Middle East Glossary

Middle East Glossary

Words commonly found in Middle East studies

  • Abbasid  The second major Muslim dynasty (following the Umayyads), centered in Iraq (Baghdad, 750-1258 A.D.), under which Islamic civilization achieved maturity.
  • Adhan The call to prayer for Muslims made five times a day. It is traditionally shouted by a man from a minaret (spire) of a mosque (a muezzin or muadhdhin in Arabic), but today is often broadcast from loudspeakers.
  • Ahl al-kitab  "People of the Book," the term referring Jews and Christians as peoples tolerated by Islam.
  • Alawite Member of sect of Shi'ite Muslims in Syria. President Hafiz al Assad and many other leaders of the ruling political party are adherents. Alawis believe in divine incarnation and the divinity of Ali, and hence they are viewed as heretical by most other Muslims.
  • Ali  Mohammad's cousin and son-in-law married to his daughter, Fatima. In Shi'a Islam, 'Ali is considered the first Imam, a position which Shi'ites consider he held from 632 when Mohammad died.
  • Alim (singular of ulama)
  • Al-Naqba  The "catastrophe", a term used by some Palestinians to describe Israel's declaration as a state on May 14, 1948.
  • Arab League  The League of Arab States, an organization of Arabic-speaking nations, including Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. It was established March 22, 1945 to coordinate political, cultural, health and communications activities, and to safeguard the independence and sovereignty of each member nation.
  • Assalamu alaikum  An expression that Muslims say whenever they meet one another. It is a greeting translated as "Peace be upon you."
  • Assyrian Christian group centred in Iraq. Also known as the Church of the East. Assyrians are often misnamed "Nestorians". They speak a form of Aramaic.
  • Ayatollah  "Sign of God." A title used in Islamic Shiism for the most highly honored members of the ulama.
  • Ba'ath Arabic for "renaissance". Ba'ath  was a secular Arab nationalist movement, rival branches of which assumed power in Iraq and Syria. The Ba'ath parties were popular because they were pan-Arabist, socialist and anti-colonialist however they resorted to authoritarian rule.
  • Balfour Declaration - Statement in 1917 by Lord Balfour, Britain's Foreign Secretary, of his country's intention to provide a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.
  • Bid'a  "Innovation" of Islamic culture and law recently introduced. It has come to mean "heresy" in Islam.
  • Bin  Same as Hebrew ben in ben Gurion: "son of." "Daughter of" in Arabic would be bint, as in "Fatima bint Muhammad," the daughter of Mohammad.
  • Burqa  A dull, monocolored dress that covers the entire body, including the face. It has a tight mesh over the face allowing air and restricted vision outwards. Women of Afghanistan are currently required to wear a burqa.
  • Caliph see Khalifa
  • Camp David The US presidential retreat outside Washington where some important Middle East negotiations have been held. The location became famous for the 1978 Camp David peace accords, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, between Israel and Egypt. Camp David is commonly a reference to the failed attempt by President Bill Clinton to achieve a similarly historic final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000.
  • Chador  (Persian chaadar) A large cloth worn as a combination head covering, veil, and shawl usually by Muslim women, especially in Iran.
  • Chaldean  Iraqi branch of the Catholic Church in full communion with Rome. It broke off from the Assyrian Church in the 16th century.
  • Confessional  A word used by some writers as a synonym for "religious".  This specialised meaning can be confusing because it can't be found in any common dictionary. Nevertheless, its use is deeply entrenched in writings on the Middle East.
  • Dar al-Harb  House of war - countries not under Muslim control.
  • Dar al-Islam The house of Islam - Muslim countries.
  • Da'wa  "Summons." The invitation of non-Muslims to Islam; Islamic proselytizing.
  • Devshirmeh (Turkish = gathering) The Ottoman system to tax newly conquered states and raise soldiers and administrators from them. See Jannisaries and Mamluk.
  • Dhimmi  a protected subject in the Muslim empire who belonged to one of the religions tolerated by the Quran.
  • Diaspora  Greek for "dispersion" - people living in exile from their country of origin. In Israeli usage the word refers to Jews outside Israel. In Palestinian usage, it refers to Palestinians living in areas other than the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. Also frequently applied to Iranians or other groups living in other countries.
  • Druze  Members of a religious sect that broke with Islam nearly a thousand years ago, whose members live mostly in Lebanon and Syria and in the mountains around Haifa in Israel.
  • Eid ul-Fitr  Celebration of the end of Ramadan on the first day of the 10th month of the Muslim lunar calendar.
  • Emir  (Arabic amir "commander") A leader, commander or ruler in an Islamic nation.
  • Eretz Israel  Hebrew for "Land of Israel". Some Israelis include parts of Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria as well as the West Bank, Gaza, and present-day Israel.
  • Faqih  a jurist expert in Islamic law.
  • Fatah  A term for the Palestinian Liberation Movement.  The word is a reverse acronym for Harakat al-Tahrir al-Falistiniya. This would give HATAF which means "death", so the order is reversed giving FATAH which means "conquest"  Fatah is the largest Palestinian political organization. It was founded in Kuwait in 1957 as a Palestinian nationalist movement opposed to Arab nationalism. Its founders include Yasser Arafat, Khaled Al-Hassan, Farouq Qaddumi and Kalil Al-Wazzir.
  • Fatwah a formal opinion or ruling from an authority on Islamic law.
  • Fedayeen  "Sacrificers"  Arab commando forces.
  • Fitnah  "Trial, testing." A term referring to antagonism toward individual Muslims at Islam's beginning. Now it is used to refer to threats to the health of the state.
  • Five Pillars of Islam  (1) belief that there is only one god and Muhammed is his prophet, (2) daily prayer, (3) fasting during Ramadan (4) Giving alms, and (5) pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj).
  • Fundamentalism  Conservative religious authoritarianism in all faiths. It is marked by a literal interpretation of scriptures and favors a strict adherence to traditional doctrines and practices.
  • Gaza Strip The densely populated sliver of Mediterranean coast which Israel seized from Egypt in the Six Day War of 1967. In early 2005 it was home to well over 1million people, including some 6,500 Jewish settlers who controlled 30% of the land. The Israeli Government planned to relocate these settlers by September 2005 and hand Gaza back to the Palestinians.
  • GCC  Gulf Cooperation Council. Formed in 1981 to coordinate economic and political policy of the six member states: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman. Yemen applying.
  • Green line Armistice line of 1949 that separated Israel from the West Bank before 1967.
  • Hadith  the teachings of Muhammad (contrasted from the Quran, which is the direct word of God) and the Sunna which are the customs by which he and his followers lived.
  • Halal Lawful according to Islamic din (law), especially food that may be eaten by believers.
  • Hajj  Pilgrimage to Mecca in the sacred month (12th). One of the five pillars (requirements) of Islam. One who performs hajj is called a muhajir from mu- "one who" (see Mu-slim, mu-jahid) + hajir; the plural is "muhajirun."
  • Haram Not lawful according to Islam, e.g. eating food like pork, drinking alcohol, having sex outside of marriage.
  • Hijab Woman's head scarf.
  • Hama  central Syrian town of Hama which was the site of a brutal repression of an Islamist uprising by the Asad government in 1982.
  • HAMAS  Acronym for the Arabic name Harakat Muqama al-Islamiyya, meaning the Movement of Islamic Resistance. Formed in late 1987 from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Haram al-Sharif The Arab name for the mosque complex in the heart of Jerusalem which is generally reckoned to be the third most holy site in Islam. It is also the most holy site in Judaism. It is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first century AD.
  • Hegira  (Arabic for "breaking-off") The emigration of Mohammad and the early Muslims from Mecca to Medina in 622; the Muslim lunar calendar, the Hijra, dates from that year.
  • Hejaz  The mountainous area along the west-central coast of the Arabian peninsula which gave rise to early Islam.
  • Hizbullah ("hizb" means "party" so it's the "party of God") Radical Shia group formed in Lebanon; dedicated to creation of Iranian-style Islamic republic in Lebanon and removal of all non-Islamic influences from the area. Strongly anti-West and anti-Israel. Closely allied with, and often financed by Iran but may have conducted operations that were not approved by Tehran.
  • IDF Israeli Defence Forces. Usually refers to the army, but in Israel there is unified command of military, naval and air forces.
  • Iftar  The meal of dates that breaks the fast of Ramadan at the end of each day of the fast.
  • Ijtihad  Independent reasoning used by a Muslim scholar to interpret the Shariah for contemporary circumstances.  Sunni Muslims believe the gates of ijtihad were closed in the late 10th century and the Shariah could only be interpreted by looking at rulings made before that date.
  • Imam  "Leader." The one who leads the salat (prayer service in the mosque). In Shiite Islam, imam also refers to one of the revered early leaders of the community (a designated descendent of 'Ali) who both ruled in the political sense and also interpreted doctrine.
  • Infitah  "Open door." Refers to Anwar Sadat's policy after the October 1973 War of relaxing government controls on the economy so as to encourage the private sector and stimulate the inflow of foreign funds.
  • Intifada  "insurrection" or "uprising" in Palestine. (Literally, in Arabic, it is a shaking-off of garments in a fever.)  The first Intifada - broke out in Gaza in December 1987 in the wake of a traffic accident involving an Israeli truck and a Palestinian car in which several people were killed.  It consisted largely of stone-throwing and demonstrations and ended in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords. The Second Intifada (or al-Aqsa Intifada) began in September 2000 with the provocative visit to the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa compound by Israel's then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon.
  • Jahiliyya  in Arab history, the period of ignorance before the time of Mohammed.
  • Janissaries (Turkish = new troops) Janissaries were the elite guard of the Ottoman Sultan from the 14th to the 19th century. Like Mamluks, they were taken from non-Muslim families. They enjoyed high status and grew in power to the extent that Sultan Mahmud II had them massacred in 1826.
  • Jihad ("struggle," or "battle"), a religious duty to strive for religious improvement. Jihad has come to denote any conflict waged for principle or belief and is often translated to mean "holy war."
  • Kafir  Infidel or pagan.
  • Kafiyeh Head-dress worn by Arabic men.

    Khalifa  (also Caliph) successor to the prophet as leader of the Muslim community.
  • Khan  (From Turkish khan and Mongolian qa'an "ruler.") A ruler of a Mongol or Turkic people. The Mongols and Turkic peoples (from which modern day Turks are descendent) are distantly related. The Turks began migrating from Central Asia toward the Middle East after accepting the Sunni faith in the 7th century.
  • Kibbutz  Zionist collective communities. Kibbutzim served as the keystone of Jewish defense in the period prior to the state, and remained important factors in the economy, army and politics for many years thereafter, exerting an influence well beyond their small numbers.
  • Kippa  Skullcap. Headcovering worn by male Jews as a mark of identity. Also called yarmulke.
  • Knesset   The Israeli Parliament.
  • Kosher  Ritually fit for use in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law.
  • Koreish  Ancient Bedouin tribe that controlled Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammad. They opposed Mohammad, one of their own, until he returned from his sojourn in Medina to capture the city for Islam.
  • Kurds  A mainly Muslim people speaking an Indo-European language similar to Persian. Kurds constitute significant minorities in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, with smaller groups in Armenia and Syria. Saladin was the most famous Kurd.
  • Likud Right-wing Israeli coalition that has been the major rival of the Israeli Labour Party since it first assumed power in 1977 under the leadership of Menahim Begin.
  • Lubavitch An ultra-orthodox movement within Judaism, regarded by some Jews as anti-Zionist.
  • Madrassa(h)  Islamic school for teaching Islamic religion and law. From darasa "to study." Maghreb Arabic for "west" - but in the sense of the western North African countries like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia.
  • Mahdi  (Arabic: "divinely guided one"), in Islamic eschatology, a messianic deliverer who will fill the Earth with justice and equity, restore true religion, and usher in a short golden age lasting seven, eight, or nine years before the end of the world.
  • Mamluk (Arabic = owned) Slave soldiers of the Muslim caliphs and the Ottoman Empire formed in the 9th century. They were taken from enslaved non-Muslim families to ensure they were not enmeshed in the established power structure and to overcome the prohibition against Muslims killing other Muslims. In several cases they seized power for themselves, such as in Egypt from the 13 to the 19th century.
  • Mandean  A gnostic religious group centred in Iraq and claiming to follow John the Baptist. Their practices contain elements of Judaism and Christianity. The Mandeans speak a form of Aramaic.
  • Maronite Branch of the Catholic Church in full communion with Rome and centred in Lebanon.
  • Mashreq Arabic for "east". Usually it is taken to mean the countries Westerners call the Middle East. It distinguishes them from the Maghreb.
  • Melkite  This term usually refers to Byzantine-rite Catholics in full communion with Rome, but under the jurisdiction of the Catholic patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. The patriarch resides in Damascus.
  • Millet  A Turkic word meaning "religious community".  It was then name given to the system used by the Ottoman Empire for administering non-Muslim minorities.  A millet was semi autonomous bodies headed by a religious leader responsible to the central government.
  • Mufti  A Muslim legal scholar who can deliver a fatwa.
  • Mujahideen  Arabic for "struggler". Usually translated to mean "holy warrior". It was widely used to describe the Afghan warriors fighting the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
  • Mullah  A Muslim scholar and teacher.
  • Neoconservatives or Neocons  Group of US intellectuals with an ideology that is patriotic, moralistic and of the "realist" school of foreign relations. They tend to blunt assertiveness rather than diplomatic subtlety.  They dominate the Republican's foreign policy. They include Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld. Organisations include: Defence Policy Board  American Enterprise Institute.
  • (The) Occupied Territories  The West Bank and Gaza Strip, seized from Jordan and Egypt respectively in the Six Day War of 1967. Also, the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Old City, which was taken over at the same time and subsequently annexed by Israel.
  • Orientalism  a word that once referred to a scholar of eastern languages and cultures. Its modern meaning was created by Edward Said: a mind-set among Europeans that portrays Middle Eastern people as inferior, less intelligent, less cultured, less honest and less able to manage their affairs.  It provided a justification for colonialism.
  • Orthodox A term referring to those Eastern Christian Churches that separated from Rome in the mediaeval period. The date for the split is generally given as 1054, the year in which the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople exchanged mutual excommunications. The term is also used of conservative Jewish groups.
  • Oslo Accords  The outline peace deal worked out in negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisations, secretly conducted in Norway. The agreement was sealed with the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in September 1993.
  • Ottoman  A powerful Muslim clan that settled in what is now Turkey and established a Muslim dynasty that ruled from about the 13th century A.D. until 1924. It was the major preserver of "official" Islamic continuity in the Mediterranean and adjacent areas during most of that period.
  • Palestine National Authority The interim government of the Palestinian territories, which was headed by Yasser Arafat. Israelis, who do not recognise a Palestinian state, always drop the word 'National'.
  • PFLP  Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Marxist-Leninist group founded in 1967 by Christian-born Palestinian George Habash. Broke away from the PLO in 1993. Now sides with the more violent side of the Fatah faction.
  • PLO Palestine Liberation Organisation. The umbrella group of political and militant groups headed by Yasser Arafat, whose Fatah faction is the biggest single component. Fatah in turn is subdivided into various groups. One of the most recent to emerge is the semi-autonomous Tanzim movement of young street fighters.
  • Qiblah the direction of Mecca. Wherever Muslims are in the world they face Mecca when they pray.
  • Qur'an  "Recite." Name given to the collection of Islamic scriptures, consisting of 114 suras (sections), believed to have been revealed by God (Allah) orally to Mohammad over a period of time through the angel Gabriel.
  • Reconquista (Spanish = reconquest) The overthrow of the Moors in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) by Christians. In Portugal this was completed in 1272 but Spain was not completely reconquered until 1492.
  • Rogue States  Or "outsider nations" or "states of concern" Nations that are condemned by the West (or maybe just the US Dept of State) because they are authoritarian with a radical ideology and get involved in regional disputes.  They are accused of being involved in illegal arms trafficking, dealing in weapons of mass destruction and having terrorist links. Recently they have included: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Libya and Cuba.  Syria, and Zimbabwe are sometimes added to the list.
  • Sabra and Shatila Two refugee camps in Beirut where Israeli-supported Lebanese Christians massacred Palestinians in the aftermath of Israel 's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
  • Safavid  Iranian dynasty that ruled Persia (Iran) from 1501-1736. The founder of the dynasty, Ismail Safavi, crowned himself shah of Azerbaijan in 1501. In the next ten years he subjugated Iran and Iraq. Although the territory he ruled was predominantly Sunni, he proclaimed Shi'ism the state religion. This angered the Sunni Ottoman sultans who defeated Ismail in 1514 and took Baghdad. The Safavids then moved their capital to Isfahan.
  • Saladin (or, more correctly, Salah ad-Din) a 12th century Muslim general. Born a Kurd in what is now Iraq he was raised in Damascus and sent to keep order in Egypt. He seized power in Egypt and fought successful campaigns against the Crusaders. He is regarded as a great and chivalrous general.
  • Salat the prayers Muslims make five times each day.
  • Sayyid  A title borne by descendents of the Prophet Mohammad.
  • Settlements   Since the Six Day War, more than 170,000 Jews settled in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (which Israelis call Judea and Samaria), most in heavily fortified colonies. Many Jewish people believe the territories to be part of the ancestral Land of Israel promised to them by God.
  • Shah  The Farsi (Persian)word for "king", used in Iran.
  • Shahadah the Muslim proclamation "I believe there is only one God, Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.
  • Shari'a  the fundamental religious concept of Islam, namely its law, systematized during the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Muslim era (8th-9th centuries AD).  Total and unqualified submission to the will of Allah (God) is the fundamental tenet of Islam: Islamic law is therefore the expression of Allah's command for Muslim society and, in application, constitutes a system of duties.
  • Sheik  the leader of an Arab family or village.
  • Shi'a Islam is a minority branch of Islam which makes up about one tenth of the total population of the Muslim world.  The first Shi'as  were Arabs who split from the Sunni mainstream in the seventh century AD. They form an important part of the population in a number of Arab countries: Iraq (> 50 %), Bahrain (> 50 %), Lebanon (about 25%), Oman (60%) and Yemen (about 55 %).
  • Six Day War In June 1967, Israel mounted a dazzling series of pre-emptive strikes against the Arab armies massing on its borders. In less than a week, the triumphant Israeli forces seized Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula from Egypt. Sinai, the biggest conquest in land area, was returned to Egypt in the wake of the Camp David agreement of 1978.
  • Sufi  A general term for a Muslim mystic and/or ascetic. Sufism refers to the mystical path of Islam in general.
  • Sunna(h)  Muslim customs, the traditions of the faithful, the examples Muhammad set by his behaviour.
  • Sunni Islam  The word comes from the Arabic as-Sunna, a collection of six books of sayings (hadith) attributed to the Mohammad. It is the main branch of Islam and recognizes the legitimacy of the first four caliphs. It represents the majority of Muslims.
  • Sura  One of the 114 sections into which the Qur'an is divided. Suras are subdivided into ayat, "verses." Muslims believe that these suras were given to the last of Allah's prophets, Mohammad. Mohammad is said to have built on and perfected the teachings of Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
  • Temple Mount The Israeli name for the site of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the most holy place in Judaism. Only the Western or Wailing Wall remains, almost literally overshadowed by the mosque complex which Arabs call the Haram al-Sharif.
  • Ulama Arab term whose singular is 'alim, "scientist". The ulama are the doctors of Islamic sciences. The term is mainly used by the Sunnis, the Shi'as prefer the term "mullah". The ulama constitute a non-hierarchical body of masters in religious sciences. Those primarily include Islamic law and jurisprudence, theology and philosophy.
  • Umayyad  The first major Muslim dynasty, established in Damascus by Mu'awiya after a fierce rivalry with 'Ali, the last of the four "rightly guided caliphs." The events leading to the Umayyad takeover were influential in the establishment of Shiite Islam.
  • Ummah  the Muslim community.
  • Velayat-e faqih, an Iranian term meaning "rule by the jurisprudent" or "rule of the Islamic jurist.  A basic part of the Iranian constitution.
  • Wahhabis  Adherents of the puritanical reform movement that arose in Arabia in the eighteenth century under Mohammad ibn 'Abd-al-Wahhab (1703-1787). Revived in the early Twentieth Century by Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, Wahhabi ideology now dominates Saudi Arabia.
  • West Bank The Jordanian territory west of the river Jordan which Israel captured in 1967. Originally part of British-mandated Palestine, but annexed by Jordan in 1950 after Israel's establishment following its war of independence.
  • Yarmulke  Jewish skullcap. See kippa.
  • Yom Kippur War Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn and strictly observed day in the Jewish calendar. It's date varies but is in either October or September. On Yom Kippur in 1973 (October 6, that year) the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the Jewish state. After initial reverses, the Israeli forces struck back and recaptured all the territory that they lost in the early days. The war effectively crushed the old Arab ambition of destroying Israel by force, but placed the Arabs in a stronger position to begin a negotiating process.
  • Zionism Political and cultural movement calling for the return of the Jewish people to their Biblical home in Palestine. The Zionist movement was founded as an official organization by Theodore Herzl in Basle in 1897.

 

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