Limitations of early Arabic script and its impact on the Quran

Partial transcript of the video

If we look at the Birmingham folios and say “We have the  exact same thing in the  Birmingham folios as it is in our  today’s Quran”, we are looking at today’s Quran  and reading it that way. Without today’s  Quran, you won’t be able to tell how you  pronounce certain words. 

These are  two pages from two different manuscripts. On the left is the Samarkand manuscript  on the right  is the Sana’a manuscript.

What is it that’s missing in these two pictures?

And that’s what we’re talking about – the diacritical marks.

And what is that what do you mean diacritcal?

Basically you have a letter – in this case we’re using the arabic letter – and by virtue of the location of certain dots or marks on them you’ll be able to read it and pronounce it correctly. 

Here is today’s current alphabet. This is what you have in modern standard Arabic and there as you see there are 28 letters there. However, take a look, of those 28 letters, six of them do not need any dots – alif, kaaf, laam, miim, ha, waaw (circled in yellow). All the other 22 do, which means the vast majority. Some scholars say that in the 7th century they’re really only 16 letters.

Look at the letter to the left of alif way at the top. You see how many other letters look almost the same but the different location of the dots? “baa”, “taa” and “thaa”. The same thing with “jiim”, “haa”, “kha”. You have “daal”, “thaal” the same, “raa”, “zaay”, the same, “siin”, “shiin” the same. We have some problems here. If you don’t know the location of these dots…

Let’s take a smiley face. What happens when you put one dot above it? “nuun”. What about two dots above it? “taa”. What about three dots above it? “thaa”.

Now let’s put one dot below it. That’s “baa”. Two dots “yaa”. Five different letters, five different dots, these did not exist in the seventh century, which means you have five different variations on just one smiley face and we’re not even looking at the vowels yet. We’re talking about five dots and three vowels and that did not exist in the 7th century. That’s right, at least not entirely. There were some cases that you have come up with that may show some dots beginning in the 7th century and that’s why we see some manuscript, you find the scribes will go back to older one and they start adding these dots to make it easier to read. 

Okay now let’s take the same exercise we’ve just done and let’s put three of these smiley faces together. What happens when you put three smiley faces together? You can get 19 different words at least.

Can you then understand why the Arabic of these earliest manuscripts, that didn’t have any of these dots, didn’t have these vowels, could be really be read many many different ways depending on who decided to put what dots, what vowels where?