Abdullah ibn Abbis, Ka'b al-Ahbar, and the origin of writing

Scientific archeology and secular history finds that writing developed with new accounting techniques about five thousand years ago.  Religious traditions centered on sacred scripture include stories that place writing much earlier in the history of the world and humans.  In the first century of Islam, Abdullah ibn Abbas and Ka’b al-Ahbar confronted a wide variety of Jewish and Christian stories about the origin of writing.

newspaper rock petroglyphs

In Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i, written about 1200 GC, writing is the first thing that God created.  The cited authority for this story is Abdullah ibn Abbas (died c. 687), a highly respected Qur’anic exegete.  Ibn Abbas conversed with the Companions of the Prophet.  He also conversed with Ka’b al-Ahbar (died c. 652), a Yemenite Jew who converted to Islam.  The story of the tablet and the pen occurs as the first tale in the Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i:

Ibn Abbas said:  The first thing that God created was the Preserved Tablet, on which was preserved all that has been and ever shall be until the Day of Resurrection.  What is contained thereon no one knows but God.  It is made of white pearl.

A tablet made of white pearl is even more sumptuous than books made of ivory.  The tale continues:

Then, from a gem, He created a Pen, the length of which would take five hundred years to traverse.  The end of it is cloven, and from it light flows as ink flows from the pens of the people of this world.  The Pen was told, “Write!”  And, as the Pen trembled because of the awesomeness of the proclamation, it began to reverberate in exaltation, as thunder reverberates.  Moved by God, it flowed across the Tablet, writing what is to be until the Last Day, whereat the Tablet was filled and the Pen ran dry.  And he who is to be happy shall be, and he who is to be wretched shall be. [1]

In Genesis, the first command of God is “Let there be light.”  Here it is “Write!”  The writing is performed with light.  Ancient audiences were likely to be enthralled with the sensuous description of the Pen trembling and reverberating in exaltation “as thunder reverberates.”  A translator of the tales of al-Kisa’i observed:

whereas the prophetic tales have their pious and devotional aspect, al-Kisa’i’s version is basically designed for popular entertainment and should ideally be recited by a professional raconteur. [2]

The tale of the pen is attention-grabbing and entertaining.  But it also underscores a core imperative of Islam: submit to God’s will of what is to be.

The Book of Adam and Eve, in its Latin corpus, describes Eve’s strategy of technological diversification for the first writing.  The Book of Adam and Eve isn’t actually a single book, but a corpus of thematically related manuscripts in ancient western Eurasian languages and medieval vernaculars.[3]  According to surviving Latin texts from the tenth century and later, after Adam died, Eve recognized her impending death.  Eve gathered all her sons and daughters and said:

Hear me, my children, and I will tell you what the archangel Michael said to us when I and your father transgressed the command of God.  The archangel Michael said, “On account of your transgression, Our Lord will bring upon your race the anger of his judgement, first by water, the second time by fire; by these two will the Lord judge the whole human race.”  But listen carefully to me, my children.  Make tablets of stone and others of clay, and write on them all of my life and all of your father’s life, all that you have heard and seen from us.  If by water the Lord judges our race, the tablets of clay will be dissolved and the tablets of stone will remain; but if by fire, the tablets of stone will be broken up and the tablets of clay will be baked hard. [4]

Eve seems to have misinterpreted the archangel Michael’s sequence of judgments as alternate possibilities.  However, modern academic scholarship has established that blaming women is wrong, and that lack of attention to this story is part of a broader patriarchal plot to oppress women.[5]  On the other hand, diversification in storage media is currently recognized as a best practice for secure archiving.  The text written on tablets of stone should have survived the judgment by water (flood) that Hebrew scripture describes.

In his extensive book catalog, the learned bookseller al-Nadim recorded in tenth-century Baghdad a story associating Adam with the first writing.  The form of writing is important in Arabic culture, as in many other cultures around the world.  Al-Nadim began his book catalog, the Fihrist, with a section describing ways of writing.  He began that section with discussion of the origin of Arabic script.  Al-Nadim recorded:

Ka’b said, and before Allah I am not responsible for his statement, that the first to originate the Arabic and Persian scripts and other forms of writing was Adam, for whom be peace.  Three hundred years before his death he wrote on clay which he baked so that it kept safe even when the Flood overflowed the earth.  Then each people found its script and wrote with it. [6]

Writing on clay is less costly than writing on stone.  Moreover, by correctly anticipating the flood and baking the clay, Adam avoided losing the text.  Ka’b’s account makes reasonable corrections, within its own context, to Eve’s account of writing in the Book of Adam and Eve.

Unlike its apparent accounting source, writing has great creative potential.  People enjoy telling stories.  A vast array of stories are attributed to ibn Abbas and Ka’b in the Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i.  Al-Nadim did not mention the tale of the tablet of pearl, attributed to ibn Abbas.  Al-Nadim explicitly distanced himself from responsibility for Ka’b statement about the origin of Arabic and Persian scripts.  Early Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) indicates deep respect for both ibn Abbas and Ka’b.[7]  Neither ibn Abbas nor Ka’b could control others’ attribution of stories to them.  Writing can be pious, devotional, and entertaining.  Accounting for writing requires good faith and good judgment from the reader.

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[1] Trans. Thackston (1978) p. 5.

[2] Id., introduction, p. xxiv.  Visual story-telling has been popular across Eurasia for millennia.

[3] Murdoch (2009) Ch. 1.

[4] Vita Adae et Evae, 49:3-50:2, trans. Charles (1913), slightly modernized.  A variant of this particular motif appears in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk 1, Ch. 2, sec. 3.  Antiquities of the Jews is a first-century work in Greek.  Judgment of the world by water (flood) occurs in Genesis 6-9.

[5] Jager (1996).

[6] Trans. Dodge (1970) p. 7.  Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa’i doesn’t include this story.  It includes a story of Adam writing on tanned sheepskins an acrostic poem encompassing the letters that are in the “Torah, Gospel, the Psalms and the Qur’an.”  Trans. Thackston (1978) no. 32, pp. 74-75 (“Adam’s Mission”).

[7] Twakkal (2008).  Ka’b was a key Islamic source for information about Jewish and Christian traditions prior to the Qur’an (Isra’iliyyat).  Id. provides extensive support for the statement of eminent hadith scholar Muhammad Husayn al-Dhahabi (d. 1348):

O God! Verily Ka‘b has been wronged by his accusers, and I cannot say anything regarding him other than that he is trustworthy and reliable, a scholar whose name was exploited and had many narrations attributed to him, most of which were fables and falsehoods, only to be circulated amongst the common masses and accepted by the aged from amongst the uneducated.

[image] Photo of Newspaper rock, Utah, showing petroglyphs from roughly 2000 to 650 years ago.  Dave Jenkins generously made the image available under a Creative Commons license.


Charles, Robert Henry. 1913. The apocrypha and pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jager, Eric. 1996. “Did Eve Invent Writing? Script and the Fall in ‘The Adam Books’.” Studies in Philology. 93 (3): 229-250.

Murdoch, Brian. 2009. The apocryphal Adam and Eve in medieval Europe: vernacular translations and adaptations of the Vita Adae et Evae. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thackston, Wheeler M., trans. 1978. Muḥammad Ibn-ʻAbdallāh al-Kisā’ī. The tales of the prophets of al-Kisa’i. Boston: Twayne Publ.

Twakkal, Abd Alfatah. 2008. Ka’b al-Ahbar and the Isra’iliyyat in the Tafsir literature. McGill University.

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