Diacritical Marks of the Qur'an
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The earliest manuscripts of the Qur'an made very limited use of diacritical marks, which is true also of other early Arabic documents of the 7th century. Dots (or small dashes) to distingish homographic consonants such as ت and ب were used only sporadically at first, and markings for short vowels begin to be seen in the late 7th / early 8th century CE, when coloured dots are introduced for that purpose, indicating a wide variety of reading traditions. There was also a lack of word-internal alifs in such manuscripts. Hamza and tanwin are not marked in early manuscripts either, though academic research has demonstrated that these were not spoken in the Old Hijazi dialect in which the Quran was originally uttered, and there was a reduced grammatical case ending system which was later classicized.
Due to such limited use of diacritical marks in the earliest Quranic manuscripts, as well as the variant oral reading traditions, and also because Muhammad may have allowed leeway in the reading of each word, it is sometimes not possible to have confidence in the original meaning of the consonantal text standardised by Caliph Uthman around 650 CE, though for the majority of the text there was agreement. Through the abundance of opportunities to make mistakes it is likely true that the Qur'an has been altered at least through grammatical changes, individual letters, and sometimes changes to individual words, so that we cannot be sure which (if any) of the variant reading traditions and associated manuscripts correctly preserve the original Quran to the letter or even to the word, as many claim, even as standardised under Uthman.
Modern Academic Research
While it is commonly stated on websites and even by many Muslim scholars today that the earliest Quranic manuscripts entirely lacked diacritical markings, that is a mistaken view largely based on the fact that Kufic manuscripts of the 8th century for a time omitted them entirely. The very oldest manuscripts of the 7th century CE in the Hijazi script style do generally contain a very limited amount of markings to distinguish consonants. Adam Bursi writes in his academic paper, Connecting the Dots: Diacritics, Scribal Culture, and the Qurʾān in the First/Seventh Century, about the early use of diacritics for homographic letters (consonants of otherwise indistinguishable letter shape):
However, while diacritics were clearly used in the Arabic script of the first/seventh century, they were deployed in ways that seem counterintuitive to modern eyes. Manuscripts, papyri, and inscriptions from this period do not display diacritics consistently on every consonantal letter that would exhibit a diacritic in modern Arabic script; instead, diacritics appear in these texts infrequently, often leaving the text quite ambiguous. Illustrating the distinction between a first/seventh-century Qurʾān manuscript and a modern printed edition, François Déroche notes that on one folio page containing most of Q Tawbah 9:113–121, there are eight dotted letters where the equivalent modern text has 240 of them.
Regarding short vowels, Bursi writes:
Similarly, Dr Marijn van Putten, leading academic specialist in Quranic Arabic, manuscripts and the reading traditions, writes:
Since there was agreement on how to read most of the Quran, the oral tradition(s) and obviousness must have prevented disagreement for the most part in reading the text. Nevertheless, around 1400 words have variant readings even between the canonical (accepted) oral readings of the Quranic text and there were many thousands more non-canonical variants recited in the first few centuries (see Textual History of the Qur'an). Moreover, Marijn van Putten and his colleagues have demonstrated with a wide range of evidence that the original dialect of the Quran lacked certain elements like hamza, tanwin, and had a reduced grammatical case system. He explains that pragmatic considerations and extra-linguistic hints would have resolved to a large extent the resulting ambiguities, though nevertheless the readers had some ambiguity to deal with:
On ambiguities involving homographic consonants which may be dotted different ways, he writes:
For more information on the dialect of the Quranic consonantal text see Textual History of the Qur'an.
Importance of Diacritical marks
As we stated earlier, the Qur'an was written largely without diacritical marks. At the time of Muhammad, Arabic orthography was yet to develop into what we have known for centuries. There was very limited use of marks to distingish between consonants of the Arabic alphabet of similar shape (homographic) and there were no short vowel marks or word-internal alifs. While agreement on how to read most of the text is due to it being obvious and a common memory or understanding for the most part, the history of recorded variant recitations and manuscripts show that often the readers needed to interpret and choose for themselves from the many possible meanings available in the Arabic without diacritical marks.
Here a couple of examples from the canonical (accepted) readings of the Quran involving variant consonantal dottings. The first example changes one root word into another, while the second example affects the grammatical subject of the verb.
|Verse||Reading 1||Reading 2||Notes||Variants translation, transliteration, and Arabic script|
|Quran 43:19||Warsh from Nafi, Ibn Kathir, and Ibn 'Amir:
And they have made the angels, who are with [ʿinda عِندَ] the Most Merciful, females. Did they witness their creation? Their testimony will be recorded, and they will be questioned.
|The other readers:
And they have made the angels, who are servants [ʿibādu عِبَٰدُ] of the Most Merciful, females. Did they witness their creation? Their testimony will be recorded, and they will be questioned.
|Quran 20:96||Hamza and al-Kisa'i:
He said, "I saw what you did not see [tabṣurū تَبْصُرُوا۟], so I took a handful [of dust] from the track of the messenger and threw it, and thus did my soul entice me."
|The other readers:
He said, "I saw what they did not see [yabṣurū يَبْصُرُوا۟], so I took a handful [of dust] from the track of the messenger and threw it, and thus did my soul entice me."
|Al-Samiri talking to Moses. Which version is he supposed to have said?||Bridges translation|
In order for non-Arabic speakers to understand what is being discussed here, we will look at several Arabic words and how the use of diacritical marks for consonants affect their meanings and can even change one word into another of a completely different consonantal root:
The word for “girl” is “bent” (بنت). The word is composed of three letters which are “Ba” (ب), “n” or noon” (ن), and “Ta” (ت). When these three letters are connected to each other without diacritical marks they will appear identical. They will look like three adjacent crescents facing upwards (بنت without dots). The difference between them is nothing. Only the diacritical marks (and the dots) can differentiate between them. Here is how it works:
- If you put one point below any one of them, it's "Ba" (ب)
- If you put two points below any one of them, it's "ya" (ي when written inside a word looks like ييي)
- If you put one point above any one of them, it's "non" (ن when written inside a word looks like ننن)
- If you put two points above any one of them, it's "Ta" (ت)
- If you put three points above any one of them, it's "Tha" (ث)
Therefore, there are a multitude of possible alternatives that could arise from the arrangements of diacritical marks on each of the letters (تتث, نتت, تنث...).
Furthermore, if you put one mark below the first, two points below the second, and two above the third, the word "girl" (بنت, bint) will become “Bayt” (بيت) which translates as “home” in English.
- If you put two points below the first, one below the second, and two above the third, it's "yabet" (يبت) which translates as "he makes a decision" in English.
- If you put one point above the first, one below the second and two above the third, it's "nabat" (نبت) which translates as "'grew” (for something planted) in English.
- If you put one point below the first, two below the second and one above the third, it's "Bayn" (بين) which translates as "between" in English.
- If you put one point below the first, three points above the second and two points above the third, it's "Bathat" (بثت) which translates as "she broadcast" in English.
- If you put two points below the first, one below the second, and three above the third, it's "yaboth" (يبث) which translates as "he broadcasts" in English.
Even after adding consonantal points above and below the Arabic letters, the meaning of the word will not be explicit with certainty except after adding the vocalization marks for short vowels (for example بَ ba, بِ bi, بُ bu). These marks include Damma, Fathha, kassra, shadda, scoon, madda, etc. They are put above or below the letter to affect its pronunciation and carry grammatical and often syntactical meaning.
Both consonantal diacritical points and the vocalization marks were not or barely used in the ancient Arabic writings during the time of Muhammad. Therefore, there would have been a wide range of problems and an enormous task for the interpreters to add diacritical points and vocalization marks on every letter in the Qur'an. Therefore there was a lot of opportunity to make mistakes that would have made it impossible to ensure the original word meanings of the Qur'an were unchanged.
Here a couple of examples from the canonical (accepted) readings of the Quran involving variant short vowel vocalization markings. The first example changes the object of the verb, creating conflicting accounts of the dialogue between Moses and Pharoah in the variant readings, while the second example gives conflicting accounts of the story of Lot and his family.
|Verse||Reading 1||Reading 2||Notes||Variants translation, transliteration, and Arabic script|
[Moses] said, "I have already known [ʿalimtu عَلِمْتُ] that none has sent down these [signs] except the Lord of the heavens and the earth as evidence, and indeed I think, O Pharaoh, that you are destroyed."
|The other readers:
[Moses] said, "You have already known [ʿalimta عَلِمْتَ] that none has sent down these [signs] except the Lord of the heavens and the earth as evidence, and indeed I think, O Pharaoh, that you are destroyed."
|This occurs in a dialogue. Which is supposed to be the correct story?||Bridges translation|
|Quran 11:81||Ibn Kathir and Abu Amr:
The angels said, "O Lot, indeed we are messengers of your Lord; [therefore], they will never reach you. So set out with your family during a portion of the night and let not any among you look back - except your wife [ʾilla mraʾatuka إِلَّا ٱمْرَأَتُكَ - nominative case]; indeed, she will be struck by that which strikes them. Indeed, their appointment is [for] the morning. Is not the morning near?"
|The others readers:
The angels said, "O Lot, indeed we are messengers of your Lord; [therefore], they will never reach you. So set out with your family during a portion of the night and let not any among you look back - except your wife [ʾilla mraʾataka إِلَّا ٱمْرَأَتَكَ - accusative case]; indeed, she will be struck by that which strikes them. Indeed, their appointment is [for] the morning. Is not the morning near?"
|These variants give rise to conflicting instructions from the angels to Lot||Bridges translation|
To illustrate the extent to which vocalization can affect the meaning of Arabic words, consider the following examples:
- The word "bent" (بنت) will become "banat" (بنَت) by putting "Fathha" (َ ) on the second letter, which means "she built" in English.
- The word "bayn" بين ( which translates as “between” in English) will become "bayyan" (بّيّن) if we add "shadda" (ّ ) on the first and the second letters, which means "He manifests" in English.
- The word "nabat" نبت (which translates as “grew” in English, for something that was planted) will become "nabott" نبُت if we add "damma” (ُ ) to the second letter, which means "we make a decision" in English.
Classical Muslim scholars: Diacritical marks were introduced because errors began to appear
According to Ibn Taymiyyah in "Sheik of the Muslims", Muslims began using diacritical marks because reading errors began to appear:
Ibn Taymiyyah also states:
This means more than one reading was accepted by Muhammad.
In his famous book, "al-Itqan Fi Ulum al-Qur’an" ("Adjusted Qur’anic Science"), Jalal-al-Din-al-Suyuti reiterates some of Ibn Taymiyyah’s statements about the creation of diacritical marks.
Al-Suyuti makes an important statement in which he says that the differences in reading has led to differences in Islamic law. He illustrated this by the following example: He indicated that some scholars demanded of the worshiper that he wash himself again (perform ablution) before he prays if he shook hands with a woman. Yet other scholars require him to do so only in the case of sexual intercourse and not just because he shook hands with her or touched her hand.
The reason for this disagreement is because of the word لَٰمَسْتُمُ (laamastum) found in the Chapter of Women (verse 43) and whether it has a long vowel a or not. Scholars Jalalayn and Badawi record that both ibn ’Umar and al-Shafi’i seriously disagree with ibn ’Abbas  in the way they interpret this verse because ibn ’Abbas insisted that the meaning intended here is actual intercourse while the former said no, it is enough for a man to touch the skin of a woman or her hand to require having his ablution (washing) repeated.
- Arabic letters and diacritics
- Textual History of the Qur'an
- Internal Rhymes as Evidence for Old Hijazi
- Quranic Arabic: From its Hijazi Origins to its Classical Reading Traditions by Marijn van Putten (2022) published by Brill (free for open access pdf download)
- Quran Variants blog and resources page
- Bursi, Adam. Connecting the Dots: Diacritics, Scribal Culture, and the Qurʾān in the First/Seventh Century Journal of the International Qur’anic Studies Association, vol. 3, International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2018, pp. 111–157, https://doi.org/10.5913/jiqsa.3.2018.a005.
- van Putten, Marijn, Quranic Arabic: From its Hijazi origins to its classical reading traditions, Leiden: Brill, 2022 isbn: 9789004506251
- Ibid. pp. 153-154.
- See the explanation in Tafsir al-Jalalayn, which is also common among early commentators and grammarians, who clearly did not hold the centuries later view that every variant is divine. Much later, for example, Abu Hayyan claimed that in both readings the exception refers to Lut's wife looking back, despite the contradiction with other surahs mentioning that she stayed behind, and despite Ibn Mas'ud's version which omits the look back part, and despite the fact that a variant wasn't needed (and the embarassement could have been avoided) if they both meant the same thing.
- Regarding this variant see also The story of Lot (...) finds clear parallels with the story as told in Gen. 19. A thread on a specific reading variant." Twitter.com thread by Dr. Marijn van Putten - 25 October 2021 (archive)
- Ibn Taymiyyah, "Sheik of the Muslims", vol. XII, pp. 576 and 586
- Ibn Taymiyyah, "Sheik of the Muslims", p. 100
- Jalal-al-Din-al-Suyuti, "al-Itqan Fi Ulum al-Qur’an" (Adjusted Qur’anic Science), part 1, p. 226