Some of the terminology regarding Muslim-Western relations has been widely misused or misunderstood, confusing key issues and clouding constructive opportunities. In an attempt to improve ongoing communication, we have developed the following Terminology in Muslim-Western Relations guide. A downloadable PDF version is also available.
Terminology Guide
Term: Fatwa
Intended Meaning: An opinion or pronouncement by a trained Islamic jurist, or Mufti
Why a Problem: A fatwa is a legally non-binding opinion, but is often understood in the West to be a religious edict that must be acted upon. It entered Western parlance with the issuance of a fatwa calling for the death of the author, Salman Rushdie, in the 1980s. Thus the general perception is that a fatwa is a death sentence, which feeds into the notion that Islam is a violent religion which does not value "rights of due process" or human life. Another problem that has arisen is that many opinions issued by unqualified persons recently have been called fatwas in the media; calling such pronouncements fatwas lends such opinions a legitimacy they in fact lack.
Impact: Creates the impression that judicial systems in Muslim-majority countries are based on the opinions of religious leaders. Although this is sometimes the case, it is rare; by calling illegitimate opinions fatwas, the person making the pronouncement is automatically being acknowledged as a legitimate religious jurist, or Mufti
Alternatives:
  • Non-binding opinion by Islamic jurist, or Mufti
  • Non-binding opinion in Islamic law
Additional Distinctions
Term:Muslim (noun/adj.)Islamic (adj.)
Definition:Denotes an adherent of Islam or a characteristic of its adherents (descriptive, adj. comparable to "Jewish")Denotes the religion or its institutions (prescriptive, comparable to "Judaic")
Example:A Muslim country is one where the majority of citizens follow the religion of Islam An Islamic country is one whose political system is based on Islamic law
Why Important: Avoids negative events, acts or ideas being attributed to the religion of Islam itself (rather than its followers)
Term:HeadscarfVeil
Definition:Worn by many Muslim women to cover their hair in public; usually accompanied by non- revealing clothes Worn by a small minority of Muslim women to cover face; usually accompanied by non-revealing clothes
Referred to as:Hijab Niqab
Why Important: Important "Veil" conjures up "barrier" and has a negative impact on bridge-building efforts
Note: neither garment necessarily says anything about one's political viewpoints