When the Qur'an was first reduced to writing there was no attempt to distinguish the consonants in the text which used the same symbol, nor were there any vowel points to identify the correct pronunciation of each word. Only the basic seventeen consonantal letters were used and, as we have seen, this gave rise to a number of variant readings which Uthman's decree to standardise a single text could not obviate or suppress. Some marks were used to indicate verse endings but apart from these no other qualifying marks were used.

It was generally assumed, as it is today, that the Arabic language is so familiar to those who speak it as their mother tongue that the vowelling of the text is not necessary. Most Arabic books to this day are written in consonantal form only. The widespread use of variant readings in the early days of the Qur'an's transmission, however, resulted in an attempt to define the correct reading or, where appropriate, the reader's preference, in the written text. The introduction of red and other coloured dots followed together with short strokes to identify specific consonants or vowel points in the text and to distinguish the reading in each case from a variant known to exist. Only a very limited information is available to determine precisely how the early written text developed but, as the major portions of those initial texts were left unmarked, it appears that the dots and strokes that were introduced were included specifically to distinguish particular readings. In some quarters this practice was disapproved of as a dangerous innovation but it gradually gained widespread acceptance especially when al-Hajjaj became governor of Iraq.

In time the strokes came to indicate the vowel points and the dots the diacritical marks distinguishing respective consonants. This system was gradually applied to the whole text so that eventually all the vowel points were specifically included in the text and every relevant consonant was given its particular diacritical mark. Today, almost without exception, all printed copies of the Qur'an are fully vocalised.

At the same time long vowels were also distinguished where appropriate from short vowels by the use of the three weak letters (alif, wa and ya) which were otherwise considered to be actual consonants and not vowels. These modifications all helped to define the actual text of the Qur'an more accurately, a practice of obvious suitability in the light of the fact that the written Arabic text is as phonetic as it could possibly be. Also introduced in time was the marking of the hamzah, the unusual letter like a small 'ain.

These developments, however, only partly assist one in determining the likely origin of any particular manuscript. The vast majority of the early manuscripts make no mention either of their date of writing or their place of origin. As a result it is impossible to accurately date any of the earliest texts surviving or to determine which is the oldest Qur'an in existence. Nothing certain can be said about them, whether they have been preserved intact as whole codices or only in fragmentary form.

The use of a colophon at the end of a Qur'an, widely used in later centuries, was not considered appropriate in the early days. Qur'ans of later centuries concluded with a disclosure of the name of the calligrapher in each case and usually with the date and place of origin. What complicates matters here is that some colophons are known to have been forged in the earlier texts so that an accurate identification of age and place of origin becomes even more improbable.

The development of the text in respect of the use of diacritical and vowel points is not entirely helpful in this respect either. On the one hand texts originally written without these points are known to have been supplemented with them at a later date while other texts were expressly written out without such points in later centuries as a sign of the calligrapher's or owner's mastery in his knowledge of the Qur'an and the lack of any need in his case to employ marks of identification to specifically record the whole text.

A good example of this is the superb Qur'an manuscript written in gold script upon blue vellum which survives almost intact from Kairouan in Tunisia where it was originally inscribed in the late ninth or early tenth century (nearly three hundred years after the time of Muhammad). By this time the use of diacritical and vowel points was widespread yet this manuscript is almost entirely devoid of them both. It has been suggested that the omission of such distinguishing points in the text (they are so few in number that they distinguish only two letters) is the result of the original scribe's intention to design his script for beauty rather than legibility as this Qur'an was intended to be presented to the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun for the tomb of his father, Harun ar-Rashid, at Mashad in what is now Iran. For some reason the completed codex never left Tunis and the bulk of it is preserved in the National Library of Tunisia in the city (a number of leaves having been removed from it which are now in other public libraries and private collections).

There were numerous other codices, however, often very simple in design, which also omitted the distinguishing points even though their use was almost commonplace by the time they were written. Once again nothing certain can be said in such cases and it cannot automatically be presumed that a text is of great antiquity simply because it is confined to the basic consonants without any diacritical or vowelling marks.

The best clue to a manuscript's probable origin, if it is of obvious antiquity, is its script. A number of different scripts were used in the earliest days of the Qur'an's transmission and these went through various stages of development. As a result they assist one far more than the other factors we have mentioned to determine the likely origin of each of the early Qur'an manuscripts that survive to this day.

Prior to the advent of Islam the only proper script known to exist was the Jazm script. It had a very formal and angular character, using an equal proportion in respect of its letters, and it became the standard from which the other famous early scripts developed. No Qur'an texts or fragments in this script are known with any certainty to exist though there are some very early texts which cannot be defined accurately in respect of the script employed.

Apart from some fragments of obvious early origin which cannot be reliably dated, it appears that none of the early Qur'an manuscripts surviving, whether in whole codices or sizeable fragments, can be dated earlier than the late eighth century (about one hundred years after Muhammad's death). Virtually all the relevant texts surviving were written in a developed form of Kufic script or in one of the other scripts known to have developed some time after the early codification of the Qur'an text. None of them can be reliably dated earlier than the second half of the second century of the Islamic era. We shall proceed to analyse some of these scripts.


Shortly after the death of Muhammad a number of written codices of the Qur'an appeared until Uthman ordered the destruction of all but one and further ordered that copies be made of this codex to be sent to the various provinces. From this text further copies were made and the written manuscripts began to increase in number.

Three different forms of script developed in the Hijaz, particularly in the cities of Mecca and Medina. One of these was the al-Ma'il script, unique in the early days in that the letters were vertically inscribed and were written at a slight angle. The very word al-Ma'il means "the slanting" script. The upright character of this script gave rise to the use of a vertical format for each codex in the form that most books are published today. This script survived for about two centuries before falling into disuse and all manuscripts bearing its form are of obvious antiquity. A sign of its early origin is the fact that it employed no vowel marks or diacritical points and also had no verse counts or chapter headings. Only a very few examples of Qur'anic script in al-Ma'il survive, the most well-known being a manuscript occasionally placed on public display in the British Museum in London.

The second early script originating from Medina was the Mashq, the "extended" style which continued to be used for many centuries and which went through a process of development and improvement. Unlike the al-Ma'il, the Mashq was horizontal in form and can be distinguished by its somewhat cursive and leisurely style. Gradually the developed Mashq script came to closely resemble the Kufic script, yet it always retained its particular characteristic, namely a balanced dispersal of its words and letters in varying degrees of density. It was supplemented by coloured diacritical points and vowel marks in the same way that the more predominant Kufic script was in later years.

A script which also derives from the Hijaz is the Naskh, the "inscriptional" script. This took some time to come into vogue but, when it did, it largely displaced the Kufic script and became the standard for most Qur'ans from the eleventh century onwards and is the script used in virtually all printed Qur'ans today. A very good example of a complete Qur'an text in Naskh which is hardly different to contemporary Qur'ans is the manuscript done by Ibn al-Bawwab at Baghdad in 1001 AD which is now in the Chester Beatty Library at Dublin in Ireland. It differs slightly from the Naskh script of most Mamluk Qur'ans and has a more oriental character.

The script that most concerns any student of the earliest Qur'an manuscripts is the Kufic script, properly known as al-Khatt al-Kufi. Its title does not hint at any particular characteristic form of its script as the others from the Hijaz do but indicates its place of origin. It derives from Kufa in Iraq where Ibn Mas'ud's codex had been highly prized until Uthman ordered its destruction. It was only after this event that the Qur'an text as we know it came to be written in Kufic script in this region and it took some time to become predominant but, when it did, it attained a pre-eminence for three centuries as the approved script of the Qur'an until it was largely displaced by the Naskh script. It reached its perfection during the late eighth century (up to one hundred and fifty years after Muhammad's death) and thereafter it became widely used throughout the Muslim world.

Like the Mashq script it employs a largely horizontal, extended style and as a result most of the codices compiled in Kufic were oblong in format. Its letters are more rigid and austere in character than the Mashq script, however. Large numbers of manuscripts and single leaves of Qur'an texts in Kufic survive from various centres, most of which date from the late eighth century to the early eleventh century. Here too the text became supplemented with vowel marks and coloured diacritical points in time. No Kufic Qur'ans are known to have been written in Mecca and Medina in the very early days when the al-Ma'il and Mashq scripts were most regularly used and none of the surviving early Kufic texts are attributed by modern scholars to this region. In any event even the rare complete Kufic Qur'ans that have survived lack proper colophons giving the time and place of the transcribing of the text and the name of its calligrapher so that it is virtually impossible to date or locate them with any degree of certainty.

The history of the written text of the Qur'an would tend to suggest, as a general principle, that all manuscripts in the al-Ma'il or Mashq scripts derive from the Hijaz, usually the second century of Islam, with the exception of the developed Mashq texts which would be of a later date and more widespread origin. Surviving Kufic Qur'ans can generally be dated from the late eighth century depending on the extent of development in the character of the script in each case, and it is grossly improbable that any of these were written in Mecca or Medina before the beginning of the ninth century.


The question, in closing, which arises is whether any of the original Qur'ans transcribed by Uthman survives to this day. We have already seen that the codex of the Qur'an said to have been the mushaf of Hafsah was destroyed by Marwan ibn al-Hakam after her death (p.58). Although this would appear to have been an independent codex of her own as distinct from Zaid's codex which came into her possession after her father's death, there is clear evidence to suggest that it was in fact the very codex of Zaid from which the others were transcribed. The record linking this codex with that destroyed by Marwan begins as follows:

It is quite clear that it is Zaid's codex which is being spoken of, yet we read very soon afterwards that it was this particular manuscript which came into the possession of Marwan after the funeral of Hafsah, having been sent to him by Abdullah ibn Umar (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p.21; cf. also, p.24) and which must therefore be the codex said to have been destroyed by him immediately thereafter. If so, then there can be no doubt that the original codex of Zaid has been irretrievably lost. What then of the codices made directly from this codex at Uthman's instigation?

As virtually all the earliest Qur'an codices and fragments cannot be dated earlier than about one hundred and fifty years after the time of Muhammad it would seem most improbable that portions of the Qur'an copied out at Uthman's direction should have survived, least of all whole codices or substantial sections thereof. Nevertheless Muslim writers often claim that Uthmanic manuscripts still exist. We have seen that the Muslim dogma that the Qur'an has been perfectly preserved by divine decree is based not on evidences or facts but purely on popular sentiment, so it should not surprise a student of the early text of the Qur'an to find that this sentiment is often buttressed by claims that proof of the perfection of the text can be found in actual Uthmanic codices still in existence.

There are many references in modern Muslim writings to Qur'ans said to have belonged to Uthman, Ali or the grandsons of Muhammad which are said to have survived to this day. One cannot help wondering whether in such cases the wish is not perhaps father to the thought. Professor Bergstrasser, one of the contributors to Nöldeke's Geschichte des Qorans, recorded up to twenty references to claims made in different parts of the Muslim world to possess not only one of the copies ordered by Uthman but even the actual codex of the Caliph himself, in each case with attendant claims that the pages which he was reading when he was murdered are to this day discoloured by his blood. We shall give two direct examples of such claims made even today for different Qur'ans towards the end of this chapter.

In the Apology of the famous Christian scholar Abdul-Masih al-Kindi, who wrote a defence of Christianity against Islam during the time of the Abbasid Empire, we find it said that of the copies made under Uthman's supervision, the one sent to Mecca was destroyed by fire while those commissioned for Medina and Kufa were lost irretrievably. Only the copy destined for Damascus was said to have survived, it being preserved at Malatja at the time (Nöldeke, Geschichte, 3.6). There are some conflicting claims about the ultimate fate of this copy but it is generally agreed that it, too, is now lost.

All the references one finds in Muslim records to the destiny of those early codices are sketchy, incomplete and often contradictory. Some suggest that the Damascus manuscript is in fact the famous codex of Samarqand while others say that this codex originally came to the city from Fez in Morocco. There hardly appears to be anything like the kind of record of transmission that an objective scholar would require to give serious consideration to the claim that any of the surviving Qur'an manuscripts is Uthmanic in origin.

In moderate Muslim writings today, however, we find as a rule that only two of the surviving early manuscripts of the Qur'an are said to be the actual mushaf of Uthman or one of the copies prepared under his official supervision. The one is the Samarqand codex and the other is an old Qur'an manuscript kept on public display in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul which I had the privilege of seeing during a visit to Turkey in 1981. Let us briefly consider these two manuscripts.

We shall begin with the Samarqand codex. This manuscript is said to be preserved today in the Soviet State Library at Tashkent in Uzbekistan in southern Russia. It is said to have first come to Samarqand about 1485 AD and to have remained there until 1868. Thereafter it was removed to St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) and in 1905 fifty facsimile editions were prepared by one Dr. Pissaref at the instigation of Czar Nicholas II under the title Coran Coufique de Samarqand, each copy being sent to a distinguished recipient. In 1917 the original manuscript is said to have been taken to Tashkent where it now remains. A further limited edition was published by Dr. Hamidullah in the United Kingdom in 1981 from which the photographs in this book have been taken.

The manuscript is considerably incomplete. It only begins in the middle of verse 7 of Suratul-Baqarah (the second surah) and from there on numerous pages are missing. In some cases only two or three leaves have been removed, in others over a hundred are omitted. The last part of the Qur'an text from Surah 43.10 onwards is altogether missing from the manuscript. Many of the pages that have survived are also somewhat mutilated and much of the text has been lost.

Nonetheless a study of what remains tells us something about the manuscript. It is of obvious antiquity, being devoid of any kind of vocalisation (a point specially made in Nöldeke, Geschichte, 3.262) although in a few cases a diacritical stroke has been added to a relevant letter. It is perhaps the apparent antiquity of the manuscript that has led to the convenient claim that it is an Uthmanic original. Nevertheless it is precisely the appearance of the script itself that would seem to negate such a claim. It is clearly written in Kufic script and, as we have seen, it is asking too much of an objective scholar to believe that a Qur'an manuscript written at Medina as early as the caliphate of Uthman could ever have been written in this script. Medinan Qur'ans were written in the al-Ma'il and Mashq scripts for many decades before the Kufic script became the common denominator of all the early texts throughout the Muslim world and, in any event, Kufic only came into regular use at Kufa and elsewhere in the Iraqi province in the generations following Uthman's demise.

Furthermore the actual inscription of the text in the Samarqand codex is very irregular. Some pages are very neatly and uniformly copied out whereas others are distinctly untidy and imbalanced. Then again, whereas the text in most pages has been fairly smoothly spread out, on some pages it has been severely cramped and condensed. At times the Arabic letter kaf has been written out uniformly with the rest of the text, at other times it has been considerably extended and is the dominant letter in the text. As a result many pages of this manuscript differ so extensively from one another that one cannot help wondering whether we do not have a composite text on our hands, compiled from portions of different manuscripts.

Although the text is virtually devoid of supplementary vocalisation it does occasionally employ artistic illumination between the surahs, usually a coloured band of rows of squares, and at times accompanied by varying medallions which would tend to indicate that it dates from the late eighth century. It may well be one of the oldest manuscripts of the Qur'an surviving to this day, but there appears to be no good reason to believe that it is an Uthmanic original.

In an article written in a Russian Journal in 1891 the author, A.Shebunin, gives particular attention to the medallions which appear in various colours at the end of each group of approximately ten verses. Within these medallions a kufic number is written indicating the number of verses that have passed since the beginning of the relevant Surah. These medallions, usually being flower figures, were composed in four colours, red, green, blue a nd orange. One hundred and fifty-one such figures feature in the remnant of the text. Shebunin finishes his article with the conclusion that the manuscript dates from the second century of Islam and, being inscribed in Kufic script, most probably derives from Iraq. The partial illumination of the text would almost certainly compel one to give the codex a second-century origin - it is grossly unlikely that such embellishments would have accompanied the Uthmanic manuscripts sent out to the various provinces.

The other manuscript said to be one of the Uthmanic codices is the one on display in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. Once again it requires only a sight of the text to discount this possibility as we are again faced with a Kufic manuscript. Then again, like the Samarqand codex, it is written on parchment and is also largely devoid of vocalisation, both of which suggest that it, too, is one of the very earliest manuscripts of the Qur'an to survive, but those who claim that it dates back as far as Uthman himself must explain the obvious anachronism in the use of a Kufic script.

This manuscript is also supplemented with ornamental medallions, indicating a later age, with occasional ornamentation between the surahs as well. One only needs to compare it with the Samarqand codex to realise that they most certainly cannot both be Uthmanic originals. The Istanbul codex has eighteen lines to the page whereas the Samarqand codex has between eight and twelve; the Istanbul codex is inscribed throughout in a very formal manner, the words and lines always being very uniformly written out, while the text of the Samarqand codex is often haphazard and considerably distorted. One cannot believe that both these manuscripts were copied out by the same scribes. (As pointed out already, it is hard to believe that even the Samarqand codex alone was not written out by a number of different scribes).

An objective, factual study of the evidences shows that neither of these codices can seriously be regarded as Uthmanic, yet one finds that Muslim sentiment is so strong at this point that both of them are said to have been not only Uthmanic originals but even the actual Qur'an which Uthman was reading when he was murdered! A photograph of a page from the Samarqand codex appears as a frontispiece in a book titled Muhammad in the Quraan published in Pakistan by an author who only gives his initials (S.M.A.) and, underneath the photograph, a caption appears clearly identifying it as the Samarqand text now preserved in the Soviet State Library and alleging that "This is the same Quraan which was in the hand of the Caliph when he was murdered by the rebels and his blood is still visible on the passage 'Fasa Yakhfihum (sic) Ullah-o-Wa huwasamiul-Alim' (Surah 2.137)".

In a recent edition of the Ramadan Annual published by The Muslim Digest in Durban, South Africa, however, a photograph appears of the Topkapi Codex in Istanbul, correctly identifying it as such, but alleging that it belonged to Uthman with the comment "This Qur'an, written on deerskin, was being read by the Caliph when he was assassinated and the bloodstain marks are still seen on the pages of this copy of the Qur'an to this day" (Vol. 39, Nos. 9 & 10, p.107).

It is most intriguing to find that both the manuscripts are not only attributed to Uthman but are alleged to be the very codex in his own possession which he was said to have been reading when he was assassinated. Of course each one has verifiable bloodstains of the Caliph himself to prove the point!

It is contradictory statements like these, where the same fame is claimed for each of these codices, that expose the Muslim approach to this subject as one based not on a cautious historical research dependent on available evidences but on popular sentiment and wishful thinking. It would suit the Muslim world to possess an Uthmanic original, it would be convenient to have a codex of the earliest possible origin to verify the proposed textual perfection of the Qur'an, and so any manuscript of the Qur'an surviving that can be shown to be of a relatively early age is automatically claimed to be the one desired! It hardly matters that the same claim is made for more than one codex, or that in each case internal evidence (particularly the Kufic script) must lead an honest enquirer to presume on a much later date.

The Samarqand and Topkapi codices are obviously two of the oldest sizeable manuscripts of the Qur'an surviving but their origin cannot be taken back earlier than the second century of Islam. It must be concluded that no such manuscripts of an earlier date have survived. The oldest manuscripts of the Qur'an still in existence date from not earlier than about one hundred years after Muhammad's death.

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