By Shaykh Mustafa Umar
Any serious scholar in Islamic Studies must know Arabic. It is the language of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s teachings, and most of the scholarly literature on Islam throughout history. The average Muslim also needs to know some Arabic. Muslims greet each other with “as-salāmu ʿalaykum” and say common phrases like “alḥamdulillāh”. When anyone reads an article or book about Islam, it can usually contain some Arabic words that are left untranslated. At minimum, it might contain Arabic names of people or places. This is where transliteration becomes important.
Transliteration is when you transfer a word from the alphabet of one language to another. It helps people pronounce words and names in foreign languages properly. So rather than writing out the entire Arabic word, each Arabic letter is substituted for one (or two) English letters. For example, the word for prayer is written as salah while the word for peace is written as salam. Anyone familiar with basic Islamic vocabulary would know that the s in salah and the s in salam represent two entirely different letters in Arabic. Therefore, it is better to use Unicode characters to clarify this for the reader. So ṣalah is written as an s with a dot beneath it to clarify that it is the letter ṣād instead of the letter sīn. It is also common to use a lowercase s for sīn and an uppercase S for ṣād.
|Arabic||No Transliteration||Unicode||Double/Capital Letters|
Another example where clarification is needed is with the word salam just mentioned. To clarify that there is a long vowel, it can be written as salām, which means peace. This differentiates it from the Arabic word salam which means ‘advance payment’. It is also common to use two of the same letters to indicate a long vowel, making the word salaam.
Transliteration schemes are also important for research in Islamic Studies. Not all are the same. For example, while searching through Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam, you might search for the word jannah, or Paradise. You look for it under the letter j and will not find it. That is because their transliteration scheme considers the letter jīm as ‘dj’ and not ‘j’. So you must search for ‘djanna’ instead (see here). Likewise, if you are searching for a word in the online Arabic Almanac at ejtaal.net you would have to know that they use capital letters. So when searching for ṣalāḥ you must type a capital S and capital H to get to your entry. To get to the letter ʿayn you would need to type either e or E or 3, which is an uncommon transliteration for this letter. Even when researching through a knowledge base like scholar.gooogle.com, you will get completely different results depending on whether you type salah, salaah, or ṣalāḥ.
Transliteration helps Muslims and non-Muslims, even sometimes people who are fluent in Arabic, to pronounce Arabic words more properly. It is neither a universal or perfect system, and is not even necessary, but it is helpful to maintain accuracy and uniformity in the way Arabic words are generally pronounced. So, while not every tweet, article, or book needs to use a formal transliteration scheme, it is often nice to have, especially in more academic works.