Thinking Aloud: Demystifying Arabic Words in the News

Feb. 24, 2014 by Darius 

There are a few Arabic terms that crop up quite frequently in the Western media.  Because of the nature of what’s reported on, most of these words and phrases are negative in context even if they are benign in translation.  In honor of my Arabic exam today, here are some translations and background on these words.

  • Abu means “father.”  Many Arab men, instead of going by their given name, go by Abu followed by the name of their eldest child.  Abu is often also incorporated into noms de guerre, as in “Abu Nazir,” the name of the terrorist mastermind in the Showtime series Homeland.  (Interestingly, Abu Nazir’s son’s name is Issa, the Arabic name Jesus, which is a rather common name throughout the Arab world.)
  • A fatwa is merely an advisory opinion.  Any cleric can issue them on just about any topic; it is only when important clerics, such as Ayatollah Khomeini, issue fatwas that anybody pays attention.  Fatwas generally make the news when they call for the death of someone for insulting Islam, such as Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie.  A couple of days ago a fatwa was issued on travel to Mars :).
  • Haram means “forbidden.”  The word is primarily used to describe things that are forbidden under Islamic law, such as the consumption of alcohol.  It is used in the name of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, which is very loosely translated to mean Western things are forbidden.
  • Hezbollah means “Party of God.”  The “hezb” is the “party” part and is incorporated in the names of several jihadist groups (like the Afghan group Hezb-e Islami).  The “ollah” is a variation of “Allah” (and, depending on the word, is “ullah,” as in “Abdullah,” or “slave of God.”)
  • al Jazeera means “the island.”  It refers to the island of Qatar, whose government owns the media outlet.
  • Jihad  comes from an Arabic verb roughly meaning “to struggle.”  The nature of the Arabic language means that similar verbs can be manipulated to take on a variety of meanings and nouns thanks to a system of verbal “patterns.”  Thus, the verb that underlies jihad also creates the word mujahid (plural mujahideen), meaning someone who undertakes jihad, and ijtihad, the means by which learned scholars of Islamic law can extrapolate the teachings of the Quran to modern situations, which is important in some schools of Shia jurisprudence.
  • al Qaeda means simply “the base.”  The organization was named after a training camp in Afghanistan.
  • al Quds (as in Iran’s al Quds Force) is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.  It comes from the verb “to bless or sanctify.”
  • al Shabaab, the Somali terrorist organization, literally means “the young men.”
  • Talib (as in Taliban) means “student.”  Taliban is the plural form.  The Taliban consider themselves to be students of Islamic law.
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