Q. In Islamic magazines, newsletters, publications, etc. I see different spellings for the word Qur'an. What is the correct spelling and meaning, and why is there an apostrophe in the word?

A. Maintaining a foreign word in any language -- tranliteration -- brings with it the problem of how exactly to write that word in a form, and possibly different script that will cause it to be pronounced as much like the original as possible. This difficulty is further accentuated when the language that intends to incorporate these foreign terms does not have sounds that match those of the original language of the term being imported. In the word that you indicate, we face several of those problems. Several academics have tried to find some passable English rendition of what may give the English reader as close a pronunciation to the original. In Arabic, the initial letter of the sound in English, and the "Q" that you see is only an approximation. Although this is the most widespread usage, you will find "K" also used, and in some cases, as in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, you will find a K with a dot underneath, indicating a somewhat glottal sound.

The apostrophe is to indicate that there is what is known as "hamza al Qat" -- a sound that also has no equivalent in English, and if represented by the "a" will, if written without a prefixing apostrophe, be elided as part of its preceding letter. In order to give it its due and fully independent sound, a stop of sorts has to occur, the apostrophe (') is used. In some academic journals, -- indeed in most -- you will find that the "a" has a line over it, indicating elongation. This however, is generally only restricted to the academic milieu for the simple reason that scholars usually have access to the specialized fonts needed for such a task. The average font base on a word processor does not provide for indications, since Arabic is not a European based language nor is it written in Roman characters. Similar problems exist in any language having similar characteristics, such as Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, etc. If you are interested in further examining the issue, I suggest that you contact any university that has an Islamic studies program, or any journal that has a method of transliteration and ask them for their guidelines.

As for the meaning, the philologists tell us that the Qur'an comes from the root "QaRa'a" -- to recite -- and the form "Qur'an" is an abstract referring to that which is recited. In its initial and lexical form then, the Qur'an is not a written book as commonly understood, but that which is recited from being memorized.

Posted May 21, 1999