The Vedas, sacred texts of Hinduism, are believed to have been revealed around 1000 BC. They were memorised by Hindu priests and orally transmitted for nearly 2000 years. In fact, for a long time, committing the Vedas to writing was considered a sinful act. The oldest surviving manuscript of the Rgveda dates from the 11th century AD. The later texts, including the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Upanishads, were likewise memorised and passed on orally from generation to generation. The oldest extant manuscript of the Ramayana dates from the 11th century AD and that of the Mahabharata from the 16th century AD. Fragments of the earliest Buddhist texts, written on birch bark in the Gandhari language and in the Kharoshti script, now in the British Library, date from the late first century AD, nearly six centuries after Buddha’s death. The Avesta, the sacred text of the Zoroastrians, is believed to have been revealed around 1000 BC. It was memorised and transmitted orally for nearly 15 centuries and was committed to writing in the mid-Sasanian period (5th-6th century AD). The oldest extant manuscript of the Avesta date from the 13th century AD.
A comparative study of religious scriptures indicates the existence of countless textual variations, inconsistencies and interpolations. The Old Testament texts themselves attest to the fact of tampering and manipulation in the Jewish scriptures (Isaiah 5:24; Jeremiah 36:23). Between 700 and 70 BC, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed several times. The Torah, which used to be kept in the Temple, was often burned by kings and emperors like Nebuchadnezzar and Titus. However, it is believed that each time the Torah was burned, the Hebrew prophets reproduced and revived it from memory. Scholars of the Old Testament point out that these texts have been altered by countless editors and scribes. Similarly, the New Testament texts are not free from variations and errors. The Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest manuscript of the Christian texts, has two books (Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome in the 2nd century, and the Epistle of Barnabas) which are missing from the Authorised Version of the Bible. Furthermore, certain crucial verses relating to the Resurrection are not to be found in the Codex Sinaiticus. Some years ago, German scholars collected the Greek manuscripts of the gospels from all over the world and found, after a careful study, that there were 200,000 variants in the texts. 1 The Ramayana, one of Hinduism’s most important texts, has several variants and recensions. 2 Similarly, the Avesta, the sacred text of Zoroastrianism, and the Dhammapada, Buddhism’s sacred text, have noticeable variations and recensions.
Writing, or the commitment of the word to space, enlarges the potentiality of language beyond measure. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. 3 The culture of literacy entails an emphasis on the accuracy of transmission and a sense of history. Writing has played a crucial role in the preservation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge, including sacred knowledge.
Preservation of the text of the Quran
The Quran, which is believed by Muslims to be the last testament in a long series of divine revelations, is a compact text of about 600 pages. It is divided into 114 chapters, known as Surahs. The Quran was revealed to the Prophet, who was unlettered, incrementally over a period of 23 years. Since the Quran was destined to be the last and final message of God, its preservation in its original form and language was of utmost importance. The Prophet adopted, under divine instruction, two methods for the preservation of the text of the Quran: memorization and writing. As soon as the verses of the Quran were revealed, the Prophet would memorise them and recite them in his prayers and in the course of his conversations. He also encouraged his companions to invoke and memorise the verses of the Quran as often as possible. During his lifetime, scores of his companions, including some women, had memorised the entire text of the Quran. These included Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu ad-Darda, Abu Zayd, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, Ubbay ibn Ka’ab, Zayd ibn Thabit, Hudhayfa, Ubada ibn as-Samit, Abdullah ibn Umar, Amr ibn al-‘As and Muadh ibn Jabal. The ladies who had memorized the whole text of the Quran included Aisha and Hafsa, the wives of the Prophet, and Umm Warqa.
The tradition of memorising the entire text of the Quran has been a distinctive and uninterrupted feature of Muslim societies around the world since the inception of Islam. Today there are tens of thousands of Muslims in the world, including teen-age boys and girls, who have memorised the entire text of the Quran. There are some 500,000 huffaz (plural of hafiz, one who has memorised the entire text of the Quran), including women, in Turkey. There are thousands of huffaz in India, Indonesia, Egypt, Mautritania and other parts of the Islamic world. Some years ago, the entire adult population of a village near Cairo (some 15,000 people) accomplished the remarkable feat of memorising the Quran.
It is significant to note that the first verses of the Quran which were revealed to the Prophet at the beginning of his prophetic mission mentioned writing.
Recite, in the name of thy Lord Who created
He created man out of a leech-like clot.
Recite, and thy Lord is Most Bountiful,
Who taught (man) through the pen.
He taught man what he knew not. (Quran 96: 1-5)
The word Kitab (book) is mentioned in 230 places in the Quran, which suggests that the Quran was meant to be committed to writing. The Quran also mentions a number of words associated with the technology and culture of writing, such as parchment (52:3), scroll (21:104), papyrus (6:7, 6:91), pen (68:1, 96:4), tablet (7:150), tomes (62:5) and scriptures (3:184). The second chapter of the Quran, which was revealed to the Prophet after his migration to Madina, lays down that every transaction on credit should be committed to writing in the presence of at least two witnesses (Quran 2:282). Though the Prophet knew neither reading nor writing, he was well aware of the importance of writing. He declared that it was the duty of a father towards his son to teach him writing. He appointed Abdullah ibn Sai’d ibn al-‘As, who was a good calligrapher, to teach writing to those of his companions who spent most of their time in the Prophet’s mosque. The Prophet is reported to have said, “Should any Muslim possess property fit for testamentary will, it would not be proper for him to pass even three nights without having a written will with him”.
In the Battle of Badr about 70 prisoners of war were captured by Muslims. Abu Bakr suggested that theys should be set free on payment of ransom. The Prophet agreed with the suggestion and a ransom of a hundred camels or four thousand dirhams was fixed as ransom. Some of the prisoners were too poor to pay the ransom, but they knew reading and writing. The Prophet suggested that a literate prisoner could secure his release by teaching ten Muslim children to write. It was from one of these prisoners that young Zayd ibn Thabit, who later served as the Prophet’s secretary, learnt writing.
It is estimated that 65 Companions of the Prophet served as his scribes. 4 About 40 of them were selected to write down the verses of the Quran as and when they were revealed. These included Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Zayd ibn Thabit, Aban bin Sa’id, Abu Umama, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu Hudhayfa, Ubbay ibn Ka’ab, Thabit ibn Qays, Abdullah ibn Umar, Amr ibn al-‘As, Muadh ibn Jabal and Muawiya. After dictating the revealed verses, the Prophet used to ask the scribe to read out what he had written. The chapters and verses of the Quran were arranged according to his instructions, which were divinely mandated. During the time of the Prophet, the verses of the Quran were written on stone tablets, ribs of palm branches, camel ribs, shoulder blades, pieces of wooden board and parchment.
During the Prophet’s lifetime, the written fragments of the Quran existed in a scattered state. They were not compiled or bound together in one volume. During the caliphate of Abu Bakr, seventy Companions of the Prophet, who had memorized the Quran, were killed in the battle of Yamama in the twelfth year of the Hijra (633 AD.) This unfortunate event caused great anxiety and apprehension among the Prophet’s senior Companions, particularly Umar, who suggested to Abu Bakr to have the scattered fragments of the Quran collected in one volume. After some hesitation, Abu Bakr agreed to the suggestion and commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, who had served as the Prophet’s secretary, to carry out this task. Zayd transferred on parchment, which was made from calf hide or goat skin, the verses of the Quran from stone slabs, palm branches and shoulder blades. Despite the fact that he himself was a hafiz, Zayd cross-checked each verse on the testimony of at least two Companions who had memorized the Quran. This shows the extreme care and meticulousness with which he went about his assignment. The work of compilation and arrangement was completed in a year. The completed manuscript of the Quran was kept in the custody of Abu Bakr, who passed it on to Umar before he breathed his last. After Caliph Umar’s assassination the manuscript came in possession of his daughter and the Prophet’s wife Hafsa, who had also memorised the Quran. Aisha, Hafsa and Umm Salma had their personal copies of the Quran.
During the caliphate of Uthman, the frontiers of the Islamic state extended up to Azerbaijan and Armenia in Central Asia. Hudhaifa ibn al-Yaman, a companion of the Prophet who had taken part in the battles of Armenia and Azerbaijan and had thereafter travelled far and wide in the course of his other military campaigns, was astounded and distressed to find that many Muslims in the farther regions of the Islamic state pronounced certain words of the Quran differently from those of mainland Arabia. On his return to Madina in 25 Hijra, he approached Caliph Uthman, informed him about the disturbing situation he had witnessed and requested him to commission the preparation of an orthographically and phoenetically standardized copy of the Quran.
Realising the gravity of the problem, Caliph Uthman requested Hafsa to hand over the manuscript of the Quran which was prepared at the instance of Abu Bakr, so that it could be used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex. He then appointed a four-member committee, which included the veteran Zayd ibn Thabit, Abdullah ibn Zubayr, Sa’id ibn al-‘As and Abdur-Rahman ibn al-Harith, to oversee and execute the preparation of a standardized text of the Quran according to the diction of the Quraysh, to which the Prophet belonged. The committee adopted a meticulous methodology for the purpose. It began its work by collecting fragments of the Quran, under oath, which were written by the Companions during the Prophet’s lifetime. The scribes took care to eliminate ambiguities in pronunciation and spellings in the verses, and standardized the spellings. The master copy prepared by the committee was compared and collated with Aisha’s personal copy of the Quran. The committee found no discrepancies and inconsistencies between the copy that was prepared at the instance of Caliph Abu Bakr, which was used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex, and the personal copy of Aisha. The whole project was personally supervised by Caliph Uthman, and the final copy was read out before a gathering of the Companions and in Caliph Uthman’s presence for approval and endorsement. The committee thereafter prepared five or seven copies of the standardized text in the Hijazi scirpt, and the original copy was returned to Hafsa. These copies were dispatched to the main cities of the Islamic state, including Makka, Madina, Kufa, Basra, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, along with an accredited “reciter” (qari) who would recite the verses of the Quran according to the standard Arabic diction. One copy was kept in the Prophet’s mosque in Madina and another was kept by Caliph Uthman as his personal copy.
The copies of the Quran which were prepared at the instance of Caliph Uthman had no dots or vowel signs or signs that separated surahs. Each surah was differentiated by the insertion of the invocation Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim at the beginning. 5 There were a few variations in spelling of a minor nature, totaling 40 characters, in the copies. All these variations, except in one verse, involved single letters (). 6 These variations were not in the nature of scribal errors, but were deliberately retained at the suggestion of Zayd ibn Thabit, who considered them equally authentic. Such variations, as well as those between the Caliph Uthman Mushaf and other early Quran manuscripts, were meticulously examined by earlier generations of scholars. For instance, there were some variations between the Caliph Uthman Mushaf and the personal Quran copy of Imam Malik (d. 179 AH), which belonged to his grandfather Malik ibn Abi Amir al-Asbahi (d. 74 AH), who had personally written it during the caliphate of Uthman. This copy was decorated with silver, and the separation between surahs was indicated in black ink along with an ornamental band. Furthermore, the verses were separated by a dot. 7 Imam Malik showed this copy to his students, who compared it with Caliph Uthman’s personal copy as well as with the copies in Madina, Basra and Kufa and discovered that all the copies were almost identical, except spelling variations involving between four and eight characters.
Muslim scholars are in agreement that the copies of the Quran which were prepared during Uthman’s caliphate had no dots or diacritical marks. Abu al-Aswad al-Duali (d. 69 AH/688 AD), who lived during the caliphate of Umar, is believed to have inserted diacritical marks in the text of the Quran. During the reign of Muawiyah (d. 60 AH), he prepared a dotted copy of the Quran in 50 AH. However, a study of Arabic palaeography shows that some Arabic inscriptions before the rise of Islam, such as the Raqush tombstone, the oldest dated pre-Islamic inscription (c. 267 AD), and in the early years of the Islamic era, contain dots over some letters. In a bilingual document on papyrus, dated 22 AH (during the caliphate of Umar), there are dots on some characters.8 Two dams built by Muawiya near Madina and Taif have inscriptions in which some letters bear dots. 9 In the first century itself, ayah separators were introduced in the form of dotted columns or horizontal dots.
Historians, chroniclers and travellers have testified to the existence of the Quran copies that were prepared during Caliph Uthman’s time up to the middle of the 8th century Hijra. Amra bint Qays al-Adwiyyah reports that she had seen one of these copies in Madina. Aby Ubayd Qasim ibn Sallam (d. 223 AH), an eminent scholar of the third century Hijra, had seen one of these copies. Al-Kindi (d. 236 AH/850 AD) mentions that three of the copies of the Quran prepared at the instance of Caliph Uthman were destroyed in fire and war, but one of them was still kept at Malabja in his time. The celebrated traveler Ibn Jubayr (d. 614 AH/1217 AD) mentions that he had seen a manuscript of the Quran from the time of Caliph Uthman at the Grand Mosque of Damascus in 580 AH. Ibn Kathir (d. 774 AH/1372 AD) mentions that he had seen a copy of Caliph Uthman’s Quran in Damascus, which was brought there from Palestine in 518 AH. Ibn Battuta (d.779 AH/1377 AD) reports that he had seen copies of the Uthman Quran in Basra, Granada and Marakesh. Maqrizi (d. 845 AH/1442 AD) mentions three copies of Caliph Uthman’s Quran, two of them at the Amr ibn al-‘As mosque in Cairo and the third at the Fadiliyyah Madrasa in the city. The Madina copy remained in the city till the 10th century Hijra. One of the copies reached Egypt in the 4th century Hijra, where it was kept at the Grand Mosque of Fustat. It remained there till the 8th century Hijra.
Ancient Quran Manuscripts
The study of the text of the Quran in Europe began in the 19th century in the context of a deeply-entrenched prejudice and hostility against Islam. European Orientalists, such as Noeldeke, Goltziher and Arthur Jeffery, have argued that the text of the Quran was not committed to writing in the lifetime of the Prophet or of the Companions, that the writing of the Quran began around the second or third century of the Hijra and that the arrangement of the chapters and verses of the Quran was not determined by the Prophet. A French Orientalist, Regis Blachere, who translated the Quran into French, had the audacity to change the arrangement of the chapters.
This argument not only reflects the characteristic prejudice of Orientalist scholarship but also flies in the face of evidence. Hundreds of thousands of complete or partial manuscripts of the Quran as well as fragments exist in libraries, museums and private collections in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Iraq, Britain, Austria, Russia, Germany, Kuwait, Bahrain, Paris, St. Petersburg and India. It is estimated that there are over 250,000 extant manuscripts or fragments of the Quran, many of which date from the first century Hijra. 10 This is corroborated by a statement of Ibn Hazm (d. 456 AH/1064 AD) to the effect that by the time of caliph Umar’s death (24 AH), nearly 100,000 copies of the Quran were in circulation in Makka, Madina, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other cities.
A folio of the Quran from San’a, written in the 1st century AH
Nearly 210,000 folios of ancient Quran manuscripts are preserved at Turk ve Islam Eserleri Muzesi (Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art) in Istanbul. A large and hidden cache of very old Quran manuscripts – estimated to be more than 40,000 – was discovered at the Great Mosque of San’a in Yemen in 1965, when the ceiling of the mosque collapsed due to heavy rains. In the course of repair and restoration, workers stumbled upon a large vault filled with parchment fragments. They were initially stored in the basement of the National Museum in San’a until 1980, when the Yemeni Department of Antiquities, Museums and Manuscripts launched a project, funded by Germany, to preserve, catalogue and microfilm the fragments. The fragments were shifted to the newly constructed House of Manuscripts (Dar al-Makhtutat) and over the next few years some 15,000 parchment fragments from nearly 1,000 incomplete manuscripts of the Quran were microfilmed. Many of these fragments belong to the first, second and third centuries of the Islamic era. In 1985 some of these fragments were displayed at an exhibition at the Kuwait National Museum. A catalogue of the exhibits was brought out by Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, San’a. UNESCO brought out a CD containing photographs of fragments of more than 40 manuscripts of the Quran dating from the first century of Hijra, as part of its Memory of the World project. A folio from the San’a collection, which dates to the middle of the first century Hijra, was auctioned by Christie’s in 2008 for a record £ 2,484,500, 20 times its estimated price.
In the San’a collection, there are 275 folios (86 per cent of the text) of a very old manuscript of the Quran (covering 86 per cent of the text), which is believed to have been written by Caliph Ali. There are dots and vowel signs on some letters. A facsimile edition of this manuscript, edited by Dr Tayyar Altikulac, was published by the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, Istanbul in 2011. It was probably written in the second half of the first century AH. 11
This folio, from a Quran manuscript written in Madina in the middle of the 1st century Hijra and was discovered in San’a,, was auctioned by Christie’s for a record £2,484,500, 20 times its estimated price
A folio of the Quran from the San’a collection dating from the 1st century Hijra
A folio of a Quran manuscript from San’a, dating to the 2nd century Hijra
Some of the extant manuscripts of the Quran dating to the first and early second century Hijra are listed in the following.
- A very old Quran manuscript, ascribed to Caliph Uthman, is preserved at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul. It is written on gazelle skin and has 439 folios. Sixteen folios are missing. It is written in the last folio that that this manuscript was copied by Caliph Uthman himself in 30 AH. Salahuddin Al-Munajjid, an eminent scholar of Arabic paleography who had seen this copy, wrote that this was the oldest of all the early Quran manuscripts he had seen, and dated it approximately to the end of the first century AH. A facsimile edition of the manuscript, edited by Dr Tayyar Altikulac, was published by the Centre for Islamic Studies (ISAM), Istanbul in 2008.
A folio from the Quran manuscript at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Istanbul
- A very old manuscript of the Quran, ascribed to Caliph Uthman, is preserved at Mashhad al-Husayn mosque in Cairo. It has 1087 folios, has a size of 57cmx68cm and weighs 80 kilograms. The extant folios contain 99 per cent of the text of the Quran. A facsimile edition of the manuscript, edited by Dr Tayyar Altikulac, was published by the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, Istanbul in 2009.
A folio from the Quran manuscript at Mashhad al-Husayn Mosque, Cairo
- An old manuscript of the Quran, believed to have been written by Caliph Ali, is preserved at Raza Library, Rampur, India. It is written on vellum and has 343 folios.
A folio from the Quran manuscript attributed to Caliph Ali, preserved at Raza Library, Rampur, India
- There is an old manuscript of the Quran at the British Library, which was probably written in the second half of the first century or the first half of the second century Hijra. It has 121 folios. A facsimile copy of some of the folios was published by the British Library in 2001.
A folio from an old Quran written in the 8th century, preserved at the British Library
- An old and incomplete manuscript of the Quran, dating from the first century Hijra, is preserved at Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It has 56 folios. A facsimile copy of the folios was published by F. Deroche and S. N. Noseda.
- The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has some ancient manuscripts of the Quran, which date from the second century Hijra. 12
- The Institute of Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg in the Russian Federation has an old and incomplete manuscript of the Quran, which dates from the second half of the 8th century CE. It has 81 large folios.
A folio from the St. Petersburg copy of the Quran
- The Nasser David Khalili Collection in London has the largest private collection of Islamic art objects and old Quran manuscripts in the world. One of the old manuscripts of the Quran in the Khalili collection dates from the first century Hijra.
Folio from an old Quran manuscript dating from the 1st century of the Hijra (Nasser David Khalili Collection)
- Bayt al-Quran in Bahrain has a very large collection of Quran manuscripts, some of which date from the first and second century of Hijra.
An early Quran manuscript, dating from the first century of the Hijra, preserved at Bayt al-Quran, Bahrain
- The Tashkent copy, which is ascribed to Caliph Uthman
A page from the Tashkent Quran
- The Topkapi Mushaf, which is ascribed to Caliph Uthman
Some European Orientalists, such as William Muir and Arthur Jeffrey, have admitted that the text of the Quran has remained free from tampering and corruption over the past fourteen centuries. Thus Arthur Jeffrey says: “Practically all the early codices and fragments (of the Quran) that have so far been carefully examined, show the same type of text, such variants as occur being almost always explainable as scribal errors.” 13
In the early decades of the 20th century, the Institut fur Koranforschung at the University of Munich in Germany had collected thousands of complete and incomplete manuscripts of the Quran from many countries, and after several years of research had reported that there were no variants in the copies. It is generally believed that the building in which the Institute was located was destroyed in the American bombing of Germany during the Second World War. 14 However, the information that surfaced after 2008 tells a different story. The story begins with Gotthelf Bergstrasser (1886-1933), a German scholar of Semitic languages and a protégé of the well-known German Orientalist Theodor Noeldeke (d. 1930). Bergstrasser had a special interest in the history of the text of the Quran and had collected photographs and microfilms of a large number of old manuscripts of the Quran in the course of his travels in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. He died in a mishap in the Bavarian Alps in 1933.
Bergstrasser’s unfinished work was taken over by his pupil and another German Arabist, Otto Pretzl (1893-1941), who worked largely in German military intelligence. Pretzl travelled to Morocco in 1934 and took photographs of some ancient Quran manuscripts at the Royal Library there. Professor Muhammad Hamidullah writes that in 1933, when he was pursuing his doctoral research at the Sorbonne, Pretzl came to Paris in order to collect microfilms of old Quran manuscripts in the city’s libraries. He told Professor Hamidullah that his institute in Munich had collected photographs and microfilms of some 42,000 old Quran manuscripts and that the process of collation was underway. 15 Pretzl died in a plane crash in 1941. The photographs and microfilms collected by Bergstrasser and Pretzl -- some 450 rolls of film -- came in possession of Anton Spitaler, another German Arabist. Spitaler served in the command offices in Germany and later as an Arabist in Austria. After World War II he returned to academia in Munich and began moving boxes that contained the old Quran archive collected by Bergstrasser and Pretzl into a room at Bavaria’s Academy of Sciences. He did not follow up the work of his predecessors nor did he scrutinized the archive. Instead, for reasons that are shrouded in mystery, he spread the false information that the archive had been destroyed during the British RAF bombing of the Bavarian Academy of Science, where the archives had been placed, on April 24, 1944.
In 1990, Ms. Angelika Neuwirth, a German Arabist and a pupil of Spitaler, met him in Berlin. Spitaler told Ms. Neuwirth in the course of conversation that he still had the Quran archive in his possession and offered to it to her. Ms. Neuwirth later sent two of her students to Munich to collect the archive and bring it to Berlin. Spitaler died in 2003. 16 Ms. Neuwirth, a professor of Arabic studies at Berlin’s Free University, is now working on the archive. A project called Corpus Coranicum was launched at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities in 2007 to study and research the archive.
It is mystifying why Spitaler told a lie about the Quran archive and kept it hidden for nearly half a century. My guess is that he found, contrary to his own expectations, that there was nothing in the old manuscripts of the Quran in the archive that could suggest that there were major variations in the text of the Quran and that the text was subjected to tampering. Instead, he found that the various manuscripts of the Quran were identical. My guess is based on three interrelated clues. First, Spitaler was well aware of the preliminary report presented by Pretzl to the effect that there were no variations in the copies of the Quran in the archive. Second, Ms. Neuwirth reports that Spitaler had an old copy of the Quran which he used until his death. Evidently, if he had lost all interest in Quran manuscripts and in the archive, he would not have used an old copy of the Quran all his life. Third, Spitaler, a devout Catholic, feared that if he published the results of his study of the Quran archive, which would show the text of the Quran to be free from tampering and corruption, it would be contested by European Orientalists and would also incur the displeasure of the Catholic Church, which would undermine his scholarly reputation.
There are at least four very old manuscripts of the Quran which are ascribed to Caliph Uthman. These are (i) Tashkent Mushaf (ii) Topkapi Mushaf (iii) Quran manuscript at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Istanbul (iv) Quran manuscript at the Mashhad al-Husayn Mosque in Cairo.
The Tashkent Mushaf was originally located at Damascus. After Tamerlane overran and devastated the city in the last decade of the 14th century, he took this copy to Samarqand as a war trophy. It remained there until Samarqand came under the occupation of Czarist Russia in 1868. It was shifted to the imperial library in St. Petersburg on October 24, 1869. Following the downfall of the Cazarist regime, a Muslim general, Ali Akbar Topchibashi, sent an armed convoy to the imperial palace to fetch the copy. 17 The copy was then sent to Samarqand, where it was kept at the Ak Medresse near the Khwaja Ahrar mosque. Following the communist takeover of Central Asia in 1917, the Islamic Council of Tashkent submitted a petition to Lenin to restitute the copy to the Muslim community, which was granted. The copy was handed over to the Islamic Council of Tashkent in 1924. It was shifted to the Museum of Antiquities in Tashkent in 1926, where it is kept securely in a glass-fronted vault.
A folio from Tashkent Mushaf
A Russian Orientalist, A. Shebunim, wrote a paper on the Tashkent copy in 1891 and thus brought it to the attention of the academic world. A Muslim scholar of Tatari descent, Abdullah ibn Ilyas ibn Ahmad Shah Borghani Qarimi migrated to St. Petersburg in 1883 with the intention of settling there. In 1889 he visited the royal library and chanced upon some very old Arabic manuscripts, including an ancient copy of the Quran attributed to Caliph Uthman. This copy was written on vellum and had 706 folios. In 1905 he took a photograph of Surah Yasin and got it printed on specially-made paper which looked like parchment. Another Russian Orientalist, S. Pissareff, studied the manuscript, wrote in ink over verses that were illegible, and brought out a facsimile edition of the copy in 1905. 18 Fifty copies were printed, some of which are extant. Only about a third of the original manuscript – approximately 353 folios -- has survived the vicissitudes of time. It is estimated that the original copy must have had 950 folios. Nearly 420 folios have been lost. Some folios were torn and stolen during the last century. Some folios were auctioned by Christie’s in 1992 and 1993 and by Sotheby’s in 2008. Each folio in the existing copy measures 53x68cm. There are on average 12 lines on each page.
There are two conflicting opinions about the authenticity of the Tashkent Mushaf. Professor Muhammad Hamidullah, who published a facsimile edition of the copy in 1980, is of the opinion that this copy is one of the five copies commissioned by Caliph Uthman. Salahuddin Al-Munajjid, who has written an authoritative book on the history of the Arabic script, on the other hand, opines that the Tashkent copy is not one of copies prepared at the instance of Caliph Uthman, but it is likely that it was copied from one of the codices prepared during his caliphate. 19 Dr Tayyar Altikulac, an eminent expert on early Quran manuscripts and former President of Religious Affairs, Turkey, concurs with the opinion of Al-Munajjid and offers the following arguments in support of his view.
First, there are some mistakes of omission in the manuscript. For example, in Surat Al Imran (3:37), the words “innal-Allah” have been left out. In the same Surah (3: 51), the word “hadha” has been left out. Furthermore, in verse 78 of the same Surah, the words “wama hua min indil-Allah” have been left out. Second, there are spelling errors and discrepancies in the copy as well as lack of uniformity in the spellings, which suggest that this copy was neither scrutinized after being copied nor checked and verified by a competent recite (qari), which was the traditional practice. Third, though the copy does not contain vowel signs, the verse endings are marked by small panels of diagonal lines. Furthermore, every tenth verse is marked with a square medallion illuminated in blue, green and red colours with a stellar design. These signs were not used in the early manuscripts of the Quran prepared at Caliph Uthman’s instance. Dr Altikulac therefore concludes that the Tashkent Mushaf is neither the copy that Caliph Uthman was reading when he was assassinated nor one of the copies that were commissioned by him. However, it might have been copied from the Uthman Mushaf sent to Kufa or from a copy of the latter. 20
The Topkapi manuscript, which is generally attributed to Caliph Uthman, is preserved at the Sacred Relics Section at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul and is kept for public viewing during the month of Ramadan. I had seen it during my visit to Istanbul in 1998. A folio in the beginning of the manuscript, written in Ottoman Turkish on June 12, 1811, states that this manuscript was copied by Caliph Uthman himself, that it was originally kept in a library in Cairo, and that Mehmet Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt, sent it to Sultan Mahmud II as a gift in 1811, with a request that it should be kept at the Topkapi Palace.
A folio from the Topkapi Mushaf
The Topkapi Mushaf, written on antelope skin, consists of 408 folios with the dimensions of 41x46cm. The thickness of each folio is 11cm. Each folio on average has 18 lines. Only two folios (with 23 verses) are missing. A few folios which were lost or damaged due to the vicissitudes of time were rewritten or added later. Some pages are difficult to read while some are completely illegible. The manuscript was sent to the Suleymaniye Library in 1984 for maintenance and repair and was returned to the Topkapi Museum in 1987 after restoration. It is possible that the two missing folios were lost in the course of restoration work at the Suleymaniye Library. The Topkapi Mushaf does not have the names or headings of Surahs in the beginning of the chapters, except in the case of Surat al-Fatiha and Surat al-Baqarah, which were written at a later date. Similarly, the number of verses in the chapters and the place of revelation are not mentioned.
A facsimile edition of the Topkapi Mushaf, edited with a detailed introduction by Dr Tayyar Alktikulac, former President of Religious Affairs, Turkey, was published by the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, Istanbul (IRCICA) in 2007. It carries a foreword by Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former Director General of IRCICA (1980 -2004) and at present Director General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
The Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture was established in Istanbul by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in 1980 for the purpose of documenting and disseminating information about the grandeur of Islamic civilization and about Muslim cultures in historical and contemporary perspectives. Over the past three decades, IRCICA has published some of the oldest Quran manuscripts, such as the Topkapi Mushaf, the Quran manuscript at Mashhad al-Husayn Mosque in Cairo, and the Quran manuscript attributed to Caliph Ali (the San’a copy). Among the highly important publication of the centre are the Bibliography of Translations of the Holy Quran: Printed Translations 1515-1980, published in 1986, the World Bibliography of Translations of the Holy Quran, published in 2000, and World Bibliography of Translations of the Holy Quran in Manuscript Form, published in 2009.
The project for the publication of a facsimile edition of the Topkapi Mushaf was launched by IRCICA in 1991 and took more than 15 years to complete. The complete text of the Topkapi Mushaf was photographed with a digital camera and then transcribed on the computer. The text was carefully and meticulously read and compared with some of the earliest Quran manuscripts as well as the copy of the Quran printed at the Mushaf Printing House in Madina by Dr Altikulac. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, Emir of Sharjah, gave a generous grant for the printing of the volume.
There is a general agreement among scholars who have made a deep study of the history of the text of the Quran that the early Quran manuscripts, including the copies that were prepared during the caliphate of Uthman, did not have dots or diacritical marks or illumination signs or signs that separated the chapters (Surahs) and verses (ayats). Some of the earliest fragments of the Quran discovered at San’a, for example, do not have any of these signs. Abul Aswad al-Duali used dots in order to indicate the differential pronunciation of similar-looking characters. A careful and painstaking study of the Topkapi Mushaf has led Dr Altikulac to conclude that this copy is neither Caliph Uthman’s personal copy nor one of the copies which were commissioned by him and sent to various cities. Dr Altikulac’s conclusion is based on the following considerations.
- The Topkapi Mushaf has dots and vowel signs on some ayats. At some places, slanted lines are used to indicate dots, and at other places red ink has been used to indicate the dots. It is note-worthy that Abul Asawad al-Duali instructed his scribes to put the vowel signs in ink of a different colour. Al-Duali also used signs in the form of horizontal or slanted lines to distinguish similar-looking letters. This feature is also found in the Topkapi Mushaf. 21
- There are signs at the end of every five ayats (takhmis) and an even bigger sign at the end of every ten ayats (ta’shir). At the end of every 100 ayats, the word mia (hundred) is written in a horizontal rectangle, and the word miatayn (two hundred) is written in a rectangular shape. These signs are mostly in black ink but some are in various colours. Some of these signs appear to have been inserted in the text at a later date but in most places the dots and vowel signs were inserted in the text at the time of writing. These signs did not exist during Caliph Uthman’s time but came to be used at a later date.
- There are spelling errors in the text. Furthermore, there is no uniformity of spelling in the text. This suggests that the copy was neither scrutinized after being copied nor checked and confirmed by a competent reciter (qari).
- The text is written in a developed Kufi script, and does not conform to the writing style of the early Quran manuscripts.
- The early Quran manuscripts were devoid of elements of illumination. In the later period, geometric and floral motifs were inserted within the palmettes, which separated the chapters and the rosettes between the verses. In the Topkapi Mushaf, one can see small ornamental circles that are meant to separate the verses as well as bands that separate the chapters. The motifs are in various colours. Professor Ihsanoglu says that the ornamental style of the Topkapi Mushaf shows that it belongs to the Umayyad period (41-132 AH). 22
Dr Altikulac notes that the orthography of the Topkapi Mushaf, especially the characteristics of the vowel marks, suggests that it was influenced by the style of the imams of recitation (qurra) of Madina. It is note-worthy that most of the famous imams of recitation lived between the second half of the first century and the first half of the second century of Hijra. Therefore, it is likely that the Topkapi Mushaf was copied from the Madina copy of the Uthman Mushaf between the second half of the first century and the first half of the second century of Hijra. Dr Altikulac quotes Professor Muhittin Serin, faculty member at the University of Marmara and an expert on Islamic calligraphy, as saying: “Regarding the organization of the lines and the shapes and characteristics of the letters, the Mushaf was probably copied at the turn of the second century Hijra. However, folios 1-6 and 11, which were copied later, also bear the characteristics of the mid-second century.” 23
The publication of the facsimile edition of the Topkapi Mushaf with a comprehensive and critical introduction by a competent scholar of Arabic paleography and calligraphy is immensely significant for Quranic studies and Arabic paleography and for the Muslim community. First and foremost, it testifies to the authenticity of the text of the Quran and demonstrates beyond a shadow of doubt that the text of the Quran has remained unaltered and free from any kind of tampering from the time of its revelation to the present. The text of the Topkapi Mushaf is identical with that of early Quran manuscripts as well the text of the Quran copies in circulation today. It is significant to note that the Topkapi Mushaf does not contain the invocation Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim at the beginning of Surat al-Tawba, which is followed in exactly the same manner in the existing copies of the Quran. The arrangement of Surahs and ayats in the Topkapi Mushaf is the same as in the existing copies, which confirms the belief of Muslims that the chapters and verses of the Quran were arranged during the Prophet’s lifetime and under his instruction. There are only minor differences of spelling, which can be attributed to scribal errors. It may be added that the 23 ayats in the two missing folios in the Topkapi Mushaf are to be found in some of the early Quran manuscripts, notably those at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Istanbul, the San’a copy ascribed to Caliph Ali and the Mashhad al-Husayn copy in Cairo. The publication of the Topkapi Mushaf provides an effective refutation of the claims of Orientalists that the Quran came to be written only in the third century of Hijra, that the chapters and verses of the Quran were arranged long after the Prophet, and that the text of the Quran cannot be said to be free from interpolations and tampering. The Topkapi Mushaf is an extremely valuable source for mapping the evolution of the Arabic script and for a comparative study of the early manuscripts of the Quran from the perspective of paleography and orthography. The academic community and Muslims should be grateful to IRCICA, OIC, Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Dr Tayyar Altikulac and Dr Halit Eren, present Director General of IRCICA, for this wonderful gift.
1. Muhammad Hamidullah: Introduction to Islam. Hyderabad: Habib and Company, 1980, p. 2.
2. V. Raghavan: The Ramayana Tradition in Asia. New Delhi, 1980; Paula Richman: Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
3. Walter J. Ong: Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 7-8. 4.
4. Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami: The History of the Quranic Text from Revelation to Compilation. Licester: UK Islamic Academy, 2003, p. 68; Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami: Kuttab al-Nabi. Riyad, 1981, 3rd ed.
5. Al-Azami, op. cit., pp. 95, 103.
6.Al-Azami, op. cit. p. 99.
7. Al-Azami, op. cit. p. 100
8. Muhammad Hamidullah: Six Originaux des Lettres Diplomatiques du Prophete de L’Islam. Paris, 1986, p. 44-45.
9. Al-Azami, op. cit. pp. 137-38
10. Al-Azami, op. cit. p. 151.
11. Al-Mushaf al-Sharif attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib, edited by Dr Tayyar Altikulac. IRCICA, 2011.
12. Nadia Abbot: The Rise of the North Arabic Script and its Koranic Development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939.
13. Quoted in Azami, op. cit., p. 206.
14. Muhammad Hamidullah: Muhammad Rasullullah. Hyderabad: Habib and Company, 1974, p. 121; Muhammad Hamidullah: The Emergence of Islam. Delhi: Adam Publishers, 2007, p. 27.
15. Muhammad Hamidullah: Khutbat-e-Bahawalpur. Bahawalpur: Islamiya University, 1401 AH, pp. 15-16.
16. A. Higgins: ‘The Lost Archive’ Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2008.
17.The Quran of Caliph Uthman, edited with a brief introduction by Muhammad Hamidullah. Philadelphia: Hyderabad House, 1980.
18. Al-Mushaf al-Sharif attributed to Caliph Uthman. Edited by Dr Tayyar Altikulac. Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, 2007, pp. 66-67.
19. Al-Mushaf al-Sharif attributed to Caliph Uthman. p. 80.
20. Al-Mushaf al-Sharif attributed to Caliph Uthman. pp. 67, 70.
21. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu: Preface: Al-Mushaf al-Sharif attributed to Caliph Uthman. p. 9.
22. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, op. cit. pp. 10-11.
23. Al-Mushaf al-Sharif attributed to Caliph Uthman. p. 81.