Prelude – 3 : A history of the Arabic alphabet

Although after the birth of Islam in 7th century AD, Arabic inscriptions became prevalent in  the western and central Asia,  the origin of the Arabic script also goes back to the Phoenician alphabet, which a branch of it evolved into Aramaic, which evolved into Modern Hebrew and Nabataean. The Nabataeans, which established the kingdom of Petra in what is modern-day Jordan from the 2nd century BC were of  Arabic origin. They wrote with a highly cursive Aramaic-derived alphabet that would eventually evolve into the today’s alphabet. The Nabataeans endured until the year 106 AD, when they were conquered by the Romans, but Nabataean inscriptions continue to appear until the 4th century  AD, coinciding with the first inscriptions in the Arabic alphabet, found in Jordan.

Greek and Nabataean inscriptions at Petra.   It is estimated that Petra has been built in the sixth century BC by Nabataeans people, who created one of the greatest ancient civilizations in the Middle East, with its own alphabet, on the basis of which the conventional Arabic alphabet was formed.


Kufic Script,   Toledo, Spain, 11th century AD

After, the emergence of Islam, the Umayyad state chancery employed many skilled Persian scribes from the Iranian court. The administrative language of Umayyads officially changed from Middle Persian (Pahlavi) to Arabic during  Hajjaj ibn Yusuf governorship of Iraq. The records of administrative documents,  dīwān al-rasā’il (bureau of letters)  transferred from Pahlavi to Arabic. The early Arabic alphabet had 15 distinct letter-shapes for 28 sounds, but did not contain any dots, which were a later addition by the Persians scribes, who used them to differentiate between the different sounds. They also added the vowel marks and the Hamza  in the latter half of the seventh century.

Naskh script  at Ben Ali Youssef Medersa, Morocco,16th century AD

Generally speaking, there are two variants to the Arabic alphabet: Kufic and Naskh. The Kufic script is angular, which was most likely a product of inscribing on hard surfaces such as wood or stone, while the Naskh script is much more cursive. The Kufic script appears to be the older of the scripts, as it was common in the early history of Islam, and used for the earliest copies of the Qu’ran.

Atigh Jame’ Mosque, Shiraz, 14th century AD.



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