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Religious Tolerance logo

Suggested usage of religious terms:

Christianity and Islam

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One might think that at least the world Christianity is not controversial, and is unambiguous. But there are even problems with this term:

bulletThe census bureaus of most countries define a Christian as one who declares themselves to be a Christian. They may be from the conservative, mainline or liberal wing of the religion. 
bulletWebster's New World Dictionary defines Christian as: "A person believing in Jesus as the Christ, or in the religion based upon the teachings of Jesus." This is a rather broad definition. It would exclude some religious liberals who believe that Jesus was not the Messiah (Christ in Greek)
bulletConcise Oxford Dictionary defines Christian as: "Person believing in, professing or belonging to the religion of Christ." They also don't define exactly what the religion of Christ is. Some religious liberals regard the religion of Christ as Judaism. Others believe that Jesus' intent was to create a new religion that recognized him as the resurrected Son of God, a component of the Trinity.
bulletRoman Catholics, liberal and mainline Christians generally accept, as fellow Christians, any individual or faith group which devoutly, seriously, and prayerfully considers themselves to be Christian. So, a Presbyterian or the Presbyterian Church would accept Mormons and United Church members as fellow Christians, even though they might strongly disagree on many points of theology.
bulletMany conservative Christians restrict the use of the term Christian to refer only to those individuals who believe in all of the historical doctrines of Christendom: Atonement, Biblical inerrancy, Biblical inspiration, Heaven and Hell as places of eternal reward and never-ending torture, incarnation, justification, regeneration of the spirit, resurrection, second coming of Jesus, salvation, Satan as a living entity, the Trinity, and the virgin birth. Many Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians do not regard mainline and liberal Christians as being part of Christendom. A typical example showing this exclusion was broadcast over many Christian radio stations during an "Unshackled" program. A woman described her childhood, growing up as a Protestant in a Roman Catholic neighborhood. She related how many of her Catholic friends later became Christians - i.e. switched from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity. A second example of exclusion is seen in many cities which have one Christian association for conservative pastors, and a second group for liberal and mainline ministers.

The definition of Christianity has other implications. One example is inter-faith marriage:
bulletTo most North Americans, a inter-faith (or mixed, or mixed-faith, or inter-religious) marriage involves two people of different religions. e.g. Christianity and Judaism, or Buddhist and Muslim.
bulletTo most North Americans, an intra-faith (or two-church, interchristian, cross-community, inter-denominational, inter-church or ecumenical) marriage involves two people who follow different traditions or denominations within a single religion e.g. Roman Catholic and Lutheran, Southern Baptist and Presbyterian, or Alexandrian Wiccan and Gardnerian Wiccan.
bulletMany conservative Christians would also regard a marriage to be inter-faith if one spouse is a conservative Christian and the other a mainline or liberal Christian. Such a marriage might be discouraged because of the Bible's recommendations against becoming "unequally yoked" with an unbeliever.

There are many other terms that are assigned contrasting meanings by various Christian groups. Some of these relate to theological concepts, abortion access, and equal rights for gays and lesbians. Often, conservative Christian usage of these terms is very different from the meanings assigned by mainline and liberal Christians and by other groups. This makes dialogue almost impossible. We have created a cross-cultural dictionary which describes contrasting definitions for some of these terms.

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bulletIslam is the second largest religion in the world. About 20% of the world's population follow it. It is exceeded in membership numbers only by Christianity. It is growing , and is expected to surpass Christianity in membership by about 2025 CE.
bulletMuslim is the preferred spelling for a follower of Islam. Moslim is not recommended because it is often pronounced "mawzlem": which sounds like an Arabic word for "oppressor". 
bulletSome Western writers in the past have referred to Islam as "Mohammedism." This is deeply offensive to many Muslims, as the term might infer that Mohammed the Prophet was in some way divine.
bulletThe Islamic sacred text, the Qur'an, is viewed as the direct words of God. It is sometimes referred to as the "Koran" in English; this spelling is offensive to some Muslims, and is thus not recommended.
bulletIslam has not been described in much of the Western media in a balanced manner. The most radical Muslims tend to be given a high profile. Moderate and liberal wings of Islam receive almost no publicity.
bulletIslam is often held responsible for the practice of female genital mutilation. But it is obvious that FGM is grounded in an ancient cultural tradition, not in religious belief. In those countries where it is practiced, it is common among Muslims, Christians, Animists and followers of other religions.
bulletJihad (struggle) is probably the most misunderstood religious word in existence. It often mentioned on Western TV and radio during news about the Middle East, where it is used as a synonym of "holy war" - a call to fight against non-Muslims in the defense of Islam. This is a meaning that is sometimes used by radical Fundamental Muslims.

The vast majority of Muslims have an entirely different definition of Jihad. It is seen as an individual's personal, internal struggle. The goal may be achievement in a profession, self-purification, the conquering of primitive instincts or the attainment of some other noble goal. It is occasionally used to refer to a defensive war. More information on "jihad."

bulletIngrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America recommends that fellow Muslims and the U.S. media Americanize terms. e.g.:
bulletUsing "God" instead of "Allah."
bulletUsing "scarf" instead of the "hijab" that many Muslim women wear over their head. 1

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Related essay on this web site:

bulletReligious terms used to refer to Islam and Muslims

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Reference used:

  1. Larry Witham, "Reporters asked to handle 'Islamic' jargon with care," Washington Times, at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Publishing date: 1999-JUL-22
Latest update: 2005-OCT-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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