A truly fascinating Quranic manuscript

The Sanaa Palimpsest has a number of unique characteristics, including as an enduring artefact of Quranic scribe methods and Islamic heritage in Yemen. Yet deciphering the text poses theological dilemmas surrounding the Quranic tradition.

In early 1973, a team of workers renovating the Great Mosque of Sanaa in Yemen came across a treasure trove of manuscripts hidden between the ceiling and the roof.

Reduced to fragments, the books had become unusable and were abandoned, probably after the reorganization of the mosque’s library.

As a German-Yemeni team cataloged and restored the tens of thousands of manuscript fragments in the 1980s, they found a unique manuscript – a palimpsest – that almost certainly dates to the first century of Islam.

“The most unusual feature of the Sanaa Manuscript is that the two texts – the original and the superimposed new text – are fragments of the same text, the Quran, and were separated by several decades apart”

Spanning a variety of cultures, palimpsests – texts written over earlier, erased text that is often nonetheless visible – were a common method of recycling valuable parchment and other materials.

The most unusual feature of the Sanaa Manuscript is that the two texts – the original and the new superimposed text – are fragments of the same text, the Quran, and were separated by several decades apart.

According to tradition, the canonical Quran is an impeccable record of the words revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by God in the mid-seventh century CE. In this case, the obvious question is why the underlying original text was erased only to be replaced decades later.

The courtyard of the Great Mosque of Sanʿāʾ

Before examining this enigma, I will describe the physical features of the manuscript, in particular the earlier text. The original script is a faithful copy of the Quran written on parchment.

It resembles other large volumes found in mosques – but not school exercises on separate sheets, as Asma Hilali recently suggested. The eighty leaves of the Sanaa Manuscript that scholars have been able to meticulously collect constitute about half of the complete original Quranic text.

The writing styles and habits of the two scribes who contributed to the copy suggest that it was written in the second half of the seventh century.

Carbon-14 dating, however, suggests the first half of the century, although interpretation of this data is complex because carbon dating only records when the sheep whose skin became the scroll died instead. when the original text was copied by the scribes.

Curiously, it also becomes apparent that the underlying text, partially deciphered using ultraviolet light images, includes previously unknown textual variants of the Quran.

Dozens of other Quranic manuscripts from the same period – or even older – found in other mosques throughout the Islamic world faithfully convey the canonical text, with only slight spelling differences.

The original text of the Sanaa manuscript however contains important differences such as synonyms for certain words and omissions, additions and transpositions of words or groups of words within verses.

The suras are also arranged differently from the canonical Quran, though they nevertheless proceed, canonically, from longest to shortest.

The discovery of the manuscripts in the early 1970s (from P. Costa, La moschea grande di Ṣan’ā’, Annali, 1974)

Ultimately, however, the underlying deciphered text closely resembles the modern Quran, and these slight variations do not interfere with the meaning.

Is it possible that the previous version is more focused on the meaning than on the perfect transmission of the literal Quranic text?

This hypothesis is the most interesting – and controversial – feature of the Sanaa Palimpsest and has sparked heated debate among scholars as it appears to be the only known example of this type of transmission.

In any case, the old erased version has been unmistakably replaced by a more canonical version, leaving an air of mystery around the erased text.

Was it an earlier version of the canonical text, produced by the circle of the Prophet’s companions? Is this a surviving example of a scribal tradition that somehow coexisted with the canonical text and dared to take a more flexible approach to the revealed Word, whether deliberately or not?

The Sanʿāʾ palimpsest, photographed under normal white light (left) and UV light (right. (Sanaa, Dar al-makhutat, 01-27.1, f.5a). [Used with the permission of CNRS, DATI]

These questions must be examined in the light of the entire contemporary corpus. Do the Koranic manuscripts of the world represent the history of the Koran or, on the contrary, are they only one dimension of the Koranic tradition?

Did other “non-canonical” manuscripts exist, and if so, were they carefully eliminated, generation after generation? What is clear is that the Sanaa Palimpsest survived because it was hidden – not merely in a false ceiling of a Yemeni mosque, but as a partially decipherable ghostly version that lies beneath the canonical text.

There is still a lot of research to be done before researchers are able to definitively answer these questions. Including an in-depth and technologically sophisticated analysis of this special manuscript, half of which is still kept by the Sanaa Grand Mosque’s Religious Endowment Library and has yet to be properly photographed.

If the war in the region ends, conservators and restorers will eventually be able to decipher the entire underlying text and draw conclusions about the habits and practices of the scribes who copied it.

The results of this research will enrich our understanding of the circumstances surrounding the creation, use and recycling of this unique Quranic manuscript.

Eléonore Cellard is a French scholar and researcher specializing in Arabic palaeography and codicology, in particular Koranic manuscripts.

Follow her on Twitter: @CellardEléonore

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