The Arabic alphabet can be traced back to the Nabataean alphabet used to write the Nabataean dialect of Aramaic. The first known text in the Arabic alphabet is a late 4th-century inscription from Jabal Ramm (50 km east of ‘Aqabah) in Jordan, but the first dated one is a trilingual inscription at Zebed in Syria from 512. However, the epigraphic record is extremely sparse, with only five certainly pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions surviving, though some others may be pre-Islamic. Later, dots were added above and below the letters to differentiate them. (The Aramaic language had fewer phonemes than the Arabic, and some originally distinct Aramaic letters had become indistinguishable in shape, so that in the early writings 15 distinct letter-shapes had to do duty for 28 sounds; cf. the similarly ambiguous Pahlavi alphabet.) The first surviving document that definitely uses these dots is also the first surviving Arabic papyrus, dated April 643, although they did not become obligatory until much later. Important texts were and still are frequently memorized, especially in Qur'an memorization, a practice which probably arose partially from a desire to avoid the great ambiguity of the script.
Later still, vowel marks and the hamzah were introduced, beginning some time in the latter half of the 7th century, preceding the first invention of Syriac and Hebrew vocalization. Initially, this was done by a system of red dots, said to have been commissioned by an Umayyad governor of Iraq, Ḥajjaj ibn Yūsuf: a dot above = a, a dot below = i, a dot on the line = u, and doubled dots indicated nunation. However, this was cumbersome and easily confusable with the letter-distinguishing dots, so about 100 years later, the modern system was adopted. The system was finalized around 786 by al-Farāhīdī.
Arabic printing presses
Although Napoleon Bonaparte generally is given the credit with introducing the printing press to Egypt, upon invading it in 1798, and he did indeed bring printing presses and Arabic script presses, to print the French occupation's official newspaper Al-Tanbiyyah (The Courier), the process was started several centuries earlier.
Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1450 was followed up by Gregorio de Gregorii, a Venetian, who in 1514 published an entire prayer book in Arabic script entitled Kitab Salat al-Sawa'i intended for the eastern Christian communities. The script was said to be crude and almost unreadable.
Famed type designer Robert Granjon working for Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici succeeded in designing elegant Arabic typefaces and the Medici press published many Christian prayer and scholarly Arabic texts in the late 16th century.
The first Arabic books published using movable type in the Middle East were by the Maronite monks at the Maar Quzhayy Monastery in Mount Lebanon. They transliterated the Arabic language using Syriac script. It took a fellow goldsmith like Gutenberg to design and implement the first true Arabic script movable type printing press in the Middle East. The Greek Orthodox monk Abd Allah Zakhir set up an Arabic language printing press using movable type at the monastery of Saint John at the town of Dhour El Shuwayr in Mount Lebanon, the first homemade press in Lebanon using true Arabic script. He personally cut the type molds and did the founding of the elegant typeface. He created the first true Arabic script type in the Middle East. The first book off the press was in 1734; this press continued to be used until 1899.
Computers and the Arabic alphabet
The Arabic alphabet can be encoded using several character sets, including ISO-8859-6, Windows-1256 and Unicode, in the latter thanks to the "Arabic segment", entries U+0600 to U+06FF. However, neither of these sets indicate the form each character should take in context. It is left to the rendering engine to select the proper glyph to display for each character.
For compatibility with previous standards, initial, medial, final and isolated forms can be encoded separately in Unicode; however, they can also be inferred from their joining context, using the same encoding. The following table shows this common encoding, in addition to the compatibility encodings for their normally contextual forms (Arabic texts should be encoded today using only the common encoding, but the rendering must then infer the joining types to determine the correct glyph forms, with or without ligation.