An Early Arabic Inscription From Petra Carrying Diacritic Marks, Mid-6th / Beginning Of 7th Century CE

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First Composed: 27th January 2010

Last Modified: 27th January 2010

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Assalamu ʿalaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

(a) The charcoal piece with the inscription.

(b) Drawing of the inscription.


Mid-6th / beginning of 7th century CE.

History Of The Inscription[1]

This is a one-word Arabic inscription. It was engraved in a piece of wood that was found carbonized with an archive of Greek papyri found in a Byzantine church in Petra. The archaeological context suggests the 2nd quarter of the 6th century to the beginning of the 7th century CE as the date of the piece of charcoal. The palaeographical analysis postulated the same period as a date for the inscription. This fact is of a special significance, since the inscription carries diacritic marks, and becomes thus to be the earliest evidence for the use of the diacritic marks in the Arabic script. This inscription from the northern Ḥijāz represents a further example for the rather small corpus of early Arabic inscriptions.

Contents & Comments

Arabic: nāyif or nāyiq ["exalted" or "quick-witted"]

It is not certain if the object of this study survived in its original size, or is only the remaining part of a bigger object, which might have had more words on it. However, any interpretation of its contents can be based solely on the existing material, i.e., the single word of four letters. One can read the last letter of the inscription as ف or ق [as these two consonants were written with a single dot in early times] and this would allow for reading the inscription to be read as nāyif or nāyiq.

In the case the word is read as nāyif, it would designate someone or something that stood in connection with the papyri as being "high", "of higher status". On the other hand, if the word is read as nāyiq then the meaning would be "quick-witted, clever, particular". If taken to be a personal name, the inscription might indicate the ownership of the object.

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 above inscription, the Zuhayr inscription [24 AH / 644 CE] 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.


Petra, Jordan.

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[1] O. Al-Ghul, "An Early Arabic Inscription From Petra Carrying Diacritic Marks", Syria, 2004, Volume 81, pp. 105-118.

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