Transliterating Arabic into English, a practical approach

Suhel Farooq Khan

 

Quite often, due to the very nature of the sounds of Arabic alphabet, it becomes not only difficult but also impossible to find their appropriate equivalents in the English language. Over the years, many individuals and groups have made several commendable attempts to bridge the gap for transliterating the Arabic sounds correctly to the English language.

 
Currently, a combination of three different techniques are employed for transliteration:
 
1. Placing a macron (-) over the English alphabets to indicate long vowels of the Arabic language.
   
Examples:
   
2.

Placements of dots under certain English alphabets to indicate certain Arabic alphabets, which do not have an equivalent in the English language.

 
Examples:
   
   
   
   
3. Underlining certain alphabet or combinations of alphabet to some more Arabic alphabet, which do not have an equivalent in the English language.
   
Examples:
Uthman
   
Hadith
   

This system worked well enough until a few years ago, when its usage was limited to a few publishing and printing houses. They had equipped themselves to handle it, initially manually and then switching to specialized computer generated fonts.

 

Using the above-mentioned system now poses several difficulties to handle actual translietarations. In this day and age the scope of using Arabic words in English writings has widened considerably due to the great demand for learning and understanding Islam and the Arabic language in the western societies.
This increased demand resulted from the tireless efforts of so many organizations and individuals who have been selflessly promoting and propagating Islam and Islamic education in those areas.

 
There is another significant reason, which has whipped up the demand for a more user-friendly system of transliteration, is the rapidly increasing number of full or part-time Islamic educational institutions.
 
A more practical, user-friendly and universal system of transliteration was long overdue. The existing arrangements are quite impractical in nature because they only lend themselves to reading. They special fonts required for rendering that system to writing, are not readily available. Many institutions have gone through the exercise of developing or acquiring the required fonts; but this approach could never be universalized because of the special handling involved.
 
We, at Innovative Mindware have evolved a practical solution for this universal problem and have been using it for the past seven years quite satisfactorily in our writings.
 
Key to our approach is just one feature of underlining that is universally available in all existing word-processing programs. Biggest advantage of this simple strategy is that it opens up a two-way street to the solution for every one.
 
Let me explain the two-way street phenomenon. Students of Islam in the English speaking societies obtain their information from the books or other study material, which provide to them transliterations for Arabic words using the three-pronged approach to transliteration i.e. a combination of the macrons over alphabet, dots under alphabet and underlined alphabet.
 
The authors or publishers are very particular about the system, because all of us from the Arabic or non-Arabic speaking parts of the world realize fully well that slight variations in the pronunciation of Arabic words may result in a drastic departure from the actual or intended meanings.
 
Most students studying in full or part-time Islamic schools do not have access to those special English fonts. They are unable to transliterate their own writings properly. As a result they tend to drift away on to a tangent, where the chances of loosing the original Arabic pronunciations is very real.
 
Islamic schools where young Muslims get their Islamic education also emphasize heavily on this aspect of transliteration. By following a system that is not available universally; assignments of students are bound to have a lot of ‘spelling mistakes’, since they are not equipped to write ‘correctly’ the same words they read in their study material.
 
A solution
Our approach makes transliterations easy and accessible to anyone who uses a word-processor. This approach is not dependent on any special font, tool or technology, and comes for free and best of all, we even do not have to make any effort to get it, all of us already have it.
 
Using this system, anyone can transliterate Arabic words in English easily. This system would also provide a long over-due uniformity to the reading and writing of the transliterations of Arabic words into English.
 
We, at Innovative Mindware have been using this approach of transliteration for the last seven years in our works and have found it to yield quite satisfactory results. Of course there are several limitations because of many fundamental differences between various sounds associated with both languages.
 
Our system uses only underlined English alphabet to indicate critical Arabic sounds. Unlike the current systems, students do not have to strain to remember whether a macron, dot or an underline is to be placed beneath a particular alphabet.
 
I invite students and teachers of Islam and all other Muslims to examine the IM system for transliteration that we have been using satisfactorily for the last six years.
 
Arabic Alphabet and their English equivalents
 
Long vowels of Arabic
 

Arabic
Alpahabet

English
Equivalent

Arabic
Example

English
Example
a Allah
       
i Rahim
       
u Rasul
       

While translating verses of the Holy Qur-an, we have chosen to color several alphabets with a different color to indicate that they are not to be pronounced and will remain silent.
The extra long article 'Madd' is represented by an underlined alphabet repeated consequently.

 
Bismi Allahi alr Rahmani alr Rahimi. Alhamdu lillahi Rabbi al ‘Alamin. Ar-Rahmani alr-Rahim. Maliki yaumiddini. Iyyaka na-’budu wa iyyaka nasta-’inu. Ihdi na als-siratal mustaqima. Siratal ladhina an-’amta ‘alayhim ghayri al maghdubi ‘alayhim wala-ad-daallin.
Few more examples:
Iman
 
Salah
 
Sawm
 
Zakah
 
'Id ul Fitr
 
'Id ul Ad-ha
 
Ibrahim A
 
Musa A
 
'Isa A
   
Muhammad  S
 
Arabic-English Alphabet List for Transliteration
 
 

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