The Readers of Basra

The Readers of Basra

Marijn van Putten, Leiden University, Netherlands
IQSA International Conference 2021 “Giorgio La Pira” Library, Palermo, Italy
Panel 6. Carriers of the Text and Readings 1: Manuscripts, Illustrations, Amulets, and Printed Editions

While recent years have seen a great increase in interest in early Qur’anic manuscripts and what they may tell us about the early history of the Qur’an, the somewhat later corpus of vocalized Qur’anic manuscripts have not yet received the same attention. Yet, such manuscripts are of great interest for those interested in the history of the recitation of the Qur’an, as they form the earliest layer that can give direct insight into how the rasm was interpreted in recitation, centuries before the canonization of the seven reading traditions. In this talk I will focus on a specific subset of manuscripts, all written in the B.II style, all written in the rasm of Basra. These manuscripts have in common that they all have non-canonical pronominal morphology (ʿalayhu, fīhu, bihī; ʿalayhumū, fīhumū, bihumū), and thus represent a layer of pre-canonical recitations that did not make it into the canon. I will compare these readings to the canonical readings, and other non-canonical Basran readings from around the same period, and highlight the commonalities and differences between them.

The Status Quaestionis of ʿArabiyyah, Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Quran

By Marijn van Putten

When speaking about the language of the Quran, it is these days almost universally accepted that it was composed in the ʿArabiyyah, a poetic koine that functioned as an intertribal form of communication of high poetic culture.[1] This ʿArabiyyah was close – if not identical – to what eventually came to be thought of as Classical Arabic.

However, this assumption is far from obvious. If we look at the Quranic Consonantal Text, the only linguistic layer of the Quran which can with any certainty be taken as stemming from a time close to the revelation, we find that its orthography is woefully inadequate to write the ʿArabiyyah. The hamz goes completely unwritten (e.g. يسل yasʾalu), nunation is unwritten (e.g. عظيم ʿaẓīmun), and the orthography insists on distinguishing the final ā of final weak verbs and nouns that have a final root consonant w from those with a final root consonant y, even when followed by pronominal clitics, even though in the ʿArabiyyah these vowels are supposed to be pronounced identically (e.g. دعا daʿā, دعاه daʿā-hu but  هدى hadā, هديه hadā-hu).

It is of course possible that the orthography does not adequately represent the ʿArabiyyah. It certainly is not the first time that we are confronted with an orthography which deviates significantly from the language it is supposed to write. The Quran, however, is unique in that its orthography points to a linguistic situation which is less archaic than the language it is supposed to represent. This is different from other languages with a large disconnect between their spoken language and orthography that represents it. Invariably, in such cases the orthography represents a stage of the language significantly more archaic than the way it is spoken presently.

To maintain that the Quranic text represents the ʿArabiyyah requires a large amount of trust in the accurate transmission of the reading traditions of the Quran as Ibn Mujāhid canonized them in the fourth century AH. This trust is not warranted. By the time Ibn Mujāhid canonized the reading traditions, the ʿArabiyyah had become much more than just a “poetic koine”: it had become a highly linguistically unified language of high culture that permeated all forms of religious and scientific writing. It is extremely improbable that this diglossic situation would have had no effect on the way that authors such as Ibn Mujāhid would treat the language of their holy book. If not a given, it is at least extremely likely that they adapted the language of the Quran to more closely resemble Classical Arabic, consciously or unconsciously.

So far, this discussion has proceeded on the assumption that there truly was a highly unified poetic koine in the pre-Islamic period. Some scholars have even gone as far as stating that the Arabic before Islam was itself extremely unified,[2] and that the exclusive association with poetry and high culture is something that only develops in the Islamic period, when the influx of new speakers created a new, more simplified, variety of Arabic. In other words, pre-Islamic Arabic would simply be identical to the ʿArabiyyah. In recent years, this second position has become untenable. The epigraphic record shows that there is a remarkable amount of linguistic variation in pre-Islamic Arabic. The pioneering work by Ahmad Al-Jallad has demonstrated that Safaitic,[3] Hismaic,[4] and early and late Nabataean Arabic[5] are all remarkably different from each other and from the ʿArabiyyah. This is certainly, in part, due to a diachronic distance between these different varieties, but it should be noted that not a single one of these varieties could be the ancestor of the ʿArabiyyah by the simple fact that none of them retain nunation. Anything that looks close or identical to the ʿArabiyyah as defined by the Arab grammarians has remained elusive in the epigraphic record. But also many modern dialects of the Arabian peninsula such as Rāziḥīt,[6] Tihāmī Arabic, and Shammari Arabic[7] cannot be taken as direct descendants of the ʿArabiyyah or even something close to it as they retain ancient Semitic features lost in the ʿArabiyyah.

Even the conceptualization of the ʿArabiyyah as a highly unified poetic register is not without its problems. First, we have several instances of pre-Islamic poetry, not transmitted through the Muslim tradition, but in the epigraphic record in a variety of different scripts, namely, the Nabataean Arabic ʿEn ʿAvdat inscription,[8] the Safaito-Hismaic Baal Cycle poem[9] and the Safaitic War Song.[10] The elusive ʿArabiyyah has had three chances to appear in the pre-Islamic record, in a context where we would actually expect it, yet it has not. However, there are certainly indications that the muʿallaqāt reflect, at least partially, accurate representations of the pre-Islamic period. Labīd’s torrents that flush over the landscape like a pen that renews the zubur (zuburun tajiddu mutūna-hā ʾaqlāmu-hā) makes much more sense if we take the zubur to refer to the pre-Islamic Ancient South Arabian zabūr sticks than books or scripture of ink on parchment.[11] This sense of the word zabūr appears to be lost to the classical commentators.

Second, in the same way that the diglossia would likely have distorted any trace of non-ʿArabiyyah reading of the Quran, we cannot exclude the possibility that classicizing forces acted upon the highly regarded pre-Islamic poetry. As such, the statement that the ʿArabiyyah is remarkably unified may simply be a result of the historical context of their collection. The collection of pre-Islamic poetry takes place centuries after this poetry was supposedly composed, in a sociolinguistic environment where diglossia is the norm. Pre-Islamic poetry may therefore simply look homogenous because it was unified towards the ideal of the ʿArabiyyah.


Q3:87 جَزَاؤُهُم lacking the ʿarabiyyah case-marking in the Codex Parisino-Petropolitanus

Third, the assumption that the ʿArabiyyah was linguistically unified seems to be explicitly denied by the classical tradition itself. Sibawayh describes a remarkable amount of linguistic variation, most of which does not surface at all in pre-Islamic poetry. It could however not be argued that Sibawayh was describing anything other than the ʿArabiyyah; any dialect of Arabic lacking full case inflection completely escapes attention in his monumental Kitāb. Nevertheless, transcriptions of Arabic into Greek in the early Islamic papyri as well as in the psalm fragment[12] leave little doubt that already before Sibawayh’s time varieties of Arabic without case inflection and nunation existed and formed the everyday norm. It is not possible that all the linguistic variation that Sibawayh describes developed from the ʿArabiyyah in the Islamic period either. He describes features that are more archaic than what is reflected in what becomes the normative form of ʿArabiyyah, that is, Classical Arabic,[13] which reflects only a subset of the variation that Sibawayh describes.[14]

This is also clear in light of the fact that the Quranic reading traditions reflect significantly more linguistic variation than pre-Islamic poetry does. This is the case in spite of the fact that the Quranic reading traditions were bound to the Quranic Consonantal Text and could therefore not introduce features that too massively deviated from whatever the rasm suggested. Pre-Islamic poetry was not subject to such constraints, but nevertheless happens to look exactly like Classical Arabic. This important point often gets overlooked because the ʿArabiyyah of pre-Islamic poetry is extremely close to the reading tradition that Arabists are most familiar with, that of Ḥafṣ. It is probably not a coincidence that the reading tradition that ends up becoming the most dominant tradition in the world today is also the closest to Classical Arabic. It is, however, still unclear whether Ḥafṣ’ rise to popularity is due to its close similarity to Classical Arabic or vice-versa.

Nevertheless, several linguistic features of pre-Islamic poetry remain unassailable. The rhyme of the poetry relies heavily on vocalic rhyme which more often than not consists of the case vowels. Any understanding of the varieties of pre-Islamic poetry without case vowels is certainly wrong. However many other features could have been quite different without ever affecting some of the restraints imposed upon it by the metre and form. For example, nunation could have been lost with compensatory lengthening, which would have yielded long case vowels. This would not give any metrical problems as a CVV syllable is metrically identical to a CVC syllable, e.g. *baytun > baytū. Such forms are in fact attested in modern Yemeni Arabic of the Tihāmah which have forms like bētū ‘a house’ besides im-bēt ‘the house’.

Likewise, the shape of the definite article may have differed significantly. In Yemen today we find varieties of Arabic with a definite article im-, in- and iC-[15] besides those with normal Arabic distribution. We similarly find evidence of different definite article shapes in pre-Islamic Arabic such as a non-assimilating al-, and forms like an- and completely assimilated forms like aC-. These would pose no challenges to the metrical structure of the poetry.[16] In other words, some of pre-Islamic poetry could have had a completely Tihāmī-like nominal system baytū, baytī, baytā; im-baytu, im-bayti, im-bayta and it would have posed no problem to the metre of pre-Islamic poetry.[17]

The retention of a fourth vowel ē, in the final weak verbs with y as their third root consonants as we find it in the Warš ʿan Nāfiʿ reading tradition, could also have been part of some forms of pre-Islamic poetry. I argued in a recent study,[18] this ʾimālah[19] is not a shift from ā to ē, but rather an ancient retention of a contrast that has been lost in Classical Arabic, the Ḥafṣ tradition and pre-Islamic poetry (as it has reached us) alike.

Many other forms of variation would leave some traces in metrical irregularities, and in fact they sometimes do. In Muʿallaqah of Imruʾ al-Qays, for example, we find that the 3sg.m. pronominal suffix is long, despite being in a context where Classical Arabic would require it to be short, e.g. ʾiḏā hiya naṣṣat-hū wa-lā bi-muʿaṭṭali (line 34). In Muʿallaqat Ṭarafah, on the other hand, we find that it is treated as short, e.g. ḥiqāfay-hi šukkā fi l-ʿasībi bi-misradi (line 17). The invariably long suffix also appears in the reading tradition of Ibn Kaṯīr.

Another issue in pre-Islamic poetry that requires an explanation is its mixed linguistic character. A line like tarā baʿara l-ʾarʾāmi fī ʿaraṣāti-hā (Muʿallaqat Imriʾ al-Qays, line 3) has lost post-consonantal hamz in tarā < *tarʾā, but not in ʾarʾāmi. Exceptions to sound changes occur, but they do require an explanation. It is important to note that a reading tarā baʿara l-ʾarāmi fī ʿaraṣāti-hā with loss of the hamz would be metrically regular and therefore there is, in fact, no reason to assume the hamz was preserved in this word.

It seems to me that metrical and linguistic irregularities in pre-Islamic poetry are too often taken as poetic licenses, rather than indispensable – albeit highly obscured – insights into possible dialectal differences in the ʿArabiyyah. If one ignores these pieces of information, we cannot help but conclude in an absolutely circular manner that pre-Islamic poetry is linguistically homogenous.

So how does all this relate to Quranic studies? As I have pointed out at the beginning of this article, the orthography of the Quran is very ill-suited for writing the ʿArabiyyah. This may of course be purely orthographic practice, but this cannot be assumed without further investigation. Due to the enormous advances in epigraphy in recent years, we now know that Arabic in the pre-Islamic period is far from linguistically homogenous and instead is surprisingly diverse. Moreover, the conviction that there existed a state of linguistic homogeneity in light of classical sources like the reading traditions and Sibawayh’s al-Kitāb does not seem to follow from the evidence presented.

Even if we do assume that there was a “poetic koine”, an archaizing, oral poetic register not dissimilar to Epic Greek, as so eruditely argued for by Michael Zwettler,[20] it does not follow that Quran was composed in this register. Epic Greek’s archaizing nature is entirely dependent on ancient metrical formulae; the strict metrical requirements of the dactylic hexameter helped resist contractions and loss of consonants that would introduce metrical irregularities. While one can certainly argue that pre-Islamic poetry had similar metrical requirements, this is simply not the case for the Quranic text. As such, Zwettler failed to notice the contradiction of claiming that the Quran was composed in impeccable ʿArabiyyah prose, while this means it would lack the traditional oral formulaic framework that gave the poets the ability to compose in this highly archaic poetic language.

What we are left with is an open field for enquiry. What was the language of the Quran like? How does it relate to early Islamic Arabic? How does it relate to the ʿArabiyyah? How can we tell? Ahmad Al-Jallad,[21] Phillip Stokes[22] and myself[23] have attempted to answer such questions by starting with the only truly contemporary source of Quranic Arabic that we have: the Quranic Consonantal Text. By closely examining orthographic idiosyncrasies, rhyme and the reading traditions, we can start to unravel just what kind of language Quranic Arabic is, and what the linguistic situation of the early Islamic period was like. Through this examination we may start to understand how Classical Arabic developed and how classicizing trends may have developed.

Marijn van Putten is a linguist at Leiden University who specializes in Arabic and Berber historical linguistics. His current post-doctoral research project “Before the Grammarians: Arabic in the formative period of Islam” aims to reconstruct the language of the early Islamic period, using sources such as early Islamic papyri, Quranic documents and transcriptions in non-Arabic scripts. He is currently working specifically on the reconstruction of Quranic Arabic as it can be deduced from the Quranic Consonantal Text.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.


[1] Nöldeke, T. et al. 2013. The History of the Quran. Leiden & Boston: Brill, p. 260; Rabin, C. 1955. “The Beginnings of Classical Arabic”, Studia Islamica 4, p. 23f.; Rabin, C. 1951. Ancient West-Arabian. London: Taylor’s Foreign Press, p. 3-5; Zwettler, M. 1978. The Oral Tradition of Classical Arabic Poetry, p. 101-102; Versteegh, K. 1997. The Arabic Language, Columbia University Press: New York, p. 46ff.

[2] One such a suggestion comes from Blau, J. 1977. “The Beginnings of the Arabic Diglossia. A Study of the Origins of Neoarabic”, Afroasiatic Linguistics 4:3, pp. 175-202.

[3] Al-Jallad, A. 2015. An Outline of the Grammar of the Safaitic Inscriptions. Leiden & Boston: Brill.; Al-Jallad, A. & A. al-Manaser. 2015. “New Epigraphica from Jordan I: a pre-Islamic Arabic inscription in Greek letters and a Greek inscription from north-eastern Jordan”, Arabian Epigraphic Notes 1: 51-70.

[4] Al-Jallad, A. forthcoming. “The earliest stages of Arabic and its linguistic classification” in: The Routledge Handbook of Arabic Linguistics.

[5] Al-Jallad, A. forthcoming. “One wāw to rule them all: the origins and fate of wawation in Arabic and its orthography”.

[6] Behnstedt, P. 1987. Die Dialekte der Gegend von Ṣaʿdah (Nord-jemen). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz; Watson, J.C.E., B.G. Stalls, K. Al-Razihi & S. Weir.  2006. “The language of Jabal Rāziḥ: Arabic or something else?” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 36, pp. 35-41; Putten, M. van. 2017. “The Archaic Feminine ending -at in Shammari Arabic”, Journal of Semitic Studies 62:2, p. 365, fn. 9.

[7] Putten, M. van. 2017. “The Archaic Feminine ending -at in Shammari Arabic”, Journal of Semitic Studies 62:2, pp. 357-369.

[8] Kropp, M. 2017. “The ʿAyn ʿAbada Inscription Thirty Years Later: A Reassessment”, in: A. Al-Jallad (ed.) Arabic in Context. Leiden & Boston: Brill; Al-Jallad, A. forthcoming. “One wāw to rule them all”.

[9] Al-Jallad, A. 2015. “Echoes of the Baal Cycle in a Safaito-Hismaic Inscription”, Journal for Near-Eastern Religions 15, pp. 5-19.

[10] Al-Jallad, A. 2017. “Pre-Islamic ‘Ḥamāsah’ Verses from Northeastern Jordan: A New Safaitic Poetic Text from Marabb al-Shurafāʾ, with further remarks on the ʿĒn ʿAvdat Inscription and KRS 2453”, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 47,pp. 117–128.

[11] As already observed by Maraqten, M. 1998. “Writing Materials in Pre-Islamic Arabia”, Journal of Semitic Studies 43:2, p. 301-302.

[12] Most recent edition of this text can be found in Blau, J. 2002. A Handbook of Early Middle Arabic. Jersualem, The Max Schloessinger Memorial Foundation, pp. 68-71. A monograph by A. Al-Jallad discussing the linguistic features of the psalm fragment is currently in preparation.

[13] By Classical Arabic I mean the variety of Arabic as described by, e.g. W. Fischer. 1972. Ein Grammatik des klassischen Arabisch. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, the variety that forms the basis for Modern Standard Arabic.

[14] For example, Sibawayh describes varieties of ʿarabiyyah that have lost the hamz, and varieties of ʿarabiyyah that have retained the ancient ē vowel in some medial weak verbs such as xēfa ‘to fear’ and ṭēba ‘to be suitable’. Neither feature occurs in Classical Arabic, nor is it attested in pre-Islamic poetry, yet Sibawayh does not seem to hold any negative views of such forms.

[15] C here indicates complete assimilation to the following consonant, regardless of the type of consonant.

[16] Other attested pre-islamic forms of the definite article such as haC– and han-, however, would.

[17] This system is not at all removed from what we find in what the Arab grammarians call Ḥimyarī; see chapter 5 of Rabin, C. 2015.  Ancient West-Arabian. London: Taylor’s Foreign Press.

[18] Putten, M. van. 2017. “The development of the triphthongs in Quranic and Classical Arabic”, Arabian Epigraphic Notes 3, pp. 47-74.

[19] ʾimālah is one of the most misused terms in Arabic linguistics. The term is essentially the Arabic phonetic term for the vowel e. However, it is mostly thought of as a development from a historical to a ē or ī. This is often incorrect, and when correct, an incomplete description.

[20] Zwettler, M. 1978. The Oral Tradition of Classical Arabic Poetry. Its Character and Implications. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

[21] Al-Jallad, A. 2017. “Was it sūrat al-baqárah? Evidence for antepenultimate stress in the Quranic Consonantal Text and its Relevance for صلوه Type Nouns”  ZDMG 167:1, pp. 81-90.

[22] Putten, M. van & P. W. Stokes. in preparation. “Case in the Quran”.

[23] Putten, M. van. 2017. “The development of the triphthongs”; Putten, M. van. forthcoming. “The Feminine Ending -at as a Diptote in the Qurʾānic Consonantal Text and Its Implications for Proto-Arabic and Proto-Semitic”, Arabica 64; Putten, M. van. in preparation. “Hamzah in the Quranic Consonantal Text”; Putten, M. van. in preparation. “Some notes on the QCT syllable structure and Consonantism”.