On The Origins Of The Kufic Script

M S M Saifullah, Mansur Ahmed & Muhammad Ghoniem

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 8th August 2000

Last Modified: 24th June 2006

Assalamu-‘alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

It has been claimed by the Christian missionaries that

... the Kufic Script which, according to Qur'an scholars Martin Lings and Yasin Hamid Safadi, did not appear until the late eighth century.

In other words, according to the missionaries, Lings and Safadi say that the Kufic script did not appear until the late eighth century. Therefore, the conclusions drawn by the Christian missionaries suggest that

... both the Samarkand and Topkapi Codices could not have been written earlier than 150 years after the 'Uthmanic Recension was [supposedly] compiled - at the earliest during the late 700's or early 800's since both are written in the Kufic script (Gilchrist 1989:144-147).

It appears that the origin of this claim goes back to John Gilchrist, a Christian missionary from South Africa, who claimed about the Qur'anic manuscripts that:

Virtually all the relevant texts surviving were written in a developed form of Kufic script or in one of the other scripts known to have developed some time after the early codification of the Qur'an text. None of them can be reliably dated earlier than the second half of the second century of the Islamic era. We shall proceed to analyse some of these scripts.

This assertion that the Kufic script originated very late, not earlier than 150 years after hijra, has been repeated in almost every Christian missionary writing against Islam on the internet. See for example the writings of Joseph Smith and the 'Sermon Series' on The Fairy Tails of the Qur'an. That a Christian missionary quotes yet another missionary without proper verification is not too surprising. Bruce McDowell and Anees Zaka quoting Joseph Smith say that the Kufic script:

... did not appear until the 790s of later.[1]

Similarly, using the services of Joseph Smith, N. A. Newman claims that the Kufic script:

... thought to date from about 790 AD.[2]

Similar claims concerning the origins of the Kufic script have been made by Robert Morey[3] and Brett Marlowe Stortroen.[4] In this paper we would examine the claim the origins of the Kufic script in the light of the early Kufic Qur'anic manuscripts as well as Islamic inscriptions.

2. The Origins Of The Kufic Script

We begin with the quote of a Muslim, al-Qalqashandi who maintains that Kufic is said to have been the earliest script from which the others developed, he writes:

The Arabic script [khatt] is the one which is now known as Kufic. From it evolved all the present pens.[5]

This is a very profound statement as its findings differ greatly from missionaries' assertions! Though Nabia Abbott's conclusions perhaps may not go so far as to agree ad totum with this conclusion we find that she does say:

...the Muslim tradition that the original Arabic script was Kufic (that is, Hiran or Anbaran) is one of those statements which, though known to be half wrong, may yet be half right.[6]

The terms that came to be applied to these scripts by early Arabs themselves could not have the chronological significance that some later Arabs and most Western writers have put to them. For is it the case that the name of a thing (e.g., Kufic) necessarily indicates its ultimate origin? The fact is that the script which later came to be known as Kufic has its origin far earlier than the founding of the town of Kufah.

Imamuddin writes:

The origin of Kufic or the angular style of Arabic script is traced back to about one hundred years before the foundation of Kufah (17H / 638CE) to which town it owes its name because of its development there.[7]

Similarly Moritz writing in the Encyclopaedia Of Islam says:

Although the script [i.e., Kufic] itself,.... was known in Mesopotamia at least 100 years before the foundation of Kufa, we may conjecture that it received its name from the town in which it was first put to official use...[8]

That is to say, the town was founded in AH 17, and the Kufic style originated 100 years before that time! This conclusion is agreed upon by other writers too.[9] Khatibi and Sijelmassi inform us that:

The Arabs usually distinguish four types of pre-Islamic script: al-Hiri (from Hira), al-Anbari (from Anbar), al-Maqqi (from Mecca) and al-Madani (from Medina). The famous author of Fihrist, Ibn Nadim (died c. 390/999) was the first to use the word 'kufic', deriving it from the hiri script. However, Kufic script cannot have originated in Kufa, since that city was founded in 17/638, and the Kufic script is known to have existed before that date, but this great intellectual centre did enable calligraphy to be developed and perfected aesthetically from the pre-Islamic scripts.[10]

What is of note here is that it is the Hiran script which later came to be classified as the Kufic. Abbott writes:

... Kufah and Basrah did not start their careers as Muslim cities until the second decade of Islam. But these cities were located closer to Anbar and Hirah in Irak, Kufah being but a few miles south of Hirah. We have already seen the major role the two earlier cities played in the evolution of Arabic writing, and it is but natural to expect them to have developed a characteristic script to which the newer cities of Kufah and Basrah fell heir, so that for Kufic and Basran script one is tempted to substitute Anbaran and Hiran ... our study so far shows that the script of Hirah must have been the leading script in the 6th century and as such must have influenced all later scripts, including the Makkan - Madinan.[11]

The city of Kufah, therefore, inherited and took on the script which was already prevailing in Hirah. The script, as we have mentioned, became later to be called as Kufic.

3. Martin Lings & Yasin Safadi On The Kufic Script

The missionaries have argued that it is the view of both Martin Lings and Yasin Safadi that the Kufic script

did not appear until the late eighth century.

The claim of Lings and Safadi allegedly saying that the Kufic script did not appear until late eight century has even entered the Christian missionary publications such as the one by Steven Masood. He says concerning the script in the Samaqand codex (note the same argument!):

It is written in a particular type of Kufic script which, according to modern experts in Arabic calligraphy, did not exist until late in the eighth century CE and was not used at all in Makkah and Madinah in the seventh century.[12]

It is difficult to see how this view can be ascribed to Safadi, because he himself, in his work Islamic Calligraphy, details the milestone from the period of the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705 CE) which he describes as being in the Kufic script![13]

Concerning the the Kufic script, Yasin Safadi says:

The Kufic script, which reached perfection in the second half of the the eighth century, attained a pre-eminence which endured for more than three hundred years ....[14]

In the chapter "Kufic Calligraphy" Martin Lings says:

The first calligraphic perfection of Islam is to be found in the monumental script which may be said to have reached its fullness in the last half of the second century AH which ended in 815 AD.[15]

Can we then assume from this, taking into account the previous evidence, that Safadi held the belief that the script first originated at this time? No, rather he is clearly stating that it is here when it reached its 'perfection'. Lings and Safadi again arrived at a similar conclusion for their book in honour of the 1976 Qur'an exhibition at the British Museum:

Kufic may be said to have reached its perfection, for Qur'anic manuscripts, in the second half of the second Islamic century which ended in A.D. 814.[16]

One wonders how did the missionaries conclude the appearance of the Kufic script in the late eight century when both Lings and Safadi say that the script reached its perfection in the second half of second Islamic century! Concerning the style of script of the Samarqand codex, there are many examples of it from the first century of hijra in the form of dated Kufic inscriptions.

The Christian missionaries are found to be not only incorrect in their dating of the origins of the Kufic script, but also erroneous in their opinion that Kufic is not a script that we would expect to have been employed in the Hijaz during the Caliphate of ‘Uthman. In respect to Lings and Safadi, the missionaries have simply misread their statements.

To conclude, Abbott thinks that the ‘Uthmanic Qur'anic manuscripts were probably written in Makkan-Madinan scripts.[17] The manuscript attributed to ‘Uthman, located at al-Hussein mosque in Cairo, is indeed written in Madinan script.

4. Kufic Qur'anic Manuscripts From First & Second Centuries Of Hijra

The best way to refute the claim of Christian missionaries about the appearance of Kufic script (and hence the Kufic Qur'ans!) around late eighth century CE (or mid-to-late second century of hijra) is to show the existence of Kufic Qur'anic manuscripts from first and early second century of hijra. The following museums have Kufic Qur'anic manuscripts from 1st and early 2nd century of hijra.

Austrian National Library, Vienna, Austria: Kufic manuscripts A. Perg 203, A Perg. 201 and A Perg. 193 + 196 + 208 are dated from the beginning of second century hijra. Manuscripts A. Perg. 186 and A. Perg. 197 are dated to middle second century of hijra.[18]

Beit al-Qur'an, Manama, Bahrain: Manuscript 1611-mkh235 is from late 1st century of hijra. Manuscript 1620-mkh233 is from 1st / 2nd century of hijra.

Maktabat al-Jami‘ al-Kabir (Maktabat al-Awqaf), The Great Mosque, San‘a', Yemen: Examples of first century Kufic manuscripts are available in Memory Of The World: San‘a' Manuscripts, CD-ROM Presentation, UNESCO.

5. Kufic Inscriptions From 1st Century Of Hijra

The Christian missionaries' arbitrary dating of the origins of Kufic script also contradicts early inscriptions which have been commented upon by both Western and Muslim writers.

  1. The Earliest Dated Kufic Inscription From Qā‘ al-Mu‘tadil, Near Al-Hijr (Saudi Arabia), 24 AH. 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.

  2. Tombstone Of Abd al-Rahmān Ibn Khair al-Hajri Dated 31 AH. This was first published by H. M. El-Hawary who said that it is inscribed in:

    ... carelessly written Cufic script.[19]

    Nabia Abbott reasserts:

    The earliest Muslim inscription, the tombstone of ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khair al-Hajari, dated 31/652... It is certainly not Makkan and can safely be considered as poor Kufic.[20]

  3. An Islamic Inscription On The Darb Zubayda Dated 40 AH. This Kufic inscription was found on the Darb Zubayda caravan route at Wadi 'l-Shamiya during an archaeological survey in 1970s.

  4. An Islamic Inscription From Wadi Sabil Dated 46 AH. This inscription was found in Wadi Sabil during the Philby-Ryckmans-Lippens expedition.

These Kufic inscriptions date before the collection of the Qur'an by ‘Uthman.

6. Dated Manuscripts & Dating Of The Manuscripts: The Difference

A clear distinction needs to be made between dated (or datable) manuscripts and dating of the manuscripts for proper orientation. A steadily increasing number of manuscripts of both the Qur'an and the New Testament with confident allocation of dates by various palaeographers can obscure the fact that we do not have absolute secure dates for majority of the New Testament and Qur'anic manuscripts.

In the case of Greek documentary papyri such as private letters or receipts, the dates are often present. Most of the New Testament manuscripts are written in a literary rather than a documentary hand. Therefore, it always needs a careful investigation of the evidence and involves comparing it with datable parallels to arrive at a reasonable dating. In the case of Qur'anic manuscripts the dating is carried out by studying the nature of the script, papyrus, ornamentation and illumination. The palaeographers then date the manuscript to a particular century during which such characteristics were seen, a process similar to the one used in the dating of New Testament manuscripts.

The Qur'anic manuscript becomes datable when there is a note on it either from the scribe or the waqf showing the date of its accession in a library or the production of the manuscript itself.

Keeping this in mind let us move over to the statement of the Christian missionaries. They say:

Aside from some of the manuscripts discovered in the loft of the Great Mosque in Sanaa in 1972, no manuscript fragment of the Qur'an can be dated earlier than first quarter of the 8th century A.D. - nearly 100 years after Muhammad. (Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, Annemarie Schimmel, 1984, p.4)

The statement of the missionaries give an impression that Muslims do not have a datable Qur'anic manuscripts before the first quarter of the eighth century. The quote from Schimmel's book when read in the context says:

The terminus ante quem for a fragment or a copy of the Koran can be established only when the piece has a waqf note, showing the date of its accession in a certain library. The earliest datable fragments go back to the first quarter of the eighth century...[21]

Schimmel is saying that to firmly date a manuscript, we need something like a waqf note. She then mentions about the earliest datable manuscript that goes back to the first quarter of the eighth century. This manuscript is a very famous one and is located at the Egyptian National Library (was formerly at ‘Amr Mosque), dated 107 AH / 725 CE . Moritz has reproduced a large number of pages from this codex.[22] Arnold and Grohmann assigns this specific date.[23] The dating of this manuscript has been recently corroborated by Marilyn Jenkins of Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) by studying the ornamentation.[24] A folio of the manuscript is reproduced below.

Folios contains Surahs Ya-Sin, 72-83 and Al-Saffat, 1-14. It is written in mashq script, on vellum. No aya markers and no surah headings.

It is not true that the earliest datable manuscript goes back to the first quarter of the eighth century. The famous palaeographer Adolf Grohmann informs us that

one dated copy exists from the first century of Higra and two exists from the second, seven only from the third century of Higra.[25]

The first century manuscript is dated 94 AH / 712-13 CE and is from Iran. The two second century hijra copies, dating 102 AH / 720 CE and 107 AH / 725 CE are in Egyptian National Library, Cairo; the latter we have already discussed above.[26]

A word of caution needs to be added. Whenever there is a waqf marking on the manuscripts, it is the burden of the paleographer to estimate the time between the writing of a manuscript and its being deposited in a mosque or any other religious institution. In other words, the wakf marking is not the true representative of the exact age of the manuscript. It only overestimates the date of writing of the manuscript.

No discussion about the dated manuscripts is finished without the mention of the status of New Testament manuscripts. We have no dated manuscripts of the New Testament until the Uspenski gospels of 835 CE.[27] This is not very unusual, as literary documents were not generally dated in antiquity. The first literary manuscript (Vindob. Med. Gr. 1) dated by the scribe is a text of Dioscorides from 512 CE now in Vienna.[28]

7. Conclusions

In conclusion, we have seen that the script which came to know as Kufic existed before the founding of city of Kufah. It was this script which reached its fullness or perfection in the second half of the eighth century CE. This is a clear refutation of the claims of John Gilchrist and other missionaries who have asserted that the Kufic script originated very late; not earlier than 150 years after hijra.

And Allah knows best!

References & Notes

[1] B. A. McDowell & A. Zaka, Muslims And Christians At The Table: Promoting Biblical Understanding Among North American Muslims, 1999, P & R Publishing: Phillipsburg (NJ), p. 76. Also see ref. 9 on p. 287.

[2] N. A. Newman, Muhammad, The Qur'an & Islam, 1996, Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute: Hatfield (PA), p. 314. Joseph Smith's work is cited on p. 320.

[3] R. A. Morey, Winning The War Against Radical Islam, 2002, Christian Scholars Press: Las Vegas (NV), p. 70.

[4] B. M. Stortroen (Ed. G. J. Buitrago), Mecca And Muhammad: A Judaic Christian Documentation Of The Islamic Faith, 2000, Church Of Philadelphia Of The Majority Text (Magna), Inc.: Queen Creek (AZ), p. 143.

[5] Abi al-‘Abbas Ahmad al-Qalqashandi, Kitab Subh al-A‘sha, 1914, Volume III, Dar al-Kutub al-Khadiwiyyah: Al-Qahirah, p. 15.

[6] N. Abbott, The Rise Of The North Arabic Script And Its Kur'anic Development, 1939, University of Chicago Press, p. 17.

[7] S. M. Imamuddin, Arabic Writing And Arab Libraries, 1983, Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd.: London, p. 12.

[8] B. Moritz, "Arabic Writing", Encyclopaedia Of Islam (Old Edition), 1913, E. J. Brill Publishers, Leyden & Luzac & Co.: London, p. 387.

[9] A. Siddiqui, The Story Of Islamic Calligraphy, 1990, Sarita Books: Delhi, p. 9.

[10] A. Khatibi & M. Sijelmassi, The Splendor Of Islamic Calligraphy, 1994, Thames and Hudson, pp. 96-97.

[11] N. Abbott, The Rise Of The North Arabic Script And Its Kur'anic Development, 1939, op. cit., p. 17.

[12] S. Masood, The Bible And The Qur'an: A Question Of Integrity, 2001, OM Publication: Carlisle, UK, p. 19.

[13] Y. H. Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy, 1979, Shambhala Publications, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), p. 11.

[14] ibid., p. 10. See also a similar assertion on p. 42.

[15] M. Lings, The Quranic Art Of Calligraphy And Illumination, 1976, World of Islam Festival Trust, p. 16.

[16] M. Lings & Y. H. Safadi, The Qur'an: Catalogue Of An Exhibition Of Quranic Manuscripts At The British Library, 1976, World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd.: London, p. 12.

[17] N. Abbott, The Rise Of The North Arabic Script And Its Kur'anic Development, 1939, op. cit., p. 21.

[18] H. Loebenstein, Koranfragmente Auf Pergament Aus Der Papyrussammlung Der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Textband, 1982, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek: Wein, pp. 23-43. This contains the description of the manuscripts, see pp. 36-; H. Loebenstein, Koranfragmente Auf Pergament Aus Der Papyrussammlung Der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Tafelband, 1982, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek: Wein, See Tafel 11-19. This contains the pictures of the manuscripts.

[19] H. M. El-Hawary, "The Most Ancient Islamic Monument Known Dated AH 31 (AD 652) From The Time Of The Third Calif ‘Uthman", Journal Of The Royal Asiatic Society, 1930, p. 327.

[20] N. Abbott, The Rise Of The North Arabic Script And Its Kur'anic Development, 1939, op. cit., pp. 18-19.

[21] A. Schimmel, Calligraphy And Islamic Culture, 1984, New York University Press: New York & London, p. 4.

[22] B. Moritz (Ed.), Arabic Palaeography: A Collection Of Arabic Texts From The First Century Of The Hidjra Till The Year 1000, 1905, Publications of the Khedivial Library, No. 16, Cairo, See Pl. 1-12.

[23] T. W. Arnold & A. Grohmann, The Islamic Book: A Contribution To Its Art And History From The VII-XVIII Century, 1929, The Pegasus Press, p. 22.

[24] M. Jenkins, "A Vocabulary Of Ummayad Ornament", Masahif San‘a', 1985, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, pp. 23.

[25] A. Grohmann, "The Problem Of Dating Early Qur'ans", 1958, Der Islam, p. 216.

[26] ibid.

[27] B. M. Metzger, Manuscripts Of The Greek Bible: An Introduction To Greek Palaeography, 1981, Oxford University Press, p. 102, No. 26,

[28] R. Devreesse, Introduction à L'étude Des Manuscrits Grecs, 1954, Librairie C. Klincksieck: Paris, p. 288.

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