An American Editor

April 16, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 7: Style Guides for Islamic Texts

Ælfwine Mischler

Much of my early editing experience was in trade books on Islamic topics. Later, I started working for a large Islamic website, where I was asked to write a style guide and eventually became the head of the copyediting unit. Recently, I heard that an Islamic institute that produces videos and podcasts wanted to move into book production and was looking for editors. A perfect match! But when they offered me a book project, I had to reply with “Yes, but . . .” followed by a list of questions for them to answer before I — or anyone — could copyedit for them.

My questions were about author guidelines — that is, a style guide.

What Is a Style Guide?

If you have ever written a research paper, thesis, company report, or book, you most likely were given a style guide to follow. A style guide is a list of preferences for how things should appear in print. It includes such things as when to write numbers as words or numerals; when to use single or double quotation marks; when to use italics; how to cite sources.

Style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style, New Hart’s New Rules, APA, MLA, and Turabian are quite general. There are more-specialized style guides for science, music, medicine, computer science, and Christian books, etc. While I have seen author guidelines from publishers of Islamic materials, I have not seen a larger style guide for Islamic topics. It should be enough to tell authors or editors to follow Chicago or Hart’s with the addition of paragraphs addressing the style questions below (and perhaps others that arise).

Much of what I have written here is specific to Islamic books, but many items can be adapted to other special subjects. If you are writing a style guide for a publishing house, this essay presents some items you need to decide on. If you are an author, you might have guidelines from your publisher, but I raise some questions that you should consider as a writer.

Style Guides for Special Subjects

Many of the author guidelines provided by publishers who deal with Islam or the Middle East are for academic books, and they deal mostly with how (or whether) to transcribe Arabic names and terms. Pious formulae, honorifics, and common expressions in Arabic are not likely to appear in such books.

But for Muslim authors writing trade books about Islam for either Muslim or non-Muslim audiences, pious formulae, honorifics, and common Arabic expressions often appear, and style issues arise about their use.


I have written a lot about this in parts 1 through 4 of this series. For Arabic, some of the choices to be made are whether to use diacritics and:

  • how to represent Arabic letters, especially those that have no equivalent in English (Part 1 and Part 2)
  • whether or when to show assimilation with the article al- (lam shamsiya) (Part 3)
  • how the a in al- will be dealt with when there is elision (Part 3)
  • whether or when to omit or capitalize the article, and how to alphabetize names beginning with the article (Part 4).

Part 5 and Part 6 show how to insert special characters in Word.

Keep your audience in mind when you make style decisions. If you are writing an introductory text, do you really need to use diacritics? Readers unfamiliar with Arabic will probably find diacritics off-putting and meaningless.

Names of the Deity

Will you use Allah or God? Your decision might depend on the intended audience. Allah has 99 names. If you use any of them, will you use only the transcribed Arabic, only the English translation, or both? If you are writing a style guide, standardize the translation for use in all of your publications.


Will you capitalize pronouns referring to Allah/God? When I was in Catholic primary school in the 1960s, we were taught to capitalize all pronouns referring to God and Jesus, but the preferred style in most circles now is to lowercase the pronouns. However, many Christian and Muslim writers prefer to capitalize the pronouns (although Muslims lowercase pronouns referring to Jesus). If you do capitalize pronouns, remember to also capitalize relative pronouns who, whom, and whose when they refer to God.

What about throne, hands, eyes, etc. when referring to Allah’s? Many Muslim writers want to capitalize them.

Citing Qur’an 

Will you cite Qur’an verses by the name of the sura or by its number? If you choose to use the name, will you transcribe it or translate it? The sura names vary from one translation to another, and some suras have more than one Arabic name, so if you choose to use the name, it is best to also provide the sura number. Standardize the names of the suras of the Qur’an across your publications.

Most Islamic publishers allow quotations only from published translations. Which translation will you use?

Honorifics and Common Expressions in Arabic

Will you include honorifics, pious formulae, and common Arabic expressions? If so, will you write them in English or transcribed Arabic?

Some examples of these and their translations (taken from the Style Guide of the Islamic Foundation and Kube Publishing) are:

  • ʿazza wa jall = Mighty and Majestic (used after Allah)
  • bismillah al-rahman al-rahim = In the name of God/Allah, most Compassionate, most Merciful
  • insha’Allah = if God/Allah wills


The Qur’an instructs Muslims to extend prayers for Allah’s blessing and peace (ṣalawāt) on the Prophet, but whether ṣalawāt has to be in print is another matter. Academic books outside Islamic studies do not use it.

Islamic publishers may have different styles. In academic texts within Islamic studies proper, Islamic Foundation and Kube, for example, place ṣalawāt in the foreword or introduction with a note to Muslim readers to “to assume its use elsewhere in the text.”

Ṣalawāt is more accepted in devotional texts, but publishers might restrict its use to after Muhammad, the Prophet, Messenger (of Allah/God), disallowing it in genitive constructions and after pronouns.

If you will use ṣalawāt in your book, will you write it in transcribed Arabic, translate it to English, abbreviate it (usually as pbuh for “peace be upon him” or ṣaw for the Arabic “ṣallallahu ʿalayhi wa-sallam”), or use an Arabic script glyph?

A word to the wise: If you use ṣalawāt spelled out, you are going to run up your word count. Write a code that will count as one word instead, for example [pbuh]. The copyeditor can still check whether the code is properly placed, and you can use Find and Replace at the end to change it to the form you want.

Technical Terms

Remember your audience. If you’re writing an introductory-level book, keep foreign technical terms to a minimum.

When you do introduce a technical term in the text, will you write the Arabic transcription or the English translation first? Will you put the translation in double quotation marks, single quotation marks (a common practice in linguistics), parentheses, or parentheses and quotation marks? Will you also show the Arabic script? After the initial use, will you use the Arabic term or the English translation? If the former, will you italicize the word only on the first use or on all uses? Will you put a glossary in the back of your book?

Create a list of words that have been accepted into English and that will not be treated as foreign words (that is, not written with diacritics or italics).


Obviously, questions about ṣalawāt are specific to Islamic books, but if you are writing about other religions or other cultures, you can adapt many of the questions about styling technical and foreign terms and expressions to your subject. Keep your audience in mind when making your decisions. Make things easy for your readers.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

January 15, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 3: Spelling the Definite Article

by Ælfwine Mischler

As an editor and indexer in Cairo, I often work on materials containing Arabic terms and names. The Arabic definite article is usually romanized as al-, but the vowel is sometimes written as e (especially common in Egyptian names) or u. Although it is such a small word — only two letters, alif lam — it often presents problems for writers and editors of English texts.

In this essay, I talk about these elements:

  • assimilating with the following letter
  • merging the article
  • elliding the vowel

In Part 4, I will discuss these difficulties:

  • dropping the article in names
  • capitalizing the article
  • alphabetizing names and words with the article

Assimilating with the Following Letter

Years ago when I joined the staff of a large Islamic website, it did not have a style guide, so I set out to write one in consultation with the heads of several departments. It was not easy because the website had a broad range of intended audiences and levels of formality between departments, and for technical reasons we could not use diacritics (which I felt were inappropriate for most of the audiences anyway). The Arabic definite article was the source of many arguments, which I lost. The books I now work on use the style that I prefer, so I am not constantly cringing as I edit.

The arguments were about what to do with lam, the letter that is usually written as l in English. Half the letters in Arabic are shamsiya letters (“solar” letters) and half are qamariya (“lunar” letters). If lam comes before a solar letter, it is assimilated to the letter following and is known as lam shamsiya (“solar lam”). “The sun” in Arabic, al-shams, is actually pronounced ash-shams. If lam comes before a lunar letter, it is pronounced as usual and is known as lam qamariya (“lunar lam”). “The moon,” al-qamar, is pronounced as it is spelled.

Most scholarly books and trade books ignore the lam shamsiya and do not show assimilation. To my mind, this is best for the average reader, who will perhaps recognize al- as a morpheme but be confused by its variants. The assimilation should be shown when the correct pronunciation is important, such as in transcribing poetry, prayers, or Qur’an. Authors of Islamic books might insist on showing the assimilation in all cases. If you are an author, you should, of course, check the publisher’s guidelines and discuss them with your editor if you have any disagreement. If you are a copyeditor and your author has shown assimilation of lam and the managing editor is OK with it, be sure it is done consistently.

In romanization, the l of the definite article assimilates with the following letters, with or without diacritics: t or th, d or dh, s or sh, z, r, l, n.

Merging the Article

The article is usually romanized as al- in scholarly texts, but individuals may write the vowel differently in their names, and the article may merge with the preceding word. A common Arabic male name consists of Abd (or ʿAbd) [ʿ 02bf] (slave) plus one of the names of God: for example Abd al-Aziz (or ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz) [ʿ 02bf, ī 012b] “slave of the Almighty.” An individual with such a name might spell it with Abdal or (more often) Abdul or Abdel as the first part, and the second part might be attached to the first with a hyphen or closed up. Thus, someone named Abd al-Aziz might spell his name Abdal-Aziz, Abdal Aziz, AbdalAziz, Abdalaziz, Abdul Aziz, Abdul-Aziz, AbdulAziz, Abdulaziz, Abd el-Aziz, Abdel Aziz, Abdel-Aziz, AbdelAziz, or Abdelaziz. The name Abdallah (or Abdullah) “slave of Allah” is often spelled as one name.

My experience has been that people with Arabic names who grow up in a country that uses the Latin alphabet are consistent in spelling their names, but people who grow up in a country that uses the Arabic alphabet are often inconsistent in romanizing their names. This can be a problem for researchers — those who publish under multiple spellings will not get all the credit they should, and those who are looking for a particular person have to search multiple spellings.

Your job as an editor is to check that the spelling of an individual’s name is consistent, even if two people with the same Arabic name spell their names differently. A carefully prepared style sheet is essential for this. As I mentioned in Part 1, your task is easier when editing scholarly works that use diacritics (where ʿAbd al-[name] is used for historical names), but, depending on the style guide, names of people from recent centuries may or may not be transcribed using those rules and thus may be variously romanized.

Elliding the Vowel of the Article

In Arabic script, some conjunctions and prepositions are inseparable from the following word, and in most transcription systems these are shown with a hyphen: bi-, wa-, li-, la-, etc. The vowel of the definite article is not pronounced. Whether and how this ellision is shown in transcription varies from one system to another, giving writers and editors one more thing to watch for.

The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) gives the following examples in its guidelines: “fī al-ʿirāq wa-miṣr” (in Iraq and Egypt; is not an inseparable prefix in Arabic script) but “fī miṣr wa-l-ʿirāq” (in Egypt and Iraq). However, the Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam 3 differentiates between prefixes that keep the alif or delete it in Arabic script, and gives these examples in its Instructions for Authors: “wa-l-kitāb, fī l-masjid, Muḥyī l-Dīn, bi-l-kitāb, but lil-masjid.” Yet another transcription system shows the ellision with an apostrophe: wa-’l-kitāb, fī ’l-masjid. In this case, the author and copyeditor must also ensure that the symbol for hamza (ʾ) is not used where an apostrophe should be.

Part 1 of this series discusses the reasons for various spellings of Arabic names and terms, and Part 2 discusses some other challenges that authors and copyeditors might have. Part 4 will provide more discussion of the definite article.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

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