Writing, Reading, and Hearing in Early Muslim-era Arabic Graffiti

Ilkka Lindstedt, Fellow, The Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies


Early Arabic epigraphy is a field that has yet to receive sufficient attention, although important contributions have been made by, for example, Frédéric Imbert[1] and Robert Hoyland.[2] Arabic inscriptions yield dated texts that are important, among other things, for the study of the developing Islamic identity. The majority of the surviving inscriptions are undated, but just to give one figure, there are according to my calculations almost 100 dated published inscriptions between the earliest Islamic-era one (23 AH) and the end of the Umayyad dynasty (132 AH). This is not a meager amount for a period for which otherwise dated (or datable) evidence is slight.

In my opinion, especially interesting among the corpus of Arabic inscriptions are graffiti, that is, non-monumental inscriptions. According to Michael Macdonald, a graffito can be defined as “a personal statement inscribed, painted or written in a public space.”[3] Graffiti are written often but not necessarily impromptu. Composing and inscribing graffiti are usually the one and the same process. Furthermore, there is as a rule only one author, who can furthermore be identified as the “hand” of the graffito: early Arabic graffiti were not commissioned or dictated to a professional scribe (at least we have no evidence of it).


An Arabic graffito from Wādī al-Mūjib, Jordan, with tribal marks and petroglyphs on stones near it. The text reads: “O god! O God, make fitting the forgiveness towards al-Jawn and have mercy on him.”

Most of the extant Arabic graffiti are lapidary and engraved, although we have some painted graffiti as well. The study of graffiti has been termed graffitologie by the trailblazer of early Arabic epigraphy, Frédéric Imbert.[4] The word graffiti might suggest to some readers that these texts are simple scribbles, not worthy of study. Nothing could be further from the truth: even the shortest (say, containing only a name) merit our research and, what is more, many of the graffiti are actually elaborate texts. The case can be made that graffiti give us an empirical window on people in history who remain otherwise silent.

This piece will concentrate solely on graffiti. I will deal especially with the dated material from the first two centuries of Islam. However, I will adduce some undated graffiti that can be considered early on paleographic grounds.

Writing (k-t-b), Reading (q-r-ʾ), and Hearing (s-m-ʿ)

One of the significant features of the Qurʾān is that it emphasizes being a written text, a book: “This is the Book (al-kitāb) about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those mindful of God” (Q. 2:2). The Qurʾānic revelation should be recited: “Recite (iqraʾ) in the name of your Lord who created” (Q. 96:1). The recitation of the revelation is heard by an audience: “When they hear (idhā samiʿū) what has been revealed to the Messenger, you see their eyes flowing with tears for they have recognized the truth. They say: ‘Our Lord, we believe, so register us (fa-ktubnā) among the witnesses’” (Q. 5:83). There is, thus, both a strong written and aural component in the Muslim scripture.[5]

This insistence on writing, reading aloud, and hearing is also present in early Arabic graffiti. All written texts (books, notebooks, letters, deeds, and so on) were called, in Arabic, kitāb, and this also applies to graffiti. One writer of a graffito simply records the following statement containing his name and a date: kitāb aḥmad bn saʿīd bn al-khaṭṭāb fī rabīʿ min sanat tisʿīn wa miʾa, “[This is] the writing of Aḥmad son of Saʿīd son of al-Khaṭṭāb in Rabīʿ [I or II?] of the year one hundred and ninety [AH = January–March 806 CE].”[6]

The two earliest Islamic-era Arabic inscriptions (both graffiti) underscore the writing act:

23 AH, near Yanbuʿ, Saudi Arabia: kataba salamah thalāth wa-ʿishrīn, “Salamah wrote [this] [in the year] twenty-three [643–4 CE]”[7] (see photograph at http://www.islamic-awareness.org/History/Islam/Inscriptions/muth.html).

24 AH, Qāʿ al-Muʿtadil, Saudi Arabia: bi-sm allāh anā zuhayr katabtu zaman tuwuffiya ʿumar sanat arbaʿ wa-ʿishrīn, “In the name of God; I, Zuhayr, wrote [this] at the time when ʿUmar died, in the year twenty-four [644–5 CE]”[8] (see photograph at http://www.islamic-awareness.org/History/Islam/Inscriptions/kuficsaud.html).

Writing is a ubiquitous theme in the epigraphic record. The verb used is always k-t-b in the early period; it seems that it was not until the third century AH that other words (such as naqasha) started to be used. Clearly one of the aims of people’s engraving was to leave their name on the walls and rocks for others to recite. Often graffiti include, for instance, pious formulae for the writer so people who could read Arabic would ask for blessing and forgiveness for the writer throughout the centuries:

91 AH, al-Awjariyya, Saudi Arabia: allāhumma ighfir li-makhlad bn abī makhlad mawlā ʿalī wa-taqabbul minhu ḥijjatuhu āmīn rabb al-ʿālamīn wa-kutiba/kataba fī dhī al-qaʿdah min sanat iḥdā wa-tisʿīn raḥima allāh man qaraʾa hādhā al-kitāb thumma qāla āmīn, “O God, forgive Makhlad ibn abī Makhlad, the mawlā of ʿAlī, and accept his pilgrimage, amen, Lord of the world; and it was written/he wrote in Dhū al-Qaʿdah in the year ninety-one [September–October 710 CE]; may God have mercy on who recites this inscription and then says ‘amen’” (go to http://www.islamic-awareness.org/History/Islam/Inscriptions/kilabi1.html for a picture of the tracing).[9]

One Mūsā son of ʿImrān wrote an explicit wish that his graffito in Palmyra will remain for others to see for eons to come. He ended his (undated) text with the formula: hādhā kitāb katabtuhu bi-yadī sawfa tablā yadī wa-sawfa yabqā al-kitāb, “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand; my hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”[10]

Although most pre-modern graffiti contain the writer’s name (in contrast to modern graffiti, which are usually anonymous or pseudonymous), in the following graffito the inscriber is left anonymous. It is an undated graffito from one of the rooms of Qaṣr al-Kharāna, Jordan (figs. 1–2):[11]

allāhumma [i]ghfir [li-]man kataba hādhā al-kitāb, “O God, forgive the one who wrote this writing.”


Fig. 1


Fig. 2

The texts of Arabic graffiti emphasize their written nature but also that they should be read aloud by later individuals and groups passing by. Some graffiti even mention that this recitation of the texts is meant to be heard and to elicit further recitation:

allāhumma ighfir li-salamah bn mālik kull dhanb adhnabahu qaṭṭ wa li-man qaraʾa wa-li-man samiʿa thumma qāla āmīn, “O God, forgive Salamah the son of Mālik all the sins he has ever committed and [forgive] the one who reads [aloud this writing] and the one who hears [it] and then says amen.”[12]

The social function of the graffiti is also clear in the following example, in which the engraver addresses not only God but also the possible reader of the text:

78 AH, near Ṭāʾif, Saudi Arabia: shahida al-rayyān bn ʿabdallāh annahu lā ilāh illā allāh wa-shahida anna muḥammadan rasūl allāh thumma huwa yudammī [? reading uncertain] man atā an yashhada ʿalā dhālika raḥima allāh al-rayyān wa-ghafara lahu wa-istahd[ā] bihi ilā ṣirāṭ al-jannah wa-asʾaluhu al-shahādah fī sabīlihi āmīn kutiba hādhā al-kitāb ʿām buniya al-masjid al-ḥarām li-sanat thamān wa-sabʿīn, “Al-Rayyān son of ʿAbdallāh testifies that there is no god but God and he testifies that Muḥammad is the Messenger of God; and he [al-Rayyān] makes it easy for he who comes [and reads this inscription] to testify that; may God have mercy on al-Rayyān and forgive him; and he seeks guidance through Him to the road of Paradise; and I [sic] ask Him for martyrdom on His path, amen; and this inscription was written in the year the Masjid al-Ḥarām was (re)built, year seventy-eight [697–8 CE]” (see picture at http://www.islamic-awareness.org/History/Islam/Inscriptions/haram1.html).[13]

The inscription is an early example of the Islamic testimony of faith (also including a reference to the Prophet). The writer, al-Rayyān, also urges the reader to pronounce the testimony of faith. There is a surprising change from the third person to the first person singular towards the end of the text. I would nevertheless interpret the whole graffito as being written by al-Rayyān son of ʿAbdallāh.

Instructions for Those Passing By

Some Arabic graffiti are waṣiyyahs, texts with moral instruction. In one instance, the engraver writes: “O people, I urge you to be pious towards God (ūṣīkum bi-taqwā allāh); indeed, God has chosen the religion for you, so do not to die unless you (pl.) be Muslims; Yaḥyā son of Muḥammad son of ʿUmar son of Aws wrote [it], asking God for paradise, amen,”[14] evoking the scripture towards the end (e.g., Q. 2:132). The formula used at the beginning of the graffito receives parallels in the Arabic literary evidence: it is stated that the Companion al-Aḥnaf ibn Qays al-Tamīmī instructed, at the moment of his death: ūṣīkum bi-taqwā allāh wa-ṣilat al-raḥim, “I urge piety towards God and attachment to relatives.”[15]

In most waṣiyyah graffiti, the writer urges (using the verb awṣā) the readers to take up devoutness (birr) or piety (taqwā). These texts show that Arabic graffiti had a specific social role and the engravers intended that their texts would be read and understood by others. To give another example of waṣiyyah graffiti:

96 AH, near Medina, Saudi Arabia: allāhumma ʿāfī ribāḥ bn ḥafṣ bn ʿāṣim bn ʿumar bn al-khaṭṭāb awṣā bi-birr[16] allāh wa-l-raḥim wa-kutiba/kataba fī sanat sitt [wa-]tisʿīn, “O God, pardon Ribāḥ son of Ḥafṣ son of ʿĀṣim son of ʿUmar son of al-Khaṭṭāb; he urges devoutness towards God and relatives; and it was written/he wrote in the year ninety-six [714–5 CE]” (photograph available at http://www.islamic-awareness.org/History/Islam/Inscriptions/umar1.html).[17]

Interestingly, the person who wrote the above inscription seems to be the great-grandson of the caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb. The verb awṣā is in the suffix conjugation (“perfect tense”), which should be understood here as the performative: “he [declares that he] urges”. This is very common. Indeed, the regular verb form that one encounters in Arabic graffiti is the third person suffix conjugation, to be understood in the optative or performative sense.

The Fear of Erasure

Since it is argued here that the engravers of the graffiti wanted to emphasize the writing-act and wished to leave their mark for later generations to read, it perhaps come as no surprise that there are specific formulae for asking God to curse someone who might erase (the Arabic word used is invariably maḥā) the texts. The following can be adduced as evidence:

127 AH, ʿAsīr, Saudi Arabia: shahida ʿabd al-malik ibn ʿabd al-raḥmān anna allāh ḥaqq lā ilāh illā huwa al-ḥayy al-qayyūm wa-kutiba/kataba fī al-muḥarram sanat sabʿ wa-ʿishrīn wa-miʾah laʿana allāh man maḥā hādhā al-kitāb aw ghayyarahu āmīn, “ʿAbd al-Malik son of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān testifies that God is truth, there is no god than He, the Living, the Self-subsisting; and it was written/he wrote in al-Muḥarram in the year one hundred and twenty-seven [October-November 744 CE]; may God curse whoever erases this inscription or changes it, amen.”[18]

119 AH, Jabal Usays, Syria: rabbī allāh wa-dīnī al-islām ʿalayhi tawakkaltu wa-ilayhi unība wa-ilayhi al-maṣīr wa-kataba ḥafṣ fī dhī al-qaʿdah [mistakenly written al-ʿ-q-d-h] sanat tisʿ ʿasharah wa-miʾah man maḥāhu ajzāhu allāh fī al-ākhirah āmīn, “My Lord is God and my religion is Islam; upon Him I rely and to Him I turn [Q. 11:88] and to Him is the returning [Q. 40:3]; Ḥafṣ wrote in Dhū al-Qaʿdah in the year one hundred and nineteen [October–November 737]; may God recompense [i.e. punish] in the afterlife who erases it [the inscription], amen.”[19]

The above inscription is very interesting, not least because it is one of our earliest dated pieces of evidence for a religion named Islam. It seems that by the 110s AH/730s CE at the latest, Muslims had developed a distinct religious group affiliation and identity.

Erasing texts is interestingly compared to erasing religious merit in other graffiti: “O God, forgive the Believers but erase the good deeds of the one who erases this writing,” dated 141 AH. In another graffito dated 180 AH from the same place as the 141 AH one (Wādī Salmā, Jordan), the curse is modified: “O God! Who erases this writing, erase from his chest the Qurʾān.”[20] Still further examples are the following: “may the right hand of the one who erases it [the inscription] be paralyzed,” and “may God punish the one who erases it.”[21]


It has been suggested in this short essay that early Muslim-era Arabic graffiti had a social and aural purpose: moral instruction was given, forgiveness and blessing was asked for and later recited, and the texts were reacted to. We have evidence of later hands tampering with the graffiti by, for instance, changing a positive invocation to a negative one.[22] The fear of alteration prompted the wish in one writer to protect his text with a curse against “whoever erases this inscription or changes it” (above, 127 AH).

The hundreds of dated and thousands of undated inscriptions, most of them graffiti, from the first two centuries of Islam are witness to a bourgeoning epigraphic activity during that era in Arabia and the Near East. They also seem to suggest that to be able to read and write was somewhat common (how common exactly is impossible to say). Inscriptions were meant to be read aloud, so their audience would be even bigger than those who could read.

John Bodel remarks that, in the framework of ancient epigraphy at least, “inscriptions, particularly graffiti, have always posed a difficulty for the view that reading and writing seldom penetrated beneath the levels of the educated elite.”[23] However, it must be remembered that the prevalence of epigraphic habit must not be simply confounded “with levels of education and linguistic competence.”[24] Graffiti are often formulaic, so many of the writers perhaps mastered only a few pious phrases, but there a number of cases of very original graffiti where the engraver reveals significant skill in composing a text (see e.g. a paleographically early graffito published online at http://alsahra.org/?p=16087, no 3, which is essentially a letter or a message on stone).

Recent discoveries of late Nabataean (sometimes called Nabateo-Arabic) inscriptions from western Arabia dated from the first to the fifth centuries CE are changing our view about the presence of writing in that time and place.[25] At the moment, however, all known sixth-century Arabic inscriptions come from Syria, so we cannot yet suppose a continuity in Arabia of writing in proto- and early Arabic script from the fifth to the seventh centuries CE and beyond. But new finds could corroborate this hypothetical continuity. If this (not at all unreasonable) suggestion is validated by future research, it will affect our understanding of the pre-Islamic “jāhiliyyah” Arabia and, ultimately, the Qurʾān. It is beginning to look like the narrative proffered in the Arabic literary evidence about the fifth–seventh century Arabia, as one where very few if any people knew how to read and write, is erroneous. There were literate individuals and, what is more, they could write in (forms of) Arabic in addition to other languages. We should also look to the south, Yemen, where a continuous literate culture in Ancient South Arabian languages is attested up to the sixth century CE (and probably somewhat later).[26]

Early Islamic inscriptions have only begun to yield their secrets. Furthermore, current and future field surveys will increase the number of published texts.


Ilkka Lindstedt is a scholar of Arabic epigraphy and early Islam. His dissertation (The Transmission of al-Madāʾinī’s Material: Historiographical Studies, University of Helsinki, 2013) discusses the transmission of Arabic historical narratives in the eighth–ninth centuries CE. Other publications include several articles on early Islamic history. Dr. Lindstedt is currently a fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies conducting a three-year (2016–2019) project on Arabic epigraphy (http://www.helsinki.fi/collegium/english/people/lindstedt/lindstedt.html). Additionally, he completed a visiting postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago in 2014.

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


[1] Imbert has published extensively on the subject. Many of his articles are available at https://ifporient.academia.edu/Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ricIMBERT

[2] Hoyland, R. G., 1997: The Content and Context of the Early Arabic Inscriptions, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 21: 77–102 (https://www.academia.edu/3211238/The_Content_and_Context_of_Early_Arabic_Inscriptions).

[3] Macdonald, M. C. A., 2015: On the Uses of Writing in Ancient Arabia and the Role of Palaeography in Studying Them, Arabian Epigraphic Notes 1: 1–50, here p. 28 (https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/32745). For further theoretical qualifications, see J. Baird / C. Taylor (eds.), 2011: Ancient Graffiti in Context, London.

[4] Imbert, F., 2015: Califes, princes et poètes dans les graffiti du début de l’Islam, Romano-Arabica 15 : 59–78, here p. 61 (https://www.academia.edu/9939415/Califes_princes_et_compagnons_dans_les_graffiti_du_d%C3%A9but_de_lIslam).

[5] Gregor Schoeler has demonstrated that early Islamic scholarship and the transmission of knowledge in general had a significant aural component, writing being used mainly for aide-mémoire purposes: Schoeler, G, 2006: The Oral and the Written in Early Islam, transl. U. Vagelpohl, ed. J. E. Montgomery, London.

[6] Sharon, M., 1997–: Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum Palaestinae, Leiden, II, 223.

[7] Kawatoko, M., 2005: Archaeological Survey of Najran and Madinah 2002, Aṭlāl 18: 50–58.

[8] Ghabban, ʿA. I., 2008: The Inscription of Zuhayr, the Oldest Islamic Inscription (24 AH/AD 644–645), the Rise of the Arabic Script and the Nature of the Early Islamic State, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 19: 209–236 (https://www.academia.edu/3576977/The_Inscription_of_Zuhayr_the_oldest_Islamic_Inscription_AH_24_AD_644_).

[9] Al-Kilābī, Ḥ., 2009: Al-Nuqūsh al-Islāmiyyah ʿalā Ṭarīq al-Ḥajj al-Shāmī bi-Shamāl Gharb al-Mamlakah al-ʿArabiyyah al-Saʿūdiyyah, Riyadh, pp. 70–71.

[10] Imbert, F., 2011: L’Islam des pierres: l’expression de la foi dans les graffiti arabes des premiers siècles, Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée 129: 57–78, here pp. 62–63, referring to an unpublished graffito (https://www.academia.edu/7291764/LIslam_des_pierres_expression_de_la_foi_dans_les_graffiti_des_2_premiers_si%C3%A8cles_de_lH%C3%A9gire).

[11] Reproduced from Lindstedt, I., 2014: New Kufic Graffiti and Inscriptions from Jordan, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 25: 110–114, here p. 111 (https://www.academia.edu/7510213/New_Kufic_graffiti_and_inscriptions_from_Jordan_AAE_).

[12] Nevo, Y. D. / Z. Cohen / D. Heftman, 1993: Ancient Arabic Inscriptions from the Negev, Volume 1, Jerusalem, p. 16, siglum EL 200C(2).

[13] Al-Ḥārithī, N. ʿA, 2007: Naqsh Kitābī Nādir Yuʾarrikhu ʿImarāt al-Khalifah al-Umawī ʿAbd Al-Malik bn Marwān li-l-Masjid Al-Ḥarām ʿĀm 78 AH, ʿĀlam al-Makhṭūṭāt wa-l-Nawādir 12/2: 533–543. I have made some small changes to the editio princeps.

[14] Al-Ḥārithī, N. ʿA, 1997: Al-Nuqūsh al-ʿArabiyyah al-Mubakkirah fī Muḥāfaẓat al-Ṭāʾif, Taif, pp. 135–136, no. 92.

[15] Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Istīʿāb, Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, I, 231.

[16] The original publication gives bi-yad, but this does not make much sense, as the editor, al-Rāshid, admits. Imbert 2011: 67 repeats the erroneous reading and makes other mistakes in the transliteration.

[17] Al-Rāshid, S. ʿA., 1993: Kitābāt Islāmiyyah Ghayr Manshūrah min Ruwāwat al-Madīnat al-Munawwara, Riyadh, pp. 83–86. The editor dated this to 76 AH, but according to Frédéric Imbert the reading 96 AH is preferable, see Imbert, F., 2011: L’Islam des pierres, 61, n. 3.

[18] Al-Rāshid, S. ʿA., 2008: Mudawwanāt Khaṭṭiyyah ʿalā al-Ḥajar min Manṭiqat ʿAsīr: Dirāsah Taḥlīliyyah wa-Muqāranah, Riyadh. The reading given by the editor, pp. 60–61, omits some words, but they are supplied here on the basis of the photograph.

[19] Al-ʿUshsh, M., 1964: Kitabāt ʿArabiyya Ghayr Manshūrah fī Jabal Usays, Al-Abḥāth 17: 227–316, here pp. 290–291.

[20] Al-Jbour, Kh. S., 2001: Arabic Inscriptions from Wādī Salma, Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan 7: 673–679, here p. 675.

[21] Hoyland, The Content and Context of the Early Arabic Inscriptions, 82.

[22] E.g., Nevo, Y. D. / Z. Cohen / D. Heftman, 1993: Ancient Arabic Inscriptions, 24.

[23] Bodel, J., 2015: Inscriptions and Literacy, in: C. Bruun / J. Edmondson (eds.,) The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy, Oxford, 745–763, here p. 746.

[24] Bodel, Inscriptions and Literacy, 758.

[25] See especially Laila Nehmé’s contributions: https://www.academia.edu/2106858/_A_glimpse_of_the_development_of_the_Nabataean_script_into_Arabic_based_on_old_and_new_epigraphic_material_in_M.C.A._Macdonald_ed_The_development_of_Arabic_as_a_written_language_Supplement_to_the_Proceedings_of_the_Seminar_for_Arabian_Studies_40_._Oxford_47-88 and https://www.academia.edu/25386021/A_rock_inscription_mentioning_Tha%CA%BFlaba_an_Arab_king_from_Ghassan.

[26] As for South Arabian epigraphy, see the studies by Christian Robin: https://cnrs.academia.edu/ChristianRobin.