Koran, Qur’an, and orientalism

I’ve gotten used to reading calumnies against orientalists, so nothing much surprises me. But I was taken aback when I read this, in a press article about whether one should write Koran or Qur’an:

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 the world of scholars, perhaps they’ve forgotten that orientalists were also scholars. And let there be no doubt: the scholars who first advocated and established the scientific transliteration of Arabic proudly called themselves orientalists. Orientalists were the first to prefer Qur’an to Koran, favoring philological exactitude over common and convenient usage. That’s why I too prefer Qur’an. Even so, the spelling Koran hasn’t any association with “negative prejudicial attitudes.” If it has, then why did Edward Said prefer it in his book Orientalism? Jane I. Smith is just blowing out nonsense, by suggesting there’s some political or moral virtue in a choice of spelling. In this case, there isn’t.

(As an aside, the spelling Koran was an advance on its medieval Latin predecessor, Alcoran. Europeans who didn’t know Arabic didn’t realize that “Al” simply meant “the,” and so they usually referred to “the Alcoran” or “L’Alcoran,” right into the eighteenth century. In English, George Sale’s influential translation of 1734 established Koran in preference to Alcoran. The title of that translation: The Koran, Commonly called The Alcoran of Mohammed.)

So, dear readers, you may safely write Koran, without being tainted by orientalism which, as Jane I. Smith ominously warns us, “we all want to avoid.” It’s not like dropping one down the toilet.

(But do see this parody: “Muslims Riot Over Spelling of ‘Koran’ in U.S. Media.”)