ruler. As sanction in the Koran, temporal and sacred rule were united in the persons of Muhammad and the early Caliphs. Within the Ottoman Empire as well as modern Muslim countries (especially Persia), religious and secular rule were separated. The Ottoman Empire in the 19th century becane known as the 'sick man of Europe'. There were efforts to reform the Empire. Reforming Ottoman officials encountered opposition from the Ulema (religious authorities). Even in modern conservative Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, religious and political rule is separated, although not to the degree it is in the West.


Islamophobia is a term invented by Muslims in the West and by the apologists for Islamism. Among the aplogists are a strange alliance of radical Islsmists and left-wing ideologists who condemn the success of the West. Islamophobia defined as unwarranted, irrational bigotry against both Muslims or Islam or grouops like the Arabs seen as largely Muslim. Islamophobia is essentially seen as similar to the anti-semitism directed at the Jews. We would not deny that Islamophobia exists. Bigots can be found in any country or among any religious group. And there are acts of violence and senseless discrimination against Muslims because they are Muslims, not because of their acts or behavior. The acts of Islamophobia in the West, however, have been limited. Those making the charge, however, spebd much more gtime talking about the phenomenon than actual incidents. In fact, the number of indidents in the West are a small fraction of the number of Muslims killed for religious reasons in Muslim-majority countries. Mostly when incidents of Islamophobia are charged, what is usually at issue is criticism of Islam or extremism in lslam by Muslims, such as the treatment of women, constraints on free speech, or the acceotance of violence in the Muslim world.


Sime authors describe Islamism, specifically radical Islamism, not Islam in general as the great danger to our democtratic, tolerant. Radical Islamism is described as a violent, backward and intolerant movement. Resistance to Islamism should not be seen as a Christian or Jewish effort. The individuals who have suffered most at the hands of the Islamists are fellow Muslims as aresult of horrendous terror attacks, primarily in Muslim-majority countries.


Islamo-fascism is a highly controversial term. Former President George Bush, wisely or unwisely used the term. It was apparently invented by Stephen Schwartz. Muslims almost universally reject the term, seeing it as a slur on Islam, suggesting that Islam is inherently Fascist. This is not what Swartz or President Bush meant. They did not mean to suggest that is Islam is inherently or iretrieably fascistic. There are, however, points of similarity. Many Arabs and Persians (Iranians) during World War II were symapthetic to the NAZIs as was the case in Soviet Union. Here there were both nationalist and religious factors at play. The figure of the Grand Mufti urging the NAZIs to kill more Jews is a historical fact. And it is undeniable that Islamism (notte that we are using the term Islamis not Islam) shares many characteristics with fascism (totalitarianism, resistance to individual rights, anti-democracy, revanchism, bigotry, anti-semitism, anti-feminism, group mythology, and scapegoating). Both fascism and Islamism arose out of the same milieu--the culture shock of modernity. This was brought about by industrialization, mass communications, mass transport, and mass migration. Italy, Germany, and Japan during the 1920s and 30s faced a large population of newly urbanized people, many of who were bewildered by the social abnd economic changes with which they faced. Rural populations also faced disruptions in the long established rythms of life. This population as well as the middle class threatened by the Depression provided the main support for fascism. Very similar disruptions are sweeping through the Arab and other Muslim countries who at the ebnd of wortkd war Ii lived in agricultural communities virtually unchanged for centuries. While we think that the relationship between Islamism and fascism is undeniable, the relationship between Islam itself and fascism is less clear cut, but there are troubling points of connection which give rise to the question of whether democracy (especially protection of minority rights) is possible in a Muslim-majority country.


Judaism is the world'd oldest surviving monotheistic religion, beginning to develop in the Millenium before Christianity. It is based on Old Testament texts, especially the Talmud (the first five books of the Old Trstament). The ancient nature of the Talmud mean that many relatively primitive moral injunctions appear in it such as “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:23, 24; Lev. 24:19, 20; and Deut. 19:21). Ethicists refer to this as the law of retribution. We see a similar formulation other early law codes such as Hammurabi's Code. Judaism except for a short period and in a local setting was not a conqueror's religion. The Jews were repeatly conquered or subjected to foreign rule. And after the Roman supression of the Jewish Revoly (1st century AD) spread across the Middle East, North Africa, ans Europe in a vast Diaspora where they were to live as a small minority in Christian and Muslim-majority nations. This fundamentally changed the nature of Judaism and the outlook of Jews. Thus few modern Jews accept the literal interpretation of “an eye for an eye” injunction. Most Jews do not accept the entire Talmud or even more the entite Old Testament. Some secular Jews do not even know what the Talmud is. As in every religion, there are extremist Jews as well. Some of these groups take some Old Testament/Talmudic injunctions literally. Thus just as it is incorrect to maintain that extremist Jewish groups represent all Jews or that their interpretation of the Talmud is accurate, it would be inaccurate to think that all Muslims believe every word of the Quran or a particular interpretation of it. A factor that has to be considered, however, is the level of sympathy for extremists amomng main-line Jews and Muslims.


The central statement of Islam is the Koran / Quran which is seen as the undeniable word of God. The words were set down by Mohammed (7th century AD). Muslims would object to saying that Mohammed wrote the Koran and maintain that it was divinrly inspired. This is simmilar to the Christian view of the authorship of the Gospels. bMuch like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has an often contradictory holy scripturein the Koran. The Hadiths are are the source of even wider interpretation .



Practioners of Islam are called Muslims. The term originated from terms describing the followers of Mohammed.





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Created: 6:46 PM 11/1/2010
Last updated: 6:46 PM 11/1/2010