THE ORTHOGRAPHY OF THE MASAHIF
Early manuscripts of the Qur’an were typically written on animal skin.
In the time of Prophet, parts of the revelation were written on all kinds of materials, such as:
Palm stalks (‘usub)
Thin white stones (likhaf)
Boards – (alwah) a long thin piece of wood
Scapula bones (aktaf)
Saddles (aqtab)-a joint of meat consisting of the two loins
Pieces of cloth ( riqa’)
Potsherds (khazaf)-a broken piece of earthenware – pottery made of baked clay
Parchments (raqq)-a heavy paper-like material made from animal skins.
The ink was prepared from soot (jelaga)
The masahif contained neither vowels nor diacritic points, and also there are no headings or separations between the surah nor any other kind of division, nor even any formal indication of the end of the verse.
Thus, in this respect these orthography resembled the scripts from which it was derived.
Some scholars have maintained that this lack of vocalization and diacritics was intentional, so that either all seven ahruf or some portion of them could be accommodated.
Among the scholars who shared this view are al-Dani (al-Muhkam fi Naqt al-Masahif, 3), Ibn al-’Arabi (al-’Awasim min al-Qawasim, 2:481), Syeikh al Islam Ibn Taymiyya (Fatawa, 12:100-2) and Ibn al-Jazari (Nashr, 1:32)
This view assumes that vocalization and diacritics were known to the Arabs when they wrote the masahif.
Indeed, many authorities maintain that the Arabs letters had always possessed these features or at least i’jam (dotting).(Subh al-A’sha, 3:151; Miftah al-Sa’adah, 2:89; Kashf al-Zunun, 1:712; al-Dani in his book al-Muhkam, p.35, mentions the pre-islamic Aslam Ibn Khudrah as a pioneer of vocalization and diacritics.
In support of this, we might adduce certain documents that have been dated to the early first century A.H.
The first one dates from the reigns of ‘Umar in 22/643, and in it appear some letters with dotting; i.e, Kha’, dhal, zay, shin and nun.(Grohmann, From the World of Arabic Papyri (Cairo: 1952), 82, 113-14; al-Munajjid, Tarikh al-Khat al-’Arabi, 37-39, 116, 126; al-Jabburi, Asl al-Khat al-’Arabi wa Tatawwuruhu, 107.
The other document is that of al-Ta’if, which dates from the reigns of Mua’wiyyah in 58/677 and in which most letters that require dots are dotted.(Early Islamic Inscriptions Near Taif in Hijaz,JNES, no.7(1948):236-4; al-Munajjid, Tarikh al-Khatt al-’Arabi, 101-03)
The masahif remained unchanged until it was felt necessary to develop their orthography by introducing vocalization to help the readers of the Qur’an read it perfectly and avoid errors in the I’rab, which had been brought about by non-Arab who had embraced Islam.(Al-Muhkam fi al-Masahif, 3-4, 18-19)
During the reign of Mua’wiyah, Ziyad, the governor of Basrah, is reported to have appointed Abu Aswad al-Dua’li to introduce vocalization (naqt al-I’rab) into orthography of the masahif.(Al-Muhkam fi al-Masahif,3-4; al-Aghani, 12:298; 4:160; Al-Awa’il,2;129-30; al-Anbari, Nuzhat al-Alibba’, 8-11. He adds that the authentic view is that Abu al-Aswad was appointed by ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib)
Some other riwayahs state that Yahya Ibn Ya’mur or Nasr Ibn ‘Asim was the first to introduce naqt.
Al-Dani states that Yahya and Nasr were probably the first to introduce naqt to the people and they had been taught by Abu al-Aswad, who started naqt.(al-Muhkam,5-6).
Qurtubi adds the name of al Hasan to that of Yahya. (Qurtubi, 1:63).
Suyuthi atrributes it to all of them, but considered the attribution to Abu al-Aswad the most accepted. (Itqan,4:160)
The second step in the development of the masahif was the introduction of diacritic points.
This took place during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, who is said to have commanded al-Hajjaj (d. 95 A.H.), governor of Iraq, to appoint certain scholars to distinguish the letters.
Nasr Ibn ‘Asim is said to have been appointed to carry out the task.
He then was the first to introduce naqt al-i’jam, for the same reason as for the first step, naqt al-i’rab which was to facilitate the reading of the masahif.(Al-Muhkam, 18-19)
Vocalization and diacritic were the same, consisting of dots that were distinguished by color: Red for naqt al-i’rab and black for naqt al-i’jam.(Al-Muhkam, 19-20,22-23)