Is Islamic holy book called `Koran' or `Qur'an'?

Even scholars unsure of spelling

For the Record

June 12, 2005|By HARTFORD COURANT

Of all the questions raised over reports that U.S. prison guards at Guantanamo Bay mishandled or desecrated the Islamic holy book, one would seem to have a simple answer: How should the name of said book be spelled?

Islamic and Arabic scholars say the spelling Qur'an is preferred, but in much of the non-Arabic, Western press, the name of the scripture is more commonly spelled Koran. (The Sun uses Quran in its news stories.)

Scholars say the issue is transliteration, or spelling a word in a language in which it did not originate. The non-Arabic press also varies spellings of Mohammad (Muhammad, Mohammed) and Muslim (Moslem).

Jane I. Smith, Islamic studies professor and co-director of the Hartford (Conn.) Seminary's Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, said: "The more appropriate transliteration is Qur'an rather than Koran, Muhammad rather than Mohammad or Mohammed, and Muslims rather than Moslems. In each case, the less-desirable spelling is associated with Orientalism, which we all want to avoid."

In the world of scholars, "Orientalism" refers to negative prejudicial attitudes people of the West hold about people of the East.

In an attempt to make the proper pronunciation of the word easier for readers who don't speak Arabic, the Daar-ul-Ehsaan USA mosque in Bristol, Conn., prints "Quraan" in their pamphlets, said a spokesman.

Any of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims would recognize any of the spellings, but the Q sound is closer to the actual pronunciation, said the Rev. Steven Blackburn, who teaches Arabic at Hartford Seminary. He said "Koran" is "old-fashioned."

After much debate with his publisher, in his book, The Koran for Dummies, Sohaib Sultan, Muslim chaplain at Trinity College in Hartford, settled on the better-known spelling for the sake of non-Arabic readers.

"In the end, we felt that the spelling of `Koran' is something that's recognized by all Americans, regardless of their education, background or previous knowledge about the Koran," said Sultan. "It's all about familiarity. You want your readers to be familiar with the word." He explains the choice in his introduction, and he has explained the same to Muslims who ask.

"I think eventually people will catch on," Sultan said. "It doesn't take that long."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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