A mid-6th Century (Christian?) proto-Arabic Inscription from N. Arabia Mentioning Al-Ilah

(Politically oriented readers of IC please excuse this reprint of a path-breaking but extremely technical discussion in Arabian religious and linguistic history. It is highly important for the study of the beginnings of Islam, since it discusses an inscription from al-Jawf, Saudi Arabia dated to 548 CE, i.e. some sixty years before the beginning of Islam, which mentions the worship of Al-Ilah (God), the non-Hijazi pronunciation of Allah, and appears to show a Christian North Arabian community, and which documents the rise of the Arabic script out of the one used for Nabatean Aramaic. All of this makes the emergence of the Qur’an in the early 600s more understandable and may settle some of the debates provoked by extreme skepticism in the academy about the beginnings of Islam. I think it is worth having it in citable form on the internet and it is Creative Commons, but I don’t expect almost anyone to slog through it who isn’t an Arabic linguist. – JC)

Excerpted from Laila Nehmé, “New dated inscriptions (Nabataean and pre-Islamic Arabic) from a site near al-Jawf, ancient Dumah, Saudi Arabia,” Arabian Epigraphic Notes, Volume 3 (2017): 121–164.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/. © the author.


This article publishes eighteen inscriptions: seventeen in the Nabataean script and one in the pre-Islamic Arabic script, all from the area of al-Jawf, ancient Dūmat al-Jandal, in north-west Arabia. It includes the edition of the texts as well as a discussion of their significance. The pre-Islamic Arabic text, DaJ144PAr1, is dated to the mid-sixth century ad. It is important because it is the first text firmly dated to the sixth century ad from north- west Arabia. . .

. . . Ninety-five inscriptions are written in the Nabataean script, ten are written in the Nabataeo-Arabic script (including two unpublished) and one, dated to the mid-sixth century ad, is written in what can safely be considered as pre-Islamic Arabic script. The mid-sixth century text is very important for the history of the region because it is the first clearly dated pre-Islamic Arabic text from north-west Arabia. . .

2.1 DaJ144PAr1 (figs 5–7)

This is the most significant and most important text and the one which motivated the publication of this collection of texts. It is carved in the middle left part of a sandstone boulder, c. 1.10 m high and 0.70 m wide (fig. 5), while a Nabataean inscription, DaJ144Nab13 . . . is carved in its lower part. Six animal figures are drawn on the rock. These are, from top to bottom: three camels, probably female because they have their tail raised, (5) one ibex, one male camel and one other probably female camel. Two of the camels have a load on top of the hump: one is represented by a simple stroke
which thickens slightly at its top and the other is probably a human stick figure (rather than a cross). If the interpretation is correct, the right arm is bent and the legs are not shown, as if the figure was standing on the hump rather than riding the camel. There are comparable representations elsewhere in Arabia and among the drawings of mounted camels which are associated with the Safaitic inscriptions.(6) Since the drawings occupy the greatest part of the surface of the rock and since the two inscriptions are written around them, it is possible that the carving sequence is the following: drawings, Nabataean inscription, pre-Islamic Arabic inscription. But it is equally possible that the drawings and the pre-Islamic Arabic inscription are contemporary, as indicated by the fact that the tools used to carve them produced the same kind of incision (same width, same depth, etc.).

The text (figs 6–7):

dkr ʾl-ʾlh
ḥgʿ{b/n}w br
{b}y{r}[ḥ] šnt 4×100 +20+20+3 cross

“May be remembered. May God remember Ḥgʿ{b/n}w son of Salama/Sa- lāma/Salima {in} the m[onth] (gap) year 443 [ad 548/549].”

fig 6

The text is clear, except for the possible confusion between the b and the n in the author’s name and the doubtful presence of byrḥ, “in the month of”, at the beginning of line 5. The patina of these three letters is identical to that of the other letters but it is surprising that the author wrote neither the nal ḥ nor the month name. It is possible that the small cracks which a ect the stone at this point just prevented him from writing the ḥ, which in turn discouraged him from writing the month name.

Except for the first line, the text is written in a script which is the ultimate stage of the development of Nabataean into Arabic and which can be considered as Arabic. It can be compared with the 5th and 6th century pre-Islamic inscriptions from the Arabian peninsula, particularly those discovered in the area of Ḥimà, north of Najrān, and published in Robin et al. (2014). Two of the latter are dated, one to ad 470 and one to ad 513. If one compares DaJ144PAr1 to the ad 513 one, Ḥimà-al-Musammāt PalAr 1 (fig. 8), 8 one can see that the letters and the numerals which appear in both texts have very similar shapes (d, ḥ, w, l, n, š/s, 4×100), except for the final t of šnt which in Dūmah is made of two rather than three strokes. Note that the letters dkr, at the beginning of line 2, if read correctly, are also different (see below). Finally, like the Ḥimà texts, none of the letters bears a diacritical dot.

The text shows a very interesting feature, which has never been found before, and that is the repetition, at the beginning of the text, of the word dkr, Arabic ḏkr. It is written once in Nabataeo-Arabic characters, line 1, and once in a script which would be at home in the rst century Hijra at the be- ginning of line 2. The fact that ḏkr was repeated shows that the Nabataeo- Arabic formula was still present in the author’s mind but that it was perhaps considered as a logogram.(9) In this respect, it is worth noting that none of the dated pre-Islamic Arabic texts known so far, and none of the inscriptions written in the most developed version of the Nabataeo-Arabic script – the closest to pre-Islamic Arabic – contains the typical Nabataean formulas found in the graffiti, šlm + name(s) ± bṭb, dkyr + name(s) ± bṭb, and dkyr w šlm + name(s) ± bṭb. What we see, on the contrary, is the appearance of new formulas, based on the use of verbs in the 3rd person singular of the perfect with an optative force, such as šmʿt + the divine name al-ʿUzzā in UJadh 345, 364, and 313 (Nehmé 2013; 2017: 82–83). In DaJ144PAr1, dkr is also, most probably, Arabic ḏakara with an optative force. Arabic samiʿat and ḏakara in these texts are thus used with the divine names al-ʿUzzā and the god named ʾl-ʾlh (on which see below), who are asked to listen to and to remember the authors of the texts.10 One nds an exact equivalent of this formula in the Zebed inscription of the martyrion of St Sergius, in northern Syria, dated ad 512, which starts with [ḏ]{k}r ʾl-ʾlh (Macdonald 2015: 410–411).(11)

With regard to the language of the text, there are both diagnostic and non- diagnostic words in it. If one agrees with the interpretation of dkr given above, this can only be Arabic because the Aramaic su x conjugation does not have an optative force whereas the perfect in Arabic is constantly used in wishes, prayers and curses with an optative meaning (Wright 1896–1898: II, 2–3). Since these texts can be considered as prayers, the optative is more likely. The god’s name, ʾl-ʾlh, has the de nite article typical of Classical Arabic and most modern dialects. If {b}y{r}[ḥ] was indeed intended to be written by the author, it would be an Aramaic word, not an Arabic one,12 and the same is true of br, which is systematically used for “son of” in the pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions (see Macdonald 2010: 20 n. 41). Both yrḥ and br are also attested in the pre-Islamic Arabic texts from Ḥimà and it is not surprising to find them used here. As for šnt, it can be both Aramaic and Arabic.

This mixture of Arabic and Aramaic is a typical feature of both the Nabataeo-Arabic and the pre-Islamic Arabic texts from the Arabian Peninsula. I have suggested elsewhere (Nehmé 2017: 86), however, that in most cases, the Aramaic words appear in the formulaic parts of the texts, which are conservative, and particularly in the dating formula. They are therefore not indicative of the language spoken by the authors of the text. On the contrary, the use of ḏakara with an optative force shows that the author of DaJ144PAr1 was very likely an Arabic-speaking individual.

The reading of the date is clear. It is written in the way that one would expect, i.e. 4×100 followed by 20+20+3. That is year 443 of what can only be the era of the Roman province of Arabia, the only one which was in use in
this region at this period. Considering that the month is not given, the text is dated to ad 548/549.

What follows “3” in line 6 is not another numeral. Indeed, were it a numeral, it could only be a “4”. However, it does not look like the “4” which multiplies the “100” immediately above (it has a + shape rather than an X shape) and, more significantly, it would not be in the right place. Numerals are multiplied when going from the smaller to the bigger numeral (hence 4×100) and added when going from the bigger to the smaller (hence 20+20+3). Another “4” after “3” would therefore not make sense. This + sign is also not likely to be identical to the X sign which is written before the beginning of some of the Nabataean inscriptions of the same group (DaJ144Nab9 and 12). It is thus most likely that what follows the numerals is a cross, like the ones which are associated with the inscriptions of the Ḥimà region, especially those described as type 2, made of two simple segments which cross each other at right angles (Robin et al. 2014: 1054). This would indicate that the author is a Christian.

The inscription contains two personal names, ḥgʿ{b/n}w and šlmh. The read- ing of the rst one is certain13 but no parallels could be found for it either in Nabataean or in Arabic. It may be a name composed of ḥg (Arabic Ḥājj?) and either ʿ{b} or ʿ{n}, i.e. Arabic ʿB, ĠB, ʿN or ĠN. Ancient North Arabian provides many examples of both the words ḥg and ḥgg and theophoric names built with ḥg, such as ḥgʾl (C 553, Safaitic), ḥgbrʾt (KRS 2244, Safaitic), ḥglh (BTH 213, Safaitic) and ḥglt (BR 6, 7, 35, SIJ 54, etc., Safaitic and Hismaic),14 and it is possible that we have here the same kind of compound name, although ʿB / ʿN / ĠB / ĠN would still have to be explained. To my knowledge, there is no theophoric name built with either of these sequences of letters in the Nabatae- an and Nabataeo-Arabic corpus. One should note the presence of wawation at the end of ḥgʿ{b/n}w. As for šlmh, it may be the equivalent of Arabic Salama, Salāma or Salima, this order reflecting the decreasing popularity of the name in Ibn al-Kalbī’s geneaologies. I know of two instances of šlmt in Nabataean, with a t, one in ThMNN 39 (JSNab 77) and one in ThMNN 871.15 If šlmh and šlmt are indeed the same name, it means that it was initially pronounced with a t at the end, and that in the 6th century, this phoneme had changed to nal h.(16)

Finally, one needs to comment on the divine name ʾl-ʾlh, which occurs here for the first time in north-west Arabia. It occurs, also in a Christian context, in Ḥimà-Sud PalAr 8 (Robin et al. 2014: 1099–1102, see the commentary on ʾl-ʾlh p. 1102), north of Najrān and it is the name of the Christian God in the Zebed inscription. It is the normal Christian pre-Islamic Arabic name for God. I formerly thought, in the edition of the Nabataeo-Arabic inscription DaJ000NabAr1 (Nehmé 2016), that ʾl-ʾlh was used in the theophoric name brʾlʾlh, a compound made of br + ʾl-ʾlh, but a closer examination of the stone ( g. 9) shows that it is also possible, and probably better, to read [d]kr ʾl-ʾlh, i.e. the same formula as the one in Zebed and in DaJ144PAr1. The stone is broken on the right, and one can just see, to the right of the k, the bottom part of the missing d. There is however a theophoric name built with ʾl-ʾlh, and that is ʿbdʾlʾlh in LPArab 1. Indeed, in the rest line of this inscription ( g. 10),17 I suggest to read ʾnh ʿbdʾlʾlh instead of ʾllh ʿfrʾ lʾlyh (“God, [grant] pardon to ʾUllaih”) of the editio princeps, which was followed by various other unsatisfactory readings.

fig 9

Lastly, ʾl-ʾlh is the name of God in the foundation inscription, in Arabic, of the monastery of Hind in al-Ḥīra, in c. ad 560 (on this inscription, Hind and the date, see Robin 2013: 239 and § 3.4.2 below), as it is preserved in two transcriptions of al-Bakrī and Yāqūt.


5 As First recognised by A. Searight (Macdonald & Searight 1983: 575).

6 Such as the one published in Nayeem (2000: g. 191) (I thank Michael Macdonald for this reference).

7 I have decided, conventionally, to keep š in the transliteration of all the Nabataean, Nabataeo- Arabic and pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions, whether š represents Arabic š or s

8 Note that C. Robin uses “PalAr” to label inscriptions for which it is impossible to decide whether they still have an Aramaic content or whether they are Arabic in language. In our ter- minology, Pre-Islamic Arabic (“PAr”) is used to label inscriptions which are written in the Arabic script in the pre-Islamic period.

9 For this to be true, however, we would need to have dkyr in line 1, not dkr. It is just possible that the short and thin vertical line between the k and the r represents a badly formed y. Whatever the explanation, the author wrote this word twice, in two different scripts.

10 Both of these usages are found in Hismaic. See references for SMʿ in Nehmé (2017: 83).

11 The reading of [ḏ]{k}r in this text is of course uncertain.

12 Or, as suggested to me by R. Hoyland (pers. comm.), an Arabic word of Aramaic origin, i.e. in this pre-Islamic dialect of Arabic it could have become a naturalised word. 129

13 Note that what comes before the ḥ is the tail of the mounted camel.

14 For all these examples, see the indexes in ociana.

15 Note that šlmt is not attested in JSNab 102, which does not read šlmt br rbʾl but šlm rbybʾl. ThMNN’s index should therefore be corrected.

16 This sound change apparently took place quite early in Nabataean, as can be seen from the Greek transcriptions (Al-Jallad 2017: 157–158). 130

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6 Responses

  1. my work on the quran also shows baqarah describing a christian movement settling in the writer’s society. They were praised for condemning painful punishments and the writings promote what is commonly taken from Matthew:7/

  2. Thanks for sharing. I think it is well known that “Allah” is Arabic for “God” and was used by Jewish and Christian Arabs before the birth of Mohammed.

    Mohammed made it clear that he worshiped and communed with the God of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Ellijah, Elisha and Jesus.

    If someone believes the Musnad Imam Ahmad Hadith passage narrated by Abu Umamah al-Bahili related to a conversation between Abu Dharr and Mohammed; then Mohammed claimed 124 thousands prophets were born before him in religions all over the world. Implicitly, all of them prayed to the same God.

    Do any serious scholars dispute this?

    • This is why I apologized for putting up something abstruse. Some scholars reject the later Abbasid sources about early Islam and want proof of virtually everything they assert, which isn’t of course forthcoming. To my knowledge there are now only two Arabic inscriptions using al-Ilah or Allah, both Christian and both 6th century. There are many Aramaic/ Nabatean such inscriptions but they trail off two hundred years before the prophet’s birth.

      • Please don’t apologize. I at least find history to be extremely fascinating.

        I don’t understand why so many modern academics are so dismissive of ancient sources of information. Could this be because of bigotry and a lack of understanding/respect of ancient cultures/religions? Many atheists understand faith/religion and mystical experience, so this is not a critique of atheism or secularism. Rather a critique of modern academics since the time of the orientalist linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Ferdinand de Saussure invented structuralism . . . which morphed into Post Modernism. This is an orientalist colonial imperialist technique of delegitimizing and deconstructing ancient religions and civilizations; and impugning the worst possible motivations on them.

        I think that this is a major reason that ancient history books and records are automatically disregarded or called “mythology”.

        In contrast to orientalist Ferdinand de Saussure, the fathers of European reconnaissance enlightenment (such as Voltaire and Immanuel Kant) were extremely respectful and reverential of ancient religions, cultures, texts, records.

        To your point on inscriptions; only less than one in ten thousand ancient inscriptions remain. The absence of such inscriptions isn’t proof that ancient historical records are false. What motivation would there be to doctor ancient records?

        • There are 20,000 Safaitic Aramaic and Arabic inscriptions by the ancient Arabs, and few have been studied.

          The revisionist historians are not dismissive of all ancient texts. They trust those that can be securely dated. So they would trust the Greek chronicle of Theophylact Simocatta, finished 630 in Constantinople. But the stories about Muhammad in 630 come from Ibn Ishaq and later authors, from 760 forward and they don’t trust something 130 to 300 years after the fact.

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