Quran Syria
Syrian rebels rest as one reads the QuranReuters

The explosion of the Islamic State (Isis) into popular consciousness over the past year has also introduced a whole new lexicon.

Media coverage of the radical group often includes Arabic terms or Quranic and Middle Eastern historical references, which many English speakers may still find confusing. For those who are baffled by the myriad new terms and phrases, IBTimes UK has put together a short glossary of the essentials.


Abbasids: Muslim dynasty that ruled over the Caliphate from 750 to 1258 AD.

Alawite: a spinoff of the Shi'ite branch of Islam present mainly in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is a follower.

Allah: Arabic term for 'God'.

Al-Qaeda: Islamist network founded by Osama Bin Laden and currently led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Its name means The Foundation. The group rivals IS for the global jihadi leadership.

Al-Sham: Arabic name for the geographical area spanning from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River and from Anatolia to Egypt. Today it comprises roughly Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.

Ayah: a verse of the Quran.

Ba'ath party: Arab socialist political party with nationalist overtones which was founded in Syria in 1943 and spread to neighbouring countries. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Syrian president Ḥafiz al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad, were prominent members.

Bay'ah: oath or pledge of alliance.

Burka: Islamic cloak fully covering a woman's face and body.

Caliph: ruler of the Muslim community. Sunnis and Shiites disagree on who was the first caliph and rightful successor of Mohammed as leader of Islam, and how many Caliphs have lived since. Sunnis believe only descendants of the Prophet's tribe, the Quraysh, can be Caliphs and that there will only be 12 of them before the apocalypse. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi believes he is the eighth Caliph.

Caliphate: an Islamic State governed by a Caliph according to Sharia law. After the four Caliphs that succeeded Mohammed, three main caliphates have been established in history, although not all Sunnis recognise them as legitimate. They are the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate and the Ottoman Caliphate.

Dabiq: northern Syrian town where in Muslim mythology the armies of Rome and Islam will fight a battle that is to precede the apocalypse. The Islamic State's English-language propaganda magazine is named after it.

Daesh: acronym for Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa'al-Sham, Arabic for Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Often used as a pejorative term for the Islamic State terror group.

Fatwa: a legal ruling issued by an Islamic authority made according to Sharia law. They usually concern the authority point of view on how Muslims should behave in relation to a particular issue. It has been used to request a person be killed, like the one against writer Salman Rushdie.

Hajj: the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which Muslim devotees must perform at least once in their lifetime if their physical and financial circumstances permit.

Halal: Islamic term for something that is permitted.

Hijab: Islamic veil covering for women leaving the face exposed.

Hudud: Islamic law term for crimes against God such as apostasy, adultery and homosexuality.

Islamic State: militant jihadist group founded in Iraq, previously known as Islamic State in Iraq (Isi) and later as Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.

Imam: religious leader, preacher, usually in charge of a mosque.

Jabath al-Nusra: also known as al-Nusra front, it is an Islamist group active in Syria and officially affiliated to al-Qaeda. Its name translates as The Support Front for the People of al-Sham.

Jihad: translating from Arabic as 'struggle', this is the Islamic term used for the holy war against unbelievers which Islamists see as their religious duty.

Kuffar or Kafir: pejorative term meaning unbeliever or infidel, used to refer to non-Muslims.

Kurdistan: broad geographic region inhabited mainly by ethnic Kurds including parts of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, northern Syria and southern Armenia.

Levant: historic European name for the eastern Mediterranean region. After World War I the term assumed a wider meaning covering roughly the same area referred to in Arabic as al-Sham.

Mohammed: founder of Islam and, according to Muslims, a Prophet and the messenger of God.

Mujihaideen: religious fighter engaged in jihad.

Niqab: Islamic facial covering for women which leaves the eyes exposed.

Ottoman Empire: Sunni empire also known as Turkish Empire. Founded in 1299 in Anatolia it grew to be one of the largest and more powerful empires in the world, reaching its peak in the 16th century. It lasted for over six centuries until it was finally dismantled in 1923. Some Ottoman sultans styled themselves as caliphs.

Quraysh: the merchant tribe the Prophet Mohammed was born into.

Quran or Koran: Islam's holy book. The name translates as 'the recitation' and Muslims believe it records revelations God told Mohammed.

Rafida: Arabic for 'rejecters', it is used as a derogatory term for Shi'ites by Sunni Muslims.

Salafism: socially and religiously conservative Sunni Islamic movement advocating a return to the early Islam mores. Often used as an alternative term to Wahhabism.

Salat: prayer performed by Muslims five times a day.

Shahid: term meaning martyr, used to indicate those who die fighting in jihad.

Shahada: declaration of faith that Muslims pronounce to declare their belief in God and his prophet, Mohammed. It reads: "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammed is the messenger of Allah." The shahada features on Islamic flags, including that of Saudi Arabia.

Sharia: Islamic Law.

Sheikh: Muslim preacher or Islamic scholar with recognised religious authority.

Shi'ites or Shia: one of the two main branches of Islam, the other being Sunni. The term means faction or party and signifies a split with the mainstream Muslim credo that dates back to the 7th century. At the death of Mohammed, the Islamic leadership passed to his father-in-law Abu Bakr as-Șiddīq. Shi'ites instead believe the prophet cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib was the rightful heir. Shi'ites currently represent up to 15% of Muslims and have their main powerhouse in Iran.

Sufism: mystical Islamic practice aiming to the finding of truth and godly love.

Sunni: the largest branch of Islam, representing around or more than 85% of all Muslims. Differently from Shi'ites, Sunnis believe that at the death of Mohammed, religious leadership rightfully passed onto his father in law, Abu Bakr as-Șiddīq. Abu Bakr is considered by Sunnis as the first Caliph.

Surah: a chapter of the Quran.

Tafkir: is the equivalent of an excommunication. Is the Islamic law act declaring a Muslim an infidel. Is often use by IS members to dismiss criticism from other Muslims.

Umayyad: Muslim dynasty that ruled over Islamic world establishing a caliphate that lasted from 661 to 750 AD.

Ummah: translation as 'nation' or 'community' is a term used to describe to the global Muslim community, without geographical references.

Yazidi: member of an ancient Kurdish religious minority, Yazidism, which combines elements of Zoroastrianism with Sufi Islam and is found primarily in northern Iraq.

YPG: Syrian Kurdish militia known as People's Protection Units (Yekineyen Parastina Gel)

YPJ: all-female Kurdish armed group known as Women's Protection Units (Yekineyen Parastina Jine).

Wahhabism: ultraconservative Sunni Islamic movement named after 18th century preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It is the leading religious movement in Saudi Arabia.