Is it Allāh, Allāh, or Allāh? Was he Muḥammad, Muhammed, or Muḥammad, (SAW)? Do we follow the religion of Islam, Islaam, or Islām? Where ever you go throughout the English speaking world, you will find variations of Arabic words romanized differently. As a result, different styles and even opinions have formed. Just for fun, let's take a look at some of them.
The Common Style
This is what you tend to see in basic intro to Islam books. Islam is spelled as, well, Islam! And Muḥammad is Muḥammad. Ramadan uses a d for ﺽ. From what I can gather, most of the common Islamic terms have been standardized into a set of commonly spelled terms that basic English romanization, such as Fiqh, Deen, Hajj, Shairah, etc.
The Extended Style
In this style, special attention is paid to letter conflicts. For example, adhān is spelled as athan, to make clear that the word has a ذ and not a ز. Many of the letters will have additions or swaps as a shortcut to distinguish the letters. The letter ﺽ is represented by dh and not d, forming Ramadhan. Saqib becomes Thaqib, and so on.
I think this is nice to use, as it gives respect to certain letters in the Arabic language. So if you want to change your Desi given name of Rizwan Kazi to Ridhwan Qadhi, then by all means go ahead! ;)
The Sound It Out Style
You're all very familiar with this one. This is the one that will type Islaam, or Allāh, or even Aboo Haneefah. This style of romanization tends to come from some groups of Salafis, er, Salafees, and has been typified with that movement quite widely. No where else will you see the use of the word Soofee in such a distinct form.
With some exceptions, I think this style is not needed, really. There's no need to sound everything out so much, especially since English is a language that doesn't have a set way of elongating and shortening vowels. One of my maternal uncles always uses the classic example, “vhat is t-o? To. But vhat is g-o? Goo? No, it is go! Vhy is it not goo?!”
Plus adding so many extra vowels makes things look a little unkempt. With few exceptions, end of the day, you don't always need this style, beekuz noe wun reelee tiepz lyke this eneewayz! Soundeeng out awl uv yoar werdz in letter formatt ken reelee get weerd. Keep dhis in myned dhuh next tyme yoo kaapee payst ay refyootayshun frum dhuh skawlerz!
The Academic Style
Here's where we get much more formal. In comes a slue of extended English characters with diacritics (the symbols above or under a letter) to establish each Arabic letter as unique from others based on the limitations of the English language. For example, we have d for ﺩ and ḍ for ﺽ. The different there being a small dot that appears under the d to signify that it's the heavy letter and not the light one, and most Arabic terms are italicized.
They also keep all the letters present, especailly ﻝ in instances of shamsi vs qamari letters. So instead of Usul ad-Deen, you have uṣūl al-dīn, and al-Shāfi'ī instead of ash-Shafi'i.
This is the type of romanization you see in academic works. Just read any one of Yasir Qadhi's latest posts on MuslimMatters and see for yourself. The Qurʾān is the Qur'ān, and kalam is not kalaam but rather kalām. Same goes for professional works by Muslim authors and publishers, in books I've seen such as Caesarean Moon Births by Hamza Yusuf or Islamic Foundation UK's newest print of Towards Understanding the Qur'ān, the abridged version of Tahfīm al-Qur'ān by Sayyid Abul A'lā Mawdūdī (how do you like THAT for romanization!). Non-Muslim academics use this style, too.
It must be noted that the font used can really make a difference in this style. In this standard Arial you are reading in, it gets the job done. However, it doesn't compare to how it looks in fonts like Garamond, or the new made for diacritics font Gentium (YQ's choice of font for his Yale works, free to download), which have a special cursive-esque look to them when italicized.
I personally really like this style. It's very professional looking and gives the Arabic language more respect than others because of its attention to detail and clean, crisp presentation. The only problem is that it's not very common, as getting all those different diacritics on letters is difficult on a normal keyboard. While I wouldn't use it in regular chat or Emails, I feel all professional articles, papers, and especially books with Arabic terms should implement this style. To find the characters, hit up http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanization_of_Arabic.
The 1337 Style
Also known as Arabic chat style, this is what all the brothers and sisters overseas use when typing on forums, chat rooms, or even SMS text messages. It's like, y3ni, cool, yo. You don't tend to see much of this in the US or anywhere else in the west. My personal favorite use of this style I've seen is the URL for Muḥammad Ibrahim Al-Luhaidan's website, www.al7aidan.com. How sweet of a name is that to have a 7 in your name? He is by far the most 1337 h4xor Qari out there, māshā'Allāh.
Cultural Differences In Styles
This usually is noticable in but is not limited to names. A person can be named Ahmad or Ahmed, Syed or Sayyid, or choose between Husain or Hussein! Generally you'll have Egyptians or Arabs using e's and Desis using a's in those cases. I think these are really fun to notice, like the time I read Shaykh Ali Guma as “Goomaa”, like a goomba from Super Mario Bros. without the b, only to later find out his name is Jumu'ah!
Or how some may be named Javad instead of Jawad, or Farhat instead of Farhah. Or how Desis keep the tā marbūtā on words such as ṣalāh, zakat, niyyat, Farhat. That ending t sound should be gone, but you should be careful. Especially if you run into a Naigat Aunty…
So what's the point of listing all these different styles of romanization? To show there's a vast array of differences in the methods and no one way is truly the correct one. Everyone has their own style of transliterating Arabic into English, and some may be slightly better than others. However, there just shouldn't be large amount of fuss about them. I've had instances of people correcting me about the way I will spell an Arabic word in English from one word to another, and really it's not such a big deal.
And you know what? If someone tries to convince you that it's Ramadan and not Ramadhan, or it's Islaam over Islam, just politely inform them that the real words are رمضان and إسلام above all else before any Englsh derivative!
Wa Allāhu ta'aalaa 'Alem,
ثاقب صاب :)