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Sabataean writing

Arabic language: Sabataean writing

Where did Arabic come from?

Arabic is in the Semitic language group. Semitic languages seem to have gotten started before the beginning of writing. That would be before about 3000 BC.

Probably Semitic languages developed from an earlier language somewhere near modern Syria. A different branch of that earlier language became Ancient Egyptian.

Semitic languages
All Islamic Empire articles
All our West Asia articles

Semitic languages spread from Syria through Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Finally they reached the Arabian peninsula. Because the Arabian peninsula was more isolated, people there kept speaking this older version of the language.

Early history of the Arabian Peninsula
Geography of the Arabian Peninsula

But in Israel and Syria, Semitic languages mixed more with Indo-European and other language groups. So the language changed into Hebrew and Aramaic.

When did people start to write Arabic?

Comparing the early alphabetsUntil the time of Mohammed, in the 600s AD, people mostly spoke Arabic and didn’t write it. Still, there are some written records from the Arabian peninsula from before the 600s AD. We call these Sabataean. But Sabataean writing is only short inscriptions in stone, not literature.

Who was Mohammed?
The Early Middle Ages

The alphabet first came to the Arabian peninsula not too much before 400 AD.  Very soon, people used it to write Arabic. So the Arabic alphabet, like all the other alphabets in the world, comes from the first alphabet invented in the Levant (in the Sinai).

History of the alphabet
Source of alphabet letters

Arabic spreads to Africa and India

But Arabic had a bigger future ahead of it. After the Islamic conquests of the late 600s AD, people started to speak Arabic all over the Islamic Empire. People spoke Arabic from Afghanistan to Spain. By 1000 AD, some people knew Arabic even in India and East Africa.

History of East Africa

Arabic religion and science

Many people began to write in Arabic. Among the first things they wrote was the Quran. But soon scientists and doctors wrote many Arabic scientific texts. They wrote medical books and math books.

What is the Quran?
Medieval Islamic science

Arabic script writing the name of God (Allah)

Arabic script writing the name of God (Allah)

Arabic stories and histories

People also wrote Arabic stories like the Arabian Nights or the Shahnameh.

Arabian Nights

Arabic writers retold older stories from other places. The Greek story of Odysseus and the Cyclops finds its way into the story of Sinbad the Sailor. Arabic writers also retold the Buddhist Jataka Tales from India as Nasruddin stories.  (You can compare stories about the trickster Nasruddin to African Anansi stories, too)

Sinbad the Sailor
Mullah Nasruddin

There were many Arab historiansgeographersphilosophers, and poets, both men and women.

Islamic geography
Islamic historians
Philosophy in medieval Islam
Poetry in medieval Islam

Islamic writing in Persian

But in the eastern part of the Islamic Empire, many people still spoke and wrote in Persian (an Indo-European language). One famous Persian story, written about 1000 AD, is the story of Sohrab and Rustem.

Sohrab and Rustem

Here’s a song by Yusuf Islam (who used to be Cat Stevens) to teach the Arabic alphabet:

Islamic writing in Turkish

Beginning in the later medieval period, Turkic and Altaic people from Central Asia moved into West Asia. These people also told or wrote stories in Turkish. They wrote their own stories, like the Alpamysh.

Central Asian literature

Learn by doing: learn to write the Arabic alphabet
The Shahnameh
The Arabian Nights
Ancient Islam

Bibliography and further reading about Arabic and Islamic literature:

African Literature
Ancient Islam home