Like digging through archaeological layers, documenting the development of language and writing provides important clues about historical events. Recent discoveries in the deserts of Syria and Jordan are yielding clues not only about the origins of the Arabic writing system, but also about the rich history of the Arabs in the periods just before and after the rise of Islam. A new archaeological find seems to provide the first contemporary evidence of a major figure in the early history of Islam–and even more fascinating, it appears to have been written by a loyal Christian Arab subject.
Ahmad al-Jallad, the incoming Sofia Chair of Arabic Studies at the Ohio State University, discusses his work in the desert of Jordan, and describes recent finds that paint a picture of a vibrant Christian Arab community in Syria, decades after the Islamic conquest.
You’ve been with us before (link to previous episode), where you describe what we’re learning about the earliest history of the Arabic language. In the past ten years, there have been a lot of changes in our understanding of the earliest history of Arabic with these new inscriptions that your team, in particular, is finding. What are they doing? How are they changing the field?
It’s a very exciting time to be working in this field, because every year has the potential for a discovery that will completely change everything. So, in some respects the talk I gave here two years ago is already outdated.
Wow, OK, we’ll delete it from the website (laughs)
But it’s not wrong, it’s a lot of the questions I asked in that interview we can answer, or come close to an answer now. So, one of themes was: where did the Arabic script come from, and the writing tradition associated with early Islam? Basically, after the Arab armies leave the Arabian peninsula and establish the caliphate in the Near East, they have a fully fledged bureaucratic tradition in the Arabic language. The Arabic script is fully developed and has its own spelling conventions and orthographic practices, and, so, we wanted to know where this all came from. It couldn’t have been just developed in the short period after the conquest, there certainly must have been some kind of pre-Islamic tradition of doing administration in Arabic and the use of the Arabic script.
Now, until very recently, if you open up a book on the subject that was published 20 years ago, or even fifteen years ago, there were only three examples of the Arabic script before Islam. One graffito, from Jebel Usays, in southern Syria–it’s an extinct volcano. On the cone there’s a small graffito written by a soldier who was dispatched to this area by al-Harf al-Malik, a Ghassanid king, an Arab king from the southern Levant. And he wrote that he was stationed here, and he gave the date as 520 CE. Very small text, and informative about how the Arabic script looked at the time, but he didn’t give us a lot to work with.
And two other inscriptions: one from Zebed, near Aleppo in northern Syria, and the other from Harran in southern Syria, near, actually, Jebel Usays. And both of these scripts are very short and they’re dedications. And that’s all we had. And, so, all of the attempts to explain the origins of the Arabic script were based on little to no data, just trying to imagine a situation that would lead to that.
And last, with the surveys going on in the Arabian peninsula, in Saudi Arabia and in Jordan, our knowledge of the development of Arabic has advanced incredibly, exponentially, really. In the last, in 2010 a scholar of Nabataean epigraphy and early Arabic epigraphy named Laïla Nehmé, produced a fantastic article describing the transition from Nabataean Aramaic to Arabic in northwest Arabia. And she identified features that are partially Nabataean Aramaic on one part, and on the way to Arabic. So, this was the missing link.
But we still had no inscriptions in the Arabic script proper from Arabia. It was just these three, in Syria. And in 2014, the Franco-Arabian team doing excavations around Najran in southern Arabia discovered a number of texts in the early Arabic script. They’re all graffiti, very short texts, mostly personal names and short benedictions, but they show that the Arabic script was fully developed at the end of the 5th century and early 6th century. And these texts were dated to this period using the era of the prophets of Arabia, so whoever wrote these texts must have been travelers from the north. They weren’t locals.
But, now we have a larger corpus. We have the inscriptions in Syria, and the inscriptions in Najran. And 2017, Laïla Nehmé published an inscription from Dumat al-Jandal, an oasis in northern Arabia, and it is the first Arabic script inscription from north Arabia. And this text read dhakir al-ilah (ذكر الاله)–so, “may the God,” and this is the name of the Christian God in pre-Islamic Arabic, al-ilah (الاله), “the God,” literally–“be mindful of” and then a personal name, and it was dated 6th century CE.
Now, what’s interesting is that all of these inscriptions seem to be produced by Christian Arabs. The inscription at Dumat al-Jandal bears crosses, the inscriptions at Najran, many of them have crosses, and the inscriptions from Syria, except the one from Jebel Usays, we can’t really identify what the faith of its author was. Beyond this, amateur Saudi adventurers have been exploring the Arabian peninsula and photographing texts and putting them online, and we’re seeing more and more inscriptions in the Arabic script. These still await proper scholarly study, but we know that they exist and there’s certainly more to be found. We’re seeing that, in fact, the Arabic script was widespread in the 6th century all across Arabia, in the southern Levant, and even in Syria. It’s an incredible advance in our understanding of the development and distribution of Arabic writing.
One of the discoveries that you’ve been writing and talking about recently is one that mentions Yazid I. Can you describe the Yazid inscription and why it’s important?
I should add for context here, Yazid is one of the first caliphs, one of the first viceroys who succeeds Muhammad, ruling from Damascus. Up until pretty much the discovery of the Birmingham Qur’an there were theories going around that he was actually the author of the text, or the compiler of the text, so he’s kind of an important figure. And you’ve actually found contemporary textual evidence of him.
Well, that’s what I think!
The Yazid inscription is a fantastic story. It was discovered about 14 kilometers from the site of Qasr Burqu’ in eastern Jordan. Qasr Burqu’ was originally a Roman fort that was renovated and became an Umayyad fort and hunting lodge. It’s in the panhandle on the way to Iraq. So, I was in Jordan in April (2017) with a colleague from Oxford University, and we went out to the site–to Qasr Burqu’ to do surveying, and when we got there there was too much water, too much mud, so we couldn’t go any further. So, we weren’t able to go on the survey. But, several colleagues of mine from Jordan–Younis Shdaifat, Zeyad al-Salameen, and Rafe Harahsheh–were able to survey there in the summer. And they discovered a fantastic inscription in a script that wasn’t immediately identifiable. They sent the script to me for identification and decipherment.
Once I saw it, I immediately recognized its significance. The text was in a form of the early Arabic script. Next to the text was a cross, so it looked very much like the pre-Islamic texts that I had just mentioned. But its content, and some of the orthographic features and spellings, make its identification as a pre-Islamic text a bit difficult. So, the text begins with a cross, and it reads dhakir al-ilah Yazidu al-malik (ذكر الاله يزيدو المالك). So, dhakir al-ilah, “may the God”–again the name of the Christian God in Arabic, in these inscriptions–“be mindful of Yazidu,” which is Yazid with the final “u” sound that’s typical of personal names from the pre-Islamic period, something scholars call “wawation”–and al-malik “the king.” So, “May God be mindful of Yazid, the king.” The inscription is not dated. We don’t get any other information about who this Yazid might be.
Now, the features of this text are incredibly interesting because they don’t have any parallels in any of the pre-Islamic text that I’ve discovered. Now, we’re not talking about a small number–there’s quite a large number of pre-Islamic 6th century Arabic script texts. This inscription, the author puts dots on top of the dal (د)and the dhal(ذ), so on top of the “d” letter and the “dh” letter, the author puts a dot. This is reminiscent of an Aramaic practice. It’s an ancient practice in the Nabataean inscriptions, authors would do this to distinguish between the “d” and the “r” which looked identical. In the Arabic script the “d” (د)and the “r” (ر) are very different, but the practice remained, sort of as a fossil. This is our first attestation of this practice in the Arabic script. It’s not archaic, but it’s not found in any of the 6th century inscriptions.
Another thing that’s very interesting about this text is that the author uses a dot to mark the hamza. Now, the hamza (ء) is the glottal stop. This is a feature that–there’s no way to mark the glottal stop in the Qur’an; people have hypothesized that the original Arabic of the Qur’an didn’t have this feature, that grammarians later on invent a sign for it. But, Frederick Emberre, a French epigraphist and scholar of early Arabic inscriptions identified this feature: the dot for this glottal stop in several 7th century texts, graffiti from Arabia, and he calls it the “proto-Hamza.” And our text here has that feature, so it’s a 7th century feature in the Yazid inscription. And so, the text is incredibly interesting for the history of the Arabic script.
The identification of Yazid, though, is really what makes the text phenomenal.
Well, okay, so that’s the next question. We have Yazid, the king. How do we know that this is Yazid the First?
That’s true, yeah. How do we know?
Well, the term “al-malik” in pre-Islamic inscriptions can refer to a ruler, a leader–not just any minor prince, but a chieftain, a shaykh. So, we always have to admit the possibility that this is just someone we’ve never heard of–that’s always possible. But, if we look at all the other inscriptions that have “maliks,” there has always been a plausible identification for who that malik is in the historical record. So, this would be an example of a completely unknown malik–possible, but without precedence.
Now, we can say dhakir al-ilah, this structure is common in the 6th century, we don’t see it in the 7th century. It has a cross, and we know that the pre-Islamic inscriptions have crosses, so maybe it’s a pre-Islamic text.
Well, in the 6th century there are two plausible Yazids, who could be called kings. The first is a Yazid, who was called hlft, or deputy, governor of Kinda. This was a person appointed to rule over Kindah, a south central Arabian tribe, by the Ethiopian ruler of South Arabia, Abraha. This Yazid rebels against Abraha and is then defeated and then pledges loyalty again to him. Now, all of these events happen in south Arabia. So, maybe it’s the same Yazid, but we would have to imagine someone from south Arabia went all the way up to northern Jordan and carved this inscription blessing his ruler. It’s possible, but again there’s no precedents of anything like this happening in the pre-Islamic period.
The second Yazid is mentioned in Nonnosos, this is a Roman diplomat who went on missions around the Red Sea. He was sent as an ambassador to a certain Kaïsos, or Qays, a Hujrid ruler who was chief of Kindah and Ma’ad, but his exact identity remains unknown. This Qays had two sons, Amr, and Yazid. Now, it’s possible that the son Yazid is Yazid our malik. But again, it’s far away. There’s no evidence that this son took the title malik, for example, and again, we’d have to imagine a scenario in which one of his followers wandered into this area and carved an inscription blessing his ruler, who was very far away. No precedent for that.
So, the 6th century provides us with a couple of Yazids, but none of them are really compelling. Now, considering that Qasr Burqu’ was an Umayyad site, we might consider a 7th century Yazid. The first real candidate for that is Yazid I. And we can actually put together some pretty compelling arguments for why this text refers to Yazid I. It is a Christian inscription, that’s true, but Yazid’s mother was a Christian from the tribe of Kalb, a Monophysite tribe from the Syrian steppe. He married two Ghassanid princesses, and the Ghassanids were a Christian Arab tribe. His inner circle, his closest companions were Christians. The manager of his personal affairs was Sarjun, the father of John of Damascus; his drinking companion was al-Akhtal, a famous Christian poet; and he was held in high regard by the Christian communities that he ruled. In fact, a Byzantine chronicle from 741, but certainly goes back to an earlier source, has this to say about Yazid:
When Mu’awiyah died, the son Yazid took his place for three years. He was a most pleasant man and deemed highly agreeable by all the people subject to his rule. He never, as is want of men, sought glory for himself because of his royal rank, but lived as a citizen along with the common people.
That’s a translation by Robert Hoyland.
So, we can see that he had a good relationship with the Christian community. And, finally, the Syrian army of the Umayyads was made up mostly of tribesmen from Kalb, Christian tribes. So, it is possible that this inscription was carved by an Umayyad soldier, stationed in this area, perhaps patrolling around the qasr, a Christian soldier from the tribe of Kalb who, perhaps pausing on his patrol, carved an inscription saluting his leader, Yazid I who, from the point of view of a Christian subject, was al-malik, the king.
You’re really painting a great picture of the sort of religious landscape of this region after the conquest. There’s a lot of assumption that the Muslims come in and suddenly everybody becomes Muslim and that really isn’t the case. Is that sort of what you’re finding based on these various inscriptions?
Following that point, but focusing on the Arabic script and the Christian identity of early Arabic and pre-Islamic Arabic, we have this assumption that, once Islam appears, everything that was Arabic became Muslim and synonymous with Muslim.
Of course, our knowledge is incomplete and we have to be humble about that because we haven’t surveyed every inch of Arabia, but from, what we can see now, whenever the religious identity of an inscriber of an inscription is clear–and I’m talking about Arabic inscriptions from the sixth century, pre-Islamic Arabic script inscriptions from the sixth century–they’re Christian. We don’t have any evidence yet of references to pagan gods in sixth century Arabic script inscriptions. In fact, the Arabic scripts, and indeed the Arabic language, seemed to be a perfectly legitimate way to express Christian identity across the Arabian Peninsula.
Remember inscriptions with crosses from Najran, from Dumat al-Jandal, from Syria–across the Arabian Peninsula, we have the use of the Arabic language in the Arabic script as an expression of Christian identity.
Well, this is a fascinating point because according to tradition Arabia was mostly polytheistic. You hear pagan gods, Mecca as the big pagan center. A couple Jewish tribes, couple Christian tribes, but the inscriptions seem to show that to write Arabic is to is to be Christian. How do you reconcile tradition with what you’re finding?
Well, I think it’s very important to emphasize that our knowledge is incomplete and that we shouldn’t come to, let’s say, drastic revisionist conclusions yet. But what we can say positively is that the Arabic script and language were recognized ways of expressing Christian identity. Now, because we haven’t found inscriptions produced by pagans yet and with references to pagan gods may just be the result of the gap in documentation. There are huge parts of the peninsula that haven’t been surveyed. But if it is the case that this distribution holds even with new discoveries, then there’s a lot of rethinking needed, I think.
But, given that, even when we look at all of these inscriptions that are Christian, they are different in their details from what ends up becoming the Islamic hand of the seventh century–that is inscriptions produced by Muslims. For example, in these Christian inscriptions we have Aramaiograms. That is Aramaic words fossilized that are used, and were probably read out as Arabic, but as they are used in these inscriptions. The spelling conventions are a bit different, for example, personal names end in waws, which is an old Nabataean practice. With the exception of the Ahnas papyrus, all other texts from the seventh century produced by Muslims do not have this feature. This is what led the scholar Christian Robin to suggest that there was a script reform removing many of these elements and making the script more efficient and more capable of expressing the language clearly, so that it could be used for administration. Now that’s possible.
But until now, until the Yazid inscription, it would seem that immediately in the seventh century, following the conquest, all of the Christian stuff just disappeared and it was just Muslim. That’s very weird. We would expect some transitional period, where both coexist, before the prestige attached to the Islamic hand dominated and led to the extinction of all the other varieties. The Yazid inscription may be just that. It may suggest that this tradition of writing Christian Arabic, that is the Arabic conventions used by Christians before Islam, persisted into the seventh century, but were communal–perhaps just used by Christians. Maybe they survived in Arabic speaking and writing churches or those kinds of circles. We don’t have any evidence for that yet, except for our interpretation of this inscription.
But if that’s true, then it would mean that the Christian Arabic of the sixth century survived a bit longer and existed side by side with the Muslim hand until finally giving way because of the prestige attached to what I would call official or Imperial Arabic, right? The Arabic of the Umayyads, perhaps after the reforms of Abd al-Malik. And so this would be the latest example of pre Islamic Christian Arabic, let’s say, that cross the pre-Islam/Islam boundary, and was produced by a pious Christian soldier serving a Muslim king.
Al-Jallad, Ahmad, Younis Shdaifat, Zeyad al-Salameen, and Rafe Harahsheh. “An Early Christian Arabic Graffito Mentioning ‘Yazīd the King.’” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 28, no. 2 (2017): 1–10.
Muhanna, Elias. “A New History of Arabia, Written in Stone.” The New Yorker. May 23, 2018.
Nehmé, Laïla. “A Glimpse of the Development of the Nabataean Script into Arabic Based on Old and New Epigraphic Material.” In The Development of Arabic as a Written Language, edited by Michael C. A Macdonald, 47–88. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010.
———. “New Dated Inscriptions (Nabataean and Pre-Islamic Arabic) from a Site near Al-Jawf, Ancient Dūmah, Saudi Arabia.” Arabian Epigraphic Notes 3 (2017): 121–64.
Robin, Christian J. “La réforme de l’écriture arabe à l’époque du califat médinois.” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph 56 (2006): 319–64.
Robin, C.J., A.I. al-Ghabbān, and S.F. al-Saʿīd. “Inscriptions antiques de la région de Najrān (Arabie séoudite méridionale) : nouveaux jalons pour l’histoire de l’écriture, de la langue et du calendrier arabe.” CRAI, no. 3 (2014): 1033–1128.