(A study of the Topkapi and Samarqand codices)
As virtually all the earliest Quran codices and fragments cannot be dated earlier than about one hundred and fifty year’s after the time of Muhammad it would seem most improbable that portions of the Quran 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. As the Muslim dogma that the Quran 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 Quran 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 Qurans 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 Noldeke’ s Geschichte des Qurans, 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 Qurans towards the end of this section.
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 the time (Noldeke, 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 Quran 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 Quran 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 Quran 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.
The Samarqand Codex This manuscript is said to be preserved today in the Soviet State Library at Tashkent in Uzbekistan. 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.
The manuscript is considerably incomplete. It only begins in the middle of verse 7 of the second sura Al- Baqarrah 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 Quran 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 Noldeke, 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 it is asking too much of an objective scholar to believe that a Quran manuscript written at Medina as early as the caliphate of Uthman could ever have been written in this script. Medinan Qurans 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 raped 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 sura, 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 Quran 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 Sura. These medallions, usually being flower figures, were composed in four colours, red, green, blue and 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 Quran 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 suras 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 which Uthman was reading when he was murdered! The Samarqand text is now preserved in the Soviet State Library and alleges that “This is the same Quran which was in the hand of the Caliph when he was murdered by the rebels and his blood is still visible on the passage.’
An article once published in the Ramadan Annual by The Muslim Digest in Durban, South Africa, had a photograph of the Topkapi Codex in Istanbul, it correctly identified it as such, but alleged that it belonged to Uthman with the comment, “This Quran, 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 Quran 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 Quran, and so any manuscript of the Quran surviving that can be shown to be 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 Quran 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 Quran still in existence date from not earlier than about one hundred years after Muhammad’ s death.
Extract taken from Jam’ Al-Quran by John Gilchrist