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: Shari'a
Intended Meaning: System of individual and societal conduct that is in accordance with Islamic principles.
Why a Problem: Shari'a is often considered, especially in the West, as an archaic legal system best known for cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers; it is seen as written in stone and not open for interpretation or customization, and even contrary to universal codes of human rights. In fact, shari'a is the framework from which Islamic law is derived. It is similar to Jewish Halakhah and Catholic Canon Law. Different Islamic schools of jurisprudence have their own ways of interpreting shari'a.
Impact: Offense is taken by many Muslims when it is implied that shari'a is an inequitable system
Alternatives:
  • Islamic principles
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