Evolution of early Arabic calligraphy (9th–11th century). The Basmala is taken as an example, from Kufic Qur’ān manuscripts.
- Early 9th century script used no dots or diacritic marks;
- in the 9th–10th century during the Abbasid dynasty, Abu al-Aswad’s system used red dots with each arrangement or position indicating a different short vowel. Later, a second system of black dots was used to differentiate between letters like fā’ and qāf;
- in the 11th century, al-Farāhīdī’s system) dots were changed into shapes resembling the letters to transcribe the corresponding long vowels. This system is the one used today.
The Arabic alphabet can be traced back to the Nabataean alphabet used to write the Nabataean dialect of Aramaic.
The first known text in the Arabic alphabet is a late 4th-century inscription from Jabal Ramm (50 km east of ‘Aqabah) in Jordan, but the first dated one is a trilingual inscription at Zebed in Syria from 512. However, the epigraphic record is extremely sparse, with only five certainly pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions surviving, though some others may be pre-Islamic.
Later, dots were added above and below the letters to differentiate them. (The Aramaic language had fewer phonemes than the Arabic, and some originally distinct Aramaic letters had become indistinguishable in shape, so that in the early writings 15 distinct letter-shapes had to do duty for 28 sounds; cf. the similarly ambiguous Pahlavi alphabet.)
The first surviving document that definitely uses these dots is also the first surviving Arabic papyrus (PERF 558), dated April 643, although they did not become obligatory until much later. Important texts like the Qur’ān were and still are frequently memorized, especially in Qur’an memorization, a practice which probably arose partially from a desire to avoid the great ambiguity of the script.
Later still, vowel marks and the hamzah were introduced, beginning some time in the latter half of the 7th century, preceding the first invention of Syriac and Hebrew vocalization. Initially, this was done by a system of red dots, said to have been commissioned by an Umayyad governor of Iraq, Ḥajjaj ibn Yūsuf: a dot above = a, a dot below = i, a dot on the line = u, and doubled dots indicated nunation. However, this was cumbersome and easily confusable with the letter-distinguishing dots, so about 100 years later, the modern system was adopted.
The system was finalized around 786 by al-Farāhīdī.