Decades after earliest Quran was discovered, scholars to share full text of the Sana’a manuscript

Five decades after the earliest manuscript of the Quran was discovered in Yemen, scholars are getting ready to share with the world the full text of the Sana’a manuscript. Inside the incredible hunt for Islam’s urtext.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: June 18, 2017 12:03 pm
Mosque of Sana’a A matter of faith: A view of the Great Mosque of Sana’a. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

For centuries, the word of God had lain hidden inside a dark loft, walled off from the world, illuminated by the light from a single window. But then, in 1965, storms damaged the roof housing the western library in the Great Mosque of Sana’a, one of Islam’s greatest religious sites. Husain bin Ahmed al-Sayaghy, director of administration at the Yemen National Museum, ordered the building inspected to assess damage. There, inside the walled-up loft, the workers found hundreds of pages of old parchment near-destroyed by the ravages of age and the assaults of mould, insects and mice.

No one had any idea what they had just discovered. The manuscripts were stuffed into sacks and forgotten. Years would pass before it transpired that the parchment in the hidden room was the very earliest Quran to be discovered. Radiocarbon dating shows the Sana’a manuscript was almost certainly prepared between 578CE and 668CE: the era of Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Prophet of Islam. There is a three-to-one chance that it is older than 646CE, which means it was likely written within 15 years after Muhammad’s death, conceivably by someone who had heard the divine revelation from his own lips. But there’s also this twist: Islam’s urtext wasn’t quite the same as the Quran we know today. Some years after it was first written, scholarly investigation showed that a scribe had scrubbed off the writing and replaced it with the text believers now revere.

No movie scriptwriter could have imagined the incredible story that has since quietly unfolded at universities worldwide: a plot involving priceless, centuries-old manuscripts secreted away by scholars, the extraction of meaning from code-like texts, Nazis and global geopolitics.

Even as this incredible academic story nears its climax, darkness shrouds the manuscript itself. In 2015, as Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen, the manuscript’s caretakers in Sana’a fled, locking the manuscript in a secret safe that can only be opened if all of them gather again. The longer the manuscript remains in the safe, the more rapidly it will deteriorate: climate control is essential to its preservation.

Five thousand kilometres from the Grand Mosque in Sana’a, the Corpus Coranicum, a project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Humanities and Sciences, is housed in a nondescript building in Potsdam — a city itself horribly bombed in April, 1945, by the Royal Air Force, in raids that claimed the lives of over 7,000 civilians. Inside, scholars have been using state-of-the-art digital tools to reconstruct the Sana’a manuscript. Each character has had to be retraced by hand, sometimes using ultraviolet imaging to render the washed-away lower text visible.

Though Islamic tradition refers to variant readings of the Quran, these scholarly disputations have been erased from popular imagination by a rising tide of literalism. Historians and textual scholars will make the full text of the Sana’a manuscript available to the world for the first time, in a study to be published under the Corpus Coranicum. But in recovering the words of God, the scholars also hope to rediscover something more precious: the world in which those words were born and first gained meaning.

Perhaps the largest digital repository of its kind, the Corpus Coranicum database examines ancient Islamic manuscripts beside the varying ways in which they are read, and examine their relationship with religious texts in Syriac, Hebrew and Greek: traditions the earliest audiences of the Quran would have considered their own. “The Quran did not arise in a vacuum,” says Michael Marx, research director at the Corpus Coranicum, “it has a history. Part of that history lies in Christian and Rabbinic traditions.”

Muhammad’s parched Arabia, the work at the Corpus Coranicum shows, was no intellectual desert. Instead, the Sana’a manuscript was born in a world filled with vibrant debates between Christian, Judaic and pre-Islamic monotheistic and pagan traditions, with which the Quran engaged. The comparative textual passages in the Corpus Coranicum make those linkages clear. Verse 112 of the Quran contains the exhortation: “Say: He is God, one.” The word used for “one” is ‘ahad’, rather than the Arabic ‘wahid’ which would have been expected according to the rules of grammar. Ahad would have sounded familiar, though, to Hebrew-speaking audiences of Deuteronomy 6:4, which tells us “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One, ehad.” Both these texts, in turn, would have been instantly comprehensible to Christians familiar with the Symbolum Nicaenum, or Nicene Creed, which says, “we believe in one God.”

The Sana’a palimpsest as seen in the Puin collection.

For those steeped in popular religious narratives, which casts the Prophet’s world as one where Islam was pitted against paganism, this may seem startling. But, archaeological finds in Saudi Arabia and Yemen buttress the proposition. Elites of the Himyar kingdom, spanning from south of Sana’a to Riyadh, converted to some form of Judaism around 380CE, the eminent French scholar Christopher Robin has shown, in an effort to ward off expansion by Ethiopian and Byzantine Christians, as well as Persian Zoroastrians. “Today we think of religions as neatly sundered from one another,” says David Kiltz, another scholar involved in the Corpus Coranicum, “but in the time of Muhammad, the boundaries between beliefs weren’t so neat.” In ancient Mecca, he points out, “traders and pilgrims would have encountered an array of believers, from pagans to Zoroastrians, from Jews to Nestorian Christians.”

In the summer of 1944, the Bavarian Academy of Science was destroyed by a British air force bomb. The treasures lost in the inferno were long thought to have included hundreds of rolls of film documenting ancient leaves of the Quran, photographed in Egypt, Turkey and Morocco by the great German Orientalists Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl — the latter a colourful figure who would die in an air crash while attempting to foment rebellion by Arab tribes in support of Nazi forces. The photographs marked a monumental effort to recover that lost world and were long believed to have been forever lost.

In 1993, German scholar Angelica Neuwirth took Anton Spitaler, the long-retired custodian of the photographs, for a drive around Berlin. “He suddenly said,” Neuwirth recalls, “that the Bergstraesser archive was still awaiting scholarly perusal and was with him. He asked me if I would be interested to look into them. It took me some time to start breathing again.” Spitaler never offered an explanation of why he had not made them available until then; Neuwirth says she never asked. Each of those images has now been digitised and forms a part of the Corpus Coranicum. The efforts of the Corpus Coranicum scholars now offer a real shot at bringing alive the world of the word — but the project is clouded by ugly suspicions and disputations.

For centuries now, polemicists hostile to Islam have claimed that the Quran is a fabrication. Scholar John Wansborough wrongly asserted, four decades ago, that there were no manuscripts of the Quran from its first century because it was only authored afterwards. In the 1970s, academics Patricia Crone and Michael Crooke argued that a Judaic sect morphed into what we now know as Islam around 690 CE — an extravagant claim they were to retract later. In the years before 9/11, when news of the Sana’a find first began circulating through the academic world, some predicted it would have the same kind of impact on Islam that Allied bombers had on Berlin.

Gerd-Rudiger Puin, among the first to access the original Sana’a manuscript, and the one who helped restore it, fuelled these claims. Puin took on the Quran head on in 1999, arguing that every fifth line was “just incomprehensible” because it was a collage of sources and texts, not a coherent whole. But, just like Spitaler’s cigar-tin treasure, Puin chose to keep the Sana’a manuscript hidden. He never published the microfilm images he shipped to Germany in 1997. It wasn’t until recently that the Corpus Coranicum succeeded in obtaining high-resolution images directly from Yemen authorities.

It is now clear that the deviations between the lower layer of the Sana’a Quran and the standard text we know today are minor. Behnam Sadeghi, the Stanford University scholar who, along with Uwe Bergmann, carried out the radiocarbon dating of the Sana’a manuscript, detected 32 instances of what he called minor discrepancies in the sections he studied — suffixes, prefixes and the like — and 25 more substantial ones, involving missing words. The changes, it is almost certain, were made on the orders of Uthman bin Affan, a contemporary of Muhammad, who became the third Caliph of the Islamic empire in 644CE. Uthman is said to have compiled the standard Quran to stamp out dissension within the community. Errors were reconciled and the Quran’s suras assembled by length rather than by the time of their revelation. Uthman sent out his version around 650CE, perhaps the time at which the upper layer of the Sana’a text was prepared.

Ever since the furore over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a shroud has been drawn over discussions over the Quran. In 1960, French scholar of Islam, Maxime Rodinson, would write that the Prophet’s revelations were made up of “elements of his actual experience, the stuff of his thoughts, dreams and meditations, and memories of discussions that he had heard re-emerged, chopped, changed and transposed”. In 1996, the Egyptian scholar Nasr Abu Zaid was declared an apostate for arguing that the Quran was a literary text, not the absolute and unchanging word of God. Perhaps, the most durable contribution of the Sana’a Quran, and the scholars who have worked on it, may be to remind us that a more open, yet respectful conversation is possible.

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