The Origin of Diacritical Marks in the Qur’an

In the early days of Islam, a lesser-known fact is that the script of the Quran lacked any dots or tashkeel marks to distinguish words or grammatical structures. It consisted solely of plain letters forming words. The intricate system of dots and tashkeel that we are familiar with today developed gradually over centuries.

There exists a debate regarding the originator of this system in the Quran. A prevailing perspective attributes this development to Abu al-Aswad al-Du’li (d. 69 AH), who was a student of Ali ibn Talib (d. 40 AH). A documented account attributed to him conveys:

أحضر كاتباً وقال له: «خذ المصحف وصبغاً يخالف لون المداده فإذا فتحت شفتيّ فانقط واحدة فوق الحرف وإذا ضممتهما فاجعل النقطة إلى جانب الحرفء وإذا كسرتهما فاجعل النقطة في أسفلهء فإن أتبعت شيئاً من هذه الحركات غنَّةٌ فانقط نقطتين

“He brought a scribe and instructed him, ‘Take the Mushaf and dye it with a contrasting color [he chose red] that differs from the [black] ink [of the Mushaf]. When you enunciate a letter by opening your lips, place a single [red] dot above the letter. When you articulate the letter by joining your lips, position the dot beside the letter. If you articulate a letter with a break in your lips, put the dot below the letter. And if any of these motions correspond to a nasal sound, then place two dots in those respective places.'”

His approach focused solely on the last letter of each word, rather than every letter within a word, with the intention of preserving the Quran’s grammatical precision. This is known as i’raab, a concept studied in Arabic Nahw (grammar).

This marked the inception of diacritical marks within the Quran, eventually evolving into the familiar fatha, dhammah, kasrah, and tanween marks that we recognize today. Later scholars expanded their usage to encompass every letter, aiming to safeguard the Quran’s wording as language proficiency weakened among subsequent generations.

Therefore, next time you open the Quran, envision the dots and tashkeel vanishing from the page, leaving behind bare, skeletal letters. This embodies the essence of the Quran. Everything else visible on the page represents the enduring dedication of scholars across generations to preserve the Quran’s wording, pronunciation, and grammatical structure. The second reason for this was to facilitate its access for later generations. So, do not be shy to make supplications for these scholars from time to time, who sweated to maintain its integrity and ensure accessibility for lazy and neglectful generations like ours.

Lastly, the attached image above, which I produced using Google Slides, provides a simplified representation of this progression. However, please note that the leap from stage 2 to stage 3 is overly simplified here; substantial development occurred between these stages before reaching the final form.

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