Symposium Description

Scripts and Scripture: Writing and Religion in Arabia, 500-700 C.E.

A symposium at the University of Chicago

May 18-19, 2017

It has long been known that in the centuries leading up to the emergence of Islam, various religions, both monotheistic and otherwise, were practiced in the Arabian peninsula. The Muslim tradition itself, for example, describes various cults devoted to the worship of diverse “pagan” divinities, and also conveys many narratives about Jewish tribes living within Muhammad’s early community and elsewhere in Arabia. For a long time scholars have also had access to Greek texts describing some pre-Islamic Arabian religious practices, to South Arabian inscriptions offering information about pagan, Jewish, and Christian religious traditions there, and to Syriac texts relating the experience of Christian communities in Arabia. The involvement of the kingdom of Axum and its Christian ruler in the political and religious life of the peninsula in the sixth century is also well established.

Arabia in the century or so before Islam seems also to have been an area in which writing and writing systems were developing and undergoing significant change.  The ancient tradition of writing South Arabian, once widely used in what is today Yemen and, in a derived form, in northern Arabia, appears to have died out by the sixth century; but, at the beginning of the seventh century, the Arabic text of the Qur’ān, the Islamic scripture, appears to have emerged in West Arabia, written in a script that emerged from earlier Nabataean writing.  This development alone suggests that there may have existed more developed traditions of writing and of religious thought in Arabia than was commonly believed, since until recently we had precious little evidence for either.  The later Islamic reports about pre-Islamic Mecca and Arabia depict them as dominated by polytheistic animist religious cults, but this depiction seems, as we consider the Qur’ān and the scattered documentary information we now have, to be misleading.

Recent research on the Qur’ān has argued that this text was not so much a theological response to paganism, as it was an engagement with currents in the Judeo-Christian tradition with which it disagreed (for example, the Christian notion that Jesus was God’s son and the concept of the Trinity, or the stringency of some Jewish dietary restrictions). Archaeological excavation and survey work undertaken in recent decades in and around the peninsula have brought to light new and helpful evidence, from archaeologically identified monasteries in the Gulf region, to cultic sites in Yemen and modern-day Jordan, to a plethora of inscriptions in dozens of dialects upon rock walls, monuments, burial chambers, and wooden sticks.  All of this evidence points to a richly varied religious life in Arabia during the sixth century, and hints at a burgeoning of literary activity leading up to the emergence of the Qur’ān.  In addition, the relatively recent discovery of numerous inscriptions and graffiti in Arabic dating to the period shortly after the appearance of the Qur’ān has stimulated renewed research into these questions of writing and religion.  We might pose the enigma posed by all this material in the form of a single question: “How is it that a sacred scripture, the Qur’ān, coalesced in a region that apparently lacked an established script?”

A growing international community of scholars concerned with pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia is now engaged in a vigorous debate about these questions of writing and religion.  We need to know more about such basic things as the locations of the various religious communities and their relations vis-à-vis one another; the production, availability, and possible contact of sacred texts; the nature and development of local theological systems; the evolution and concomitant influence of the very languages and scripts in which religious practices and ideas were spoken, written, and transmitted; and the manner and degree to which all these Arabian phenomena were affected by factors beyond Arabia, particularly the imperial traditions of Byzantium/Rome and Persia and the powerful religious traditions of the Fertile Crescent, particularly Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. 

The conference “Writing and Religion in Arabia, 500-700 C.E.” will be convened at the University of Chicago on May 18-19 (Thursday-Friday), 2017, calling together leading scholars who deal with these questions, whether their specialization is South Arabian studies, pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabic dialectology and epigraphy, Qur’anic studies, or Arabian archaeology.  Its goal is to generate a rich interdisciplinary discussion of these basic issues of writing and religion that provide the background to the appearance and coalescence of the Qur’an, to help place that enigmatic text into a firmer historical, linguistic, religious, and literary context. 


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