The Sana Quran is one of the oldest extant Quran manuscripts
In 1972, some 12,000 Quranic parchment fragments were discovered in the Great Mosque in the Yemeni capital Sana. These fragments consist of tiny snippets of the Quran to whole folios belonging to some 926 copies of the Quran. To date, only a small portion of the fragments have been published, and it is unknown when the rest will be published.
One of the Sana findings is a palimpsest which “may be, from a textual-critical standpoint, the most important one among those discovered in 1972 between the ceiling and the roof of the Great Mosque of Ṣan‘ā’”.1
What is a palimpsest?
A palimpsest is a manuscript page that has been erased so that another text could be written over it. The Sana Quran palimpsest is significant because the top layer (the text written over what was erased) is the standard Uthmanic version of the Quran. Beneath this standard Uthmanic version of the Quran (the part that was erased) is a non-Uthmanic version of the Quran.
Who was Uthman?
Uthman was the third Caliph of Islam. According to Islamic tradition, Uthman compiled the Quran and its several various readings (qira’at) about twenty years after Muhammad’s death. Muslims believe Uthman kept one copy for himself in Medina and sent copies to al-Kufa, al-Basra, and Damascus. He then commanded the destruction of all other Quran fragments and manuscripts.
The Sana Quran is significant because it—through technology described below—survived Uthman’s destruction of variants.
How can the Sana Quran palimpsest be read if it was erased?
The lower erased layer of the Sana Quran palimpsest can be read because:
over time it resurfaces as a shadow, in this case as a pale brown text. In August 2007, Uwe Bergmann subjected the Stanford ’07 folio [a single folio of the Sana Quran palimpsest] to X-Ray fluorescence imaging at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory in the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). X-Ray fluorescence imaging is a technique for detecting, and tracing, the chemicals left on a leaf by inks or dyes. Its application to the Stanford ’07 folio assisted in reading and tracing out the lower text, bringing to light some letters, verse separators, and diacritical marks not otherwise visible or legible. Moreover, the fact that the inks used in the two layers were chemically different made it possible to determine to which layer every feature belongs. For example, it was possible to confirm that the diacritical marks and verse dividers were in the same ink as the main text. This holds true for both the lower and upper texts. The same is true of the decorative sūra separators of the lower text. Therefore, these features probably were not added at a later stage. (Behnam Sadeghi; Uwe Bergmann, “The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qur’ān of the Prophet,” Arabica, Volume 57, Number 4, 2010, p.348.)
How old is the Sana Quran palimpsest?
Radiocarbon dating of a Sana Quran parchment places it about forty years after Muhammad’s death or possibly earlier:
the parchment has a 68% probability of belonging to the period between AD 614 to AD 656. It has a 95% probability of belonging to the period between AD 578 and AD 669 (Behnam Sadeghi; Uwe Bergmann, “The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qur’ān of the Prophet,” Arabica, Volume 57, Number 4, 2010, p.348.)
What are some of the variants in the Sana Quran palimpsest?
The variants of the Sana Quran have not yet all been published, but here is a list of several published by Sadeghi and Mohsen:2
Examples of Major Variants in the Sana Quran palimpsest (a.k.a. C-1 or the lower writing of Saṇʿāʾ 1)
Talking points with Muslims
The Sana Quran palimpsest is significant because it is one of the oldest extant Quran manuscripts; it is different from the standard Quran disseminated by Uthman; and it is manuscript evidence of a different textual tradition from Uthman.3
Muslims sometimes denigrate the textual tradition of the Bible because they believe:
So well has it [the Qur’an] been preserved both in memory and in writing, that the Arabic text we have today is identical to the text as it was revealed to the Prophet. Not even a single letter has yielded to corruption during the passage of the centuries. And so it will remain forever, by the consent of Allah.4
The fact is that the Quran has a textual tradition. This doesn’t mean that Christians should denigrate the Quran because it has a textual history. Rather, this should give Muslims pause before dismissing the Bible because of its textual history.
FOR SIMILAR KINDS OF TALKING POINTS BE SURE AND READ:
You may also be interested in:
- Sadeghi, Behnam; Mohsen Goudarzi, “Ṣan’ā’ 1 and the Origins of the Qur’ān,” Der Islam [March 2012], 9). [↩]
- “Ṣan’ā’ 1 and the Origins of the Qur’ān,” Der Islam (March 2012), 21. The authors plan a future article with a “systematic textual analysis of all the variants” (p.8). [↩]
- Sources also indicate different text traditions from the Companions of Muhammad: Ibn Masud and Ubay ibn Ka’b; however, these rescensions are only known from descriptions in literary sources (Behnam Sadeghi; Uwe Bergmann, “The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qur’ān of the Prophet,” Arabica, Volume 57, Number 4, 2010, 344). [↩]
- The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary, King Fahd Holy Qur’an Printing Complex, p. v [↩]