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Koran, Qur'an or Quran and Moslem or Muslim?

"Muslim" is correct, and is used by the US Government, the EU, UN and BBC amongst others. "Qur'an" is strictly the most correct, but I prefer Quran since English does not use apostrophes within words.

Summary

Posted 1 December 2010. Updated 24 October 2017.

This is one of the most visited pages on my website, as so many people are seeking an answer to this question. Accordingly I have set out a short answer and a long answer.

The quick answer

Qur'an is the most correct spelling. I use Quran and so do many other Muslims because English words do not have apostrophes in the middle and I now regard the word Quran as having become part of the English language like many other foreign source words.

Qur'an or Quran is the spelling that Muslims use, and that all the best publishers use. For example Oxford University Press with “The Qur’an – a new translation" by MAS Abdel Haleem and Cambridge University Press with "The Cambridge companion to the Quran" edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe.

Muslim is correct because that is the spelling Muslims themselves use. It is also the spelling used by the US Government, the United Nations and the European Union, to name just three highly authoritative organisations.

The more detailed answer

The Arabic language is written in a script completely different from the Roman letters used for English. Accordingly, when Arabic text is presented to English speaking readers, most of the Arabic text will be translated into English, while some words, such as personal names, are “transliterated” as opposed to being translated.

One such word which is always transliterated rather than translated is the name of Islam’s holy book, namely the Quran.

Transliteration systems for foreign languages such as Chinese and Arabic have changed many times over the last few centuries. For example, with Chinese around 1982 most reputable English language publishers such as major newspapers went over to a system called Pinyin. That change accounts for China’s capital being called Beijing in today’s newspapers whereas in 1970’s newspapers it was called Peking.

Similarly, the preferred systems for transliterating Arabic have changed over time. In the 19’th century, it was standard practice to transliterate the Islamic holy book as “Koran” whereas now the standard accepted transliteration is “Qur'an.”

Likewise, the followers of the Islamic religion used to be transliterated as “Moslems” whereas the standard transliteration is now “Muslims.”

Why do I use Quran?

The correct pronunciation of the Arabic word transliterated as Qur’an uses the glottal stop which is represented by the apostrophe

Similarly many other words related to Islam or Islamic finance when correctly transliterated use a glottal stop. However, on my website except when I am quoting verbatim from another source, I never use the apostrophe in such a manner.

Realistically, whether the apostrophe is present or not, I and other native English speakers (unless formally trained in Arabic pronunciation) cannot pronounce words like "Qur'an" the way that an Arabic speaker would. The reason I exclude the apostrophe is that for a native English speaker, its presence immediately makes the word look foreign.

English is a language that has absorbed words from other language with enormous vigour. This has given it by far the largest vocabulary of any language. In due course, I expect words like Quran, Shariah; and also various terms used in Islamic finance such as musharaka, mudaraba, takaful and ijara for example, to become normal English words, just like algebra (an import from Arabic longer ago). However, this will not happen if the word contains an apostrophe, as that will always mark it as a foreign word.

Hence I always leave out the apostrophe when the original Arabic contains a glottal stop.

Moslem or Muslim – does it matter?

One would expect that it shouldn’t matter, apart from showing that the writer was a bit out of date. However, over the last few years I have noticed something.

If someone uses the words “Moslem” and “Koran” instead of “Muslim” and “Quran,” statistically it is quite likely that the writer is hostile to Islam.

I suspect that in most cases this derives from simple ignorance; the writer is genuinely unaware that Muslim is the preferred usage instead of Moslem. However, if the writer is unaware of that simple point, realistically they are not likely to know much about Islam, and hostility towards Islam is frequently based upon limited knowledge of it.

In a few cases people will be using the word “Moslem” instead of “Muslim” deliberately to irritate Muslims because they are aware that Muslims dislike that obsolete usage. I would like to explain the point with the benefit of an extreme analogy. In the 19’th century it was normal usage amongst white English speakers to refer to people from sub-Saharan Africa as “niggers” without necessarily intending that term to be insulting. Now any usage of the word “nigger” in the UK or the USA is rightly taken as an extremely serious use of abusive language.

While deliberately using “Moslem” instead of “Muslim” is not as insulting as the above example, when “Moslem” is used knowingly in place of “Muslim,” in  my view that is done to give offence.

Official style guides

Many large organisations have official style guides. I have consulted some to confirm that they concur that "Muslim" is the correct usage. Each heading below links through to the relevant style guide.

The European Union style guide

Paragraph 25.8 - Islam. Islam is the faith, Muslim (not Muhammedan, Mohammedan) a member of that faith.

The United Nations style guide

Scrolling down to the letter "M" you find "Muslim" but do not find "Moslem."

The United States Government Printing Office style guide

You need to scroll down to page 69 and 70 for the list of religious terms to find the text which I have copied and abridged below:

religious terms:

Islam; Islamic

Muslim: Shiite; Sunni

When this page was written on 1 December 2010, the style guide stated "Muslim: Shiite; Sikh; Sunni"

It was obviously a mistake in the style guide to list “Sikh” as a subset of “Muslim.” Sikhism is a separate religion, which originated in India, and it is distinct from both Islam and Hinduism.

I corresponded with the Foreperson/Style Board Chairman, Proof and Copy Markup Section, United States Government Printing Office via their website suggesting that they correct this. He confirmed on 7 December 2010 that their presentation was incorrect, and that in future it would be corrected to put Sikh on its own line as a separate religion. A search on 12 January 2016 found that the correction had been made at some time during the intervening period.

This improvement in the US Government Printing Office style guide illustrates my point that each of us can do things to make the world better. Sometimes they are small improvements, but they all matter.

The Guardian Newspaper style guide

If you scroll down, you will find:

Muslim
not Moslem

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) style guide

It says: Muslim and not ‘Moslem’ - always capped.

 

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