20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 24

Mind your language

'WELL, is it Moslem or Muslim?' asked my husband, drawing breath to lever himself from his chair to go and replenish his unIslamic whisky glass.

I didn't know, so I rooted around. Cyril Glasse, the author of a handy little encyclopaedia of Islam, follows the system of transliteration in which the only vowels are a, i and u, each either long or short. I suppose these represent the Arabic vowels alif, waw and ya, as my Egyptian phrasebook suggests. So that clobbers Moslem, as it does Osama and Laden, Omar and Hegira (which becomes Hijra). Mecca is spelled Makkah. It is like the problem of rendering Chinese in our Roman alphabet; there has been a change recently from the Wade-Giles to the Pinying system, leaving some established words such as Mao Tse-tung shipwrecked as archaisms.

As for Muslim, we are additionally cautioned to pronounce its 's' like the sibilant in hiss, not as in nose, because the latter makes the word sound like another meaning 'cruel' or 'benighted'.

Muslim means 'one who has surrendered to God', being, as some Sufi mystic put it, 'like a body in the hands of the corpse-washers'. The word derives from the Arabic verb aslama, 'to surrender or seek peace'. Peace is salam. The verbal noun corresponding to Muslim, is Islam, meaning 'surrender'. If this seems a little extreme on the semantic level, remember that in our Latin tradition religion means 'binding' oneself.

On the shallower level of orthography, one finds that older writers use the version Moslem, when they are not saying Mohammedanism (which Muslims dislike, since the whole point of their religion is worshipping God and not the Prophet, who was an ordinary man entrusted with God's revelation).

Muslim or Moslem have been used in English only since the 17th century. Mussulman, which comes via Persian from the same Arabic word, appears in English in the 16th century, musulmantis having appeared in Latin in Aragon in the 12th century. The English plural is Mussulmans, though a catachrestic plural Mussulmen is found. Dryden made the joke of referring to a female Mussulman as a Mussulwornan.

Following Dr Glass's chosen system of transliteration, the Prophet's name is spelled Muhammad, which still looks outlandish in form to me. The meaning of the Arab name is 'The Praised One'; another name for the Prophet is Ahrriad, meaning 'Most Laudable', both words coming from the Arabic hamada, `to praise'. The Prophet has 200 other names, which I have no space to go into.

Dot Wordsworth