The Syriac Origins of Koranic Text

October 26, 2019 Category: Religion

(Note: This is the second of the two-part piece on the Koran as a Syriac document.  As with the previous essay, Mohammed of Mecca is denoted “MoM”; and Classical Arabic is denoted “CA”.)

In order to conduct our inquiry, it is necessary to perform a bit of linguistic forensics.  This involves assaying the various neo-Aramaic tongues that became prevalent in Late Antiquity: Chaldean / Assyrian, Mandaean, Nabataean, Edessene, Palmyrene, etc.—all of which fell under the over-arching category: Syriac.  The next step is to assess how they may have undergone a metamorphosis pursuant to the emergence of the Mohammedan movement.

The Semitic languages have a long history, going back to its earliest attested incarnation, Ugaritic (the language of the Amorites, dating to over four millennia ago).  At some point around 1100 B.C., Phoenician and Old Aramaic would emerge from these Canaanite (a.k.a. “Sinaitic”) origins.  Many–if not all–of the earliest quasi-Abrahamic scriptures derived from Old Aramaic sources.  (Such texts used a script that–like the language of the Aramaeans–was based on the Phoenician alphabet.)  It is no surprise, then, that the earliest copies of Judaic texts (the books of Enoch, Lamech, Daniel, Ezra, Amram, etc.) were written using Babylonian Aramaic–so named because it is the dialect used by the Babylonian scribes during the Exilic Period (when Judaic scripture was first composed).

Only later would those scriptures be rendered in Classical Hebrew (a derivative of Samaritan, which was itself based on Old Aramaic), per the first Deuteronomist sources to which such scripture is attributed.  Classical Hebrew (that is: Biblical Hebrew) was a spin-off of Mishnaic Hebrew–a more recent variation of Aramaic script.  (Hebrew did not adopt the familiar “square script” until the 1st century A.D.)

The Aramaic basis for the earliest Abrahamic scripture continued to be evident into the Middle Ages–as with palpable traces in the Masoretic texts.  The Jews of Mesopotamia persisted using variants of Aramaic into Late Antiquity.  This is made apparent by documents like the “Book of Elc[h]asai” from the early 2nd century A.D.  Hence the go-to language for the various Judaic sects that existed in Late Antiquity (the Essenes, Nazarenes, Ebionites, and Elcesaites) was the neo-Aramaic language known as “Syriac” (alt. Syro-Aramaic).  The Judaic “Essenes” preserved such texts in the original language (as well as a Nabataean variation of it), as evidenced by the “Dead Sea scrolls”–parchments found hidden in ancient jars in the caves at Qumran.

And so it went: Aramaic eventually morphed into Syriac.  This divergence seems to have occurred starting in the late 2nd century B.C.–specifically in the advent of the Kingdom of Urhay (a.k.a. the “Osroene Empire”), named after the Nabataean king: Osroes of Urhay.  The capital of this kingdom, the city of Urhay, is what came to be called “Edessa”.  This explains why that city would become the epicenter of Syriac literary activity.  Starting c. 314 A.D., the kingdom would become a (Syriac) province of the Byzantine Empire–referred to in Greek as the “Heoa Dioikesis” [Diocese of the East].

In the 1st century B.C. through the 2nd century A.D., the (Arab) Emesene Dynasty ruled much of Syria.  In the 1st century A.D., the Nabataean King Abgar V of Edessa / Osroene was known as “King of the Arabs” (as attested by the Roman historian, Tacitus).  The Abgarid Dynasty’s official language was Syriac; as was the language of most of its subjects.  (It ruled until the mid-3rd century.)  Through Late Antiquity, Syriac was inextricably linked with not only other denizens of the Levant, but with those known as Arabs.  This makes sense, as the Syriac-speaking region (Nabataea) was referred to as “Arabia Petraea”. {48}

The Nabataean region stretched as far north as Harran and Edessa; as far south as Tabuk / Tayma, Hegra, and Dedan; and as far east as Duma (a.k.a. “Dumat al-Jandal”) and Kufa—all of which were located in what had formerly been the land of various Arab peoples (who had used variant scripts, all of which were Southern Semitic dialects).  Farther east, the Lakhmids used Syriac—specifically at Hir[t]a (alt. “Al-Hirah”) and Pit-Ardashir, Dilmun (alt. “Al-[a]Hasa”).  The farthest south Nabataean linguistic influences may have gone were to the Lihyanites in the Hijaz, who’s capital, Hegra, the Nabateans eventually conquered.  Northern Arabs used a potpourri of variant scripts: Dumitic in the vicinity of Duma in the Wadi Sirhan, Dedanic in the vicinity of Dedan, Hismaic in the Hisma region…all the way up to Safaitic in the Al-Safa hills (in the vicinity of Damascus) farther to the north.  All were Southern Semitic dialects (sometimes misleadingly referred to as “Old North Arabian”).  Illustrative of the genealogy was the preposition that was used for “of” and “the”: the prefix “ha-“ in some inscriptions, and “al-“ in others.  This discrepancy illustrates the continuum from older Semitic variants to CA.  To call such languages / scripts “proto-Arabic” or “Old Arabic” is to invert causality.  It would be like referring to Vulgar Latin as, say, “proto-Portuguese”.  Since CA was created as a liturgical language, CA-fetishists are apt to indulge in such casuistry; just as those who fetishize Hebrew are apt to refer to Phoenician and Old Aramaic as “proto-Hebrew”—a retroactive categorization gimmick that is just as absurd.

The scope of Nabataean influence may have included north-central Arabia (the “Nafud”, which means the southern edge of Mesopotamia).  It included the key port-city of Aqaba and the bustling capital, Petra.  It is no coincidence that all the locations in which this family of scripts are found pay tribute to the Nabataean godhead, Dushara.

The script of the earliest Korans exhibits grammatical features that clearly derived from the Nabataean region; not from deep within the Arabian peninsula.  Note, for example, signature traits like the “i’rab” (an unstressed, short vowel sound), “ta marbuta” (entailing the need to place two dots over the “ha”), and “alif maqsurah” (dotless “ya”): each of them ways to end words.  Had CA—an abjad—come from Old South Arabian, these modifications would not have been needed, as that script—an abugida—already contained the vowel sounds required.

Syriac would soon overtake its Semitic antecedent, becoming the predominant language from the Levant.  This included the various Nabataean peoples, who were all Arabs: the Palmyrenes, Salihids, Tanukhids, and Ghassanids.  It would become the lingua franca from Palestine, across Mesopotamia, to the fringes of Sassanian Persia…including northward into central Anatolia and, yes, southward into Arabia.  The Lakhmids are the most obvious example of this.

When Bar-Sauma of Nisibis wrote his memoirs in the 5th century, it was in Syriac.  When the “Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius” was written in the 7th century (about the goings on of the Middle East), it was in Syriac.

When MoM was about sixteen years old, an illuminated version of the Gospels was written in Mesopotamia.  Even though it was composed at a Byzantine monastery located in Apamea (named “Bet[h] Zagba”), the language used to write it was Syriac. {1} MoM and his fellow Qurayshis–as well as most of the denizens of northwestern Arabia–would have spoken a Hijazi dialect of Syriac; as the Nabataean variant of the tongue was the lingua franca of the region until as late as the 9th century.  This explains the myriad inscriptions from that time composed in Nabataean script. {2}

How can we so sure that Hijazis spoke Syriac?  The 8th-century historian, Ibn Ishaq wrote that during a renovation of Meccan cube (which purportedly occurred just prior to MoM’s ministry), there was an inscription on a corner of the shrine’s foundation that was COMPOSED IN SYRIAC.

Testament to this fact is the conventional tale about MoM’s first revelation at Gar Hira c. 610.  Immediately following that first “Night of Destiny” [“Laylat al-Qadar”; a.k.a. the “Night of Destiny / Power”], MoM was highly doubtful that the angel (Gabriel) was really speaking to him.  So he came to his wife at the time (the elder Khadijah bint Khuwaylid al-Kubra) to seek council.  Khadijah would soon encourage her husband to accept his role as messenger.  However, before settling the matter, she urged her spouse to consult her cousin, Waraka ibn Nawfal, whom she esteemed for his prodigious wisdom.  MoM obliged.  Waraka met with the nascent prophet, and–as the story goes–upon hearing his testimony, validated Kadijah’s endorsement.  This account is attested in the most vaunted Hadith: that of Bukhari (1/1/3, 4/55/605, and 9/87/111) as well as of Muslim (vol. 1, no. 301).  The anecdote was also included in Ibn Hisham’s recension of Ibn Ishaq’s biography: the “Sirat Rasul Allah”.

Here’s the catch: Waraka was an Ebionite / Nestorian preacher of the Quraysh, meaning he would certainly have spoken Syriac (i.e. the language of the Ebionites and Nestorians).  However, per Mohammedan lore (in which CA was the lingua franca of the region), Waraka would need to have spoken CA.  YET…in broaching the topic of language, Mohammedan lore makes no mention of Waraka speaking any alternate tongues.  This only makes sense if Waraka’s ONLY language was Syriac.  Surely, Waraka’s native tongue would have been the same as MoM’s, as they belonged to the same tribe (the Quraysh).  So Waraka would not have needed to undertake any translation.  His source-material was Syriac liturgy; and so he–with his audience–would have been fluent in Syriac.

To suppose MoM was bi-lingual strains credulity.  Ergo MoM spoke Syriac.

Unsurprisingly, the claim was later circulated that Waraka had translated the Old and New Testaments from Greek into Arabic.  But this was obviously a post hoc fabrication–as Nestorian scripture was SYRIAC, not Greek. (Oops.)  Here’s the catch: Such confabulation would not have been warranted lest the tale had to be re-written in order to accommodate the claim that CA had been in use all along.

Bear in mind that the Quraysh were not alone in having Syriac Christians amongst them.  The most notable case of Syriac-speaking Arabians was the Banu Kalb [ibn Wabara], a large Arabian tribe that dwelled on land spanning from northwestern Arabia (notably in Tabuk and Al-Jawf)…through the Sirhan valley and the Nabatean land of Badia…and up into Hauran to Al-Sham (Syria).  It is clear they all spoke a dialect of Syriac, as they were part of the Syriac Church.

This was the same Christian denomination as that of the Salihids, Tanukhids, and Ghassanids–all of which were Arab tribes that spoke some version of Syriac and used the Nabatean alphabet (on which the Kufic script would be based).  This fact is attested by inscriptions at Umm Judhayidh (Tabuk), at Umm al-Jimal, and at Namarah.  All of these show the the beginning of the orthographic genealogy from Syrio-Aramaic…through Nabataean…that would serve as the basis for the Kufic script (which would lead to Ma’il, then to Naskh). {2}

The emergence of a new (distinctly) “Arabic” language from antecedent Syriac sources is further attested by the absorption of the Qedarites into the Nabataean orbit at some point in the late 2nd century.  The Nabataean influence stretched down to Hegra (alt. “Al-Hijra”; a.k.a. “Mada’in Saleh”) in the Hijaz during Late Antiquity.  So denizens of the Hijaz during MoM’s lifetime couldn’t NOT have been heavily influenced by both this language and the concomitant culture.

Other notable Arabians wrote in Syriac–including the Nestorian writers Dadisho, Gabriel, and Ahob from the 7th century.  Isaac of Nineveh, who was born in Beth Qatraye, also wrote in Syriac.  Tellingly, several of the Sahabah (companions of MoM) were from the Banu Kalb–most notably: Zayd ibn Harithah and Dihya Wahi.  As mentioned, the Banu Kalb were known to have spoken Syriac.  Yet NONE of these followers of MoM were known to have spoken a different language from the other contemporaries of MoM.  The only conclusion, then, is that ALL of the Sahabah–along with all their non-Mohammedan neighbors–spoke the same language as the Banu Kalb.

So what of the Koran?  As legend has it, it was the caliph Uthman who had collators compile the “Recitations” (see my essay: “Genesis Of A Holy Book”).  What is interesting is that at one point, Uthman issued the following instruction: When there is any disagreement about a verse, render it “in the dialect of the Quraysh.”  Uthman was clearly referring to something other than CA; otherwise he would have simply specified “Arabic” (or “god’s language”).  In any case, he would have used some descriptor that was definitive.

It is likely that Uthman himself spoke a dialect of Syriac; and so was referring to an alternate dialect…which, at that point, did not (yet) have a distinct identity.  In other words: It was not a language unto itself; and so did not have a unique name.  Perhaps the caliph favored this variant of Syriac because it was associated with the Quraysh (who had enjoyed prestige in the region for generations).

In any case, THAT was the language the first compilers of the “Recitations” were instructed to use.  By that point, the use of Syriac in the region had a long history.  In the 6th century, the famed warrior-poet, Zuhayr ibn Janab [ibn Hubal] of the aforementioned (Syriac-speaking) Banu Kalb conquered the Taghlib, Bakr, and Ghatafan tribes on behalf of the (Christian) Aksumite viceroy, Abraha al-Ashram of Himyar.  What makes this interesting is that it was his descendent, Bahdal ibn Unayf ibn Walja ibn Qunafa (of the Banu Haritha ibn Janab) who led the Banu Kalb during MoM’s lifetime.  It is well-attested that Bahdal’s descendants would become an integral part of the Umayyad caliphate.  There is no record of them making any transition to a new tongue during the intervening time.

Another clue: The most prized wife of the caliph Uthman, Na’ila bint Furafisa of Kufa, was from the Banu Kalb.  Na’ila did not need to learn a new language when she married into the caliphate.  In other words: They already spoke the same lingua franca.

Let’s inquire further: What else of note happened during the 7th century in the Middle East?  As it turns out, the Nestorian Psalter [Book of Psalms] was composed.  It too was written in Syriac.  It was thereafter translated into Pahlavi (as evidenced by a manuscript from the time discovered at Turpan in Xin-jiang).  In other words: After its Syriac version had been circulating in the region for generations, when it finally came time for people there–at that point, part of the Muslim world–to translate it into a new language, they did not translate it into CA.  Instead, they opted to render it in the literary language of the Persians.  This only makes sense if CA had not yet become a full-fledged language…in the Ummah or anywhere else.  Clearly, Mohammedans would have wanted to render the text in the go-to literary language of the time.  If not Syriac, then it was Pahlavi.

There’s yet another telling fact: At the time of the Mohammedan take-over of Jerusalem c. 637 A.D., the Byzantine patriarch of the city (Sophronius of Damascus) was a fellow Arab…who spoke the same language the conquerers: Syriac.  It is plain from historical records that they were not speaking some foreign tongue.

There are tales of Abu al-Aswad Zalim al-Dua’Ali of Basra, a companion of Ali who is reputed to have established the diacritical marks for the developing CA (“i’jam” for consonants, “tashkil” / “harakat” for vowels).  This is almost surely apocryphal, as there is no evidence for a fully-developed language (that is: a distinct “Classical Arabic”) until the 8th century.  The inscription on the Dome of the Rock, at the end of the 7th century, had no diacritical marks; so clearly tales of Al-Du’ali establishing them earlier are farcical. {14}

Sure enough, we are told that the first CA dictionary (the “Kitab al-Ayn”; Book of the People) would not be compiled until the end of the 8th century.  It was done by the Ibadi linguist, Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi of the (theretofore Syriac-speaking) Azd; during his tenure in Basra.  That dictionary has been long lost; and we are only aware of it via sources from over two centuries later.  The purported “isnad” (chain of narration) was first recounted by Abu al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim of Baghdad in his “Kitab al-Fihrist” at the end of the 10th century.

Here’s how that chain went, according to Al-Nadim:

Al-Fahridi’s work was taken up by Al-Akhfash “al-Akbar” [the Great] of Basra…who’s student was Abu Bishr Amr ibn Uthman ibn Qanbar of Basra (a.k.a. “Al-Sibwayh”), who penned the fabled “Kitab al-Sibawayh”…which was later transcribed by his student, Al-Akhfash al-Mujashi’i.  The transmission was then taken up by Abu al-Abbas Muhammad ibn Yazid of Basra (a.k.a. “Al-Mubarrad”)…who is known for his work, “Al-Kamil” [The Completion], composed at the end of the 9th century. {9}

Al-Nadim wrote about all of this a century after THAT.

To review: According to Al-Nadim, “Al-Kamil” had been written ABOUT the “Kitab al-Sibawayh”…which had been written ABOUT the “Kitab al-Ayn”…which, in turn, had (purportedly) been based on the work of the fabled Abu al-Aswad Zalim al-Dua’Ali of Basra (mentioned above).  The earliest available documentation of this chain of transmission is from the end of the 10th century.  In other words, there is no ACTUAL DOCUMENT written in a fully-developed CA until the 9th century.

Tellingly, even by the 9th century, when a Persian glossary (the “Frahang-i Pahlavig”) was composed, it was used as a reference NOT for CA, but for Syrio-Aramaic ideograms. (!)  This would not have made much sense had the prioritized language at the time been CA.  Indeed, it only makes sense if Syriac, rather than (what would become) Islam’s liturgical language, was the lingua franca of the region.

The record makes clear that during the 8th century, works were still being composed in Syriac throughout the Middle East–which was, by then, under Islamic dominion.  In other words: A tract in a fully-developed CA still had yet to be written, even within Dar al-Islam. {7}  This has startling implications.  For even a century after MoM’s death, Muslims were STILL writing important documents in Syriac.  How does this make any sense given the conventional historiography?

This timeline was confirmed by the dealings of Syrian patriarch, Timataos of Hadyab (a.k.a. “Timothy of Adiabene”), who’s career spanned the late 8th and early 9th century.  As it happened, Timothy was on considerably amicable terms with the Abbasid court in Baghdad–so much so that he moved to Baghdad and assisted in the translation of ancient Greek texts into…SYRIAC.  Timothy even documented a debate he had with the caliph Al-Mahdi…IN SYRIAC.  Whether or not the discussion he logged for posterity was partly contrived is beside the point.  The point is that, in providing the account, the Nestorian patriarch was quite deferential toward the Mohammedan Faith; and at no point mentioned that he needed to have translated anything that Al-Mahdi said when making a record of it…in Syriac.  This only makes sense if the caliph himself was speaking the same language.

(Supposing Timothy was bilingual would be rather far-fetched, as he would have likely made reference to the alternate language in which his interlocutor was couching his discourse.  No such reference occurs.  Nor does he intimate that he needed to speak a foreign tongue in order to conduct the conversation.)

Inscriptions of the “sanadjat” (coin weights) and “dinars” (coins) issued by the Umayyad dynasty were all in variations of Syriac (using Kufic script). {2}  Recall that the Syriac monk, John of Damascus had a high-ranking administrative position in the regime–another circumstance that indicates there was a parity of tongues.

Perhaps most telling of all is how contemporaries referred to the Arabs and their language.  During Late Antiquity, the Levantine peoples (Romans and Jews alike) labeled the Nabataeans and Arabians “Qedarites”, and referred to their language as the “tongue of the Qedarites” (where a “K” is often used for the “Q”).  In other words: Those peoples spoke the SAME LANGUAGE; and that language was Syriac.  (Note that even the Hebrew Bible refers to the relevant region as “Kedar”.)  Referring to CA in this way would not have made any sense.  Clearly, a distinctly “Arabic” language did not yet exist.

During the Abbasid era, while it seems the Mohammedan creed may have adopted what might be called an embryonic version of CA as its liturgical language, the lingua franca would have still been what it had been for centuries: Syriac.  Note, for example, the “Kitab al-Filaha al-Nabatiyya” [“Book of Nabataean Agriculture”], a treatise written by the Arab scholar, Ibn Wahshiyya of Kufa in the late 9th century.  The treatise was eventually translated into CA from its original version; which was–you guessed it–composed in (Nabataean) Syriac.  It was eventually rendered in CA c. 904.  Why not until then?  The present thesis provides the only plausible explanation.

Given this timeline, it should come as no surprise that the earliest accounts of the Umayyad period that were composed in CA did not appear until the 9th century.  Interestingly, both of those accounts were from Egyptian historians: Ibn Abd al-Hakam’s “Futuh al-Misr wa’l-Maghrab wa’l-Andalus” [Conquest of Egypt and the Maghreb and Andalusia] and Ibn Hisham’s “Kitab al-Tijan li Ma’rifati Muluk al-Zaman” [Book Of Crowns Regarding Knowledgable Kings Of The Epoch]. {11}  Both accounts were from well over two centuries after MoM’s ministry.

Al-Tabari’s “Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk” [History of the Prophets and Kings] came even later.  What might account for this extensive delay?  Such a long postponement would be inexplicable BUT FOR the fact that the final version of these chronicles were (eventually) rendered in an official language that had not been established before then.  To wit: These Arabic accounts did not appear any earlier because they COULDN’T HAVE appeared any earlier…lest they not have been in CA.

So we might wonder: When it comes to language, what was going on in Egypt UP UNTIL that time?  The oldest surviving mosque in Cairo is the one built at Al-Qata’i (at the behest of the anti-Abbasid potentate, Ibn Talun in the late 870’s).  All the inscriptions on that mosque were in Kufic script.  Later, in the late 13th century, the Mamluks added inscriptions using an early CA script (Naskh, which had been developed in the 10th century).  Those are the FIRST appearances of CA in Egypt.

Tellingly, the Kufic script was still being used BY MUSLIMS in the late 9th / early 10th century, as demonstrated by the ornate “mushaf al-azraq” [blue manuscript] from Cordoba, in Andalusia (though it may have originated in Tunisia).  In other words: The Kufic precedent was so predominant in early Islam that it propagated all the way through Egypt and the Maghreb…and onto the Iberian Peninsula.

Initially, the Kufic script was used THROUGHOUT Dar Al-Islam—even in north Africa.  Kufic inscriptions have been found on mosques from the 9th century—notably: the Great Mosque of Karaouine in Tunisia and the Karaouine Mosque in Fes, Morocco.  This means that this script was the original form of Islam’s liturgical language.

For the duration of the 9th century, Kufic was ALSO still the prominent script used for material in Persia as well–another reminder of the origins of Islam’s liturgical language.  Behold a cache of manuscripts for “Arithmetika” by Diophantus of Alexandria (originally composed in the 3rd century A.D.) excavated from the library of “Asta[n]-Quds-Raz[a]vi” at Mashhan, in Khorasan (which seems to have been founded in the 10th century).  The texts were written in Kufic.  The material seems to have been translated by the famed (Syriac) Melkite mathematician, Qusta ibn Luqa of Baalbek at some point in the 9th century…indicating that the script was still being used at that time.

The question naturally arises: If the original “Recitations” had been in Syriac, then why do we not have any “masahif” IN SYRIAC?  In other words: Why are there no surviving manuscripts written in explicitly Classical Syriac vernacular, using Estralanga or Nabataean script?

Let’s leave aside the fact that the “Recitations” were likely transmitted orally for the first few generations.  As I outline in my essay, “Genesis Of A Holy Book”, any manuscripts that might have existed in the pre-Abbasid era were systematically destroyed.  It is BY DESIGN that no copies of the “Recitations” survive until they were finally rendered—in their final form—in Kufic (proto-Arabic) script.  Hence no “mus’haf” would have survived until after the powers-that-be had settled on an “official” version; and had decided that CA was the language in which the Final Revelation should be (read: had originally been) delivered.  In the interim, there would not have been many parchments circulating—and even then, only amongst the literate elite.

Here, we find that not only is history written by the victors; the language in which it is written is often dictated by the victors; and the (fabricated) HISTORY OF that language becomes part of their preferred historical narrative. {54}

An indication that there was a steady metamorphosis of writing during the pivotal (Rashidun and Umayyad) period is the existence of the “Garshuni” script—whereby a proto-Arabic vernacular was written using Syriac (Estralanga) script.  This was warranted because the Arabic script was still being developed, and had not come into use beyond a few auspicious inscriptions (e.g. the Dome Of The Rock in the last decade of the 7th century).  Suffice to say: Had CA existed from the beginning, and it had been the lingua franca ALL ALONG, there would have been no need for Garshuni to have been used.

It is instructive to note that during the time the Mohammedan movement was gestating, there was FURTHER ramification of neo-Aramaic scripts.  Nabataean was merely one of many linguistic branches that gave rise to orthographic descendants.  Nestorian and Chaldean Christians (a.k.a. Assyrians) started using a variant of Estralanga known as “Madnhaya” / “Swadaya” [Eastern].  Meanwhile, Jacobite and Maronite Christians developed another variant known as “Serta” / “Serto”.  Syriac also led to several Persian variants: Parthian, Sogdian, Manichaean, Bactrian, and Mandaic scripts; as well as early Taliq.

And so it went: After beginning with the Nabatean script (because they WERE predominantly Nabatean), Ishmaelites began using Garshuni out of practical necessity; and—due to the scribal activities in Kufa—developed Kufic. {6}  Naturally, such scripts exhibited Safaitic influences, as they emerged in the midst of Old North Arabian, which could be found at more southern locals like Dumah and Dedan / Hegra (due to the vestiges of Lihyanite culture).  As would be expected, as Arabic began to become a distinct tongue, it developed a distinct script.  Kufic would be followed by the Ma’il script…which led to Naskh, followed by T[h]ulut[h] and Tawqi / Tevki, then the modern Persian variant, Nas[k]h-Taliq (which is now used for Farsi, Dari, Tajik, Pashto, Urdu, and other Persian-based languages).

We might note that, even by the time MoM would have lived, the Estralanga and Nabatean scripts THEMSELVES had a long history.  They descended from Palmyrene, which was based on Edessan (the point at which Syriac became a distinct language).  And THAT was based on Imperial Aramaic, which was based on Old Aramaic, which was based the Phoenician alphabet, the roots of which were proto-Sinaitic.  (Old Aramaic also spawned the Samaritan script, and then Babylonian Aramaic…which eventually led to Mishnaic Hebrew, then to Masoretic Hebrew.)

Interestingly, the Kufic script did not always give rise to the “Nashk” script (which eventually came to be the official script of CA).  Notably, a distinct Maghrebi Koranic script emerged in North Africa; and was used as late as the 14th century. (!)  There, the Syriac of the first Mohammedan conquerers morphed into a medieval “Darija” rather than into CA.  Maghrebi Korans were eventually rendered in the official liturgical language starting in the 10th century (that is: after CA had been fully developed).  This was primarily due to the efforts of Abbasid vizier, Ibn Ali Ibn Muqla–who earned his renown for establishing the “khatt al-mansub” [proportioned script].

And what of the Far East at around this precipitous time (the 9th century)?  Persian traveler, Suleyman al-Tajir of Siraf proselytized for Islam in Pala (Bengal) and Guang-zhou (China).  Peculiarly, there are no written records from him.  It is most likely that he would have written in Pahlavi.  We can be fairly certain he would have been unfamiliar with (the not-yet mainstream) CA.

This peculiar vacuum in the textual record also exists with the Hadith.  The “sahifah” [script] / “mushaf” [manuscript] of Hammam ibn Munabbih was a Hadith collection purportedly compiled in the first two decades of the 8th century.  Yet, mysteriously, no copy of it survived.  Strange.  The same could be said of all the OTHER original Hadith collections.  The “sahifah al-sadiqah” [Truthful Script] was purportedly compiled by MoM’s companion, Abd-ullah ibn Amr ibn al-A[a]s.  That is ALSO suspiciously missing.  Go figure.  Sure enough, the earliest copies of Hadith don’t emerge until the late 9th century: after CA would have been fully developed as a literary language.

The first instances of the “Recitations” (i.e. Islam’s holy book) did not emerge in the historical record until the 8th century; and were composed in the Kufic script.  Subsequent versions were typically composed using the earliest version of CA: “Ma’il”.  Here are the ten oldest Koranic manuscripts that have been discovered:

  1. The palimpsest (parchment on which there were over-writes of previous versions) from the Great Mosque of Sana’a, Yemen was composed in Kufic and dates from the 8th century.
  2. The codex on display in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace museum was composed in Kufic and dates from the 8th century.
  3. The “Birmingham” codex (discovered at Fustat in Egypt; now housed in the “Alphonse Mingana” collection of Birmingham University’s Cadbury Research Library) was written in the “Ma’il” script and dates from the 8th century. {46}
  4. The “Parisino-Petropolitanus” codices are housed in Paris.  These are highly-fragmented segments of text that account for less than half of the Koran.  All of it was written in the “Ma’il” script and dates from the 8th century.  The most notable codex in the Paris collection is dubbed “BnF Arabe 328(ab/c)”.
  5. The manuscript housed at the British Library in London was written in the “Ma’il” script and dates from the late 8th century.
  6. The manuscript housed at the Tareq Majab museum in Kuwait City was written in the “Ma’il” script and dates from the late 8th century.
  7. The manuscript housed at the Al-Hussein mosque in Cairo dates from the late 8th century.
  8. The manuscript housed at the Turkish And Islamic Art Museum in Istanbul dates from the late 8th century.
  9. The manuscript found at the Great Mosque of Damascus (now housed at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul) dates from the late 8th century.
  10. The Samarkand codex (a.k.a. the “Tashkent Koran”) has folios housed at the Institute of Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg, Russia.  It was composed in Kufic and dates from the early 9th century.

Notice a pattern?

Shall we consider it an incredible coincidence that ALL of the earliest Korans date back to the same threshold in history?  Such a conclusive temporal convergence indicates historical origin.  We should, of course, temper our speculation; but the fact is that the textual record begins quite suddenly at a certain point in history. {38}

A note on the Birmingham codex.  Some have carbon dated the parchment to as early as the late 6th / early 7th century, making it contemporaneous with MoM…and even before he purportedly started reporting his revelations. (!)  Were this to be true, it would further buttress the present thesis.  The codex is comprised of small swatches of vellum (animal skin), containing just three passages: material that would wind up in the “Recitations” as verses 17-31 in Surah 18, verses 91-98 in Surah 19, and the first 40 verses of Surah 20.  The content includes the Seven Sleepers Of Ephesus, the statement that the “Recitations” were rendered in “the language of the Arabs”, and the beginning of the account of Moses—in other words: the material we are presently contending was extant prior to the Koran, and circulating in the region (see Footnote 46).

However, such early dating is almost certainly false.  How can we be so sure?  The text includes chapter designations and dotted verse separations—features that were not introduced until the 8th century.  Furthermore, the carbon dating pertains to the date of the death of the animal who’s skin was used for vellum, not to the ink that was used.  Hence the text may have been written much later, on vellum that had been stored and saved for many generations (something that was sometimes done).  The (Kufic) orthography indicates that the fragments were likely contemporaneous with the above-mentioned Paris fragments—that is: BnF Arabe 328(ab) of “Parisino-Petro-politanus”. {51}

(For more on the earliest Koranic manuscripts, see “Observations On Early Koranic Manuscripts In Sana’a” by the German paleographer, Gerd R. Puin of Saarland University.  Also worth consulting is “A Challenge To Islam From Reformation” by Gunter Luling.)

Funny how the end of the 8th century was ALSO when the development of CA was reaching its culmination.  For, not coincidentally, this was around the time that the first comprehensive book on CA grammar was produced.  As the story goes, it was composed by the aforementioned “Al-Sibawayh”…which, as we have seen, was (dubiously) traced back to Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi. {12}  Yet even THAT was not final.  CA continued to be refined over the ensuing centuries:

  • In the 9th century, the Abbasid lexicographer, Ibn Duraid of Basra compiled a crude dictionary of the burgeoning new language: the “Jamhara fi al-Lugha”.
  • In the late 10th century, the Turkic lexicographer, Abu Nasr Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari of Farab produced the foundational “Sihah” dictionary.  Meanwhile, Al-Azhari produced the highly influential “Tahdhib al-Lugha”.  This was a propitious time for CA, as it is when the earliest “Naskh” script was developed from the antecedent Kufic script.
  • In the 11th century, the Andalusian lexicographer, Ibn Sidah of Murcia produced the “Muhkam” dictionary.
  • In the early 13th century, the Persian writer, Al-Saghani produced the “Ubab al-Zakhir wa al-Lubab al-Fakhir”.
  • Around c. 1300, the Tunisian philologist, Ibn Manzur of the Banu Khazraj produced the “Lisan al-Arab” [Tongue of the Arabs], as the need to set the record straight still existed EVEN THEN.  At around the same time, the famed Mamluk muhadith, Al-Dhahabi of Damascus produced the “Nihaya” dictionary, as some clarification of the new language was still in order.

It was not until the late 14th century that the Persian lexicographer, Muhammad ibn Yaqub of Shiraz / Firuzabad (a.k.a. “Al-Shirazi” and “Al-Firuzabadi”) compiled what would thereafter be considered the definitive CA dictionary: The “Qam[o]us al-Muhit” [Surrounding Ocean].  That would serve as the official resource for CA until the turn of the 20th century…when, in the advent of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, the language was updated YET AGAIN.  That last iteration was done by a cadre of “scholars” at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, who rendered the current “Cairo” version of the Koran in 1924.  THAT is the Koran that is used by the vast majority of Muslims to the present day.  (I assay the account of the Koran’s gestation period in “Genesis Of A Holy Book”, where I exclusively make use of Islamic source-material.)

This timeline explains why the EARLIEST commentary on the Koran [“tafsir”] that was written in CA (by Persian writer from Tabaristan known as “Al-Tabari”) was not composed until the early 10th century–almost THREE CENTURIES after the “Recitations” were purportedly delivered.  Any earlier commentaries are gone.  This is unsurprising; for any “tafsir” that may have been composed much earlier would have most likely been written in SYRIAC (using Kufic script or some variant of the Nabataean alphabet). {2}

Recall that Al-Tabari’s work was a redaction of Ibn Hisham’s redaction of Ibn Ishaq’s “Sirah Rasul Allah”…which was itself commissioned by Abbasid caliph, Abu Jafar al-Mansur in the 770’s.  It’s worth noting that Al-Tabari (a Shiite from Amol) was born in northern Persia six years after Ibn Hisham (a Sunni from Basra) died in Egypt; so the two would have never met.  (They probably would not have even met anyone who’d met the other.)  So there would have certainly been a disjuncture in the chain of transmission.

As might be expected, medieval proselytes could not abide this exigency…that is, once CA was established as the putative language of the Abrahamic deity.  For THAT meant that CA would have needed to have been the language in which the Final Revelation was delivered in the early 7th century to MoM himself…which means it must not have been rendered in Syriac.  The vacuum in the textual record is thus explained.

Bear in mind, in the early 8th century, the “Koran” as a complete book did not yet exist.  Accounts provided by Syriac historian, John bar Penkaye [northern Mesopotamia] about his experience of the Mohammedan conquests of the late 7th century make no mention of a sacred book…let alone any book composed in a distinctly Arabic language.  (His writings were composed at the beginning of the 8th century.)

We might note another interesting occurrence on the timeline of CA’s development.  The famed Syriac writer, Hasan bar Bahlul would not compile the first comprehensive Syriac-Arabic dictionary until the 10th century.  Strange, if CA had existed ALL ALONG, that it did not occur to anyone that people might find such a dictionary useful.  To reiterate: This was around the same time that the earliest “Naskh” script was developed from the antecedent Kufic script; which meant that the new language was just coming into its own.

The historical record makes it quite clear: CA was created for the liturgical material of the new-fangled Abrahamic Faith (that is: explicitly for Islamic liturgy; i.e. Koranic verse).  It is NOT the case that CA existed, and the Koran was composed in it.  Since it was—initially—only orally transmitted, it must have been in the lingua franca of the time.  Only later was it rendered in the liturgical language (the first indication of which we find in the inscription on the Dome of the Rock from the last decade of the 7th century).

It is important to note that during the earliest stage of development, CA would have only been used in elite circles; as it was the new liturgical language of what was becoming an Abrahamic Faith in its own right.  It was over the course of the 8th and 9th centuries that it would become a full-fledged language; and thus the lingua franca of the Ishmaelites.

Once CA caught on in the 800’s, its adoption as the lingua franca throughout Dar al-Islam would occur quite rapidly.  This transition may well have been catalyzed by the deliberate establishment of the new holy book IN CA …though still with a Kufic script.

The reasoning here is quite simple: If the liturgical language was seen as HAVING to have been CA (and CA was held as GOD’S language) then such a transition needed to be decisive and complete…even if the script was still evolving.

Consequently, an OFFICIAL rendering of scripture was undertaken so as to afford it distinction from antecedent Abrahamic liturgy–which, in that region, was primarily in Syriac.  What better way to rationalize the UNIQUE nature of the Final Revelation (that is: to distinguish the Koran as inimitable) than to contend that the newly-minted language was the native language of GOD HIMSELF?!  Naturally, there would have been a concerted program for everyone in Dar al-Islam to PROMPTLY learn the language that the Abrahamic deity was declared to have spoken…that is, once CA was finally established.  This pivotal juncture would have roughly coincided with the aforementioned work of “Sibawayh”.

There is no official documentation of this sudden transition; but it is not difficult to connect the dots here.  (I explore this matter further in the Postscript.)  There was a clear reason to christen CA as a liturgical language–just as the Sanhedrin had done with Classical Hebrew (descended from Babylonian Aramaic), just as the Christian monks of Egypt had done with the Sahidic / Thebaic dialect of Coptic (descended from Hieratic Egyptian), and just as the Vatican had done with Vulgar Latin (descended from Etruscan and Attic Greek).

For the impresarios of Islam, the trick would have been to hold that THAT was the language that the exalted “Seal of the Prophets” HIMSELF had spoken.  This claim would require one to assert that it was the language in which the “Recitations” had been originally delivered…and so the language in which it had been recited ALL ALONG.  Thus the oral transmission from MoM’s mouth to the ears of the current listeners would have been maintained with perfect fidelity.  Subsequently, there would have been a vociferous effort to re-write history–a process that, to the present day, requires obfuscation as much as confabulation. {42}

It might be noted that CA was not the only neo-Syriac tongue; as, over time, local Syriac vernaculars would coalesce into distinct languages throughout the region.  For example, “Toroyo” was established in Osroene [Kurdistan]–from the northern Levant, across Nineveh, and into the plain of Urmia (that is: within the ambit of Assyrian neo-Aramaic and Chaldean neo-Aramaic communities).  So the fact that Syriac also underwent a metamorphosis in Syria, trans-Jordan, and the Hijaz is unsurprising.  After all, there were Syriac-speaking Arab tribes as far north as “al-Sham”–as with the “Quda’ah” and “Ma’ad[d]” (a.k.a. the “Sarakenoi”; from which the Occidental term “Saracens” was probably derived).

Syriac even lingered into the 9th century in the heart of the Muslim world.  The “Sabian” mathematician / scientist, Thabit ibn Qurra of Harran (al-Jazira) was renown for having pioneered physics…IN BAGHDAD.  His go-to language was none other than…Syriac.  (Many of the “Sabians” of Harran were Mandaeans.  Others worshipped the Semitic / Assyrian moon-god, Sin…who’s symbol was a crescent moon.)  As might be expected, his works were soon thereafter translated into CA.

To recapitulate: During the 7th and 8th–and even into the 9th–centuries, it was into SYRIAC that scriveners in the Muslim world translated the Ancient Greek texts, not into CA.  This was for the singular reason that CA had yet to become a distinct language.  Only once scribes began using CA for important texts (that is: once the powers-that-be christened it as the liturgical language of Islam) was the Koran rendered in a fully-developed CA.

One might say that the Koran was the first complete work composed in CA…BY DEFINITION.  For CA was created IN ORDER TO BE the liturgical language of the Mohammedan creed.  In other words: It came into existence as a (re-vamped) rendering of the “Recitations”; so naturally the “Recitations” is the first instance in which the exposition is entirely in CA.  The “catch”, of course, is that the Arabic Koran couldn’t help but retain vestiges of its Syriac origins—both folkloric and linguistic.

The earliest book to document the emergence of CA from its Syriac precursors (and the derivation of Islamic lore from antecedent Abrahamic lore) was the aforementioned “Kitab al-Fihrist”.  As discussed above, the tract was composed by Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim of Baghdad (a.k.a. “Abu al-Faraj ibn Abi Yaqub al-Warraq”) c. 959, which was at least 170 years after Al-Farahidi’s “Kitab al-Ayn” (which was purportedly composed during the 780’s).  To reiterate: The majority of intermediate material referenced in the “Kitab al-Fihrist” no longer exists.  Such texts having been either lost or destroyed.  All we have is the aforementioned “isnad” account provided by Al-Nadim in the late 10th century.

Hence CONTEMPORANEOUS documentation of the transition from Syriac to CA during that pivotal time is no longer available to us.  It is no wonder; as that would have provided a concrete record of when (and by what means), exactly, CA actually came into its own.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to connect the dots; and surmise what probably occurred.

An obvious question arises: Given this timeline, what are we to make of the conventional claim that CA had existed as a lingua franca in the Hijaz since the 6th century; and as a liturgical language throughout the Umayyad–then Abbasid–realm since the 7th century, and into the 8th century?  Can this long delay (up to the composition of the “Kitab al-Ayn” in the 780’s) be explained by the fact that CA took two or three centuries to “catch on”?

Put another way: If CA had already been in use during MoM’s lifetime, what were the Muslims waiting for?

One would think that, were CA to have ACTUALLY been the language in which the “Final Revelation” had been revealed (and had the first Mohammedans genuinely believed CA to be the language of GOD HIMSELF), the Muslims would have been doing NOTHING BUT meticulously recording and fastidiously dissecting the language…for themselves and for posterity.  Indeed, they would have been doing so WITHOUT DELAY.   Yet even in c. 848, the Abbasid court’s official astrologer (in Baghdad), Abu Ma’shar of Balkh (a.k.a. “Albumasar”) composed his magnum opus, the “Kitab al‐Mudkhal al‐Kabir” in the PERSIAN literary language: Pahlavi.

So we cannot avoid asking: Might this long delay be attributed to the fact that nobody saw fit to write down what had been deemed god’s tongue? And so nobody saw fit to use this new liturgical language over the course of the one-and-a-half centuries following MoM’s death?

Such a course of events would have been–to put it mildly–highly unlikely.  The most straight-forward explanation is: The language in question was not yet in use.

The earliest bios of MoM were from the early 9th century: Ibn Hisham’s recension of Ibn Ishaq’s “Sira” (purportedly composed in Cairo in the 760’s), which was followed by Al-Waqidi’s recension.  Clearly, modification was rampant–both in medium and in content.  (For details, see my essay, “Genesis Of A Holy Book”.)

As mentioned, once CA was established by the powers-that-be, it caught on rather quickly; and spread like wildfire throughout Dar al-Islam.  It is NOT as if CA was already being widely spoken in the 6th century (as MoM came of age)…and yet was simply held in abeyance for centuries as the new Faith gestated…at which time scholars finally got around to establishing its lexicon and grammar.  Such an account makes no sense whatsoever.

Further archeological evidence points to the real explanation.  Abbasid coins used SYRIAC inscriptions, not CA–as with the golden “dinar” for 8th-century Caliph Al-Mansur (a.k.a. the “Mahdi”). {10}  Upon founding Baghdad, Al-Mansur commissioned scribes (primarily to interpret ancient Greek texts), all of whom were Syriac writers.

The literary record is also quite clear: Syriac continued to be ubiquitous long after MoM’s death; and was the lingua franca right up until, well, it suddenly wasn’t.  While, prior to the 7th century, there were a few short inscriptions in what might be thought of as proto-Arabic, this does not mean CA as it eventually came to be had been fully-developed.  Indeed, as we shall see, ALL those inscriptions were written using some variation of Nabataean script. {2}

Syriac continued as the prevailing lingua franca of the ENTIRE Hijaz long after MoM passed away.  Use of the Palmyrene (Nabataean) script was widespread in the region.  It was even used as far south as Socotra, the main island off the coast of Yemen.  Nestorian (Syriac) Christianity was still prevalent on the island c. 880 when a bishop was consecrated there.  And as late as the 10th century, the Arab geographer, Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani noted that–even by then–most of the inhabitants on the Yemeni island were Christian.  Suffice to say: Those Christians were not new arrivals; they represented the vestiges of a bygone era–during which Syriac was well-known to the denizens of the Hijaz, even in the southernmost locals (where Sabaic / Hadramautic was the indigenous language).

For more on Old South Arabian script and its relation to the script of the Sabaeans (“Zabur”, as found at Ma’rib / Sana’a), see the work of the Austrian Arabist, Eduard Glaser.  In addition to Sabaic, there were Qatabanic (as at Timna), Minaic (as at Dedan), and Hadramautic / Himyaritic (as at Zafar and Aden) variations of the script…all of which were cousins of the Ethiopic script used in Abyssinia: Ge’ez.  This language family began with the Sabaeans, and continued on through the Aksumites.  Meanwhile, Hijazi Syriac–which came from the Nabataeans–was used at Najran; meaning it was used throughout the Hijaz.

So when, exactly, did the crucial transition occur?  As we’ve seen, it was rather abrupt; and corresponds to the sudden emergence of Koranic manuscripts.  Evidence indicates that is happened over the course of just a few generations–starting toward the end of the 8th century and on through the 9th century.  So by the END of the 9th century, even NON-Muslims in the Levant and al-Sham (e.g. the Melkite bishop of Harran, Theodore Abu Qurrah) were composing theological tracts in CA.  This was a monumental transition; a significant shift that indicates something about the linguistic conditions within which the “dhimmi” community operated–under Islamic dominion–by that point in time.

The fact that even non-Muslims suddenly adopted this new language, and did so quite suddenly, and at THAT point in time, indicates that when it arrived, Islam’s liturgical language quickly dominated.

Alternative explanations strain credulity.  That is: It is very unlikely that CA had already existed for centuries, yet had been inexplicably kept in abeyance by Mohammedan rulers all that time.  This is especially clear considering that even after CA started being widely used, for centuries many “Arabic” texts will STILL WRITTEN using Syriac script (Serta / Psita in the western regions; Swadaya / Madnhaya in the eastern regions): a practice now referred to as “Garshuni”.

In his “The Formation of Islam”, Jonathan Berkey put it thus: “Certainly [the emergence of CA in the 9th century] reflects the astonishingly rapid progress of the adoption of [CA] by the inhabitants of the Near East, both those who converted to Islam as well as those who remained faithful to the older religious traditions” (p. 167).  And so it went: After a millennium of widespread usage, Syriac almost vanished within just a few generations.

To reiterate: This sudden linguistic transplantation occurred well over two centuries AFTER MoM’s ministry.

The hasty dissipation of Syriac was concomitant with the abrupt emergence of CA…which was ALSO concomitant with the development of Mohammedan scripture.  This was no coincidence; it was a deliberate linguistic shift, undertaken for perfectly understandable reasons.  Every religion fancies its own proprietary LITURGICAL LANGUAGE, and the Mohammedans were no different.  The protagonist of their holy book would not have delivered his final revelation IN SYRIAC: tongue of the pagans and Christians!  Once Islamic dominion in the region was absolute, the transition was inevitable.

When the Sufi / Hanbali mu-hadith, [Abu Ismail] Khwaja Abdullah al-Ansari of Herat / Balkh penned his landmark work, the “Munajat Namah” [Book of Propitiation] in the 11th century, he wrote it in Pahlavi; not in CA. {45}  Only later was it translated into medieval Arabic.  (Note: If it had ORIGINALLY been in CA, scribes likely would have KEPT it in CA.)

By the 11th century, even Jewish thinkers in Andalusia were writing in CA–as demonstrated by Bahya ben Yuseph ibn Paquda of Zaragoza (a.k.a. “Rabbeinu Bachya”), who composed the first Judaic system of ethics c. 1040 IN ARABIC.  The work was originally entitled the “Hidayah ila Faraid al-Qulub” [Guide to the Duties of the Heart], and was only later translated into Hebrew (as “Chovot Ha-Levavot”).  Most notably, Maimonides (who lived in Muslim Andalusia) composed his “Guide to the Perplexed” c. 1185 in medieval Arabic.  And so once CA caught on, we find that there was little inclination to write things in ANYTHING ELSE (within the Muslim world).  That was the case even when it came to Judaic texts.

This should not distract us from the fact that there are many instances where books by early Muslims–which EVENTUALLY came to be known in their CA incarnations–were ORIGINALLY written in Syriac.  Indeed, it should make us very suspicious that the original versions are now long-lost (quite possibly destroyed)–a peculiar eventuality considering such texts would have been highly valued.

A notable example is the “Kitab al-Hayawan” [Book of Animals; an adaptation of Aristotle’s work].  Also notable is the book on statecraft, the “Kitab Sirr al-Asrar” [Secret Book of Secrets; later rendered in Latin as “Secretum Secretorum”].  Both works were composed by Abu Yahya ibn al-Batriq in the late 8th century.  Both works were eventually rendered from Syriac into CA; but not until–you guessed it–the 9th century. {8}  This would only make sense if CA did not yet become an auspicious language UNTIL THEN. {9}  If CA had already been in usage during the 7th century, why were the most important books in the region–COMPOSED BY MUSLIMS–still being written in Syriac in the 8th century? {7}

Also telling: Greek works that were eventually rendered in CA were often translated from SYRIAC, not directly from the Greek–as the famed Abbasid translator, Abu Bishr Matta ibn Yunus of dayr Qunna demonstrated in Baghdad when working for the Abbasids in the early 10th century.  This Syriac philosopher translated Aristotle’s works into CA from Syriac manuscripts–many of which were from Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi of the 9th century.  This begs the question: Had CA already existed, why is it that the scriveners SKIPPED it, waiting centuries before finally deciding it was time to create editions in CA?  And why did those manuscripts COME FROM Syriac?

Another historical fact worth noting:  The city of Harran [alt. “Carrhae”] in Nineveh was home of the (Arab) Mudar tribe and the Mandaeans (referred to in the Koran as “Sabians”).  In the 740’s, the city served as the capital of the Umayyad caliphate.  During the 8th and 9th centuries (that is: long AFTER it had fallen within the Mohammedan dominion), the city’s scribes were translating ancient Greek works into…SYRIAC.  As we’ve seen, only later was the material rendered in Arabic.

We might ask of this long delay: Why did the sudden inclination to translate such works into CA not arise UNTIL THEN?  Answer: CA did not exist as a full-fledged language until long after the Mohammedan movement came into existence.

Alexandrian expositor, Claudius Ptolemy’s “Mathematike Syntaxis” was translated into Syriac before it was eventually translated into CA, whereupon it was rendered “Al-Majisti” (Romanized to “Almagest”).  The same went for the works of the Egyptian alchemist, Zosimos of Panopolis: Syriac first…THEN CA later on.

Other evidence comports with the above timeline.  The first Arabic rendering of the New Testament did not appear until the end of the 8th century–a fact attested by Coptic patriarch, Tawadrus II of Alexandria.  Arabic versions of the Torah did not appear until the 10th century. (!)  This would not have made any sense had the earliest Mohammedans spoken CA.  After all, they had familiarity with both the Torah and the Gospels, which means such material was being circulated at the time…if not in CA, then in something else.

What other important texts attest to this timeline?  The first geographical tract to use CA would not be written until c. 870.  It was the “Kitab al-Masalik w’al Mamalik” [Book of Roads and Kingdoms] by Ibn Khordadbeh.  As it so happens, that is roughly when the “Recitations” began appearing in a fully-developed CA.  Coincidence?  Hardly.

We can venture back a bit further in history to make the present point.  Let’s look at literature in the region.  Prior to MoM’s lifetime, Arabia boasted a plethora of revered poets.  Ten of the most prominent:

  • As-Samaw’al ibn Adiya of the Banu Harith
  • Ziyad ibn Muawiyah of the Banu Dhubyan (a.k.a. “Al-Nabigha”)
  • Alqama ibn Ubada of the Banu Tamim (a.k.a. “Alqama al-Fahl”)
  • Maymun ibn Qays al-Asha of the Banu Hanifa [at Hajr, in Yamamah, in the Najd]
  • Tarafa ibn al-Abd of the Banu Bakr
  • Harith ibn Hilliza al-Yashkuri of the Banu Bakr
  • Abu Aqil Labid ibn Rabiah of the Banu Amir / Hawazin
  • Imr[u] al-Qays ibn Hujr of the Banu Kindah
  • Maymun ibn Qays “al-A’sha” of the Banu Hanifa [at Hajr, in Yamamah, in the Najd]
  • Umaiya [alt. Umayya] ibn Abi as-Salt of the Banu Khuza’a [hailing from Ta’if; ostensive progenitor of the Umayyads via Sufyan]

All of them would have written in Syriac.  In pre-Islamic Arabia, women were also accorded literary stature–as with the poetesses, Afira bint Abbad of Yamama (who earned renown in the 3rd century) and Layla bint Lukayz (who earned renown in the 5th century).  They too would have composed their verse in Syriac.

By the time of MoM’s ministry, the famed Nestorian missionary, Alopen, was converting communities as far east as China to the (Syriac) Nestorian Faith.  Within three years of MoM’s death, Alopen had established a Syriac church in China’s capital, Chang’an.  This shows how widespread the language had become.  During MoM’s lifetime, the Sassanian Queen (wife of Khosrow II) was a Syriac Christian from Khuzestan.  (Shirin was likely from either Gundishapur or Susa.)  Suffice to say: By the time MoM died, Syriac had reached far beyond Arabia.

During MoM’s lifetime, Arabian poets included:

  • Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma of the Banu Muzaina (a.k.a. “Zoheir”)
  • Hatim of the Banu Tayy
  • Jabal ibn Jawwal of the Banu Taghlib
  • Amr ibn Kulthum of the Banu Taghlib
  • Uday [alt. “Adi”] ibn Zayd [alt. “Zaid”] of the Banu Lakhm, hailing from Al-Hirah
  • Adi ibn Zayd of Al-Hirah
  • Maymun ibn Qays al-A’sha

(Antar[ah] ibn Shaddad was likely more legendary than historical.)  All of them would have written in Syriac. 

There were also plenty of female poets in Arabia during MoM’s lifetime–including:

  • Safiyah bint Thalabah al-Shaybaniyah of the Banu Shayban (a.k.a. “Al-Hujayjah”)
  • Qutayla ukht al-Nadr of the Banu Quraysh
  • Hind bint al-Numan of the Banu Lakhm (a.k.a. “Al-Hurqah”)
  • Tumadir bint Amr ibn al-Harith ibn al-Sharid al-Sulamiyah of the Najd (a.k.a. “Al-Khansa” [the gazelle])
  • Al-Khirniq bint Badr
  • Asma bint Marwan
  • Jewish poetess, Sarah of Yemen [of the Banu Qurayza]

All of them would have written in Syriac.  Had the works of such writers been in CA all along, the late issue of their CA editions would be utterly inexplicable.  But the textual record makes perfect sense once we realize these writers would NOT have been composing their material in CA, as CA did not yet exist.  Every one of these poets would have written their verse in Syriac.

Later there lived the Hashimite poet, Al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadi of Kufa (ref. his pro-Ali’d “Hashimiyyat”) and the pro-Zoroastrian poet, Bashar ibn Burd of the Banu Uqayl (who spent his life in Basra).  Both of those men wrote in the 8th century; and both of were killed for their heretical views.  No manuscripts of their material exist until AFTER c. 800 (that is: until after CA would have been fully-developed).

The natural question to pose is: Are there ANY manuscripts of ANY material by an Arabian poet who lived prior c. 800 (that is: manuscripts that date back to their lifetime)?  As it turns out, NOT ONE such manuscript exists.  Is this some bizarre coincidence?  What could possibly explain this peculiar hiatus in the textual record?

Let’s pose the question another way: If the Ishmaelites were so proud of their ARABIC literary heritage (that is: up to the time the Koran started being rendered in CA), then why doesn’t the material (of ANY of the major writers listed above) survive?

In the Middle East, the 7th century was a high point in the history of translation from Greek to Syriac.  This would not have made sense had CA been ascendent.  In fact, those who spoke Greek would not encounter the need to translate their tongue into CA for centuries to come.  Clearly, the hegemonic Ishmaelite empire spoke Syriac.

But what about the famed Persian writer, Abu Nuwas [al-Hasan] ibn Hani of Avaz ([k]Huz-i-stan), who wrote in the late 8th / early 9th century?  Didn’t HE write in Arabic?  It’s difficult to say for sure.

At the time, his hometown, Avaz, was known in Persian as “Huz” (alt. “[k]Haja”); and in Syriac as “Bet Huzaye” [“House of the Huz[i]”].  It was located on the site of the ancient Elamite / Achaemenid city of Taryana.  (The city later came to be known in Arabic as “Ahwaz”.)  Abu Nuwas spent much of his early life in Basra; and was eventually taken under the wing of the (Syriac) writer, Abu Usama Waliba ibn al-Hubab al-Asadi of Kufa.  The two became lovers.  Abu Nuwas’ material—most likely composed in Kufic script—was eventually compiled by another writer in Kufa: Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn al-Sikkit.  As we’ve seen, Kufa was where Syriac underwent the transformation into CA.

Abu Nuwas’ material was eventually compiled / edited in the 10th century by the Turkic writer, Abu Bakr ibn Yahya ibn al-Abbas al-Suli of Astara-bad (located in Gol-i-stan, northern Persia; later named “Gorgan”).  Al-Suli spent most of his career in Basra, and was renown for his commentaries on “shatranj” [chess].  It is Al-Suli who was probably the first to render Abu Nuwas’ works in CA.  He is also the primary source for the “Hamasah” (poetry) of the famed Arab (Tayy) poet, Habib ibn Aws al-Ta’i of Jasim (a.k.a. “Abu Tammam”). {49}  Much of what we now know about Abu Nuwas is folkloric, as he eventually became a character in the anthology, “One Thousand And One Nights”.  What we DO know is that he was known for erotic poetry—often involving pedophilia (which was endorsed in the Sunnah).  It is a stretch to simply assume he wrote in CA.  In fact, he was writing during the Syriac-to-CA transition period; and—unfortunately—we don’t have what HE PERSONALLY wrote; we only have Al-Suli’s redactions of Al-Sikkit’s redactions of whatever he actually wrote.

Rather than a treasure trove of literary achievements in CA, there is a startling absence–nay: a COMPLETE TEXTUAL VACUUM.  It might be noted that this is a vacuum that occurs precisely when preserving texts in CA–purportedly god’s favorite language–would have been of paramount concern. (!)  It is unreasonable to suppose that ALL of the works of those authors were destroyed (presumably due to the fact that every last verse of the material was deemed heretical).  It is more likely that none of the originals were preserved for reasons that had to do with the language in which they were written being supplanted.  (In other words: The disappearance can be explained more by concerns about the medium than about the content.)

As it turns out, the only record of ANY of the aforementioned material is from later editions of anthologies…all of which were back-dated. (!)  These anthologies (collectively known as “Hamasah” [tales of valor]) were not rendered in CA until the 9th century.  The most renown of these were:

  • The “Jamharat Ash’ar al-Arab” compiled by Abu Zayd Muhammad of the Quraysh [a.k.a. “Zayd ibn Al-Khattab”] (purportedly composed in the 7th century)
  • The “Mufaddaliyyat” compiled by the Persian writer, Mufaddal al-Dabbi of Kufa (purportedly composed in the 8th century) {12}
  • The “Mu’allaqat” compiled by Daylamite-Persian writer, Hammad “Al-Rawiya” [the transmitter] of Kufa (purportedly composed in the 8th century)
  • The “Asma’iyyat” compiled by Abu Said Abd al-Malik ibn Qurayb al-Asma’i of Basra (purportedly composed in the late 8th century)
  • The “Kitab al-Hamasah” compiled by Habib ibn Aws of the Banu Tayy [a.k.a. “Abu Tammam”]

The delay in the appearance of these editions is–to put it mildly–rather suspicious.  There is no evidence of any poetry written in (fully-developed) CA prior to c. 800 because there is no evidence of ANYTHING written in (fully-developed) CA prior to c. 800.  How might this glaring absence be accounted for?

The most plausible explanation is that such material was originally composed in a language that Islamic scribes were determined to supplant: Syriac (i.e. NOT the new liturgical language, which was supposed to be eternal). {39}

It was not until the Abbasid prince, Abd Allah ibn al-Mu’utaz of Samarra composed his magnum opus, the “Kitab al-Badi” c. 900 that we (FINALLY) find poetry composed in CA.  And it was not until the 10th century that Abu al-Faraq of Isfahan (a.k.a. “Abulfaraj”) compiled the massive “Kitab al-Aghani” [Book of Songs] that a full anthology of Middle-Eastern poetry was finally rendered in CA.  Had CA existed ALL ALONG, this delay would be utterly inexplicable.  Supposing CA had been in wide use since the 6th century requires one to engage in a flight of fancy bordering on absurdity.

Note: It was also in the 10th century that Al-Walid ibn Ubayd’illah Al-Buhturi of the Banu Tayy composed his “diwans”.  This timeline would be baffling if we were to suppose CA had already been in full use throughout the region since MoM’s lifetime.  Given the present thesis, such bafflement is not warranted.

Meanwhile, the Persian “Khwaday Namag” [Book of Kings] was not translated into CA until the 13th century.  That translation was done by Al-Fath ibn Ali al-Bondari of Isfahan, at the request of the Ayyubid Sultan, Al-Mu’azzam Isa of Damascus.  But that was ITSELF an adaptation the “Shah-nameh” by Persian author, Ferdawsi…which would have been written in Pahlavi.

Shortly after the first Mohammedan conquests, there was a period of “silence” during which explicitly Persian literature temporarily ceased—roughly a century: from the late 7th to the late 8th century.  The Persian language entered this period as Middle Persian (Pahlavi); and emerged from it in its modern form (strongly influenced by medieval Arabic).  There was obviously some major linguistic revamping that occurred during this time.  Lo and behold: It was during that “silent” (one might say: silenced) period that CA came into existence.  As we’ve seen, this new liturgical language developed primarily from Syriac…though incorporated elements of extant Persian vernacular.  The re-emergence of Persian material was facilitated by the (Islamic) Samanids; and was written in a (Persian) variation of Arabic script: “Taliq” (later, “Nas[k]h-Taliq”).

Before that transitional period, the Persian language had primarily been used for religious (Zoroastrian) literature—as with the Denkard, Bundahisn, Vendidad, and even the Avesta (which had originally been composed in Avestan).  Pursuant to the Mohammedan conquests, such material was destroyed; as it was deemed heretical.  Other material, such as the “Khwaday-Namag” [“Book of Lords”], was deemed subversive; so that was destroyed as well.  Such abolition had enduring repercussions.  Henceforth, Persian could no longer be used for heretical material.  It was not until the late 10th century that the Samanid author, Ferdowsi of Tus was able to compose the “Shah-nama”: the first major work in modern Persian; effectively a re-vamping of the Sassanian “Khwaday-Namag”—though a rendition that comported with Islamic sensibilities.  By then, the writing was being done in Nastaliq; Pahlavi was no more.  Shortly thereafter, Persian literature enjoyed somewhat of a Renaissance—as with Ursuli’s “Vamiku u Adhra” [“The Lover And The Virgin”] (based on the Greek work, “Metiochus and Parthenope”) c. 1000.

And so it went: Persian—specifically, Zoroastrian—culture (temples, literature, rituals, etc.) was eradicated because the entirety of Zoroastrian lands were overtaken.  That meant that THAT religion no longer posed a threat to Dar al-Islam.  By contrast, the Eastern Roman (Greek; Byzantine) and Western Roman (Latin; Roman Catholic) empires persisted; which meant that they remained somewhat of a threat. {52}  Theologically, this entailed that Trinitarianism would continue to be a point of contention.

The question remains: How ubiquitous WAS Syriac in the Middle East prior to the 9th century?  Was it really the predominant linga franca at the time?  Consider this: Even those in the region who were NOT in the Syriac “Church of the East” (that is: even those who were Orthodox Christians instead of Nestorians) STILL often became versed in Syriac–as with the Byzantine writer, Marutha[s] of Mayperqit [alt. “Martyropolis”], who lived during the late 4th / early 5th century (and was also conversant in Middle Persian).  This is quite telling, as the liturgical language of the Byzantine Church was Koine Greek.  Syriac needed to have been predominant if those in the Roman Church who lived in the Middle East found the need to use it in their liturgies (which were nominally in Koine Greek).

Needless to say, Marutha did not speak or write in CA; as it did not yet exist.

Some of the first poets to write using CA were Al-Masudi of Baghdad (in the 10th century) and Al-Tha’alibi of Nishapur (in the early 11th century).  Al-Masudi’s “Muruj ad-Dahab wa Ma’adin al-Jawhar” [“Meadows Of Gold And Mines Of Gems”] seems to have been inspired by the work of the Persian writer, Abu Hanifah Ahmad ibn Dawood of Dinawar (who wrote using Kufic script during the 9th century; as he was a student of Al-Kisai’i and Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn as-Sikkit: prominent figures in the school at Kufa).

Retro-active onomastic adjustments were standard operating procedure for those seeking to elide the Syriac origins of lore within Dar al-Islam.  The case of “Kalilah and Dimna” is perhaps the most revealing; so it is worth exploring this at length.  We begin with the Persian writer, Roozbeh pur-i Dadoe hailed from the ancient city of Shahr-i Gor in Fars; and ended up spending most of his career in Basra serving the caliphate.  His rendition of the tale was lifted from a previous version by the renown Persian polymath, Burzmihr / Bozorgmehr of Merv (a.k.a. “Borzuya”), which itself had been adapted from the Vedic “Pancha-tantra” during MoM’s lifetime.

In order to ascribe to Roozbeh pur-i Dado an Arab pedigree, his name was retroactively Arabized to “Abu-Muhammad Abd-ullah Ruzbeh ibn Daduya” (a.k.a. “Ibn al-Muqaffa”).  This was done, we can only presume, to make it seem plausible that HIS rendition of the tale was originally composed in CA.  Ibn al-Muqaffa died shortly before c. 760, long before CA had become a literary language, when Persians were still writing in Pahlavi.

When Ibn al-Muqaffa decided to translate the Pahlavi version of the tale in the 730’s / 740’s (over a century after MoM’s death), he translated it into SYRIAC, not into CA.  The Indian story collection included the tale of “Karirak ud Damanak” (alt. dubbed the “Fable of Bidpai”).  It was thus rendered “Kalilag va Damnag” [alt. Kalile va Demne”]–that is: IN SYRIAC.  Why?  Because, at the time, CA did not yet exist, so Syriac was the natural alternative to Pahlavi.

Unsurprisingly, the earliest version of this classic work that was composed in CA dates only to the 12th century. (!)  ONLY THEN was the title rendered in the more familiar Arabic: “Kalilah wa Dimna”.  Why the long delay in the emergence of a CA version?  The answer should be obvious.

Predictably, to this day, Islamic revisionists erroneously attribute the CA version of this romance to Roozbeh pur-i Dadoe (who they still refer to by his Arabized moniker).  This enables them to pretend that CA was the language in which the work was originally composed (i.e. the language in which it had been rendered all along).  Again: Why the obfuscation?  As usual, it’s the attempted cover-up that serves as evidence for the boondoggle.

The explanation for such post-hoc onomastic tweaking is straight-forward.  Why would Roozbeh pur-i Dadoe have bothered translating the work into Syriac if CA was the go-to language in the 8th century?  Moreover, to concede that Persian was the language of choice for literary works at the time would be to concede that CA was NOT YET the exalted language that it eventually came to be.

Of course, it stands to reason that those who fetishize CA want to make it appear as though CA was the language that literati in the Middle East were using ALL THE WHILE.  Clearly it was not; but that cannot be openly admitted…lest the rationalization for CA as a liturgical language collapses (i.e. that it was the language in which the Creator of the Universe delivered his final revelation in the early 7th century).  The fact of the matter is: CA did not yet exist as a fully-developed language–let alone as a full-fledged lingua franca–at the time (i.e. until the late 8th century); so the ACTUAL historical record makes perfect sense. 

Alas.  Incontrovertible as it may be, this fact is routinely elided by apologists to the present day. {15}

So what are we to make of the Arabic “Kalilah wa Dimna” from the 12th century?  As it turns out, the literary value of the CA version of the Pahlavi “Karirak ud Damanak” could not compete with the (superior) literary value of antecedent versions.  Hence we should not be surprised to learn that versions of the classic Indian fable eventually found in Greece and western Europe (notably, “Calila e Dimna” in Old Castilian c. 1251) were translated NOT from the (inferior) CA, but instead directly from the earlier Pahlavi (Middle Persian)…and even from its Sanskrit precursors. {13}

Meanwhile, the version in medieval (Masoretic) Hebrew from the 12th century (an edition that is attributed to “Joel”) was most likely based on the Syriac version (“Kalilag va Damnag”), NOT on a CA version.

We can celebrate the Romance of Kalilah and Dimna as a great achievement of Arabic literature ‘til the cows come home; yet doing so does not attest to the language actually used in the Hijaz in the 6th / 7th century.

This was not an isolated case.  The Persian epic “Hamza-nama” [“Book of Hamza”; alt. “Dastan-i Hamza”] was composed IN PAHLAVI.  The original tale was about the Kharijite rebel leader, Hamza ibn Abdullah, who led an uprising against caliph Harun al-Rashid c. 800.  Only later–when it was rendered in CA–was the tale re-vamped to be about a different Hamza: Hamza ibn Abdul Muttalib (the fabled uncle of Mohammed of Mecca); and rendered the “Maghazi” of Amir Hamza.  In the revamped (Islamic) version, the conflict was–implausibly–re-conceived as the fabled Battle of Uhud (c. 625).  Once more, we see that it is the attempted cover-up that reveals what likely occurred. {47}

This timeline makes perfect sense considering the sequence of literature enumerated earlier.

It’s also worth noting that the “Story of Ahikar” was originally rendered in Aramaic, then in Syriac…and only AFTER THAT into Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Old Turkic, and CA.  Why would something that had originally been in CA be translated into Syriac (with the original CA version lost); and then, later on, from THAT into CA?

Yet another case-in-point is the forgery known as the “Secretum Secretorum” [Latin: “Secret of Secrets”], purported to have been a letter composed by Aristotle to his pupil, Alexander the Great (from the 4th century B.C.)  In reality, the document was a hoax, eventually written in CA during the 10th century A.D.  But what was THAT based on?  The writers themselves admit that their rendition had been translated FROM SYRIAC.  That this infamous document was not rendered in CA until the 10th century is very telling.

In fact, in ANY case where a work has been rendered in both Syriac and CA, it was ALWAYS in Syriac first (then translated into CA much later), not the other way around.  If CA had been in use all along, this trend would be utterly inexplicable.  As mentioned in the previous essay, another instance of this retro-active ascription was the Syriac “Infancy Gospel”, often erroneously labeled the “ARABIC Infancy Gospel” so as to obfuscate the fact that the material was originally composed IN SYRIAC (as CA had not yet been fully-developed when Arabians became familiar with it).  Such mis-attribution is not uncommon–as it also occurred with “Arabian Nights” (Persian, not Arabian) and “Arabic numerals” (Indian, not Arabic).

Islamic historiography is rife with revisionism.  For example, scriveners rendered the name of the famed Persian (Karenid) scholar, Wuzurg-Mihr-i Bokhtagan (alt. “Dad-burz-Mihr” or “Zar-Mihr”) into “Bozorjmehr”…perhaps to elide the fact that he was named after “Mithra” (“Mihr”).  (The first part of the original name was theophoric; the latter part was patronymic, and pertained to his father, “Bokhtagan” / “Sukhra”, who hailed from the Karen line.)  Wuzurg-Mihr, it might be noted, would have been a contemporary of MoM.

One of the first scholars to bring Greek knowledge to the Middle East was Sergius of Reshaina, who–while studying in Alexandria in the early 6th century–translated Greek medical texts (esp. those of Galen) into Syriac.  During the Islamic Golden Age, those works would eventually be translated into CA–starting with the scholar, Hunayn ibn Ishaq “Al-Ibadi”.  As it turns out, Al-Ibadi wrote in Syriac AS WELL.  Notably, he was one of the FIRST Muslim scriveners to translate extant texts into the new Arabic language.  That was in the 9th century.

By the end of the 9th century, Thabit ibn Qurra was still composing many of his works in Syriac, though he ALSO composed some works in the new language: CA.  It was only in the 11th century that a glossary of Syriac terms IN CA was finally produced (by Elijah of Nisibis).

As late as the 12th century, we read accounts of Christian pilgrims referring to the script used by the Saracens (the Arabs / Syrians / Ishmaelites) as “the Saracenic alphabet”.  We find this with other accounts, in which we are told about “Saracenic inscriptions” (see F.E. Peters’ “Jerusalem”; p. 320).  Such expositors thought of CA as the peculiar new script of the Mohammedans; and did not know it as “Arabic” (that is: NOT as a lingua franca that had existed in the region all along).  It was, in fact, a novel offshoot of Syriac.  So what did medieval expositors call SYRIAC?  The “Chaldean alphabet” (i.e. neo-Aramaic).

There is one other notable example of an important text originally composed in Syriac yet later rendered in CA…whereafter all the original Syriac source-material was systematically erased from the textual record.  What, pray tell, might that example be?

The Koran.

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