The Origins of Arabic
According to contemporary studies, Arabic writing is a member of the
Semitic alphabetical scripts in which mainly the consonants are
represented. Arabic script was developed in a comparatively brief span
of time. Arabic became a frequently used alphabet--and, today, it is
second in use only to the Roman alphabet.
The early Arabs were basically a nomadic people. Their lives were hard
before Islam, but their culture was prolific in terms of writing and
poetry. Long before they were gathered into the Islamic fold, the
nomadic Arabs acknowledged the power and beauty of words. Poetry, for
example, was an essential part of daily life. The delight Arabs took in
language and linguistic skills also would be exhibited in Arabic
literature and calligraphy. The early Arabs felt an immense appreciation
for the spoken word and later for its written form.
Arabic script is derived from the Aramaic Nabataean alphabet. The Arabic
alphabet is a script of 28 letters and uses long but not short vowels.
The letters are derived from only 17 distinct forms, distinguished one
from another by a dot or dots placed above or below the letter. Short
vowels are indicated by small diagonal strokes above or below letters.
The Nabataean were semi-nomadic Arabs who dwelled in an area extending
from Sinai and North Arabia to southern Syria. Their empire included the
major cities of Hijr, Petra, and Busra. Although the Nabataean empire
ended in 105 A.D., its language and script would have profound impact
upon the early development of Arabic scripts.
Archeologists and linguists have analyzed and studied the Nabataean
inscriptions that represent the advanced transitional stage toward the
development of such Arabic scripts as the Um al-Jimal, dating from about
250 A.D., and the Namarah of the famous pre-Islamic poet Imru' al-Qays,
dating from 328 A.D. Another inscription from Um al-Jimal, dating
from the 6th century, confirms the derivation of the Arabic script from
the Nabataean and points to the birth of distinctive Arabic writing
North Arabic script was first introduced and established in the
northeastern part of Arabia. During the 5th century, Arabian nomadic
tribes who dwelled in the areas of Hirah and Anbar used this script
extensively. In the early part of the 6th century, the North Arabic
script reached Hijaz in western Arabia. Bishr Ibn Abd al-Malik and his
father-in-law Harb Ibn Umayyah are credited with introducing and
popularizing the use of this script among the tribe of the Prophet
Muhammad, Quraysh. Other tribes in nearby cities adopted with enthusiasm
the art of writing.
Jazm is the earliest referenced Arabic script. This script is believed
to be an advanced form of the Nabataean alphabet. The stiff, angular,
and well-proportioned letters of the Jazm script would later influence
the development of the famous Kufi script -- the script of Kufa, a small
town in Iraq.
The Reform of Arabic Writing
As the teachings of Islam spread beyond the boundaries of the Arabian
Peninsula, an enormous number of people worldwide became Muslims. The
new Muslims interpreted the art of writing as an abstract expression of
Islam, each according to their own cultural and aesthetic systems. The
influx of this cultural diversity led to two major events: the birth of
regional calligraphic schools and styles such as Ta'liq in Persia and
Deewani in Turkey, and the need to reform of the Arabic language. A
clear and universal language with legible script was needed if the
non-Arab Muslims were to learn Arabic and become part of the Islamic
The first movement to reform the Arabic language and writing system came
during the Umayyad era. Abul Aswad ad-Du'ali was the prophet and
legendary founder of Arabic grammar and is credited with the invention
of placing diacritical points to distinguish between certain identical
consonants such as the 'gaf' and 'fa' in the Arabic alphabet. This
system of diacritical marks is known as Tashkil (vocalization).
Different colors also were introduced to differentiate between these
marks--black for the diacriticals and red or yellow for the vocalics.
The powerful and energetic Umayyad viceroy al-Hajjaj Ibn Yousuf al-Thaqafi
(694-714), took on the responsibility of solving problems concerning
diacriticals. He commissioned Nasr and Yehya to refine the Tashkil
system. They introduced the use of dots and certain vowel signs as
differentiating marks. The dots were placed either above or beneath the
letter, either single or in groups of two or three.
Unfortunately, for many people and scribes the system was unclear and
confusing. A more sophisticated system was needed. The second reform
movement was undertaken around 786. Khalil Ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, the
famous Arab philologist and lexicographer, was entrusted with devising a
new Tashkil system. Al-Farahidi introduced vowel signs inspired by the
initial shape or parts of certain letters. The sign 'hamza,' for
example, is part of the letter 'ayn' (without its end-tail).
The new system gained wide popularity throughout the Muslim world. And
Arabic calligraphy acquired the characteristics of beauty, sanctity, and
versatility. Arabic calligraphy was used administratively, on
architecture, on coins, to pen impressive epistles, and to produce
elegant books, especially the Holy Qur'an, miniatures, and other