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Sana'a manuscripts: Map

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Gerd R Puin photo of one of his Sana'a Qur'an parchments, showing layered revisions to the Qu'ran


The Sana'a manuscripts, found in Yemenmarker in 1972, are considered by some to be the oldest existent version of the Qur'an. Although the text has been dated to the first two decades of the eighth century carbon 14 tests indicate that some of the parchments in this collection date back to the 7th and 8th centuries.

Discovery and assessment

In 1972, construction workers renovating a wall in the attic of the Great Mosque of Sana'a in Yemen came across large quantities of old manuscripts and parchments. They didn't realize what they had found and gathered up the documents, packed them away into some twenty potato sacks, and left them on the staircase of one of the mosque's minarets.

Qadhi Isma'il al-Akwa', then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority realized the potential importance of the find. Al-Akwa' sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the West Germanmarker government to organize and fund a restoration project.

Carbon-14 tests date some of the parchments to 645-690 AD. Their real age may be somewhat younger, since C-14 estimates the year of the death of an organism, and the process from that to the final writing on the parchment involves an unknown amount of time. Calligraphic datings have pointed to 710-715 AD. Generally, it is accepted that "no extant manuscript has been unequivocally dated to a period before the ninth century on the basis of firm external evidence."

Restoration project

Restoration of the manuscript has been organized and overseen by Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography specialist Gerd R. Puin of Saarland Universitymarker, in Saarbrückenmarker, Germany. Puin has extensively examined the parchment fragments found in this collection. It reveals unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Some of the manuscripts are rare examples of those written in early Hijazi Arabic script. Although these pieces are from the earliest Qur'an known to exist, they are also palimpsests -- versions written over even earlier, scraped-off versions.

A substantial amount of material has been retrieved from the site, as the work continues. From 1983 to 1996, around 15,000 of 40,000 pages were restored, including 12,000 parchment fragments some dating to the 8th century.

In 1999, Toby Lester, the executive editor of the website of The Atlantic Monthly reported on Puin's discoveries: "Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam's first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What's more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God."

Yemeni attitudes

More than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Qur'ans have been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted, and assembled. They await further examination in Yemen's House of Manuscripts. Yet that is something Islamic authorities seem unwilling to allow. Puin suggests, "They want to keep this thing low-profile, as we do, although for different reasons."

Puin, and his colleague Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic historian, have published short essays on what they discovered. They felt that when the Yemeni authorities realize the implications of the find, they would refuse further access - a prediction that soon came through. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 shot 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, and has brought the pictures back to Germany. The texts will soon be scrutinized and the findings published freely - a prospect that pleases Puin. "So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Qur'an is Allah's unaltered word. They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Qur'an has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Qur'an has a history too. The Sana'a fragments will help us accomplish this."

Puin's comments and conclusions

In a 1999 Atlantic Monthly article, Gerd Puin is quoted as saying that:

Responses

In 2000, The Guardian interviewed a number of academics for their responses to Puin's claims, including Dr Tarif Khalidi, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, and Professor Allen Jones, a lecturer in Koranic Studies at Oxford University. In regard to Puin's claim that certain words and pronunciations in the Koran were not standardized until the ninth century, the article notes.

However, the article notes some positive Muslim reaction to Puin's research. Salim Abdullah, director of the German Islamic Archives, affiliated to the Muslim World League, commented when he was warned of the controversy Puin's work might generate –"I am longing for this kind of discussion on this topic."

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