The Inscription Of Zuhayr - The Earliest Dated Ḥijāzī Inscription, 24 AH / 644 CE
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First Composed: 21st January 2006
Last Modified: 20th November 2008
Assalamu ʿalaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:
Figure 1: (a) The inscription of Zuhayr dated 24 AH, (b) its outline and (c) the text.
Figure 2: (a) Picture of the inscription next to the Zuhayr inscription and (b) its outline.
24 AH / 644 CE.
The translation of the inscription [Figure 1(a)] is:
- In the name of God
- I, Zuhayr, wrote [this] at the time ʿUmar died in the year four
- and twenty (i.e., 24 AH).
This inscription is the earliest dated Islamic inscription written in the ḥijāzī script. One of its notable characteristics is the presence of diacritical marks on a number of consonants, i.e. dots which distinguish between letters of the same form. They are ن, ز, ت, ف and ش. Their style corresponds exactly to the contemporary usage.
It has been long claimed by the Western scholars that the defective Arabic script during the advent of Islam explains ‘variant’ readings in the Qur'an and the difficulty in establishing a canonical text. For example, recently Christoph Luxenberg took the liberty to change the Qur'anic text on the belief that the Arabic script was defective as similar-shaped consonants could not have been distinguished without dotting. Now we know from the Zuhayr inscription and other contemporary texts such as the two well-known papyri PERF No. 558 and P. Berol. 15002, both from 22 AH / 642 CE, that the the dotting of many Arabic letters, if not all, was already fixed very early perhaps even before the advent of Islam. What can be said is that there are definite indications that the Qur'an was treated as a special case, distinct from documents and inscriptions.
Another notable feature of this inscription is the mention of the death of ʿUmar in 24 AH. It is worthwhile pointing out that caliph ʿUmar bin al-Khattāb died on the last night of the month of Dhūl-Hijjah of the year 23 AH, and was buried next day on the first day of Muharram of the new year 24 AH, corresponding to 644 CE. Thus the date mentioned in the inscription is authentic and conforms to the established and known date of the death of ʿUmar bin al-Khattāb.
Next to this inscription is a graffito [Figure 2(a)] which says: anā Zuhayr mawlā ibnat Shayba ("I am Zuhayr mawlā of Ibnat Shayba"). In this inscription the diacritical dots on the letters ن and ز are clearly visible. Like the earlier inscription, they correspond exactly to the dotting seen in the two papyri PERF No. 558 and P. Berol. 15002 from 22 AH / 642 CE as well as to the modern day dotting of ن and ز.
This inscription, it appears, is destined to be the most famous of all the Arabic inscriptions as the UNESCO has added it to the Memory of the World Register of Documentary Collections. The Discovery Channel also mentioned the importance of this inscription in the news.
Qāʿ al-Muʿtadil (near al-Hijr), Saudi Arabia.
 ʿA. I. Ghabban, "Naqsh Zuhayr: Aqdam Naqsh Islāmī", Arabia, 2003, Volume I, pp. 293-342.
 ʿA. I. Ghabban (Trans. & Remarks by R. G. Hoyland), "The Inscription Of Zuhayr, The Oldest Islamic Inscription (24 AH/AD 644–645), The Rise Of The Arabic Script And The Nature Of The Early Islamic State", Arabian Archaeology And Epigraphy, 2008, Volume 19, pp. 210-237.
 R. Hoyland, "Epigraphy And The Linguistic Background Of The Qur'ān" in G. S. Reynolds (Ed.), The Qur'ān In Its Historical Context, 2008, Routledge Studies in the Qur'an, Routledge: London & New York, p. 62 and p. 68 note 42.
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