Background of the Controversy
In 1972 a stock of old parchments manuscripts containing manuscripts of the Qur’an was discovered in the loft of the Great Mosque of San’a. in the early eighties the Yamani Antiquities Authority, particularly its President Qadi Isma’il al-Akwa’, invited through the German Foreign Ministry two German experts, Dr. Gerd. R. Puin and H. C. Graf Von Bothmer, for the restoration and preservation of the manuscripts. They worked at San’a for some years in this project. It appears that besides being experts in restoration and preservation in manuscripts that had “orientalists” motives; for, it is reported that Bothmer make microfilm copies of some 35,000 sheets of the manuscripts and took them to Germany. In 1987 he wrote an article on these manuscripts mentioning, among other things, that one of them, no. 1033-32, could be assigned a date in the last quarter of the first hijri century.
More orientalist in nature was however the article which Puin wrote under title: “Observatons on Early Qur’an Manuscripts in San’a”. These writings attracted the attention of the orientalists to the San’a manuscripts and they held a seminar at Leiden in 1998 on “Qur’anic Studies” at which both Bothmer and Puin delivered lectures on the San’a manuscripts. It is not known what exactly they said there on the subject; but the above mentioned article of Puin clearly shows his intentions and conclusions on the subject. In the main he stresses three things in the article.
First, he refers to the attempts made previously by the orientalists like Jeffrey Arthur, Otto Pretzel, Anthony Spitaler and A. Fischer to collect the existing manuscripts of the Qur’an in order to prepare what they call a revised version by comparing any differences in them and regretfully mentions that the very large number of manuscripts collected for the purpose at the University of Munich, Germany, were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.
He then expresses the hope that the San’a find offers an opportunity to resume that project of work.Second, he mentions what he has been able to note the “discrepancies” in the San’a manuscripts and says:
(a) In a number of manuscripts the letter alif (hamzah) is written in an incorrect way;
(b) there are some differences in the numbering of ‘ayahs in some surahs and
(c) in two or three sheets he has found surahs written not in the order as found in the Qur’an in circulation.
Third he recognises that these “discrepancies” are minor and they would not probably lead to any sudden and significant advance in the field of Qur’anic studies.
Few Important points to be kept in mind
First, in his reference to the collections of the Qur’anic manuscripts at the University of Munich and the efforts of the orientalists in that connection Puin omits to mention a very important fact. It is that, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War the authorities in charge of those manuscripts had actually issued a statement on the basis of their study of them. That had said that a study and comparison of the manuscripts, though not complete, had not revealed any discrepancy and difference in the texts except minor spelling mistakes in some places which was natural and all of which did not, however, affect the correctness and integrity of the Qur’anic text as a whole. The “discrepancies” in the writing of ‘alif at some places to which Puin refers to belongs to this type of error or style in writing and they do not in any way affect the integrity and correctness of the text as a whole.
Second, slight difference in the numbering of ‘ayahs with regard to somesurahs which Puin notices with regard to a few surahs is quite natural. Such difference in the numbering of ‘ayahs is acknowledged even by some classical Muslim scholars and it does not affect the text at all. Even the well known orientalist Flugel’s numbering of the ‘ayahs of some surahs differs slightly from the standard numbering. Significantly enough, while speaking about the difference in numbering of ‘ayahs Puin does not at all indicate any difference in the text of the surahs.
Third, palimpsests or overwriting of words or expressions in a few places do not suggest anything more than correction of mistakes omitted in the writing of the words in the first instance. It cannot be a proof in support of the theory of revision of evolution of the text unless and earlier copy of the Qur’an containing different words and expressions in the same place is shown to exist. This has not been found in the San’a manuscripts nor shown by any other orientalist to have ever been existence.
Fourth, the conclusion that the surahs were not written down in their final form during the lifetime of the Prophet or that a Qur’an with a different ordering of the surahs was in circulation for a long time just because two or three sheets have been found where some surahs have been written in a different order, that is surahs from different places of the Qur’an in circulation have been put together, is hasty and untenable. It is important to note that is has been the habit of the Muslims since the very beginning to make collections of selected surahs in one compilation for purpose of study and memorisation, especially be students at madrasahs. And since mosques were invariably educational institutions, it is not at all strange that such collection of selected surahs should be found in a stock of Arabic manuscripts stored in a great mosque.
In any case, by the very admission of Puin, this is confined to two or three manuscript sheets only out of more than35,000 sheets. Before hazarding such a serious conclusion Puin and his sort should have got hold of copy of the Qur’an, or a considerable part of the existing Qur’an. Even the existence of a complete copy of the Qur’an with a different order of the surahs does not ipso facto prove that such a Qur’an prevailed among the Muslims unless it is proved that it was accepted and acted upon by them at ant given time; for it is well known that for academic and other purposes the Qur’an has been published from time to time with surahs arranged according to the order of their revelation.
Thus for instance, A. Rodwell published a English translation of the Qur’an in 1861 rearranging the surahs according to their order of publication under caption: The Coran : Translated from the Arabic, the surahs arranged in chronological order. And early in the twentieth century a Muslim of Bengal, Mirza Abul Fazl, issued a new translation arranging the surahs according to the order of their revelation. Similarly Richard Bell made another translation in the early thirties with what he called a “critical rearrangement of the surahs.” It has also been pointed out that the orientalists aim at preparing and publishing what they call a revised and corrected edition of the Qur’an.
Why would manuscripts have to be washed off or erased? What was wrong with them if the parchments were fit to be washed and then have the Quranic text rewritten upon them?
This was a common practice in ancient times. When enough of a manuscript's writing wore off (ink does not bond to parchment like it does to paper), all of the writing was washed off to make the expensive parchment usable for a new text. This was an ancient way of recycling. The washing, fortunately for us, was not complete: that's how earlier texts can be seen using ultraviolet light underneath newer texts.
This writing(“Observatons on Early Qur’an Manuscripts in San’a”) of Puin (and also of Bothmer) gave rise to wide-spread and wild speculations in the orientalists circles if only because these fell on ready and willing ears. One of the orientalist writers, Toby Lester, held telephonic conversations with Puin on the subject and then put forth an article in the January 1999 issue of the Atlantic Monthly under caption: “What is the Qur’an?”.
The article is made up of three types of materials:
(a) information about the San’a find an the conclusions aid to have been arrived at by Puin and Bothmer;
(b) assumptions of the other orientalists like Wansborough, Cook , Crone, Nevo and J. A. Bellamy about the Qur’an and
(c) indications about what the orientalists are doing or propose to do in the field of Qur’anic studies.
As regards the San’a manuscripts Toby Lester inflates and reiterates the views of Puin and says that according to him the Qur’an came into being through a process of evolution over a long period; that it is not a book sent down from the heaven on the Prophet in the seventh Christian century; that it is not “clear” as it claims to be, every fifth of its ayahs being either unintelligible of inexplicable and that there are instances of palimpsests or overwriting of some words or expressions in some sheets of the manuscripts. Lester further alleges that the Yamani authorities are unwilling to allow detailed study of the manuscripts for fear of causing uneasiness in the Islamic world but, nonetheless, these manuscripts will help the orientalists in proving that the Qur’an has a “history” just as the Bible has a “history”.
As regards the assumptions of the other orientalists like Wansborough, Crone ad Cook, Lester sums up their view as already noted. Regarding the statements of J. A. Bellamy, we shall presently notice them.This article of Toby Lester, more than the articles of Puin and Bothmer, caused a wave of protests and anger against the Yamani authorities’ handling of the manuscripts, which in turn led to Puin and Bothmer to fear that their relationship with the latter would be adversely affected.
Toby Lester's article is just another card in this deck, and the tales behind the Yemeni fragments simply another bait. Dr. Puin himself has in fact denied all the findings that Lester ascribes to him, with the exception of occasional differences in the spelling of some words.Puin wrote a lengthy letter in Arabic to al-Qadi al-Akwa' of Yemen. The letter then appeared in the Daily ath-Thawra newspaper, Here is a part of Puin's original letter
This deflates the entire controversy, dusting away the webs of intrigue that were spun around Puin's discoveries and making them a topic unworthy of further speculation." But let us suppose for the sake of argument that the findings are indeed true; what then is our response?
Before I start to discuss his claims, it must be noted that Dr Puin himself mentions that these discrepancies are minor and they would not probably lead to any sudden and significant advances in the filed of Qur’anic studies.
Refuting the claims
1) The incorrect writing of the alif at some places does not in any way effect the integrity of the text as a whole. This is due to the fact that the oral recurrent reporting of the Quranic text has always been used as the standard reference. The skeletal form or the representation of the text in the Arabic language has always been used as a secondary reference. Hence when a hafidh (someone who has memorised the Quran) refers to a copy of the Qur’an with a small mistake such as an incorrect alif, he will easily understand the word and make the correction. Take for example the word ‘understanding’ in English. If read the following way: “understndng” anyone could comprehend the meaning, especially if the incorrectly spelt word was placed in a sentence.Those who need detail exposure of this can visit :Reply to Puin (Sana Mosque Quran Manuscript) Allegation of Alif
2) Differences in the numbering of verses have never been a cause for concern with regards to the textual integrity of the Qur’anic text.This difference in numbering doesn’t affect the text as a whole. Even Flugel, a famous Orientalist numbered the Qur’an differently from the standard text. It must be noted that Dr Puin doesn’t mention changes to the text, only in the numbering of the verses, which has no impact on the text as a whole.This 'greatest' triumph, the fragment where sura 26 is followed by sura 37, is not the least bit unique ,Muslim scholarly opinion unanimously holds that the present arrangement of suras is identical to that of 'Uthman's Mushaf.!' Anyone desiring to copy the Qur'an in its entirety has to follow that sequence, but for those who seek to copy only particular snras, following the arrangement outlined in 'Uthman's Mushaf is no longer necessary. An analogous situation occurs when I travel by air: I like to take my work with me but, not wanting to carry bulky volumes in my suitcase, I simply photocopy those portions that I need during my trip.People interested in knowing truth may visit: Puin And Partial Mushaf of Quran
3) It is well known that for academic and other purposes the Qur’an has been published from time to time with surahs arranged according to the order of their revelation. Thus for instance, A. Rodwell published a English translation of the Qur’an in 1861 rearranging the surahs according to their order of publication. And early in the twentieth century a Muslim of Bengal, Mirza Abul Fazl, issued a new translation arranging the surahs according to the order of their revelation. Similarly Richard Bell made another translation in the early thirties with what he called a “critical rearrangement of the surahs.” Moreover, it has been reported that the companions of the Prophet Muhammed used to keep copies whose arrangement of surahs was different though there were no differences in the verse arrangement.
The existence of a Qur’an with a different arrangement of the surahs or with what is called “revisions” – even though they are irrelevant and minor – is not evidence for a revised Qur’an. The oral tradition of the Qur’an is so well established that any minor textual “error” can be easily rectified. The arrangement of the surahs and verses do not effect the text but are arbitrary methods to counting and splitting the text up; which has no bearing on the textual integrity of the Qur’an.
In his Letter to Yemeni Authorities Puin Further Wrote:
The remnants [of these old Mushafs] go back, scientifically assured, to the first century after Hijra! Because of the existence of these manuscripts in San'a', ... [wehave] the only monumental proof of the completion of the Qur'an in the first century of Hijra and not, as so many non-Muslim scholars assert, from the early third century of Hijra! Of course Muslims may ask what is the point of such information from a non-Muslim scholar,when Muslims are certain that the complete Mushaf has existedever sincethe third Caliph, 'Uthmiin b. 'AfIan. Theirs issimply a belief held in good faith, since we do not have the original copy of the Mushaf which was written under the supervision of 'Uthman, nor any of the further copies which he dispatched to other territories.
A summary of his main points runs thus:
1. The San'a manuscripts are the only monumental proof of the Qur'an completion by the first century of Hijra, a solid refutation against the many non-Muslim scholars who claim that it was not completed until the early third century.
2. Muslims possess no proof that the complete Mushaf has existed since 'Uthman's reign; good faith is their sole buttress Most of Puin's claims have been dealt with: the defective writing of alif was covered extensively his 'greatest' triumph, the fragment where sura 26 is followed by sura 37, is not the least bit unique as I have shown from other partial Mushafs Asregards misplacement of some ayah separators, incongruities in this area have already been noted and catalogued by early Muslim scholars. The one claim that we have not elaborated on is discussed next.
Are the San'a Fragments the only proof of the Quran's completion by the First Century?
Puin makes two intertwining assertions. He pulls the date for the Qjir'an's completion from the third century to the first but then, by refraining from anything more specific than 'first century', he subtly opens up a wide timeframe within which to work.Not all Orientalists allege that the Qur'an was completed in the early third century. There are some, e.g. Rev. Mingana, who argue that it was completed by the first, and yet others, e.g. Muir, who hold that the present Mushaf is identical to the text given by the Prophet. Then there is al-I:Iajjaj (d. 95 A.H.), to whom many Western scholars give credit for the Qur'an's final recording. All these dates belong to the first century, and Puin's imprecision leaves the door open for assigning any date within this period. Precision is a key element of serious scholarship, however, and one we must abide by. With the Prophet's passing in early 11 A.H. the revelations arrived at their natural end; they were compiled into their external form during the reign of Abu Bakr (d. 13 A.H.), and their spelling standardised and copies dispatched by 'Uthman (25-30 A.H.). That is the Muslim view.
Never have Muslims alleged that the complete Qur'an did not materialise until 'Uthman, and if Puin claims this then he certainly does not speak on behalf of any Muslim tongue. Several dozen first-century manuscripts of the Qur'an exist in various libraries around the world;"Below is a list of some of these which have been conclusively dated to the first century A.H.
1. A copy attributed to Caliph 'Uthrnan bin 'Affan. Amanat Khizana,Topkapi Saray, Istanbul, no. I.
2. Another copy ascribed to 'Uthman bin 'Affan, Amanat Khizana,Topkapi Saray, no. 208. This copy has some 300 folios and it ismissing a portion from both ends.
3. Another ascribed to 'Uthman bin 'Aflan. Amanat Khizana, TopkapiSaray, no. 10. It is only 83 folios and contains notes written inthe Turkish language naming the scribe.
4. Attributed to Caliph 'Uthman at the Museum of Islamic Art,Istanbul. It lacks folios from the beginning, middle and end. Dr. alMunaggid dates it to the second half of the first century.
5. Attributed to Caliph 'Uthman in Tashkent, 353 folios.
6. A large copy with 1000 pages, written between 25-31 A.H. at Rawaq al-Maghariba, al-Azhar, Cairo.
7. Attributed to Caliph 'Uthman, The Egyptian Library, Cairo.
8. Ascribed to Caliph 'Ali bin AbI Talib on palimpsest. Muzesi Kutuphanesi, Topkapi Saray, no. 36E.H.29. It has 147 folios.
9. Ascribed to Caliph 'Ali. Amanat Khizana, Topkapi Saray, no.33. It has only 48 folios.
10. Ascribed to Caliph 'Ali. Amanat Khizana, Topkapi Saray, no. 25E.H.2. Contains 414 Folios.
11. Ascribed to Caliph 'Ali. Raza Library, Rampur, India, no. 1. Contains 343 Folios.
12. Ascribed to Caliph 'Ali, San'a', Yemen.
13. Ascribed to Caliph 'Ali, al-Mashhad al-Husaini, Cairo.
14. Ascribed to Caliph 'Ali, 127 folios. Najaf, Iraq.
15. Ascribed to Caliph 'Ali. Also in Najaf, Iraq.
16. Attributed to Husain b. 'Ali (d. 50 A.H.), 41 folios, Mashhad,Iran.
17. Attributed to Hasan b. 'Ali, 124 folios, Mashhad, Iran, no. 12.
18. Attributed to Hasan b. 'Ali, 124 folios. Najaf, Iraq.
19. A copy, 332 folios, most likely from the early first half of the first century. The Egyptian Library, Cairo, no. 139 Masahif
20. Ascribed to Khudaij b. Mu'awiya (d. 63 A.H.) written in 49 A.H. Amanat Khizana, Topkapi Saray, no. 44. It has 226 folios.
22. A Mushaf in Kufic script penned in 74 A.H. Amanat Khizana, Topkapi Saray, no. 2. It has 406 folios.
23. A copy scribed by al-Hasan al-Basri in 77 A.H. The Egyptian Library, Cairo, no. 50 Masahif
24. A copy in the Museum of Islamic Art, Istanbul, no. 358. According to Dr. al-Munaggid it belongs to the late first century.
25. A copy with 112 folios. The British Museum, London.
26. A copy with 27 folios. The Egyptian Library, Cairo, no. 247.
27. Some 5000 folios from different manuscripts at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, many from the first century. One of them, Arabe 328(a), has lately been published as a facsimile edition.
Though certainly a great treasure containing a wealth of orthographic oddities, the Mushafs in San 'a' do not add anything new or substantial to the body of proof which already demonstrates the Qur'an's completion within the first decades of Islam.
Suggested Reading:The Qur'anic Manuscripts
Based on Research work of Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami & Muhammad Mohar Ali