Whether it’s in books, talks, or general conversations with other Muslims, after turning to Islam you may find that you’re suddenly coming across a lot of unfamiliar Arabic words and phrases.
There is a definite beauty in sharing a common language throughout the entire religion. No matter where you go, Muslims will greet each other with the same “asalaamu alaykum”; and the most beautiful thing of all, despite there being around 2 billion Muslims across the globe all living in different cultures and speaking different languages, when we pray, our culture and heritage departs us as we each recite the exact same words as every other Muslim, including those who were here before us, and those who will be here after us.
When you are new to Islam, you will likely be hearing a lot of common Islamic phrases quite regularly. But when you aren’t familiar with their meaning or in what context to use these words yourself, the language can feel a little isolating rather than beautifully inclusive.
Don’t worry, the more you read Islamic books and spend time with other Muslims, using such phrases will soon become second nature to you. But to get you started, here are a few you are very likely to come across:
“Asalaamu alaykum” – “Peace be upon you”
This is the phrase Muslims use to greet each other. Literally translated, it means ‘peace be upon you’, (the word ‘salaam’ in Arabic means ‘peace’). You may also hear the fuller version, ‘may the mercy, blessings and peace of Allah be upon you’, which in Arabic is “Asalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu”. When a person uses this greeting (either the short or long version), it is the equivalent of saying “you are my equal, you are safe with me and I will never do you any harm”. If a person greets you with “asalaamu alaykum”, you return it with:
“Wa alaykum asalaam” – “peace be upon you too”
“Alhamdulillah” – “All thanks and praise to Allah”
The beautiful thing about the Arabic language is that its words have such specific and direct meaning to them compared to our much more broad and general English language. For this reason, I have heard several lengthy discussions simply on the meaning of “Alhamdulillah”. Such a light word on the tongue, and yet so heavy in its meaning and virtue, there is a lot of reward in speaking this word with sincerity. For the sake of keeping this post easy to follow, however, I will simply say “Alhamdulillah” is a word for expressing gratitude and humility. When speaking about ourselves in regards to anything we are pleased with, it is good habit to add “Alhamdulillah” to remind ourselves that our success comes only by the permission of Allah.
“How are you?”
“Alhamdulillah, I am well, thank you.”
“SubhaanAllah” – “Glory be to Allah”
A similar phrase to ‘alhamdulillah’, ‘subhaanAllah’ is more commonly used in reference to something that has amazed us, such as a beautiful sunset, or incredible cloud formations, or perhaps an event that has surprised us. It is a way of expressing awe in Allah’s creation, and acknowledging His unparalleled power. Glorifying Allah holds so much reward, we are told that whenever we say ‘subhaanAllah’, a tree is planted for us in Jannah, so make the most of this and say it every chance you get!
A good tip:
If you are in the habit of saying “oh my God” a lot, or even a certain ‘F’ word, start saying “subhaanAllah” instead!
“MashaAllah” – “It is as Allah willed”
This word is another example of praising Allah with something we have been impressed by. It is used very similarly to ‘alhamdulillah’, except that ‘alhamdulillah’ usually refers to something about ourselves, whereas we would normally say ‘mashaAllah’ when speaking about somebody else.
“I’m really enjoying my job, alhamdulillah”
“My sister is doing so well in her career, mashaAllah.”
If you ever pay someone a compliment, always finish it with “mashaAllah”. Similarly, if you hear somebody praising someone else, begin your response with “mashaAllah”. This is particularly beneficial in protecting ourselves and others against envy.
“Inshaa Allah” – “If Allah wills it”
Allah (SWT) says in the Qur’an, “And never say of anything, “indeed I will do that tomorrow,” except when adding “if Allah wills.” – (Quran 18:23). It is, again, another way of striving to remain humble and reminding ourselves that we can’t take anything for granted, as nothing in this life is guaranteed except death. Therefore, a Muslim will most often not talk about a future event or intention without adding “inshaa Allah”.
“I’ll be there at five, inshaa Allah.”
“Bismillah” – “In the name of Allah”
You may have noticed that every surah (chapter) in the Qur’an starts with ‘Bismillah’. In fact, it is good practice to start pretty much anything with ‘Bismillah’. It is a way of acknowledging gratitude and humility, as we understand that absolutely everything comes from Allah. The food on our plate didn’t come from us, so before eating we say “bismillah”; the water in our vessel didn’t come from us, so before drinking we say “bismillah”; before leaving the house, before starting a journey, before writing a letter – the fate of such things is not at all within our power, but is fully in Allah’s control alone, so before undertaking any of these things, we say “bismillah”. Our hearts and lives are in Allah’s hands, and by saying “bismillah” we are showing our trust and our gratitude to the One who decides every outcome, and are asking Him to bless the act we are carrying out, no matter how small.
“Jazak Allah Khair” – “May Allah reward you with good”
Sometimes a simple ‘thank you’ will suffice, but when thanking a fellow Muslim, why not make your thanks sincere and beneficial to them by asking Allah to provide for them from His blessings. If someone felt gratitude for something you have done, and they were to respond by saying “oh thank you so much, you are a diamond, I’m so grateful”, it does of course make you feel nice and warm and appreciated, but it’s in danger of giving your ego a good feeding too. If instead, your deed was responded with “that’s so kind of you, jazak Allah khair”, you get the same nice feeling of being appreciated, your ego is protected by the mention of Allah’s name, and someone’s just asked Allah to give you some goodness! Win-win!
“Astaghfirullah” – “Allah forgive me”
Seeking repentance often is a very wise habit to get into. The Prophet Muhammad (may the blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) stated that he would make repentance 100 times a day. The mercy of Allah is so immense, there are numerous mentions of His eagerness to forgive throughout the Qur’an and ahadith. A believing Muslim hates to sin against Allah, due to both fear and love of Him, but as humans it is impossible that we will never slip from time to time – we are not angels! The beauty is, Allah loves to forgive, and rejoices when His slaves ask for His forgiveness.
The above are words we might often hear or say in conversation. Below, I move on to some of the words you might come across also in conversation, but commonly among books, texts, and within blogs such as this one!
“Du’a” – Prayer/Supplication
When I first came to Islam, I was confused by du’a, because the word more commonly associated with prayer is salah. I soon found out, however, that salah refers specifically to the Islamic ritual prayer, whereas du’a refers to the type of prayer that you make any time, any place, either silently or aloud, individually or in a group. There are a number of du’as that are written in the Qur’an or in hadith which Muslims use regularly at specific times and places, which can be said in Arabic in your own language. But your own prayer, for example saying “O Allah please help me to pass this exam” would also be a du’a.
A very well known little book called ‘Fortress of the Muslim’ contains many du’as and supplications to be used at specific times, and is very handy to have to start memorising du’as that our Prophet (PBUH) used to make. You will find it in almost any Islamic bookshop – ask the shop assistant and it is 99% likely they will know the book you are looking for.
“Hadith” – Example/Narrative
As I’ve already referred to hadith and its plural, ahadith, a few times in this post alone, I’d better explain what this means for the benefit of anyone not familiar with this term. Islam is a religion based on guidance from both the Qur’an and Hadith. While it is believed that the Qur’an is the word of God, as revealed via His Messenger Muhammad (PBUH), the Hadith are the sayings, actions, advices and habits of Muhammad (PBUH) throughout his prophethood. These were carefully recorded and preserved by his companions and followers, and have been passed down through the generations, allowing us to still benefit from his teachings over 1000 years later.
You are likely to hear scholars refer to a hadith as ‘authentic’, ‘sound’, ‘good’, or ‘weak’, as some hadith are more relied upon more than others. This depends on the strength of their chain of narration, as well as other supporting factors such as its consistency compared to other ahadith. Whenever a hadith is quoted, it often has the name of its narrator in brackets afterwards, for example a common and well-trusted name, Bukhari.
“Imaan” – Faith/Sincerity of Faith
One of the reasons so many Arabic words are used often in Islamic texts is because there is no exact English translation, and so it is easier/more accurate to instead stick with the Arabic phrase. “Imaan” is an example of this, as its general translation, ‘faith’, doesn’t quite cover it. Imaan can refer to your faith and beliefs, as well as your connection to Allah, and the strength of this connection. Muslims often begin correspondence with the well wishes “I hope you are in good health and strong imaan”.
“Dunya” – Worldly Lives
Unsurprisingly, the religion of Islam and its texts refer often to the afterlife (akhira). In contrast, it also refers to dunya, which refers to the present life, but more specifically, the superficial, materialistic aspects of it, as opposed to the beneficial acts of worship that you will carry with you into the next life inshaa Allah.
“Akhira” – Afterlife
Covering all aspects from our time in the grave, the Day of Judgement, and our fate whether it be in Heaven or Hell, all fall under the topic of our akhira – the life after the one we are living now.
“Jannah” – Heaven/Paradise
The word ‘jannah’ literally translated means ‘garden’, but if you see this word in an Islamic context, most of the time it will be referring to Paradise – the place we all hope and pray to be residents of in the akhira.
“Jahannam” – Hellfire
Jannah’s opposite, Hell – the place of punishment, and where we pray to not even get close to in the akhira.
“Ummah” – “Community”
To give the word ‘ummah’ its general definition, it refers to a group of people who share the same beliefs. In our case, it refers to the Ummah of Muhammad (PBUH), which encompasses every single Muslim regardless of race, colour, age, gender, lifestyle, background, dietary preferences… etc. If you believe in Allah and the 5 fundamental pillars of Islam, you are part of the biggest family on Earth, our beloved ummah.
There are many ahadith which address the ummah, which means it is directed at every Muslim who lives, has lived and will live in the future. There are some very heartwarming hadith about how much love Muhammad (PBUH) has for his ummah – each and every one of us.
Lastly, I will share the meaning of some common acronyms:
SAW – “Salallahu alayhi wasallam” – May the blessings of Allah be upon him
You may have noticed that when mentioning our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), I start by writing his blessings in full (may the blessings and peace of Allah be upon him), and in all subsequent mentions use the shorter acronym (PBUH – peace be upon him). Texts by other Muslim writers may also use this style, or commonly you may see the Arabic version (SAW/salallahu alayhi wasallam) or you may see a small symbol in Arabic text, which has the same meaning.
It is common practice for Muslims to send blessings upon Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) any time his name is mentioned. There are a number of reasons for this, but most simply, he is a man we love and respect immensely, and sending blessings upon him (PBUH) is a small reflection of this.
SWT – Subhaanahu wa ta’ala – Glorified and exalted is He
Similar to the blessings sent upon Muhammad (PBUH) at the mention of his name, it is common for praises to be added to the mention of Allah – glorified and exalted is He. The acronym SWT is used only when mentioning Allah, and you may see many others in reference to His 99 names. Although in my experience, SWT is the most common.
AS – Alayhi Salaam – Upon him be peace
Although our love and respect for Muhammad (PBUH) is superior, that does not mean that we do not still love, respect, and send blessings upon all the other prophets. So at the mention of any of these (whether Aadam/Adam, Nuh/Noah, Ibrahim/Abraham, Musa/Moses, Isa/Jesus) or any of the prophets sent by Allah – may peace be upon them all, you might see an Arabic symbol, or the acronym ‘AS’, meaning ‘alayhi salaam’ – ‘upon him be peace’.
RA – Radiyallahu anhu (male)/Radiyallahu anha (female)/Radiyallahu anhum (plural) – May Allah be pleased with him/her/them
It is not only the prophets who we spare a special mention and blessing for. Throughout Islamic texts and talks, we often hear of the wives and companions of the Prophet (PBUH), who were significant in their role of preserving the Qur’an and ahadith, and passing down the teachings of Islam so that they even reach and benefit our generations over a thousand years after their lifetime.
As it can be confusing at first, remembering which is the male, female, or plural version, here is a little trick I used to teach myself: “anha” – think “her”; “anhum” – think “them”; “anhu” – “who” is remaining? – he!
This is just a tiny dip in the ocean compared to the numerous Arabic words and phrases you are likely to come across in your journey as a growing Muslim, but if you are regularly listening to Islamic talks or reading Islamic books, more and more phrases will become known and familiar to you inshaa Allah. It might seem daunting at first and feel like there is so much to remember, but the most common words honestly come up so often in Islamic contexts, it’s quite likely they’ll soon be slotting into your natural vocabulary before you know it.
Never be afraid to ask a Muslim friend to translate something for you if they’re able to, or see if Google can answer! If there are any phrases you have come across and would like some help with, post a comment below and I’ll see if I can help!