We live in an age of labels, and having the right one is crucial to winning the many battles being waged — politically, culturally and rhetorically. The control of language (now also labeled as “free speech” and “hate speech”) has become just another process in the acquiring and holding of power. Those who control language control the mind.
A case in point: It was decided by literary culture that the practitioners of Islam were “Muslims,” and to call them “Moslems” was offensive, derogatory or even wrong. This led to “Muslim” being established as the correct and accepted designation, while “Moslem” has been thrown into the dustbin of history. Many even suggest (without any real basis in fact) that “Moslem” comes across as meaning “evil” in Arabic.
Needless to say, this is a lot of smoke and mirrors. The Muslim/Moslem duality is in reality the codification of an unfounded rumor, derived from unfamiliarity with the history of how English acquired words of Eastern origin.
The earliest encounter of English with Islam was within the context of the Persian language, which was the lingua franca of the Middle East (despite Turkish rule). Arabic never had cultural or literary merit in most of the Islamic world. It only came into prominence in the early twentieth century, largely through the efforts of men like T.E. Lawrence.
When English acquired Persian vocabulary, it also often retained the Persian forms of such loan words (mogul, caravan, pajama and bazaar, for example). The reception of such words was mediated by the British Raj, although it was William Bedwell (the famous pioneer of Arabic studies) who first recorded the term “Moslem” in his “Arabian Trudgman,” which was published in 1615.
This spelling became standardized when Edward Gibbon used it in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (published in 1788). Likewise, the founder of the Islamic faith was referred to as “Mohammed,” rather than “Muhammad.”
In words borrowed from Arabic, Persian shifts the vowels to native pronunciation. This means that the Arabic “u” — in pronunciation — yields the Persian “o.” (We must keep in mind that Persian is an Indo-European language and is not related to Arabic at all and is akin to English. The borrowing of Islamic vocabulary into Persian therefore is purely religious). As Persian gave over its vocabulary to English, the transliteration into the Roman alphabet (used by English) retained the Persian vowel shift. Bedwell, despite being an Arabist, still preferred the Persian pronunciation. This is because most, if not all, of Islamic scholarship, at that time and well into the nineteenth-century, was being done by Persians and not Arabs.
Thus to suggest that “Muslim” is somehow the real form of the word, which has been corrupted and mangled into the English “Moslem” is not only wrong but promotes a peculiar type of ignorance — where the present is regarded as wiser and better than the past, and the task of research becomes one of ferreting out historical wrongs so they may be corrected, or at least apologized for. This mea culpa posture is known as “presentism.”
In a curious way, this false dichotomy of “Moslem/Muslim” also points to the political reality of the Middle East today, where Persian influence has retreated, and into the vacuum has expanded an aggressive Arabization, which now also funds the various Islamic studies programs at Western universities. Those that pay the money call the shots. The Arab-Persian hostility is renowned, in that the very Arabic word for a Persian (ajami) is also one of the worst profanities that one Arab can hurl at another.
On the other hand, the earliest occurrence of the term, “Muslim” is in the first translation of “The Arabian Nights,” in 1841, by Edward Lane, who likely made the conscious choice to highlight Arabic spelling over the Persian — even though the work that he was translating is originally Persian. Lane’s preference, however, did not become current in English. Thus, “Moslem” is far more accurate because it points to that historical Middle Eastern reality during which English acquired vocabulary about the Islamic faith.
But is appears this history is no longer needed, because to declare “Moslem” as offensive, and “Muslim” as acceptable, is to affirm the deeper preoccupations of the West today — identity politics and presentism. In other words, the purpose of history is no longer to uncover the truth, but to establish a particular strain of postmodernist ideology, which views the past as unimportant. Therein also lies the affirmation of tyranny, in that those who consent are included and promoted, while those that withhold consent are excluded. Are we really surprised that there is now historical amnesia everywhere?
Nirmal Dass is a former university professor specializing in the Early and High Middle Ages. His areas of research are philosophy, history and ancient languages. He has written several books and is actively engaged in literary translation.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.