Image: A photo of an inscription etched by an Arabic traveler.
Ali ibn Ibrahim Ghabban and Robert Hoyland
A photo of an inscription etched by an Arabic traveler. The traveler engraved his name on the block of red sandstone over 1,300 years ago in a location northwest of Saudi Arabia.
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updated 11/18/2008 1:11:29 PM ET 2008-11-18T18:11:29

An Arabic traveler who engraved his name on a block of red sandstone over 1,300 years ago may help solve a question about the Qur'an that has vexed historians for hundreds of years: Why was the text seemingly written without diacritical marks?

Diacritical marks, which include accent marks, tildes, umlauts and other notations, help to distinguish one letter from another and aid in pronunciation. When added or removed, they can completely change the meaning of a word or sentence.

Analysis of the recently found sandstone inscription, which predates the earliest known copies of the Qur'an, determined that it reads: "In the name of Allah/ I, Zuhayr, wrote (this) at the time 'Umar died/year four/And twenty."

According to researcher Ali ibn Ibrahim Ghabban, who, with his wife, discovered the 644 A.D. inscription northwest of Saudi Arabia, "It is an immensely important find, since it is our earliest dated Arabic inscription."

Ghabban, a member of the Supreme Commission for Tourism, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, added that it also "shows evidence of a fully-fledged system of diacritical marks."

A paper describing the find appears in the latest issue of the journal Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy.

Robert Hoyland, a professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, explained the significance of Ghabban's determination to Discovery News.

"Whether the Qur'an was originally written in a script that contained diacritical marks is very important because Western Qur'an scholars generally say that it wasn't and therefore feel free to make some amendments to the Qur'anic text by changing the diacritical marks to give it a different meaning, which is, of course, very unpopular with modern Muslim scholars and Muslims in general, who mostly feel that the Qur'anic text they use is the original text revealed to Muhammad by God," he said.

Image: A tracing of the inscription
Ali ibn Ibrahim Ghabban and Robert Hoyland
A tracing of the inscription, which reads, "In the name of Allah/ I, Zuhayr, wrote (this) at the time 'Umar died/year four/And twenty."

Although the earliest Islamic inscription, which is also the world's second oldest evidence for written Arabic, does not include punctuation or vowel marks, it does contain markings to distinguish consonants that are identical in shape. This proves such a marking system was already in place before the earliest known copies of the Qur'an, which date to sometime between 652 and 680 A.D., Hoyland indicated.

Ghabban now believes Muhammad's close associates and early followers "stripped Qur'ans of diacritical marks" in order to permit "Muslims to read the Qur'an as it was revealed to Muhammad in the various dialects of the Arabs, and allowing the skeleton of the word to bear all the meanings which appear in it."

Hoyland added that, "this would mean that Western scholars would have less excuse to change the text as we have it now."

Without diacritical marks, for example, a sentence such as, "I took with my whole hands," can also be interpreted as, "I took with my fingertips."

The first known Islamic inscription, whose carver might have made his own mark while walking down a Syrian pilgrimage road, may solve yet another Arabic history mystery: When did noted Islamic leader Umar ibn al-Khattab die?

According to tradition and other historical accounts, a Persian soldier assassin stabbed Umar in public as the caliph was leading prayers in a mosque. Zuhayr, who may have witnessed the violent crime, recorded that Umar died in "four and twenty," which means 644 A.D.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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