Not set in stone

The other day I was looking for epigraphical sources when I came across an article from Islamic Awareness, a website for Muslim apologetics. Now, I quite like Islamic Awareness: their analysis is often awry, but they tend to cite academic sources and they upload lots of pictures from articles that are hard to access in the originals.

The article treats a cluster of graffiti from Mount Sal‘ in north-western Arabia. A bunch of passers-by apparently signed their names in pre-classical script; one wrote the sort of supplicatory message we often see in old Arabian graffiti.

Mount Sal' Graffiti

These would be no more than late-antique curiosities, were it not for four names that draw our attention: Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Alī bin Abū [sic] T[ā]lib, and Muhammad bin ‘Abd Allāh. Naturally, those names are seized upon as “the earliest to mention” the Meccan prophet and three of the earliest caliphs.

I think this is premature. For one thing, the Muhammad bin is on the line above ‘Abd Allāh, indicating that erosion has damaged the autographs of two distinct people, just as it’s damaged several other lines. But there are two more fundamental reasons to be sceptical.

1) These are very common names, and anyone who’s studied the history of the Arabs knows that Arab names are often duplicated.

2) Moreover, these four ‘recognised’ names appear in no discernable order alongside the names of people who are completely unknown. Nothing marks them out as special; as the heads of a revolutionary or reformist movement.

They could be anybody of any tribe: pastoralists, traders, soldiers on campaign or a bunch of teenagers on an adventure. The evidence simply isn’t strong enough to sustain the ideal identification.
We could leave it at that, if Islamic Awareness hadn’t also dated these graffiti – collectively – to the year 4/625. There’s nothing in the texts themselves to suggest that date, or any date at all.

Their only source for the date is page 15 of a book (first published 1978) called Islamic Calligraphy by Y.H. Safadi, a respectable scholar and librarian. Very well, then: I found the book and checked the reference. The only mention of that year is in a marginal note, and it does not inspire confidence. See for yourself:

Marginal note

That’s it? – That’s it. In regard to a particular inscription, Safadi asserts that the two men named are the future caliphs; then, without justification, he places it “probably in 625”. Even if we concede that the identification is possible, the dating is apparently conjured from thin air. No footnotes; no context. This is deeply negligent scholarship.

Now, Islamic Awareness are being credulous if they take these (clearly) unfounded assertions as facts. But there’s worse to come. The inscription that Safadi’s talking about is a different inscription from those we started with. It just happens to be nearby. So Islamic Awareness have taken a bogus dating and applied it to a bunch of other graffiti without bothering to prove the connexion, if any.

That’s not credulous: it’s cynical.

So no compelling argument has been made to connect the graffiti at Mount Sal‘ with Muhammad and the ‘rightly-guided’ caliphs; and Islamic Awareness, who really should know better, are sent to the naughty step.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.


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