Understanding Muslim Language

My heart really goes out to journalists charged with the daunting task of getting to the bottom of the neverending mayhem of the Middle East and Muslim world.  The region’s confusing and disturbing twists and turns are only made ever more inscrutable by the baffling way Muslims talk.  Their inconsistent statements make it even harder for normal people to make sense of the screaming headlines we read every day reporting the latest outbreak of violence, irrationality, or hatred over there.  But it needn’t be quite so confusing.

What few outsiders realize, however, is that there are a number of closely guarded secrets among Muslims that once grasped explain all sorts of bizarre political and social phenomena that otherwise appear inexplicable.  Once you realize that the rules of common sense don’t apply to Muslims, most of these mysteries are solved.  In the hopes of making the jobs of America’s overworked journalists and pundits a bit easier, I’m going to share a few of the most important rules for understanding Muslim language:

Rule 1:  Muslims always speak truthfully and literally
Muslims always mean exactly what they say and in as literally a sense as possible. 
It’s a commonly known fact that all Muslims are born with (or acquire instantly upon conversion) dazzling, Ciceronian eloquence and supercomputer-like minds that allow them to effortlessly think through the political, social and theological implications of even the most off-the-cuff observation down to the smallest detail.  As a result, Muslims never say things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment, use ambiguous language that has to be judged by its context, or generally misspeak in any way.   More importantly, outside observers needn’t worry about how to interpret their words, since Muslims are always honest.

And literal.  Since the concepts of metaphor, exaggerations, or dramatic license are Western innovations that have yet to reach the lands of Rumi, Al-Ghazzali, and expressions like "The Mother of all Battles", Muslims always speak literally.  Literally.

Ergo, if a Pakistani American Red Sox fan in Boston exclaims, "Damn those Yankees!",  it is possible that he dislikes the New York Yankees, but his unambiguous aim in speaking is to issue a fatwah concerning the ultimate fate in the Hereafter of that baseball team’s members.  Similiarly, when a Muslim exclaims to a buddy, "Man, I’m gonna kill you!" he is not expressing anger or resentment but rather informing his associate of the latter’s imminent demise.  And when a Muslim states that a movie "bombed", he has no intention of conveying that the film did poorly at the box office or that it failed to meet his expectations as a moviegoer. He is reporting (probably joyfully—see Rule 4) that the film literally exploded in a fiery cataclysm in the theater, presumably maiming if not killing many innocent bystanders.

Rule 2: Except when they’re lying to trick you.
There is an exception to Rule 1, namely when a Muslim states anything which is modern, enlightened, politically moderate or in any way positive.

Muslims are deceitful by nature and come into the world hardwired with the most abhorrent and alien of values.   (Just like those cunning Jews!)  Consequently, the most reliable method of determining a Muslim’s beliefs when he inexplicably says something you agree with is to disregard his words and instead consider what views a civilized, modern person would hold on the matter.  Then choose the opposite approach, no matter how chilling, seemingly implausible, or strenuously denied the reading is by said Muslim and you have the answer.

Wondering whether Palestinians consider their children disposable cannon fodder for jihad against the Jews?  Don’t waste your time analyzing their dire circumstances or the failure of non-violent forms of resistance to attract international attention.  Ask youself, do normal people love and protect their children from harm?  There you have it.  Since the answer is by definition "yes," it follows inexorably that Palestinians lack love for or concern about the welfare of their children.  Move on to the next heartwarming report about a fireman rescuing a cat from a tree.

Also, it goes without saying that there is no such thing as a Muslim apology or change of heart.

Rule 3:  Muslim words apply to all times, places
A fact that has long puzzled linguists is how the phenomenon discussed  in Rule 1 applies to all circumstances and places.  Muslim utterances retain their meaning, intent and political significance in translation–regardless of the translation’s quality and even when a translation of translation is involved–and regardless of the historical and cultural circumstances to which they are transplanted. 

Thus,  the aforementioned malediction against the New York Yankees can not only be translated word for word into any human language  without introducing any misunderstandings, but its theological commentary can be applied not only to fellow believers in an afterlife such as Christians and Jews, but also to atheists in New York, Wiccans in California, Japanese Shintoists in Hokkaido, and Yuruba animists in southwestern Nigeria.  Don’t fret about authorial intent or context–he’s a Muslim, so he thought it all through for you before saying a word.

Rule 4: Deep down, Muslims are always thinking about (and yearning for) violence.
Muslims are by nature warlike and inclined to violence, so physically harming other people is never absent from their minds, regardless of the topic under discussion.   In cases where they endeavor to conceal this fact, you just need to dig deeper.  Strap ‘em down and break out the lie detector.   

Thus, if a Muslim American student activist talks about his personal interpretation of jihad (literally, "struggle [in God's way]") as striving to integrate Islam’s values of justice and service to ones neighbors into his daily life as a patriotic American, you can be sure that he is in reality trying to slip in a plug for terrorists who behead and kill plane loads of those same neighbors.  Similarly, if some graduating students who are Muslim decide to add to their gowns green stoles that read in Arabic Rabbi ziddini ilm ("Oh Lord, grant me knowledge", a prayer from the Quran) on one side and the Islamic profession of faith or Shahada on the other, these provocateurs are obviously trying to turn the ceremony into a tribute to the Hamas suicide bombers (who are known for wearing black armbands emblazoned with the Shahada).  Don’t let the fact that Muslims use those prayers in the most mundane of situations–even before going to bed–throw you off the scent.

Rule 5:  It’s always "jihad"
Related to Rule 4 is the fact that any event involving Muslims is always jihad.  Not the concept of a peaceful personal struggle to do the right thing that most Muslims, sly foxes that they are, claim to intend when using the word.  Nor is it the noble campaigns for good causes that normal, Christian people think of when they talk about "crusades".  Anything a Muslim does is always violent holy war directed against everyone around them.   

Whether they’re pinning prayers to their graduation gowns  or just standing by the road licking an ice cream cone, it’s jihad and you’re under siege like the Viennese facing the Ottoman hordes in 1529.  Don’t let the  social  economic and political realities of near complete Muslim powerlessness in the modern, Western/Christian-dominated  world distract you from the fact that you are an oppressed Dhimmi  living under the yoke of Muslim tyranny. 

So make sure you pepper your report with the word "jihad" and other buzzwords that remind readers of the mortal peril we all live in thanks to the existence of Islam.  Don’t forget to mention medieval Islamic concepts like jizya, slavery, and,  everyone’s favorite, houris.  The fact that these concepts are about as relevant to most modern political problems as Danegeld is besides the point.  And wherever context permits make hysterical allusions to Nazism since that hateful ideology developed in Germany, the heartland of Islamic civilization.  (Indeed, the world still shudders at the memory of their chilling symbol, the dreaded Iron Crescent & Star.)

Finally, always err on the side of innuendo, paranoia and stereotype.  Remember that if you can’t think of a good reason for inserting prejudicial language now, someone else will eventually dream up a retroactive justification.  And then you’ll be a prophet.   

Update (5/26/2006):
Expanded the last bit  on jihad a bit.

Update (5/29/2006):
Expanded the intro.

  • http://www.lanterntorch.com Adibudeen

    This would be hilarious if people didn’t really think that of us. Sadly, many do. Well said, mashaAllah.

  • http://shabanamir.com/koonj shabana

    okay, this is funny, but why didn’t i think of it?

  • deb

    What’s funny is this: my Ethiopian muslim coworker, who’s been trying to convert me (and also enlist me as a second wife) springs immediately to mind under rule #1, but with this addendum: Rule 1: Muslims always speak truthfully and literally…and within an infinite collection of diatribe meant to protect the Literal Truth from the ears of unbelievers and to test the integrity of those who wish to receive said Literal Truth. An example: “I have a question I want to ask Kedir, but I don’t have time to hear him answer it.”

  • http://asylum60.blogspot.com walski69

    Nice satirical piece.
    Wait, what did I mean by ‘nice’? Hmm… compliment, or implicit criticism? You never know with these Muslims, you know?
    Ha ha ha…

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    Wait, you forget that converts to Islam are always slightly mental, always come from broken homes, and always converted in prison.
    Us white converts have always wanted to be black, hated our own background and yearn to be part of the “other”. Oh, and we are all now Sunnah thob, beard wearing fanatics.

  • http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/ Rachel

    At the same time, since the concepts of metaphor, exaggerations, or dramatic license are Western innovations that have yet to reach the lands of Rumi, Al-Ghazzali, and expressions like “The Mother of all Battles”, Muslims always speak literally.
    Oh, holy wow — I bow before your dazzling satiric wit. :-)
    Seriously, this is an awesome post. Incredibly funny, except for the part where somebody probably thinks all of that, which makes it appallingly sad.

  • svend

    Thanks, folks.
    Yes, it would be funnier if it weren’t so depressingly realistic.
    Ah, convert stereotypes….That would make for another equally lively rant, though the fact that the most cutting ones are sometimes held by other Muslims (not to mention the fact that some converts seem dedicated to living up to every stereotype) would make it challenge to do with any panache, I suspect. Even if I were a convert, it would be beyond my paltry powers.
    What might be easier–and which I think would be very entertaining–would be a “You know you’re [blank] if…” list for converts or a list of embarassing blunders (which aren’t only made by converts, of course).
    I’m sure there are all sorts of amusing experiences that converts share. I’m not a convert, but an embarassing if rather nerdy mistake I once made was referring to “fard kafiyya” (i.e., instead of fard kifaya). As Shabana would point out, that’s arguably more the result of senility than inexperience in my case, but you get the point.

  • UmmZaid

    Salaam ‘Alaikum
    Funny, but too, too true.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    I have made my share of mistakes. Like right after my wife and I got married she introduced me to a Omani mahajaba friend of hers we met when we saw Tariq Ramadan speak. Being the typical American and not thinking at the time, I stuck out my hand to shake hers. She was nice enough to oblige, even as I was shaking her hand I was like “why did I do that”?
    When I first started learning Arabic after I converted, I met a young lady from the UAE. Her name was Khadija. Coming from a European background I pronounced her name like we would in Germany “Katiya”. However, in Arabic, it sounds exactly like “kharia” which means “poop”(not so nicely). I didnt learn this until months later.

  • Blake

    That clinches it. Klingons are actually an alien race of Muslims.

  • svend

    Exactly, Blake, except that we drink tea instead of blood wine.

  • http://bibizaynab.blogspot.com Hajar

    Beautiful, biting satire, as always…You really have the gift.

  • svend

    Thanks, Hajar. Actually, I just have a lot to gripe about. These people write my material for me.

  • http://rickshawdiaries.blogspot.com Baraka


  • http://opinionated.blogsome.com/ jamal

    lol.. this was an amusing read.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/desmay/ Dean Esmay

    I recently had a muslim friend read this, and he said, “man, that kills me!”
    We tried to get him to the hospital, but it was too late. DOA.

  • http://www.kidvai.com/zak/jottings.html zakintosh

    what a delight. truly brilliant. pity i hadn’t discovered you earlier. now it means going over your entire past writings. so the next two weekends have been marked off …

  • http://oream.blogspot.com Olive Ream

    Impeccable post…love your work!

  • carlo

    Funny, well written.
    However, you shoud keep in mind the fact that “many” Muslims (what proportion? who knows ?) actually behave and reason in the way you so brilliantly satirize.
    So, those who make sweeping generalizations about Muslims are wrong, but not any more than all other people who make sweeping generalizations.

  • svend

    Thanks, folks.
    Carlo, I take your point seriously. Some Muslims certainly do act the fool. In fact, I have a long history of offending other Muslims when I speak out quite bluntly about that fact. So I don’t idealize Muslims at all and I’m quite comfortable discussing their faults, so long as it’s in the context of a fair discussion.
    My problem isn’t with an honest acknowledgement of that fact, but rather with the way when it comes to Muslims there is a tendency to get lazy and just chalk everything it up to the essential nature of Muslims or or Islam rather than do what we do with people *like us* who do extreme things, i.e. analyze the behavior in light of the circumstances in order to really understand what’s going on. The end result may well be the same, condemnation, but the crucial difference is that the process is rigorous and fair.
    I do think some of America’s political problems in the Middle East result from the widespread tendency to forget that Muslims are no less complicated pschylogically, emotionally or politically than anybody else. These “Because they hate freedom”-style monocausal explanations that the media often resorts to (often unconsciously due to ignorance–I’m not saying this is all because of hatred) don’t get us anywhere.
    Even if Muslims are the “enemy” you at least need to understand how they really think, as opposed to relying on cartoonish stereotypes that relieve you of any obligation to think critically. (Not that I’m saying you are guilty of this.)

  • svend

    Good one, Dean, btw. :)

  • The Raccoon

    LOL :)
    Love your humour, mate – and happy I found this site :)

  • umbreen

    svend, this is a really hilarious and brilliant post!

  • sanjana

    This is the most pethetic article I’ve ever read during the course of my research.
    You not only lack knowledge but also make superficial assumptions without a concrete base. I have a few pointers to make, I admit for example Saddam is an evil guy, and you people never refrain from associating “saddam” with “islam”…but what abt “hitler” whos of christian faith? Does that mean all the christians are like that?…I am a muslim, perhaps not a very strong one….perhaps a little tolerance frm PPL LIKE YOU wud help to make this world a better place. Rest, you dont even deserve to know.

  • Matt

    “Is he being ironic?”
    “I don’t even know anymore.”

  • phil d

    muslims are so peaceful? is that why theyshot a nun inthe back ? oooyaaaa

  • svend

    Meant to respond to this 6 months ago, Phil, but is this first time a man or woman of the cloth has been murdered by criminals? If not, do you draw conclusions about the religious background of their killers?
    Also, did you take note of the fact that it happened in Somalia, a country that is in the throes of civil war, looting and general anarchy? People are dying violently flies there, but you’re shocked by a single, obviously politically motivated killing?
    You inadvertantly illustrate my point about doublestandards perfectly. Thank you for your contribution!