In preparation, I picked up John F. Healey and G. Rex Smith’s A Brief Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet. This short (106 pages) book details the history of the Arabic alphabet. Both authors are scholars of the Arab world, and Healey in particular specializes in writing systems of Semitic and Near Eastern languages.
This book’s seven chapters can be divided into roughly three parts. The first part contains two chapters on the various writing systems that led up to the Arabic alphabet: Nabatean, Syriac, Aramaic, etc. I really liked this chapter because it helped me see the connections between the Arabic and the Hebrew alphabets, including how letters that sound different in Arabic and Hebrew today likely corresponded more in biblical times. He spends several pages reviewing every letter of the Arabic alphabet to trace how its shape evolved from Nabatean to early Arabic papyri to the Arabic script we know today.
The next two chapters describe the earliest Arabic writing, including inscriptions (dating back to the 3rd/4th century CE) and papyri (7th century CE). The earliest papyri, dating to 643 CE, is a receipt given by ‘Abdullah ibn Jabir, the commander of the Muslim conquest of Egypt, for 65 sheep. This corresponds to year 22 in the Islamic calendar — the 22nd year since Muhammad and the early umma moved to Medina. It fascinates me to think that the earliest extant written texts in Arabic correspond to the beginnings of Islam. One wonders if this is the actual beginning of Arabic writing on an extensive scale. The Mecca of Muhammad’s youth was a major trade hub, and it stands to reason that there were receipts and other trade-related documents written in Arabic before Muhammad began his prophetic career. And while there were oral poems in Arabic before the Qur’an, one wonders if the Qur’an marks the beginning of written literature in Arabic. I wish Healey and Smith had discussed some of these issues.
The final part of the book describes various Arabic scripts. Of course, Arabic’s cursive script lends itself naturally to calligraphy, and Islam’s aniconic tendencies meant that Arabic writers developed complex, artful, and often practically illegible forms of calligraphy with which to embellish the words of Allah. Healey and Smith provide 16 illustrations of various forms of calligraphy. They conclude the book by describing other languages that use the Arabic script, including Persian, Pashto, and Urdu.
When I’m studying a language, I like having background information about the history of the language and how it evolved. One of my frustrations with Greek is that I haven’t been able to learn that information! In this book in particular, I would have liked more maps clarifying exactly where different scripts emerged and different inscriptions found. Other than that, this book was a helpful, hour-long read, and for the adventurous there are several suggestions for further reading in the back. I would recommend it to any student of classical or Qur’anic Arabic.