Islam Glossary Terms


Haram means “prohibited” or “impure.” For Muslims, haram is a legal term referring to sinful actions and impure food. Haram is the opposite of Halal.


Hijab means “veil” or “curtain,” referring especially to standards of modest dress for Muslim women. While there are many interpretations of the legal requirement, many Muslims agree that women should wear loose fitting clothing and expose no more than their face and hands in public.


The hijrah was the “emigration” of the Prophet Muhammad from Makkah to Madinah in 622 CE. When the Prophet and his followers were persecuted in Makkah, the tribes of Madinah promised to protect them and asked the Prophet to resolve disputes between them. The hijrah marks the founding of the first Islamic community under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad, and thus the year 622 CE is the first year in the Islamic calendar.


Ibadat refers to the duties of worship to God according to the law, including the five pillars. Obligations toward other human beings are called Mu’amalat.


Iftar is “breaking the fast” at the end of each day of the month of Ramadan. After sundown during Ramadan, most Muslims ceremonially break their fast by eating dried dates and soup before the maghreb prayer. Later they may eat a larger meal with relatives and friends.


Imam means “leader,” particularly the person who leads the daily ritual prayer or, more broadly, to the one who serves as a leader of the community because of his religious learning. In Shi’i Islam, it refers to one of a succession of direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who are believed to have inherited the religious and temporal leadership of the community after the Prophet’s death.


A prophet of Islam, Isma’il (Ishmael in Hebrew) was the son of Abraham and his wife Hagar. He is the ancestor of Northern Arab tribes and of the Prophet Muhammad. Hagar and Isma’il miraculously survived in the desert near Makkah, and Isma’il helped Abraham build the Ka’bah. In Islamic tradition, Isma’il was the son nearly sacrificed by Abraham before God substituted a ram.


Islam in Arabic literally means “submitting” or “submission.” One who submits or surrenders his or her will to God is called a Muslim. While the whole of God’s creation is described as being inherently Muslim, human beings must choose whether to follow or to reject God’s will, as revealed in the Qur’an. What we now call the Islamic tradition was born in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. Today, there are more than one billion Muslims, living all over the world.

Islamic center

An Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indicating an emphasis on educating the next generation.

Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA)

The Islamic Circle of North America was formed in 1968 by a group within the Muslim Student Association with roots in the Jama’at-i Islami movement of Pakistan but has since tried to diversify its membership. The organization publishes the magazine The Message and sponsors national conferences and youth camps, provides financial services, multimedia production and educational materials.

Islamic Society of North America

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was established in 1982 to serve as an umbrella organization for Sunni Muslim student and professional groups across the country. ISNA, with national headquarters in Plainfield, Indiana, sponsors national and regional conferences, youth camps and educational opportunities and publishes the magazine Islamic Horizons.


Ismaili Shi’ah refers to the group of Shi’i Muslims who, upon the death of the sixth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in 765, affirmed his son Isma’il to be the next Imam. The Ismailis further split in 1094 into Mustali and Nizari branches. Emphasizing the necessity of continual interpretation of Islam to meet contemporary challenges, the current Imam of the Nizari Ismaili branch is the Aga Khan. Nizari Ismailis live throughout the Middle East, South and Central Asia, East Africa and increasingly in Western Europe and North America.


The “night journey” (isra’) and “ascent” (mi’raj) of the Prophet Muhammad refer to the Islamic tradition that the angel Gabriel escorted Muhammad from the Ka’bah of Makkah to the sanctuary of Jerusalem, where Muhammad led previous prophets in prayer and then ascended through the seven heavens. In the uppermost heaven, Muhammad was blessed with a vision of God. These events are remembered in the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem as well as in Persian miniature paintings.


I’tikaf is the practice of secluding oneself in a mosque or other private space for the purpose of prayer and Qur’anic recitation. I’tikaf is most commonly practiced during the last ten days of Ramadan, during which the Night of Power (revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an) occurred.

Jama’ati Islami

Jama’at-i Islami means “The Islamic Group” or “The Islamic Congregation,” a reform movement founded in India by Mawlana Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979) in 1941, dedicated to training small groups of devout Muslims who could form the core of a new Islamic order consistent with the Qur’an and Sunnah. After the founding of Pakistan, the movement has played a major role in debates about the state’s Islamic character, and its ideology has inspired Muslim activists around the globe.


Jerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel from the time of King David (c. 1000 BCE), was the ritual and spiritual center of the Jewish people for 1,000 years until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. For Jews, Jerusalem is still the geographical epicenter of the tradition. For Christians, Jerusalem the site of the mighty events of Christ’s death and resurrection. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the place where the prophet Muhammad came on his Night Journey from Makkah to the very throne of God.


Jihad means literally “struggle or exertion” in the way of God. The “greater jihad” involves struggling against evil within oneself, while the “lesser jihad” involves working against injustice or oppression in society, sometimes even using armed force, though within a prescribed ethical code.


Friday is called Yawm al-Jum’ah in Arabic, meaning the Day of Assembly. On this day, Muslims pause from their work at mid-day to gather for congregational worship. The regular mid-day prayer on Friday is supplemented by a two-part sermon known as the khutbah, in the middle of which a time of personal prayer, or du’a, is encouraged.


The Ka’bah is a cube-shaped building located within the Grand Mosque in Makkah, the most sacred place on earth for Muslims. Believed to have been built by Abraham on the site of Adam’s original temple, the Ka’bah serves as the focal point toward which the Muslim ritual prayer (salat) is directed and around which pilgrims of the Hajj circumambulate.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat

Hazrat Inayat Khan was the founder of the Sufi Order in the West in 1910. His philosophy aims at “the awakening of the soul of humanity to the consciousness of the divinity of man.” The Sufi meditation and practice to enable this awakening is today carried on by his son Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who continues to teach in the United States and around the world.


(also: Medina) The city of Madinah was originally called Yathrib, a city north of Makkah in western Saudi Arabia. It was renamed “the city of the prophet,” (Madinat al-nabi) after Muhammad and his followers emigrated there in 622 to form the first Muslim community. Muslim pilgrims visit the mosque and tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Madinah.


Mahdi means “the rightly guided one.” The Mahdi is a messianic figure, who will come to earth before the Last Judgment to guide people to the true path and establish a just world order based on true Islam. In Shi’i Islam, this figure is identified with the last Imam who now lives in hiding but will be revealed at the appointed time.

Makkah; Mecca

Makkah (also spelled Mecca) is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, the hub of the caravan trade in the Arabian Peninsula, and the site of the holy Ka’bah. After receiving the first revelations of the Qur’an on a mountain outside Makkah, Muhammad developed a small following, but he had to flee to Madinah to escape persecution. In 630, Muhammad and his strengthened community returned to Makkah, establishing it as the spiritual center of the Islamic world and performing the first Islamic pilgrimage.

Malcolm X

Malcolm Little (1925-1965) is one of the most well-known African Americans who embraced Islam. He took the name Malcolm X upon joining the Nation of Islam while in prison. He spoke forcefully for black separatism in the face of white predjudice and violence. Malcolm X’s views on race and hi. understanding of Islam were radically transformed while he was on pilgrimage (hajj) to Makkah in 1964. Adopting a new name, Al Hajj Malik al-Shabazz, he soon broke ties with the Nation, founding the Organization of Afro-American Unity and the Muslim Mosque, Inc. He was assassinated in 1965.


Masjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit; outside of the prayer hall is a place for ablutions. Many masajid are also adorned with a towering minaret, from which the call to prayer may be sounded.


Called “Rasul” in Arabic, the messenger is a special type of prophet commissioned to lead a community and often entrusted with a major revelation from God. Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are examples of messengers in Islam. Other prophets (called nabi) interpret these messages and reform existing communities.


Messiah means, literally, the “anointed one.” In Biblical tradition, the term came to mean a redeemer and royal descendant of the dynasty of David who would restore the united kingdom of Israel and Judah and usher in an age of peace, justice and plenty, sometimes called the Messianic age. Judaism, throughout its history, has lived through many false messianic claims. While the most famous one, from a Jewish perspective, is Jesus of Nazareth, the notion of proclaiming oneself, or one’s spiritual mentor, to be the messiah, was common in Medieval Judaism as well. Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1676) gathered a large following to himself, and the Chabad school of hasidim are of the belief that their last rebbe (spiritual leader), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) was the messiah. In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was ascribed the title of Messiah by his followers. In Greek, the Hebrew term Messiah was translated as Christos, and the followers of Jesus came to be called Christians. The idea of an expected redeemer who will usher in a new age is also found in Islam, where Shi’ite Muslims use the term Mahdi.

Mevlevi Order

Inspired by the 13th century mystical poet Jalal al Din Rumi, the Mevlevi Sufi order originated in Turkey. Its distinctive mystical dance concert in which the dancers revolve while moving in a circle, symbolizing the return of all creation to the One Creator, earned Mevlevis the nickname “Whirling Dervishes.”


The mihrab is the niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction (qiblah) of the Ka’bah in Makkah, thus the direction of ritual prayer.


The minaret is a tower often built to adorn a mosque, from which the call to prayer may be sounded.