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The Arabic Alphabet


      The Arabic sources, as long as they do not attribute the invention of the Arabic script to Adam or Ishmael, tell us that the script had been introduced either from South Arabia region or from Mesopotamia (Iraq). Ibn Al-Nadim, for example, said that the people of Al-Hira, the capital of the Lakhmid dynasty in the Euphrates valley, used a form of Syriac cursive script which had developed into the Arabic alphabet.

            Versteegh claims that the theory of Syriac origin has now been abandoned by most scholars. It seems much more likely to him that the Arabic alphabet is derived from a type of cursive Nabataean in Petra, Jordan. In the Aramaic script, from which Nabataean writing ultimately derived, there are no ligatures between letters. But in the cursive forms of the Nabataean script most of the features that characterize the Arabic script already appear. Versteegh adds that the elaboration of an Arabic script for texts in Arabic took place as early as the second century CE. This would mean that the development of the Arabic script as it is used in pre-Islamic inscriptions occurred largely independently from the later developments in Nabataean epigraphic script. The most important internal development in Arabic script is the systematic elaboration of connections between letters within the word, and the system of different forms of the letters according to their position within the word.

            According to Siibawayh, the Arabic Alphabet is made of 29 letters, including 3 long vowels. He put them in the following order starting with the laryngeal and ending withlabial, representing the place of articulation along the vocal tract.

ء، ا، هـ ، ع ، ح ، غ ، خ ، ك ، ق ، ض،

ج ، ش ، ي ، ل ، ر ، ن ، ط ، د ، ت ، ص ،

ز ، س ، ظ ، ذ ، ث ، ف ، ب ، م ، و

            Though Siibawayh listed 29 letters he concluded that in reality there were 35 sounds which are represented by those 29 letters. He explained that the recitation of the Quran and reading of poetry had necessitated the existance of those 6 additional sounds. The list included the ‘light Nuun’ النون الخفيفة, the ‘medial Hamza’ الهمزة التي بين بين, ‘Alif al-‘Imaala الالف التي تُمال إمالة شديدة ,’the J-sounded Shiin الشين التي کالجيم , the Z-sounded emphatic S’ الصاد التي تکون کالزاي, ‘the velarized ‘Alif’ ألف التفخيم  in the language of Hijaaz in words like, الحياة والصلاة والزکاة.

            Siibawayh went on to say that he could trace 42 sounds but the additional 7 sounds were not favorable in the recitation of the Quran and reading of poetry. Therefore, they were of less significance since their use is only limited to oral communication.


Al-Khalil Ibn Ahmed, who died in 791, grouped and put them in the following order:

ع ح هـ خ غ ، ق ك ، جشض ، صسز ، ط د ت ، ظ ث ذ ، ر د ن ، ف ب م ، و ا ي ء

            The codification of the Qur’an was a crucial moment in the development of a written standard for the Arabic language. On a practical level, the writing-down of the holy text involved all kinds of decisions concerning the orthography of the Arabic script and elaboration of a number of conventions to make writing less ambiguous and more manageable than it had been in pre-Islamic Arabia.

            Writing was not unknown in the peninsula in that period. But, for religious reasons, early Islamic sources emphasized the illiteracy of the Prophet Mohammed. The Prophet was أُميّ, someone who could not read nor write, and this was what made the revelation of the Qur’an and his recitation of the text a miracle.

            There are clear indications that as early as the sixth century writing was fairly common in the urban centers of the peninsula, in Mekka and to a lesser degree in Medina. In the commercial society that was Mekka, businessmen must have had at their disposal various means of recording their transactions. There are references to treaties being written down and preserved in the Ka’ba in Mekka. Even the الرواة , the transmitters of poetry, sometimes relied on written notes, although they recited the poems entrusted to themorally. In the Qur’an, we find reflection of a society in which writing for commercial purposes was well established. In the second sura we find, for instance, detailed stipulations on the settlement of debts that include the exact writing-down of the terms.

            In the biography of the Prophet, there are many references to his using scribes for his correspondence with Arab tribes and of writing treaties. In the accounts preserved by the historians, scribes and witnesses were mentioned and the Prophet signed those documents with his fingernail. Tradition has preserved the names of several scribes to whom Mohammed dictated messages, chief among them being Zayd Ibn Thabit.

            Just as Christian monks of the Middle Ages spent lifetimes writing and illuminating religious manuscripts, their Arab and Muslim forebears contemporaries devoted their lives to producing elegantly handwritten copies of the Quran. In lieu of pictorial representation, which was frowned upon, calligraphy became notonly practical, but decorative, replacing design, painting and sculpture over a period of centuries. Later every caliph’s court employed these artists to draw up official documents, design official signatures and write out diplomatic correspondence.

            The Arabs and Muslims of that time used interlaced geometric lines derivations from the Kufic style to adorn the walls of palaces and mosques, and the name of this style, arabesque, is a reminder of its cultural origins. Arabic calligraphy forms a primary

ornamentation of the Moorish palace of Alhambra in Granada, other citadels and


mosques of Moorish Spain speak eloquently of the golden ages of arabesque design and calligraphy.

            The tracery and flowing patterns of the arabesque style, of calligraphy itself, imply a deeper, symbolic meaning stemming from ancient mystic beliefs. The designs endlessly reproducing themselves in apparently confused entanglements, but in reality flowing an ingenious system, are interpreted as symbolic of the order of nature which in perpetual change always repeats its cycles. The meanders are said to represent the continuity of life, the circle is held to stand for eternity and the rosettes and palmettos of design for birth and maturity.

            Calligraphers today play an integral role in the Arab and Muslim Worlds. They not only copy Quranic verses and design phrases to be incorporated into building tiles and mosques , but they write nearly all newspaper and magazine headlines. Modern Arabic lends itself to the art, with its fluid design and diacritical markings.

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