New essay: “Sîn is for Zenith” on the Arabic alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour –

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Sîn is for Zenith” –


The sound of Sîn (pronounced “scene”) is the clear sibilant we represent with our letter S. The S we know is all curves. Sîn is usually more angular, a little closer to the W shape of its Phoenician ancestor. Greek Sigma comes from the same source, the W shape tipped up 90 degrees clockwise.There was a Nabatean predecessor of Sîn in the form of a bowl shape with an upright growing out of it, something like Hebrew Shin. The shape of Sîn grows out of it: two miniature half-circles resting side by side. What strikes the eye are those three short uprights, referred to as “teeth” (Sîn word sinân in Arabic, the plural of sinn). It is not my job to say what is beautiful and what isn’t, but what I’m taken by in the most elegant handwritten Sîn is a slight asymmetry: the space between the first two teeth (reading right to left) is slightly narrower than the space between the second and third.

In terminal form Sîn ends with a rounded clockwise sweep, a shape which fledgling calligraphers struggle over, the clockwise descent and return, thickening along the bottom, tapering to a point as it rises on the left. The same curve reappears in Shin, Ṣad & Ḍad.

Sîn went through a period in its evolution when it had a triangle of dots suspended below the line, to distinguish it from the letter Shîn, the next in sequence, which has three dots above. (Shîn kept them. Present-day Sîn goes commando.) A streamlined variant of Sîn, still used, was developed in interests of efficiency: it can take the form, perhaps as a visual representation of the smooth prolonged sound of sibilance, of a straight unrippled line, often descending slightly, throwing the base line down a notch and continuing at a lower level. Easiest letter ever. In the initial or medial position the line simply continues on for a bit with nothing else happening.

The source of sinn, “tooth,” is the Arabic stem S–N–N, which, as a verb, means to sharpen, mold, shape. In one form, sunna, it means, in Hans Wehr’s definition, “habitual practice, customary procedure or action, norm, usage sanctioned by tradition; al-sunna or sunnat al-nabîy, the Sunna of the Prophet (nabîy), i.e. his sayings and doings, later established as legally binding precedents…” In other words, the ahl-al-sunna are the follows of the sunna, in English “Sunnis.” It’s an admirable definition, if only because Wehr defines the etymological stream of meanings without getting excited, or lost in detail. A history book, once it has said “Sunni,” has to go into teacher’s mode, including the actors and the theology, plus the alternative, Shiism, and to describe how Shiism ended up breaking away from “Sunnism.” Today everyone knows it, or can look it up, and the history hardly seems necessary. Hans Wehr defines shî‘a, the other major branch, as “followers, adherents, disciples, faction, party, sect”; al-shî‘a, the faction of Ali, the Shiah, the Shiites (that branch of the Muslims who recognize Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, as the rightful successor.)” It’s all the definition you need. They’re just words, ordinary words. Neither sunna nor shî‘a occur in the Qur’ân.