A dear sister writes a thoughtful reflection on the powerful association of words to their meanings:
There are a few words that I strongly dislike, primarily because they lack a single definition and so, are ambiguous in their meanings: jihadist, islamist, fundamentalist, extremist, and the likes. I believe these are dangerous words, as it seems they are capable of evoking a range of emotions and responses, without carrying a definitive definition.
A person who speaks, or even just understands, Arabic knows the definition of "jihad", a word that stems from the Arabic word “johd”, meaning effort, and defined as anything that serves as a source of effort. True, the Holy Quran makes multiple references to “jihad” as a physical struggle of arms and war, but it is important to identify this word as one that existed prior to the revelation of the Quran and encompasses and means more than its Quranic reference and definition. Nowadays, the word jihadist does not seem to encompass everyone who exhibits any form of effort, else we would all be labeled jihadists.
What is an islamist? If it is, at it appears, a person who follows the religion of Islam, this would make the word islamist synonymous to the word Muslim. So, when I use the word islamist to describe someone, and not myself, a Muslim, I may unintentionally be implying:
a) I am a non-islamist, which sounds like I'm either not Muslim or oppose Islam, or both
b) The person I am identifying as an islamist is the single and proper representation of Islam as a religion and Muslims as followers of that religion.
Somewhat symbolic is the fact that as I write this opinion piece (this is all my opinion, not to be taken as concrete truth or fact), Microsoft Word has underlined in red the word islamist, warning me of my grammatical error. Apparently, I should be capitalizing the word islamist as I would Islam. Word provides no synonyms to the word, and I personally refuse to capitalize a word so ambiguous in its meaning. Instead I will italicize all my references to the words for which I am seeking definitions.
Fundamentalist and extremist are dangerous words in a different way. The dictionary definition of fundamental reads: “serving as, or being an essential part of … being an original or primary source”. When we refer to someone as fundamental, we are identifying them as true and correct, in fact, exceptionally true and correct. Unfortunately, I have seen this word used to describe something or someone that is in essence incorrect. Even more, the fundamental teachings and studies of Islamic science, in Arabic “Aqeedah” revolve primarily around faith, belief, and principles, not religious rituals and practices. Knowing this, it becomes ironic to identify today’s religious fundamentalists as those that are more prominently opinionated and vocal regarding religious action-based obligations as opposed to thought-based obligations.
Identifying the ambiguity of the word extremist is even simpler. In referencing this word, do we consider how far off from moderate and balanced an extremist of anything is? I would answer no, seeing as how if we did, a religion would not be associated with its extremist believers more often than anyone else. Even more, I think we need to question more often than we do at what point a person, belief, or stance is so “extreme” that it becomes different. To me, there is great irony in the fact that a strong fundamental foundation is required to develop the solid strength of anything – from physical structures to fluency in language
Words are very powerful as they often carry meanings much heavier than their dictionary definitions. This is why language is used to make things either beautiful or ugly – often more beautiful or uglier than they actually are. I pray that we are all able to consider the adequacy and meanings of the words we speak, hear, and read so as to appreciate the power of words and master ability to understand and manipulate them properly.