Where does the Abjad come from?


Following on from a post the other day about what an abjad is and why it is important to understand the difference between an abjad and an alphabet, in this post I'd like to explore the origins of the term "Abjad" and its numerical significance in Arabic.

Like the term "alphabet" arising from the first letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Beta, the term "abjad" originates from the first letters of an older form of the Arabic abjad and the current form of the Hebrew abjad. The order of letters in modern Arabic, however, is different. The Arabic abjad now begins: a b t th j h kh. One might expect a different term to be used for the Arabic abjad, but Arabic and Hebrew are closely related historically and the term applies to the writing systems of both languages.

The order a b j d is still significant in Arabic even though this is not the normal order as when looking things up "alphabetically." If you've seen the movie Pi, you know that the letters of the Hebrew abjad also hold numerical significance. Unsurprisingly, Arabic has a similar numerical system for its letters and, as in Hebrew, the Arabic letters are ascribed numerical values. When placed in numerical sequence from lowest to highest, the Arabic letters spell:

أﺑﺠﺪ ﻫﻮز ﺣﻄﻲ ﻛﻠﻤﻦ ﺳﻌﻔﺺ ﻗﺮﺷﺖ ﺛﺨﺬ ﺿﻇﻎ
Abjad hawaz HuTi kalaman sa'faS qarashat thakhadh DaDhagh

Arabic has more letters in its Abjad than Hebrew, so the numbers ascribed to the letters are different in each language. The breakdown in Arabic is as follows:

1 أ
2 ب
3 ج
4 د
5 Ù‡
6 Ùˆ
7 ز
8 Ø­
9 Ø·
10 ÙŠ
20 Ùƒ
30 Ù„
40 Ù…
50 Ù†
60 س
70 ع
80 ف
90 ص
100 Ù‚
200 ر
300 Ø´
400 ت
500 Ø«
600 Ø®
700 Ø°
800 ض
900 ظ
1000 غ

As is the case with other writing systems — including the Germanic runic alphabets, which also had numerical groupings and significance — there are other attested orders for the Arabic abjad historically. This one is probably the most standard today.

It's important to remember that virtually every written script has been considered sacred at some point in its development, and that letters and numbers are often grouped and paired in meaning. This fact does not then mean that everything written using such scripts has some kind of esoteric numerical significance.

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