By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The name of the prophet

Give Media Nation credit. I believe I’ve come up with the least interesting sidebar to the violent international dispute over those cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Simply put: Why does the Boston Globe spell it “Mohammed”? I remember that spelling from childhood. But, at some point, “Mohammed” became “Muhammad” and “Moslem” became “Muslim,” apparently out of some language expert’s desire to make the English versions of those words conform more closely to the Arabic.

The Associated Press Stylebook specifies “Muhammad.” The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.), and the Los Angeles Times have all been going with “Muhammad.” Yet the Globe steadfastly renders the name as “Mohammed,” as it did in this Colin Nickerson piece today.

Of course, the Globe is free to develop its own house style and to go with spellings that other publications spurn. But the paper hasn’t been especially consistent. I did a LexisNexis search that showed the Globe has referred to “the prophet Muhammad” on at least a half-dozen occasions since November 2004. Granted, it has gone with “Mohammed” far more often. But the whole point of having a stylebook is to eliminate such disparities, which can be confusing to readers.

I realize that, while I’m obsessing over trivia, people are dying. Thus I offer you Mark Jurkowitz’s thoughtful commentary on the larger issues surrounding this.


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11 Comments

  1. John Galt

    A tip of the hat.

  2. Michael Corcoran

    And whats the the serial comma?

  3. Anonymous

    I think it may be because the Koran is not in english……and when we try to turn things into english….sometimes it gets thorny.Some say the Koran(how I was taught to spell it), might be more closely spelled Qu’uran. (Again, there really is no english counterpart, until we make it up.)Remember Kadaffy? There were issues in the press about the way his name was translated as well.HEre’s a thought….when did Moslems become Muslims?When did it become Islam????

  4. Anonymous

    is it pronounced kah-thoo-loo or koo-loo?

  5. Anonymous

    Transliterating Arabic is incredibly thorny. As I understand it, Arabic writing essentially does not have vowels (it also doesn’t have upper and lower case letters).The elaborate swirly writing we see is basically consonants, and the little sort of diacritical marks that you see above it are the equivalent of vowels, but they’re nowhere near as specific as ours. Those sounds vary a lot from region to region, and as far as I know, there’s no such thing as “standard” Arabic, the way there is with English.So which English vowel you choose for the first and last syllables of the Prophet’s name, for instance, isn’t at all obvious. The accent is on the second syllable, which means both the first and last are what are called “mute” sounds (roughly like in the English exclamation “Duh!”) and really could be given any English vowel you want. They could really be replaced by apostrophes– M’hamm’d would be closer to Arabic pronunciation.But there’s no standard way of transliterating Arabic, and not even detailed specific systems, like, say, with Chinese, when we all had to switch from system that used Peking to a more accurate one that used Beijing, etc.Even bin Laden’s first name has alternate spellings, Usama and Osama. The U.S. government uses Usama, and that’s the way it sounds to me in Arabic, but most newspapers, etc., use Osama.

  6. Anonymous

    WWNHD (What Would Nat Hentoff Do)From Andrew SullivanSo we now discover that the hideously offensive and blasphemous cartoons – so blasphemous that CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, won’t publish them … were reprinted last October. In Egypt. On the front frigging page. No one rioted. No editor at Al Fager was threatened. So it’s official: the Egyptian state media is less deferential to Islamists than the New York Times. So where were the riots in Cairo? This whole affair is a contrived, manufactured attempt by extremist Muslims to move the goal-posts on Western freedom. They’re saying: we determine what you can and cannot print; and there’s a difference between what Muslims can print and what infidels can print. And, so far, much of the West has gone along. In this, well-meaning American editors have been played for fools and cowards. Maybe if they’d covered the murders of von Gogh and Fortuyn more aggressively they’d have a better idea of what’s going on; and stared down this intimidation. The whole business reminds me of the NYT’s coverage of the Nazis in the 1930s. They didn’t get the threat then. They don’t get it now.

  7. Anonymous

    I am not sure why is this anonymous poster posting Andrew Sullian’s writing on here.We all know where he stands: he rabidly hates Muslims and Islam and thinks they are out to get him personally. He thinks Islam is the only religion that is not very kind to homsexuality and feels directly threatened by it.So Andrew is consumed by a worry about the Muslim boogyman coming in and hurting him or telling him he can’t live his life the way he wants to.He is a big fraud and a flamer.The way he switches from left to right and then to left, pro-war and against the war, pro-military and not so sure and so many other vacillations is just tiring and pitiful. Sad to watch.He doesn’t even fit intellectually in his Native England. He continues to post op-eds there and it gives him a chance to seem as if he is the annoited decoder of American polotics to the ‘clueless’ Brits. But he is the clueless. He doesn’t even know what he is watching or where he is standing at any given moment. Brits know better though. And his old British Tory allies have been basically fools in the political landscape with some out of step thinking and positions. They have been out of power for so long and we are suposed to hold him and his Balnkley friends in esteem, for what exactly? How right they are or were? The new Tory leader is changing the mindset and we’ll see if he succeeds.I can understand his fears and insecurities but he overdoes it. He is like a Judy Miller warning about doom in her books and reports.Yes many things are possible, conceivable and cannot be excluded as a possiblility but no different than other threats or scenarios. So should we obssess or keep everything in perspective and carry on a healthy life? He is not honest enough to acknowledge that most or all other faiths have an anti-homosexual stance, from the three main religions or Asian religions or even Antiquity and Ancient civilizations incuding Greeks and Spartans, Romans etc. Even if it was common, it was never officially sanctioned and promoted and today’s human condition calls for a more restrained judgement and action regarding homosexuality.All faiths have tempered their stances, understanding that homosexuality is part of the human experience and biology on earth. Muslims tend to be more likely to be close to what their faith tells them to do. They are less likely to change stances with time like other faiths do to earn social acceptance. Muslims aren’t as accomodating, if you will, because they worry about their faith losing credibilty and strength. It’s ok if you either follow the muslim religious advice or don’t, but don’t try to change it. You end up diluting and killing the religion.And one example is in our context, you find -in every Christian denomination- men of the cloth that are on either side of the fence, each with text or ‘saintly’ backup for their argument. And it is tearing the wider political scene apart at the seams. Just look at how abortion is STILL up for debate, for all the advanced civilization markers we have touched, there are still men of the cloth on both sides and politicans incapable or afraid to make a unified stance.The well-being of his constituency is all Andrew is concerned about. He doesn’t view the world from many corners or wear other’s shoes. And he ends up hurting GLBT political credibilty with his cluelessness and unprincipled fearmongering style.So why believe him? He has the right to express his fears/views but why should the world join him in shuddering.He is blowing out of proportion what could be brought a lot closer with civility and open, direct and honest dialogs of diff societies.N.

  8. neil

    N., I am not one to suggest turning off comments as a result of you posting long ones (an absurd idea), nor am I one to insult and run, but in this case you have not done yourself credit with this extended irrelevant ad hominem attack on Sullivan.The pointer in Sullivan’s text, to the Egyptian blog that notes that the cartoons were already published in Cairo in October with no resulting mischief, is certainly worth a look and supports the contention that this whole thing was orchestrated. The Danish imam took his offensive material, went shopping for outrage, and it took him five months to find it.But we hijack Dan’s topic with this, which perhaps slyly is only a question about the transliteration of Arabic which can be answered easily enough with Google, which gets you this nice explainer. Google’s helpful nanny algorithm is even in on the confusion, suggesting a correction to my: “arabic romanization muhammed”, with: Did you mean “arabic romanization mohammed“? To which the answer can only be, yea whatever!The explainer link above lists various spellings in order of commonness supposedly based on Google, but they are just made up I think, as a quick test with Koran vs Quran shows. (It claims Quran is more common that Koran.) But the text at least is well done.The answer is as anonymous 10:55 says, that unlike with say Chinese, there is simply no agreed-upon convention for representing Arabic words in English. I’d guess that prior to oh, say five years ago, few English speakers cared enough about Arabic to notice, so it never mattered before.

  9. Anonymous

    Hey Neil,You say: “but in this case you have not done yourself credit with this extended irrelevant ad hominem attack on Sullivan.”That is your opinion, Sir, which I will respect but feel is a blind defense of someone of questionable ethics.Please enumerate what is irrelevant in my description of Andrew. If you read my posts here a couple of times before- and I’d have to thank you for your Herculean effort ha- you’d know that I tend to avoid direct attacks. I dissuade others from going for the obvious, giving the benefit of the doubt to others and I urge to stay fair and objective. I also hugely value an honest unambiguous assessment of any situation or personality, never an ad hominem attack for the sake of bringing someone down. I respect Mark and Dan and don’t hesitate to criticize them openly.I criticized other public personalities for some obvious shortfalls and tip my hat to many more, more often than not.So I stand by my assessment of Andrew, as my personal opinion of him, not encouraging others to think any specific way of him, but simply enlightening on his deceptions and shortfalls that are not obvious to others with so much noise around, from all corners.He takes advantage of the confusion and I want to clear it and give a clear unobstructive perspective and a bigger context.Regarding the links you provide, it is a torturous way to explain this:Mohamed is the simplest way to write it, more universal. Sometimes you’ll find it with two Ms. That is because on some consonants there is a hard stress that effectively doubles the consonant. That in turn is transliterated and ends up with two versions, one with one M the other with two Ms. Similar to the German doubling of the S that gives you the letter ‘ß’ that unfolds into two SS.Mohamed is an evolution of the earlier more widely used term Mahomet, which was the primary term used throughout Europe and France in many famous historical works. Even in early American treaties and literature, you find the term Mahomet used most often.Muhammed or Muhammad (With an A in the end is described as more phonetically correct) seems to be a very modern influence of Middle Eastern and Egyptian-born or educated people spelling the name according to some regional differences in pronunciation.Same thing for Moslem Vs Muslim. Old treaties and works will show Moslem more and Muslim is a modern, probably more accurate spelling but both are close enough to the original phonetic sound. Even in post-Independence early American writings and official documents you see Moslem used most often but not nowadays.France had a huge presence in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries and their imprint on the culture is vast. The French use the word ‘Musulman’ and that might have influenced the move towards spelling of the word with a U. The I Vs the E at the end seems to be the more correct and phonetically faithful one, so muslim is more likely the way to go.All are correct. There is no absolute spelling when it involves different languages and alphabets or scripts. Just stay away from Cartoons…. Ha ( I had to throw that in there)Which leads me to point to the ‘useless’ comment you make at the end.”I’d guess that prior to oh, say five years ago, few English speakers cared enough about Arabic to notice, so it never mattered before.”So there are different spellings because ‘not enough’ Americans cared about the Arab world five years ago and before??Hmmm..interesting! You must be one of those who were figuratively born after 9-11. This has nothing to do with politics and interest. These are sheer distinctions that are hard to iron out or transpose definitively no matter what. Trust me that even if you don’t personally care, there are many who do, mainly scholars whose job it is to reconcile these diffs.So following your logic, Americans don’t care about say Hebrew or Judaism or anything related because there are so many spellings to many Hebrew words. Do you know how many way you can spell say ‘Hannukah?’Even scholars don’t seem to pinpoint exactly how it got to look like that or any other spelling. Why the H at the end.. and so many questions.Neil, don’t try to read too much into these etymological and spelling diffs. They are what they are, an inexact science, not an indicator for anything.N.

  10. Anonymous

    One more thing:This is what your great and serious wonk is posting on his blog today:”A reader scoffs at my plantar wart agony:’The injections aren’t the ‘nuclear option’. Penis surgery is. When I was younger – my pre-condom days – I contracted warts on my penis from a girlfriend. I was advised to try the various ointments. Nothing worked. Then I started the practice of periodically going in and having a doctor freeze them off with liquid nitrogen. That would work for a while but I had to keep going back.’ “Give me a break!I had to put down my coffee when I saw that. That is so idiotic for a person who wants to be a serious columnist. Whatever the reasons or merits, I don’t want to see things like that broached in such a forum.I know I can never expect to turn to say…Howard Kurtz’s site and see such crap.OH God. Mediocracy isn’t finished yet appearently. Long from.N.

  11. Paddy

    N.Today the esteemed Mr. Kurtz links to the same A Sullivan graph that first set you off…warts and all

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