This glossary has been compiled solely for the assistance of the non-specialist reader and makes no claim to completeness or systematization.
Arab-Islamic dynasty that succeeded the Umayyads in Damascus. After briefly settling in Kufa, the Abbasids founded their capital in Baghdad, moved it to Samarra, and finally returned it to Baghdad. The execution of the last Abbasid caliph by the Mongols in 1258 put an end to a brilliant period of Muslim power. In this section of our Web site, a distinction is made between the Great Abbasids who reigned until the middle of the tenth century AD and their successors who merely had nominal authority.
At the five daily prayer times prescribed by the Qur'an, ablutions are part of the ritual purification which must precede participation in contemplation and the act of prostration and prayer. .
Abu Bakr
Father-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) and the first caliph after the Prophet Muhammad died. He reigned from 632 to 634 AD.
Arab dynasty in North Africa (Ifriqiya) whose governors were semi-independent of Baghdad. They reigned from 800 to 909 in Tunisia, Sicily and Malta. Their capital, Kairouan, was a vibrant city during that time.
The son of Ali Ibn Abi Talib and Fatima, he was assassinated in 680 AD in Kerbala and is venerated by the Shiites.
Ali Ibn Abi Talib
Cousin of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) and the husband of Fatima (the Prophet Muhammad's daughter). He became the fourth Caliph, but the rivalry with Muawiya, governor of Syria, ended in a schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Muawiya founded the Umayyad dynasty of Damascus. Ali was assassinated in Kufa in 661 AD.
The descendants of Ali and Fatima and of al-Husayn, the second son of Ali and Fatima. Later, Ali's followers formed the Shiite branch of Islam, asserting claims to the succession promised to the Prophet's descendants.
From the Arabic al-mowahbidun, which means partisan of Unity. According to the doctrine of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him), Ibn Tumart, one of the Almohads, proclaimed the oneness of God. The Almohads, a Berber dynasty which succeeded the Almoravids, reigned in the Maghreb and Al-Andalus (Spain) between 1130 and 1269 AD, with their capital in Marrakesh.
From the Arabic al-Morabitun, which means brotherhood of warrior-monks. This dynasty of Berbers was founded by Yusuf Ibn Tashfin in the Sahara. Ibn Tashfin reigned from 1061 to 1106 AD in Maghreb and also in Andalusia after 1086 AD. The Almoravids preached a strict respect for Qur'anic instructions.
Now the Arabic name for Spain. The word was derived from "Vandalusie", or the country of the Vandals. The Arabs settled in Al-Andalus for seven centuries where they commissioned architectural masterpieces making Al-Andalus one of the most beautiful architectural regions in the Islamic world.
Architectural element composed of arches resting on a series of pillars, piers or columns. An arcade may form a portico.
Instrument which provided a flat representation of the skies, used to determine astronomical data (such as the altitude of the stars or the hour of day) and also used as a navigational aid. In addition, it provided astrological information for the drawing up of horoscopes.
This Turkish word referred to the governor of a town or province entrusted with the upbringing of a young prince.
Independent dynasty founded by the Kurdish leader Salah al-Din or Saladin. The Ayyubids held power from 1171 to 1260 AD in Syria, Upper Mesopotamia, Egypt, Yemen, and the holy cities of Mekka and Medina.
Royal or imperial title before Alexander, and later used by Byzantine sovereigns from 630 onward.
Transversal spatial unit in a covered space. The bay contrasts with the nave which is longitudinal. In a hypostyle space, the bay corresponds to the division between two rows of columns set perpendicular to the axis of the entrance.
Dynasty of Shiite emirs who occupied Baghdad in the tenth and eleventh centuries and who kept the Abbasid caliphs under tutelage.
From Arabic khalifa, meaning head of the Islamic community in the line of the Prophet's successors. This title is used to designate the successor of the Prophet in that person's capacity as temporal and spiritual leader of the Islamic community.
Religious practice consisting of walking around a sacred place as a sign of veneration and piety. Islamic circumambulation is practiced around the Ka'ba in Mekka, the Rock of Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, and in many mausoleums and shrine where the sages of Islam are revered. .
Persian term initially designating the official registers,later the administrative offices of the state, and finally the sovereign's council of state. There was a distinction between the Divan i-Am, or chamber for public audience with the prince which was part of the throne room, and the Divan i-Khas, or private audience room, used during courtly ceremonies.
Arabic title (amir) for a military commander, governor or ruler.
Emir al-Mu'minin
Arabic title for the commander of the faithful; used since Omar Ibn al-Khattab (the second Caliph) as a title of honor reserved exclusively for the Caliph.
The daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him). Fatima married Ali Ibn Abi Talib and had two sons, al-Hassan and al-Husayn. She is especially venerated by the Shiites.
Ismaili Shiite dynasty of independent sovereigns who seized power in Ifriqiya in 909 AD, and later in Egypt in 969 AD where they reigned until 1171. During the Fatimid period, Islamic art, literature and science flourished.
Pre-lslamic dynasty princes from southern Arabia who ruled in the Syrian desert in the third century AD. They were vassals of Byzantium and adopted Monophysite Christianity. Their capital was Bosra.
Public or private baths, following the model of Roman baths.
The expatriation of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) when he left Mekka for Yathrib, which became Medina (Medinat al- Nabi), the city of the Prophet. This event took place in 622 AD and marked the birth of the Islamic era.
Horseshoe arch
An upper stilted arch with the stonework between the imposts and the springing line resembling stilts.
Arabic word derived from the Latin "Africa". The geographical limits of the area known as Ifriqiya are somewhat blurred, but originally the term applied to the territory between Tangier and Tripoli.
Arabic term meaning the leader of ritual prayer. The term is applied to the prayer leader at public prayers, to the spiritual head of a congregation or school, and especially to the leader of the whole Islamic community. For Shiites, the word refers to the spiritual leader of the community.
Member of the Shiite branch called "the Seveners" because they recognized seven imams, the last being Ismail, as opposed to "the Twelvers" who recognized twelve. For both groups, the last imam would be the hidden imam, who would reappear at the end of time after his period of "occultation."
The Ismaili school gave rise to the Fatimid movement of North Africa and Egypt.
A rectangular, usually vaulted room, one of whose sides is entirely open to a forecourt or another hall. This type of structure was adopted by oriental Islam from Parthian or Sassanian architectural sources and is not linked to any particular function. It is found both in secular and sacred buildings.
Arabic term meaning holy war. It is regarded by Muslims as a meritorious work that ensures entry into Paradise. The word is derived from jahada which means to strive for something.
Name given to the followers of Ali who rallied to Caliph Muawiya and formed a strict egalitarian sect.
Fourth century AD dynasty of pre-Islamic Arab princes in Iraq who were vassals of the Sassanids. Their capital, Hira, was near the future Kufa.
Meaning led by righteousness. At first, the term often was no more than honorific> However, for the Shiites and under their influence, it came to be applied to the expected religious leader of the Last Days. This leader, free from error and sin, will establish the rule of righteousness and faith, and will rule a world united in Islam. Throughout the history of Islam, self-proclaimed Mahdis have appeared, one such being the founder of the Almohad movement, Ibn Tumart.
One of the four schools of law dating from the 8th and 9th centuries and recognized as orthodox by Sunni Muslims. It was founded by one Malik in Medina in the 8th century and is characterized by conservatism and severity. Its influence was felt particularly in northwest Africa and Spain.
Meaning"unfree" (or literally, the property of another as, for example, the slaves of non-Islamic origin). The term is chiefly applied to soldiers. In the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt and Syria, which lasted from 1250 to 1517, this institution of military slavery led to centuries of rule by a one-family aristocracy. In Spain, no such development took place.
Tower used to call the faithful to prayer. While its origin, development and function remain unclear, it is thought to have evolved from the pre-Islamic signal tower. (The Arabic word manara means a place with a light, i.e. a lighthouse.)
Staircase-like monumental pulpit in the Friday mosque from which the sermon is delivered.
From the Arabic mu'azzin, one who calls the faithful to prayer on the five occasions each day as prescribed.
A honeycomb-like decorative motif consisting of numerous niches and niche fragments. It was first seen in the Islamic world in the 11th century AD. It is used primarily as an internal cladding for curved architectural elements for example, in domes and, above all, in the transitional zones between domes and their supports; also in mibrab niches, tops of window openings, on capitals instead of tambours, and ledges.
Arabic word referring to the direction that should be faced during prayer. Originally, this direction was toward Jerusalem. In 624 AD, the Ka'ba in Mekka became the direction for prayers.
North Arabian tribe which ruled in Mekka in the early 7th century AD, made up of a number of families of different degrees of wealth The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him), his descendants, the first four Caliphs, the Umayyads, and the Abbasids were all from this tribe.
Persian dynasty reigning from 224 AD to 651 AD over an empire that stretched from Mesopotamia to the River Indus. It was a power with which the Romans of the late Empire, and later the Byzantines, clashed.
The dynasty collapsed before the expansion of the Arab Islamic forces; its cultural traditions were largely taken over by the Abbasids.
This dynasty of Sultans was Sunni of Turkish origin. They ruled Persia and Mesopotamia from the 11th century AD to the 12th century AD. The first Seljuk Sultan was Tughrul Beg (1038-1064). In 1055, the Seljuks took over Baghdad. In 1071, the Seljuks defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikert, then went on to Anatolia. The Seljuks captured Damascus in 1078 and Jerusalem in 1079.
The Seljuks were very interested in arts and architecture. The dynasty collapsed when the Mongols defeated the Seljuks in 1243 AD.
Followers of Orthodox Islam who believe and recognize the first four Caliphs of Medina as the ultimate leaders of the Islamic community. A major difference between the Sunni and Shiite sects is that the Sunnis do not esteem Ali and his immediate family as highly as the Shiites do.
This dynasty was founded by Ahmed Ibn Tulun, governor of Egyptwho declared independence and broke off from the Abbasids. The Tulunids reigned in the Nile Valley until 905 AD.
The first Arab-Islamic dynasty of Caliphs, they reigned from 660 to 750 AD in Damascus. This dynasty was founded by Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufian in 660 AD.
The Umayyad dynasty ended in 750 AD with the assassination of all the family members except one. Abdul Rahman I fled to Spain and founded another Umayyad dynasty which ruled in Cordoba from 756 to 1031 AD.