Lexicon of Political Islam: A Fundamental Need for Resuming Arab Civilization

Lexicon of Political Islam: A Fundamental Need for Resuming Arab Civilization
August 06, 2022 By Dr Ali Bin Tamim

It was striking to see the Taliban, after regaining control over Afghanistan, release a 312-page manifesto in Arabic. The new manifesto, issued by sheikh Abdul Hakim Haqqani and presented by sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada, is titled “The Islamic Emirate and Its [political] Order” and addresses both national and international audiences about the form of the new “state.” Shortly after, The Diplomat magazine published an article titled “Do the Taliban Have Transnational Ambitions?” In the article, the writers highlight the fact that the manifesto was written not in any of the languages of Central and South Asia, where the Taliban are geographically located, but in Arabic. This was interesting enough since the Taliban’s activities, given the social fabric of Afghanistan, are nothing but limited to Afghanistan. 

To explain this, one might have to go beyond the idea of “transnational ambitions” and pay closer attention to the overall ambitions of extremist groups. When examining the lexicon of these groups, it is evidently clear that they seek to hijack the Arabic language, employ it ideologically, associate it mentally with theocratic tendencies, and unload it of its historical and cultural significance completely.

This approach is similar to what other extremist groups did or are still doing. They try to create their own symbols and visual identity, and their online presence has helped them promote that in all languages. A clear example of this is how ISIS, the terrorist organization, embedded the “Seal of the Prophet” in their flag. With ongoing media coverage of this terrorist organization across the world, people would associate the “seal” with ISIS and the Prophet with those who use his symbol. Soon enough, the historical significance of the logo would disappear and become replaced with its connection to ISIS. This type of historical and cultural hijacking is similar to what such organizations are doing to the Arabic language.

When carefully examining the discourse of radical groups in general, one would notice that they focus on four things: 1) combating vernacular languages, even though they are part of the Arabic culture and despite the existence of prophetic narrations in several vernaculars; 2) exporting a closed language, one foreign to modern-day usage, by referring to unknown, unverified classical books; 3) limiting their lexicon to words revolving around jihad and women; and 4) manipulating language to falsify the meaning of words. In this sense, a battle becomes a “holy conquest,” a terrorist attack on civilians becomes “jihad,” and lies and deception become religiously justified “taqiyyah.”

The narrow lexicon radical organizations use in their discourse and propaganda is almost the same. They think it gives them “legitimacy” or makes them more associated with Islam to become more appealing to the public. There is also no difference between the leaders and subordinates who use this lexicon, for they all use the same terminology as if they are programmed to memorise, not to understand.  

Elsewhere we find that Hasan al-Banna, founder of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organization in Egypt, and Sayyid Qutb soon after him have used language as a primary tool of propaganda. For this reason, there is an urgent need to identify the terminology these people use, define their respective semantic changes, and spread awareness of their danger, especially since they are religiously loaded and used out of their historical and religious contexts. Here are some examples of such terminology: “takfir [declaring that a fellow Muslim is guilty of apostasy], ahl ad-dimmah [the people of the covenant], bay’ah [pledge of allegiance], taklif [religious responsibility or obligation], ‘Islam is the solution,’ usuliyyah [fundamentalism], hakimiyyah [governorship], ustadhiyyah [mastership], ta’til [divesting], al-wala' wa'l-bara' [loyalty and disavowal], wilayat al-amr [authority and rulership], fiqh al awlawiyyat [jurisprudence of priorities], fusuq [disobedience], madhhabiyya [adherence to a religious school of law], riddah [apostasy], hisbah [upholding community morals], khilafah [vicegerency], khawarij [seceders], dar al-harb [house of war], jahiliyyah [ignorance], al-jama’ah [the consolidated majority], tabligh [religious preaching], and jihad [holy war].” 

If the Arabs can be aware of the danger of this “hijacking” because we speak the language and know it is much more than what the radicals are trying to make of it, then the greater danger lies in exporting this lexicon to other languages where Arabic becomes void of its substance and deprived of its status as a language of knowledge and science, thereby introducing it to the world as a language of terrorism. It is enough for a non-Arab to hear words like “jihad,” “Allahu akbar,” “niqab,” or “imam,” to know that there is danger looming. As such, and with ongoing media bombardment, the Arabic language gets deprived of its civilizational and intellectual significance and turns into a language associated with violence. 

This “lexicon of terrorism” introduces Arabic to the world as a language of terror, extremism, and violence. But it was only a few centuries ago that the world’s languages borrowed completely different Arabic words. Historically, Arabic has always been a language of coexistence, tolerance, communication, civilization, literature, culture, and science. The world’s nations once competed to learn Arabic to benefit from its sciences. The French orientalist Louis Massignon summarised this idea when he said that Arabic “unleashed the vitality of the Semites in processing the expression of the most intricate of thoughts. It also introduced the West to the scientific method of expression. Arabic is one of the purest languages and it has uniquely excelled in the methods of scientific, artistic, and Sufi expression.”

This brings us back to the semiotics of terrorism, which attempts to imprison Arabic, and to the important role of Arabic language academies and think tanks in authoring a lexicon on the terminology of extremist organizations to expose their falsehood and reveal the extremist ideologies behind their use of language. Such a lexicon is much needed to educate people, especially the youth and children, about the alteration of many words to create new deceiving meanings. The lexicon should also be translated to inform western readership about the truth of those terminologies that have been introduced to media discourse by terrorist organizations.

Today the UAE plays a major role in promoting Arabic by developing, reviving, and liberating the language to give it back the status it deserves: a language of civilization. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s calling to “Resume Civilization” will ensure that Arabic regains its status as a language of civilization, science, and literature, not of terrorism, killings, and bombings. It is also worthy to mention the great initiative of Shiekh Dr. Sultan Al Qasimi, who commissioned the launch of The Arabic Historical Dictionary. These efforts are aligned with current ones taking place in Egypt and Saudi Arabia where religious discourse and narrations of the hadith are being revised. This shows a growing awareness of the pivotal role of language in any agenda that truly aims to address the extremist, terrorist discourse from which the Arabic region and the world are still suffering. 

His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, has once stressed the fact that “responsible journalism can make positive changes in every public domain, it is an effective and important point of contact between the people and officials.” I reiterate that the media has the major role of educating the public and freeing Arabic from the shackles of terrorist organizations. Other cultural, research, and media organizations should also be involved and work hand in hand to achieve this.

Language centres and academies should have clear policies that are backed by relevant strategies to promote Arabic internationally. These establishments should also strive to free Arabic from the extremist discourse in western countries. It is worth mentioning that Jack Lang, president of the Arab World Institute in Paris, described Arabic as the “Treasure of France.” He described it as such because he differentiates between its civilizational significance and its ideological deployment.

We stand up for Arabic not only because it is the language in which we articulate ourselves, but also because it carries a history and a culture that changed the world and contributed to all of humanity. Arabic is not just one of the world’s oldest languages; it is the heart and mind of Arab civilization. Ahmed Shawqi, the famous Arab poet, says:

He who filled languages with every charming trait

Chose Arabic alone to be beauty incarnate


The UAE has many initiatives related to culture and language. One of these is the ‘Status and the Future of the Arabic Language’ report which has been issue by the UAE’s Ministry of Culture. The report presents a holistic view of challenges facing the Arabic language today. It also discusses the reality of the language in educational curriculums, media, and other fields. The report references a set of laws that address the Arabic language in constitutions of Arab countries, but what is more important is to benefit from and develop their laws to face both current and future challenges, especially with studies indicating that the number of Arabic speakers worldwide would reach 600 million people over the coming years. Therefore, efforts should be aligned and consolidated to make Arabic a language of arts, business, and science. Projects that have the potential of reviving Arabic and preventing its exploitation by extremist groups should be pursued, and one of them is the “Lexicon of Political Islam.” This initiative is necessary to expose the falsehood of terrorist groups, deprive them of the main tool they use in their ideological propaganda, and return Arabic to its people who love to live and build a bright future.