Washington, Nov 19 : The first Islamic inscription, dating back to 1,300 years, may help solve a mystery about the Qur'an that has vexed historians for hundreds of years, namely the reason behind the text being seemingly written without diacritical marks.
Diacritical marks, which include accent marks, tildes, umlauts and other notations, help to distinguish one letter from another and aid in pronunciation. When added or removed, they can completely change the meaning of a word or sentence.
According to a report in Discovery News, the Islamic inscription, which predates the earliest known copies of the Qur'an, was made by an Arabic traveler who engraved his name on a block of red sandstone 1,300 years ago.
Analysis of the recently found sandstone inscription, determined that it reads, "In the name of Allah/ I, Zuhayr, wrote (this) at the time 'Umar died/year four/And twenty."
"It is an immensely important find, since it is our earliest dated Arabic inscription," according to researcher Ali ibn Ibrahim Ghabban, who, with his wife, discovered the 644 A.D. inscription northwest of Saudi Arabia.
Ghabban, a member of the Supreme Commission for Tourism, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, added that it also "shows evidence of a fully-fledged system of diacritical marks."
Robert Hoyland, a professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, explained the significance of Ghabban's determination to Discovery News.
"Whether the Qur'an was originally written in a script that contained diacritical marks is very important because Western Qur'an scholars generally say that it wasn't and therefore feel free to make some amendments to the Qur'anic text by changing the diacritical marks to give it a different meaning," he said.
Although the earliest Islamic inscription, which is also the world's second oldest evidence for written Arabic, does not include punctuation or vowel marks, it does contain markings to distinguish consonants that are identical in shape.
This proves such a marking system was already in place before the earliest known copies of the Qur'an, which date to sometime between 652 and 680 A.D., Hoyland indicated.
According to Ghabban, Muhammad's close associates and early followers "stripped Qur'ans of diacritical marks" in order to permit "Muslims to read the Qur'an as it was revealed to Muhammad in the various dialects of the Arabs, and allowing the skeleton of the word to bear all the meanings which appear in it."
"This would mean that Western scholars would have less excuse to change the text as we have it now," Hoyland added.