Some maybe familiar with the story of the three kings (or the three wise men) who came bearing gifts at the birth of Jesus (AS), mentioned in the Bible. But, how many are aware of the story of the six kings of Midian? In the story of these kings, lies the origin of the Arabic alphabet.
Even though there are different narrations on the origin of the Arabic letters, there is one common story that goes back centuries. It’s the Legend of the six stingy kings of Midian. [A legend in this case, is a story that is well-established, used and followed by the scholars, are found in the classical texts, but cannot be supported by the Quran or the Sunnah.]
The six stingy kings
It is said that the Arabs were great speakers and listeners, but not always good readers and writers. None of them could read or write, and hence they didn’t have any written script for their language. That was the time of the six stingy kings from Midian. Abu Jadd, was the oldest of them. His name translates to “Father of the Grandfather” which means the great grandfather. Then came, Hawwaz, Huth’aya and Kalmun. Kalmun was the most famous among them. He used to come to the market with his sister and all the people would flock around him, calling out, “Oh look, there goes Kalmun,” hoping he would give them some charity. But he never did. Since they were all stingy kings.
The other two kings were Sa’fas and Qurishath. It was said that they were all descendants of Abu Jadd – maybe sons or nephews. The six kings were only concerned about themselves. They never did anything to help anyone. In their land, water was scarce. There was very little water; and most of it was used up by the kings. The climate was very hot and dry, which made it difficult for the people to survive.
As time went by, water started to dry up and the only little water left was kept for the kings. The people started getting desperate and decided to go to the kings for a solution. So they gathered outside the kings’ castles and pled to their kings to share some of the water with them. The kings as usual ignored them, and when they persisted, threatened them by saying that they would send out their troops if they didn’t leave. As the people started to leave, feeling disappointed, clouds started to appear on the horizon. The people got excited at this sign of rain! The kings noticed them too.
The kings with their advisors and troops rushed outside and told the people to stay within the citadel, so that they can enjoy the rain first. They said they would enjoy it’s benefits first, and then the people can take some of its water. The people having no choice but to stay inside the citadel, watched their kings and advisors go out to greet the rain-bearing clouds.
As they reached under the clouds, laughing and joking about the benefits of the new rain that was going to rain down soon upon them, the colour of the clouds suddenly changed. It turned red and grey, and it started thundering and lightening. Fear took upon their faces by suprise. It is said that the clouds crushed them or chocked them or drowned them or exploded their hearts (according to various narrations), and killed them all.
Origin of the Arabic alphabet
Shortly after this, people from different places who passed through Midian heard the story. Some of them were educated and suggested that they document these stories. Since they didn’t have any written script for their language, they decided to make one. They noticed that the names of these kings matched with most of the sounds in their language, with an exception of a few. For this reason, they introduced two more names to complete the alphabet: Thakhizh and Da’dh’igh (these two names are called Rawaadif).
In fact, most languages have these names for their letters: Greek, Russian, Hebrew and so on. For example, when we look at the first four alphabet from the Greek language: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. Look at the first letter of each of these names. Does it sound like Ab-Jadd? (Ab-Gadd, to be precise). However, they all stop at Qurishath. Most of them don’t know where they came from. But the Arabs preserved the story, and they knew exactly where it came from.
Some archaeologists found the poem written by Kalmun’s sister, the meaning of which is translated as follows:
There goes Kalmun his people cried,
But my brother was busy and never replied,
He rode off without us, while laughing and proud,
The day that he died inside of a cloud.
The Arabic alphabet
The following image shows the Arabic alphabet as names of the six kings (the first two lines) and the 2 added names (Rawaadif) in the last line, along with the letters that they represent. This is how the Arabic alphabet is learnt in the classical way even to this day.
Clarification of the story
Some have confused this story of the kings with the story of the people of Shuhaib (AS). They seem to think it’s the same cloud that came down upon them, which is mentioned in the Quran [Quran 26:189]. However, scholars have agreed that it isn’t the same incident. Allah knows best.
Originators of the letters
There are other narrations that say that the Arabic letters were first written by three men: Murrah, Aslam and Aamir, who came together and created the letters – both separated and joined. Murrah created the forms, Aslam created the separations and connections while Aamir created the diacritical marks (i.e. marks to indicate the difference between identical letters, for example: the dots of ج ح خ).
There is no way of knowing if these stories are real. But our scholars have been using this traditional way to teach the letters of the Arabic language for centuries. However, there is another way that was devised much later and widely used, which is the modern method. Many people also learn using the modern method, which is the Alif-Baa-Taa order. As a student of knowledge, one is expected to know both the methods. For example, modern dictionaries use the modern method, whereas the classical method is useful in reference to the classical works.
[Source: The Fihrist by Ibn al-Nadim, Published: 987A.D.]
Do you know how many sciences are there in the Arabic language? Check out our post on The Sciences of the Arabic Language.