A Brief Survey of Proposals to Simplify Arabic Script

© Mamoun Sakkal 2000/2008

There have been many attempts to modify the Arabic script in the 20th century. The purposes of these attempts were usually stated to be:
1. To make reading Arabic easier by fixing in the written text all vowels and sounds of the spoken language.
2. To make writing Arabic easier by reducing the number of letter form variations. This always referred to letter form variations based on the letter position in the word, but also referred sometimes to the different styles of Arabic calligraphy.
3. To make typesetting Arabic easier by reducing the number of letter form variations. Different solutions were sought for different technologies.
4. To make Arabic more responsive to expressing new words resulting from inventions, products, and technologies.
5. To make Arabic more contemporary and modern. This usually included vague notions of what is modern or contemporary, and in many cases did not include any notions of these concepts at all, as if they were defined and accepted in the minds of the writers and readers of such proposals.

Some of the early attempts were initiated by the Academy of Arabic Language in Egypt (Majmaa al-Lughah al-Arabiyyah, Cairo) in 1938 in its desire to solve the problem of typesetting Arabic in an efficient way, that would also allow for accurate rendering and reading of the language. Proposals by Ali al-Jarem, Mahmoud Taimour, and Elias Akkawi, among others, focused on devising a method to incorporate the tashkeel vowel marks into the writing of the words on a consistent basis, and reducing the number of letter forms to a minimum, which meant getting rid of the different forms of each letter based on its location in the word. Abdul Aziz Fahmi suggested replacing the Arabic script with the Latin script as was done in Turkey a few years earlier. This proposal to use the Latin script to write Arabic has been already advanced in Egypt in 1880 by Wilhelm Spitta [An Egyptian 2], in 1890 by Karl Vollers, both directors of the Egyptian National Library (Dar Al-kutub al-misriyya).

In 1947 the Lebanese-born architect and artist Nasri Khattar designed a simplified script for printing he named the Unified Arabic (al abjadiah al muwahhadah). His work on this project for more than thirty years was supported by a Ford Foundation grant to promote his proposal. Khattar described his project as follows:
Unified alphabet is not a new alphabet. It may be described as a new style, which as such does not exhibit any greater differences than those found among the traditional and current Arabic styles in use... It does not alter or replace, but complements the styles of handwriting and the beautiful art of calligraphy, which remain in their present form. Arabic, like English, will now have a method of writing in which the letters of a word are attached to each other, and a different method for printing in which the letters of a word appear disconnected... For the non-Arab, as well as for the child or the illiterate, the greatest obstacle in learning Arabic has been the complicated script.

The work of Ahmad Lakhdar Ghazal also started in the 1950’s in Morocco. With the support of the Moroccan government he developed a Standard alphabet where each letter has one form that can be modified by simple endings, but remained very close to the forms of traditional Naskh used for typesetting Arabic books and magazines. Lakhdar Ghazal believes that part of the problems of Arabic stem from misunderstanding the printing requirements, and the difference between written and typeset text. His work in adapting the Arabic script to printing demands was based on four principles:
1. No major changes to the form of traditional Arabic letters.
2. Use of only one shape for each letter in the different positions of the word.
3. Allowing tashkeel (vocalization) marks to be an essential part of the typeset text.
4. Adapting this reform to all printing technologies from typesetting, to typing, to wire transfers. [Tarabieh 77].

A somewhat similar approach was proposed by Roberto Hamm in 1975 where the letters have two forms each instead of the typical four, and connected to each other with Kashida extensions to allow for the presentation of connected text. These connections also carry the tashkeel vowel marks and are used as tails to indicate final or isolated letter forms. [Hamm]. However, the font designs proposed by Hamm were foreign looking and not very successful, consequently his proposal did not did not have a lasting impact.

Mohammrd Said al Saggar from Baghdad and my own work in Aleppo, Syria, in the 1970’s also aimed at producing simplified typefaces with a limited number of letter forms. Saggar’s work retained many qualities of the traditional scripts both in Kufi and Naskhi, and continued to develop his typeface designs until the 1990’s with Diwan of London. My own work started in a minimalist way where all the letters have uniform shapes, the same height, large x-height, separate rather than connected letters. This work developed into my typeface Shilia which is more traditional.

Murad Boutros published an article about his Arabic Simplified Typeface in Apple Magazine in Nov. 1993. Again using one form for each letter, and allowing for either connecting or separating the letters when typeset. His font has a traditional Naskhi character.

In recent years, a number of proposals connected one way or another with computers have also been advanced. Abdelmalek Bouhadjera, an Algerian engineer, used Square Kufi to design a printing alphabet with separate letters he named El-Abdjadia El-Mouwahada which means Standardised or Unified Alphabet. Although his early work deviated substantially from traditional forms, his later proposal comes very close to the typical shapes of letters in Square Kufi calligraphy used mostly to decorate buildings.

Other proposals include Dawud Chalabi’s invitation to use separated letters in Iraq in 1885, a book published using separated letters in London in 1890 by the Ambassador of Iran to England, and Ibrahim al Yaziji and Kamel Marwa’s work on simplifying letter shapes. Albashir Bin Salamah presented a proposal in his book Arabic Language and Writing Problems in 1971, Afif Bahnasi presented another proposal in his book Arabic Calligraphy: its Origins, Rise, and Spread in 1984, still another proposal was made in a book titled Arabic Calligraphy.

Other work related to simplification of Arabic script include:

A proposal to use the Latin script by the Lebanese Sa'eed Aql in his book Yara published in Beirut in 1961. He published his book "Al-Khumasiyyat" using his proposal, Qadmus Publishing, Beirut, 1978.

A proposal to write vowels as letters included always in written text by Abdul Almajeed Al-Taji Al-Farouki published in his book "Tatawuru dabti al-kitabati al-Arabiyati" (The Evolution of Regulating Arabic Writing), Newcastle upon Tyne, England, 1962. The same author published another book on the same proposal in 1959 mentioned in Sabri book below.

A proposal to use Latin script by Uthman Sabri published in his book "Nahwa Abjadiyaten Jadida" (Towards a New Alphabet), 1964.

Proceedings of 8th conference for Standards in the Middle East, Cairo 1/30/1961. Reference from Zain al Din, Naji: Badaii al-Khatt al-Arabi (The Beauties of Arabic Calligraphy), Baghdad 1971.

Final report on the experiment to simplify Arabic writing by The Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization published in October, 1978 in Cairo.

"The Mutamathil Script" a proposal by Saad Abulhab for symmetrical Arabic letters that can be typed from right to left of left to right.1998. http://arabetics.com/mutamathil/

Although the list above may give the impression that Arabic typography indeed needs reform, the fact that most of the proposals above did not meet with users' acceptance for the past seventy years clearly indicates that none produced a better way of writing than the system already in place. Some simplification of the script is adapted in various modern printing and computer fonts, however, much of the arguments about the technical difficulties of typesetting Arabic are now irrelevant due to the developments in contemporary type technology including the adaptation of OpenType standards. Most of the above proposals are reviewed and critiqued by Imil Ya'qub in his excellent book: "Al-khatt al-Arabi: nash'atuhu, tatawuruhu, mushkilatutu, da'awat islahihi" (Arabic Script: Origin, Development, Problems, and Solutions), Jarus Press, Tripoli, Lebanon, 1986.

For relevant articles please see:
Modern Arabic Typography: Challenges and Opportunities
OpenType for Fine Arabic Typography

| Bibliography |
| Arabic Calligraphy |

Dr. Mamoun Sakkal is a calligrapher and type designer. He lived and worked in Aleppo, Syria, and now resides in the State of Washington, USA. He taught courses on Islamic art and architecture at the University of Washington.

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Updated 10/23/2008