Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsSPEAKER: Various attempts to reform Arabic writing and render the letters easily legible took place during the seventh and eighth centuries. They consisted mainly of adding skeletal dots and diacritical marks above and below the words in order to differentiate the consonants and make provisions for short owls. As you saw with 1572a the text was written as a basic consonantal skeletal script, where the rasm al-khat, literally the drawing of the script, didn't generally visually differentiate the consonants that did or did not have dots.

Skip to 0 minutes and 51 secondsThere are, however, instances where these dots, or nuqat al-i jam, do occur. The Qur'an manuscript would have been used as an aid memoir that prompts readers in their recitation, rather than for simply reading. It was assumed that readers would be able to distinguish the letters, either from their knowledge of their language or their own rote learning of the Qur'an. This is in line with other documents of Arabic writing from the early seventh century, such as a bilingual papyrus document from Egypt, dated 632, currently in the Austrian National Library. This does contain dots for the letters [SPEAKING ARABIC] Another thing that is absent from 1572a is the diacritical markings for the vowel sounds.

Skip to 1 minute and 45 secondsPresent day readers of the Qur'an will be familiar with the use of [SPEAKING ARABIC] or [SPEAKING ARABIC] to denote the vowel sounds, such as [SPEAKING ARABIC],, the ah, oo, and ee sounds, and the double-vowel, [SPEAKING ARABIC]. Historical accounts suggest that these were first introduced by Ibn Abd Al-Malik at the request of the second caliph, Umar, to clarify how the text should be read. He placed a single coloured dot after, on, or below the last letter of a word to constitute [SPEAKING ARABIC], respectively. Two dots placed in these positions represented [SPEAKING ARABIC]. In the late eighth century, Al-Frahidi created a system that replaced the coloured dots with the shaped characters we now have in modern editions.

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 secondsThis system was incorporated into non-Qur'anic texts relatively quickly. But it would be several centuries before his scheme would supersede the earlier system of Qur'an manuscripts. Some modern editions have developed reading aids even further by developing a color-coded system to guide the vocal techniques used for tajwid, or recitation of the Qur'an. This manuscript in the Chester Beatty Collection was produced by the famous calligrapher, Ibn al-Bawwab It dates from around the year 1000 and is one of the earlier uses of the new diacritical system in Qur'an manuscripts. You can see from this 14th or 15th century [INAUDIBLE] manuscript that the use of these diacritical marks is quite established by now.

The development of reading aids

As you watch this video, consider how easy or difficult you would find it to read English words if the vowels were not written.

  • Can you think of any examples where we already do this? For example, text messages?
  • Would they be as understandable to non-native English speakers?

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This video is from the free online course:

The Birmingham Qur'an: Its Journey from the Islamic Heartlands

University of Birmingham