On Transliteration: Koran, Quran, Qur’an, Qur2an

For a few brief moments, my husband and I considered registering our one-year-old’s second name as “Ta7rir.” The 7 is the most popular way to represent the breathier, harder Arabic letter that some scholars capitalize (TaHrir) and others represent with a diacritical (Taḥrir).

You’ll be relieved to know that the fancy passed, and we went with the common English-language transliteration, Tahrir.

In the past, it was just scholars who worried about such “minutiae” as transliteration, but since the rise of Arabizi, it has become a broader obsession. In the introduction to Hamlet’s Arab Journey, Margaret Litvin notes that, while she uses diacritical marks, the current trend among scholars is to eliminate them. She further notes that, as scholars move away from them, “the texting generation of Arabs is moving toward greater precision”.

Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City might perhaps be the first “serious” work to use the texting style of Arabic transliteration that represents sheraa (street) as shera3 and Tahrir as Ta7rirSoueif says: “What I’ve chosen here is to adopt a new system which was, I believe, initiated by Arab bloggers.”

As someone who uses this sort of shorthand anyway, I was happy with Soueif’s decision. But when I read her use of “Qur2anic, ” I was brought up short. It made me reflect that the words Koran, Quran, Qur’an, and Qur2an — while all ostensibly doing no more work than pointing directly at القرآن, or even at the text itself — mean different things to me. Roughly, the word “Koran” makes me think of 18th century Arabists’ and Midwestern grandmothers’ views of القرآن;  the Quran feels both more serious and more foreign, with the Qur’an yet more foreign; and Qur2an is either (depending on your readerly mindset) livened by a youthful hipness or suddenly too difficult to parse. (Oh my Lord above! Those Moslems are puttin’ numbers in their words!)

None of the words, however, reaches directly past my associations to القرآن. Well, even القرآن doesn’t do that.

Google image searches turn up different sets of images for each transliteration: Koran is more likely to throw up protests and chanting Arab men, while Quran and Qur’an produce images of the holy text, and Qur2an yields yet slightly different images.

New transliterations and versions of a word are a way of shaking loose our impressions and re-setting the frame. Insha’allah is very different from isA. And, for instance, if hijab turned into 7egab (not recommending it), perhaps we would see that idea-cluster afresh.