Actually, Oldest Qur’ans are in Sanaa, Yemen & in Danger of Saudi Bombing

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) |

The discovery of a couple pages [apparently actually 18] of a very old Qur’an (the Muslim scripture), probably from the 640s CE [“AD”], in a library in Britain, has provoked a good deal of press reporting. Muslim tradition holds that the scripture was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad between roughly 610 CE and his death in 632, during the era when Heraclius was the emperor of Byzantium and the Tang Dynasty ruled China. While this find at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham is important, the press seems unaware that a copy of the Qur’an that dates from the 640s and has about half of the entire book was discovered by a German team in Sanaa, Yemen two decades ago.

The oldest nearly complete Qur’ans in the world are just sitting there in the middle of Sanaa, and Birmingham is not the really big story here.

And Sanaa is being daily bombed from the air by Saudi Arabia, which has hit civilian buildings and a refugee camp and part of historic downtown Sanaa. I am petrified that it has hit the Manuscript Library where this precious book was held. (I am also petrified every time I hear about a strike that it has killed people– don’t get me wrong. But hey, I’m a historian of Islam so I worry about cultural destruction too).

Islam grew up in Western Arabia at a time when the capital of the old Roman empire had been moved east to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and when that eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire ruled much of the Middle East (what is now Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Syria). The rest, Iraq and Iran, was ruled by the Zoroastrian, Persian Sasanid Empire. Islam grew up about six centuries after the beginning of Christianity, but only about 300 years after it had been officially recognized as one of the legitimate religions of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine.

The Great Mosque of Sanaa, Yemen, was founded by a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. In 1965 as a result of rain damage, an ancient storage room was discovered in its west wing that had had no door. It was full of old leaves of the Qur’an. Muslims were reluctant to throw copies of the Qur’an away when they aged, and the room was used as a geniza or storage for codex books that were falling apart. The story of this discovery is given here (click).

Yemen brought in a German team to reassemble whole copies of the Qur’an from the jumbled leaves. I visited the facility, part of the Sanaa Manuscript Library called the Dar al-Qur’an, in 1988. I was shown several hundred drawers, each representing a different copy of the Muslim scripture, with different dimensions and script and media (lambskin, papyrus, etc.) Each page was being matched to the specifications of one of the drawers. I was told by the German staff that they were sure that some of these copies of the Qur’an went back to at least the late 600s, i.e. the first half of the Umayyad period (661-750), though there was at that time no absolute proof. It was just that the block Kufi script and the papyrus medium suggested ancientness.

This was an exciting idea to me, since at that time a lot of skepticism had been raised by John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, and Patricia Crone about whether the Qur’an as a book was really assembled 610-632, or whether it evolved over a couple of centuries. There was nothing wrong in principle with their theory– it was just an application of Descartes’ method, of radical doubt. And at that time the history of the Qur’anic manuscript text as a discipline barely existed (it is still very undeveloped compared to e.g. biblical studies). These authors turn out to have been wrong, but this is how science progresses, by people making bold hypotheses and then seeing if they can be knocked down.

Some of the manuscripts in the Dar al-Qur’an were very old and weren’t showing significant variants from modern Qur’ans, showing that the text had not in fact changed after the late 600s.

What the German team did not know then was that one of the copies of the Qur’an they had found was a palimpsest. That is a manuscript that has been written over and so replaced with a later text. But nowadays ultraviolet photography can reveal the original manuscript underneath.

The leaves of the ancient Qur’an found in Birmingham University’s archives. Photograph: Birmingham University/EPA h/t The Guardian.

The original manuscript was the Qur’an, but it wasn’t in the order prescribed by the Caliph Uthman (r. 644-656). That Caliph had issued an official version of the Qur’an in manuscript and had it copied out and spread around. It arranged the chapters (surahs) in order of length, with the longest first. This way of doing it meant that the book was more or less arranged backward from a chronological point of view, since the earliest chapters tended to be shorter than later ones. Westerners trying to read the Qur’an should thus begin at the back and read forward, and should read it along with a good biography of the Prophet Muhammad for context (I’ve always liked Montgomery Watts’ “Muhammad Prophet and Statesman”).

So the palimpsest Qur’an was likely older than 650 CE when `Uthman’s official version was promulgated. Later on, radiocarbon dating showed a high likelihood that this book was at least as old as the 640s and so certainly the oldest Qur’an known to exist, going back to within a decade of the Prophet Muhammad’s death. By the way, although the order of the chapters is different from the later standard, the text itself doesn’t show significant variants from today’s Qur’an. It shows that the religion of Islam has a firm grounding in history.

The earliest fragment of the New Testament in manuscript is from 125 CE and full manuscripts are later. So we now have (most of) a Qur’an that is within a decade or two of the death of the Muslim prophet, something that cannot be said for Christianity. I suspect we’ll eventually find very old New Testaments, too. I’m just underlining the historical importance of the Yemen find.

The discovery has been analyzed and published by Behnam Sadeghi of Stanford and Mohsen Goudarzi, though apparently a Yemen MA thesis found about 40 pages of which they were unaware.

I can’t understand why the palimpsest Qur’an isn’t more famous or the work of Sadeghi and Goudarzi not better known. Even in Middle East studies circles, whenever I have brought the Yemen finds up with colleagues, they often seem surprised and hadn’t known about them. And, the flurry of reporting about the Birmingham 2 pages also seems not to know about the Yemeni texts.

Let’s hope the fruitless war in Yemen (you can’t defeat a guerrilla movement with aerial bombardment) ends as soon as possible, and that civilians can stop being endangered, and Yemen’s vast cultural treasures can be safeguarded from further destruction. Since Bush went into Iraq in 2003, Middle Eastern history is disappearing, in what I call Cliocide, even as the security and lives of people are being lost. People need history and identity and it is a crime to rob them of it. The Saudis take pride in being the guardians of the two holy shrines, Mecca and Medina. They should be guardians of the Qur’an, too, and stop hitting Sanaa.

26 Responses

  1. Great information thank you for sharing i hope media will focus on your points and promote seazing the war outthere

  2. Saudis have also been “history killers” by destroying the all islamic history landmarks one by one. May it be the graves of Muhammad’s companions or houses & any other identification that may help validate a historical account, Saudis concept of “shirk (denial of the oneness of God)” do not allow anything to stand as a historical evidence.

  3. “The earliest fragment of the New Testament in manuscript is from 125 CE and full manuscripts are later.”

    This may well be true, but scholars of early Christianity generally accept that the oldest canonical gospels are Acts (written possibly as early as the 40s CE), then Mark (dated to roughly 75-85 CE), then Luke and Matthew (stemming from a common source known as Q after the German term, die Quelle, “the Source” for the two gospels), then John (anyone’s guess – the mid 90s CE to as late as the 120s is the general consensus, and more likely the 90s). Of course, the whole matter of what became canonical and how is a very fraught matter and remained unsettled even after the earliest manuscript fragment; hence the complete exclusion from the gospel accounts of any of the Gnostic gospels.

    The earliest non-Christian accounts of the Christians themselves predate the earliest manuscript (fragment) you cite. The historian Tacitus, writing likely between 110-120 CE mentions the (aberrational) persecution of the Christians in his Neronian books of the Annals (15.44), while his friend and contemporary, Pliny the Younger, writes to the emperor Trajan sometime between 109-111 CE while governor of Bithynia Pontus (a section of northern Turkey) about how to proceed as regards the Christian community (in a letter from book 10.96-7). The point is that we do have independent sources concerning the Christian community and its spread prior to the first manuscript (fragment).

    But the date you give of 125 is a little misleading: that may be the earliest date of a fragment of a gospel, but the final canonization of what we know to have become the New Testament in its complete form is much later, relatively speaking.

    For example, it was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius in the early to mid-fourth century CE during the reign of Constantine (312-37 CE!), who decided to include the Book of Revelation as among the canonical gospels of the New Testament. It was intended as a weapon against fellow Christians deemed heretics, and its inclusion occurred at a time when people were killing one another in the streets of Alexandria over the nature of Christ (was he the son of God or not? – the question was not a done deal yet; see Paula Frederickson’s excellent study, From Jesus to Christ).

    The take-away: earliest fragments in the 120s; earliest books maybe from the 40s, but not the four biographies (they date from the 70s to maybe 120s), earliest outside (i.e., pagan Roman) references dating to the 110s (roughly), and the NT does not take its current complete form before the fourth century.

    By the way, the history of the OT is equally, nay, even more fraught. (Yeah, creating policy based on these texts is a great idea! Gay marriage? OMG what about Paul!)

    And as always, hate to beat a dead horse Juan since I’ve posted it before, but Jesus spoke Aramaic, the Bible is written in Greek a generation or more (depending on the epistles, gospel account, etc.); we have no idea precisely what Jesus said or taught, only a vague and general outline – as through a glass darkly.

  4. ‘These authors turn out to have been wrong, but this is how science progresses, by people making bold hypotheses and then seeing if they can be knocked down.’

    Science is contingent on application the scientific method. Most hypotheses actually tend to be circumspect and not grand theories changing the landscape dramatically. Most science requires the researcher to validate his or her set of hypotheses or at the very least assemble a team of scientists that run experiments related to the set of hypotheses. Once the experiments have been run, methods from statistics can be used to invalidate those set of hypotheses that are not amenable to the experiments that have been run. This is the standard Popperian paradigm, owing some influence from Descartes.

    “Hagarism” from the outset wasn’t plausible. It amounted to not just a skepticism of traditional source material, but also a positing an alternative history. The sources that Patricia Crone and et al used to construct that alternate history didn’t receive the same skepticism the authors ostensibly reserved for muslim sources. The type of “research” that “Hagarism” engaged in has less to do with modern scholarship that requires skepticism all around, but resembles the antiquated “research” of alchemy. The scholarship of Behnam Sadeghi and Mohsen Soudarzi on the Sanaa codex is more in the vein of modern scientific method: conducting a set of experiments and then analyzing the results.

    On the more important issue of Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Saudi Arabia, this should receive more than condemnation from Western governments (which actually have not been forthcoming). An arms blockade on Saudi Arabia is in order.

  5. It is very good to highlight the Yemeni manuscripts, their value for early Qur’anic studies and the hope that Saudi airstrikes do not destroy them. However, there are a number of inaccuracies in this post. Two pages of the Birmingham manuscript are featured in most reports, but the manuscript has 18, featuring suras 4-5-6 and 18-19-20 apparently in order. The dating is at the latest 640’s, but could be older. Thus, this might show order of the suras predating Uthman’s collection, which would be very significant in itself. The statement in this article that Uthman provided the order of suras is an assumption. It may be correct, but it is not proven. The Yemen mushaf, if ‘out of order’, may represent an alternate personal collection of a companion, as suggested by Sadeghi. Also, the text of the palimpsest is far from clear and throws up issues of readability and accuracy. The Birmingham Qur’an is very legible and does not require one to look at a lower level of text. Finally, attention should be paid to the recent report of a similarly early manuscript in Tuebingen, Germany. I hope these comments are taken in the spirit of constructive criticism.

    • Thanks so much! Have amended in the light of your comments.

      However, the Sanaa I palimpsest is clearly by far the more valuable and newsworthy, being apparently on the order of 60%-70% of the Qur’anic text, not just 18 pages. It is also mostly not illegible as you imply. Moreover, there may well be other very early Qur’ans in the Sanaa collection which have not been radiocarbon dated, and it is a voluminous collection, not 18 pages.

      Do you have a cite for Tuebingen?

  6. ‘In fact, the Birmingham pages, like the page in the David Museum in Copenhagen, were likely from the Sanaa manuscript collection, and were among a handful of leaves that were sold off by a corrupt official. ‘

    The Birmingham collection came from Agnes Smith Louis taking (looting) them from Egypt. I’m not sure as the the provenance of the page from Denmark. The Mingana collection has palimpsets that have scripts inferior (text that were washed over) which are quranic texts, and script superior that are gospel. As a result, I’m more inclined to think the Birmingham collection does not come from the Sanaa manuscript collection. There were probably a few old quran manuscript collection sites spread out over the middle east, or old qurans whose pages that were washed over and used for other purposes. It’s possible that Birmingham’s collection originally does come from Sanaa’s manuscript collection site, but I’m a bit skeptical of such claims.

  7. Great post, Juan! As a historian I applaud your main point, and as a historian of Xnt I appreciate your comparative angle.

  8. In re the Saudi bombing of heritage sites in Yemen, the most important recent article in the western MSM is this, by archeologist Lamya Khalidi: link to

  9. Hello Mr. Cole, Thanks for your post! You may find this recent post by Sadeghi interesting:
    link to

    Also, some variants of the San’a palimpsest are listed in its Wiki article, based on Sadeghi & Goudarzi’s edition.

  10. Good piece. Shared with my son. Relevant connection with international historic/Islamic timeline. But, Sui dynasty 581–618 CE [“AD”]. Tang started 6/18 618. Either way, relevant connection with a re-unified Chinese political entity, which rapidly came to have a large Muslim community.

  11. It is always sad to me, when antiquities are destroyed. Yet it sounds like very little “historical value” would be lost if newer Qur’ans and older Qur’ans are textually identical. The scary thing to me is any loss of other documents and writings of ancient vintage. Other writings may truly be one of a kind, the loss of which would be literally pages ripped from history. I am not exactly clear on what the Hadith consists of, but part of it could be permanently lost—unless Google has managed to digitize it. Of course, I doubt Google digitizes the palimpsests.

  12. To say that the the Calif Othman has rearranged the order of the Quran and made it in a backward order, shows utter ignorance of the subject. The Sahaba( the prophet companions) used to read it from memory in the same order as the Prophet did, loudly in the mosques on a daily bases. They used and Muslims still do, read the full Quran loudly in the night prayers during the month of Ramadhan. After the death of Prophet Mohammad, there were many disagreements and disputes in the Muslim world, even civil wars, but not any dispute about the Quran, contents or arrangement.

  13. Thanks for drawing attention to this Juan. A good historical introduction for someone wanting to benefit from reading a translation of the Qurán would be ‘Muhammad’ by Martin Lings. I found this book hard to put down.

  14. It would sTrike me as unscientific if scholars of early Christianity referred to Jesus as Jesus Christ.

  15. Houthis should leave the capital they invaded and go back to their caves, return thr weapons they stole, and hand in all criminals reaponsible for this chaos including Abdulmalek Alhouthi and Saleh, then we can blame the Saudis for bombing if it continues

    • Saudi actions in Yemen are in contravention of international law. No argument in your racist diatribe annuls the illegality of Saudi actions in Yemen or Saudi Arabia’s more severe war crimes of targeting civilian populations in Yemen.

  16. The Saudi/Wahhabi rulers’ invasion of Yemen has been in the making since 1934. The reason the Saudis and their hired collaborators chose to invade from the skies is because they know their chances to subdue Yemenis from the ground are zero minus.

    The invasion of Yemen has many objective, including cultural, religious and ethnic cleansing, similar to what the Saudi/Wahhabi Muwahadeen (uniters) did to those who resisted their doctrinal and political plans and advances between 1774 and 1929.

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