How do you distinguish fā’ from qāf in early Qur’ān manuscripts?

By Keith Small

IQSA is providing a significant platform for the exploration of paleographic and orthographic features in early Qur’ān manuscripts. Recent blogs by Alba Fedeli and Daniel Brubaker have provided windows into some of the cutting edge research in Qur’ān manuscript studies. At the recent joint SBL/IQSA track at the SBL International meeting in St. Andrews, Scotland we had a fascinating lecture by Prof. Alain George on the Mingana Palimpsest at Cambridge. I’d like to give my own brief contribution with this blog using a recent discovery made while engaged in some routine library work.

Recently, while down in the bowels of the Bodleian, avoiding Oxford’s recent heatwave and working on the catalogue of the Qur’ān manuscripts for Oxford University, curator Alasdair Watson and I observed the following spelling of the word Qur’ān in Surah Tā Hā, 20:2, in Bodleian Ms. Arab.e.179, f. 65r, l. 7:

Used with permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Used with permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University

There is a well known convention that in Maghribi Qur’ān manuscripts and in modern printed Warsh Qur’ans where qāf is designated with one dot above the letter, but where can one find examples of one dot below?

Frederick Leemhuis observes that in the first Islamic century this was a convention used in a few manuscripts from the Hijaz and Yemen and even in the Dome of the Rock Inscriptions.[1] Leemhuis noted four manuscripts in which he had observed this rare system: Saray, Medina 1a, in Istanbul; 01-29.2 in Ṣanʽā’; E-20 in St. Petersburg, and Cod. Mixt. 917 in Vienna. I also observed this system in the manuscript from Ṣanʽā’, 01-29.1.[2] Now, here it is appearing in manuscript in the Bodleian collection, and quite an unexpected place to find it at that.

Bodleian Ms.Arab.e.179 is an early paper Qur’ān, probably early 10th century, written in a large Eastern Kufic hand, or by its technical name, Déroche’s New Style script, most similar to his NS III classification, and similar in appearance to the 10th century parchment page, KFQ 40, pictured in his The Abbasid Tradition.[3] As a paper Qur’ān, it is a significant find in itself predating most early paper Qur’ans by a century and written in a large older Kufic hand that is a transitional script style into the New Style. Leemhuis states that to his knowledge, the rare system for dotting the qāf below the line was isolated to the Arabian Peninsula. Because of its script style, and because of the use of paper, this manuscript was probably produced much farther north and east in a more Persian sphere of influence. The manuscripts Leemhuis refers to are Hijazi and Kufi manuscripts, all written before the late 8th century CE (01-29.1 is also very early Hijazi). So here we have a bit of a mystery. How did an early orthographic convention which had apparently gone out of use reappear at least a century later and 1000 miles away? Then there is the related question, how and when did the two systems in use in Qur’āns today come to be the accepted conventions for their regions? Also, this one issue of distinguishing fā’s and qāfs is only one of many orthographic decisions that were made in Islam’s first few centuries as Arabic orthography was improved to make it a vehicle able to contain and transmit precise vocalization systems of the Qur’ān. How exactly did these larger orthographic and vocalization systems come to be invented, improved, adopted, transmitted, and ‘canonized’? In 1998, Russian Qur’ān scholar Efim Rezvan observed, [4]

Thus, it is today evident that the real history of the fixation of the Qur’ānic text attested in the early manuscripts differs in extremely serious fashion from the history preserved in the Muslim tradition. Only an analysis of manuscripts will allow us to reconstruct the true history of the canon’s establishment.

In one way, this feature Alasdair and I stumbled upon raises more questions than it answers. In another, it points to the validity of the endeavour of these careful studies on the manuscript tradition. These kinds of features show that scribes worked according to careful rules of orthography and notation, rules and conventions that would extend past barriers of time and geography, conventions that can be traced and examined in retrospect. By examining such details from the manuscripts, we can build up a better and more precise narrative of the textual development of the Qur’an.

When we meet in Baltimore in November, Alasdair and I look forward to sharing more treasures with you from the collection at the Bodleian Library.

[1] Frederick Leemhuis, ‘From Palm Leaves to the Internet’ in Jane Dammen McCauliffe, ed., Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān, Cambridge, CUP, 2006, 147, 148.

[2] Keith Small, Mapping A New Country: Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts. PhD thesis, London: Brunel University, 2008, 139; Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011, 18-19.

[3] François Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition, London: Nour Foundation, 1992, 136, 137, 140.

[4] Efim A. Rezvan, ‘The Qur’an and Its World: VI, The Emergence of the Canon: the Struggle for Uniformity’, Manuscripta Orientalia 4 (1998), 13-54, here 23.

Qur’an Manuscripts and the History of the Qur’an (Interview Series Part 4)

An Interview with Eleonore Cellard, by Mehdi Azaiez



This week IQSA continues its interview series with Eleonore Cellard, PhD student in Qur’anic codicology at the Institut National des langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris. In this interview, Eleonore Cellard presents her achievements and research in the transmission of Qur’anic manuscripts in early Islam.

Eleonore, what are your academic achievements in the field of Qur’anic studies?

During my masters in the Arabic Language at INALCO, I had the opportunity to attend Déroche’s seminar about the codicology of Arabic manuscripts. A great part of this seminar was dedicated to the Qur’anic manuscripts. I later obtained state funding for my PHD project at INALCO, titled “The written transmission of the Qur’an: Study of a corpus of manuscripts probably from the second/ninth century.” During these three last years, I conducted my research in conjunction with teaching at INALCO.

Since 2011, I have been involved in the Franco-German project Coranica, working on the edition of the most ancient fragments of the Qur’an. As part of this project, I presented my research at the event “Les Origines du Corans, le Coran des Origines” in the French Academy (March 2011) and organized a workshop, “Manuscripta Coranica,” in Paris (October 2012).

What is the aim of your research?

The Islamic Tradition has meticulously recorded how the Qur’an was written, reformed and read. This history has been transmitted over the generations, relegating the manuscripts to the obscure nooks of the mosque. As testaments to ancient times, the manuscripts have preserved their own history, and today they are starting to reveal the imprecision of our knowledge of the Qur’an’s history.

The aim of recent academic studies is to better understand the manuscripts, their codes and their contexts. Thanks to this analysis, we hope to reach a new vision of the history of the transmission of the Qur’anic text by rearticulating the Islamic Tradition and Qur’anic materials.

Could you explain your work on Qur’anic manuscripts?

My study is based on a corpus of nine fragments kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Paris). The homogeneity of this corpus was first established according to paleographic criteria; indeed, all the fragments belong to the C group of Déroche’s classification system. According to this classification, these fragments could probably be dated from the second to the eighth century to the beginning of the third to the ninth century.

My analysis focuses on four main problems:

1. The problem of the manuscripts’ dating, using the paleographic criterion

2. The question of the textual division

3. The orthographic rules involving the notation of long vowels

4. The use of a dotting system for indicating the vocalization

1. As of now, the manuscript’s dating remains the main concern in our studies. Indeed, the physical and chemical analyses cannot propose any precise dating without an important chronological margin of +/- 50 years. This margin is considerable regarding the eventful history of the first three Islamic centuries. The paleographic criterion could be another method of dating. Based on comparisons between letters’ forms, it aims at reconstructing the evolution of the Qur’anic script. However, this approach, still undeveloped, presents two major difficulties for us: first, the lack of dated examples—manuscripts or inscriptions—and second, the existence of interferences between different paleographic styles in our C group. It thus implies the coexistence of different scripts, probably used in various regions, and is therefore at variance with the hypothesis of a linear chronological succession of scripts.

2. The question of the textual division covers two aspects:

  • In the different manuscripts, it is possible to notice different options taken by the copyists for separating the text: the separations of the Sura are represented in different manners: blank space, ornamentation, title with verse number, etc. Another separation—the five- and ten-verse division—also presents some variations in form. What do these variations refer to? It is difficult to answer such a question. My purpose here is to make an inventory of these variations.
  • The second aspect focuses on the semantic division within the verse separation. In our observation of the fragments, we find a great variation between the traditional systems of verse division recorded by the Islamic literature, and the divisions represented in the manuscripts. The problem here is to identify all these variations and to understand their origins.

3. At the orthographic level, the corpus reveals inconsistencies in the notation of long vowels: on one hand, we have no systematic notation of the medial alif, and on the other hand, we notice an important confusion between the values of the alif mamdûda and the alif maqsûra. According to these observations, we may wonder: What exact orthographic rules do these fragments follow? Are the variations some sign of a chronological evolution or a geographical repartition? Could these elements reflect the evolution of the Arabic language during this period?

4. The fourth problem concerns the vocalization of the manuscripts. The systems observed differ from what is recorded in the Islamic Tradition on two specific points:

  • According to the Tradition, the peculiarities which can be noticed in the vocalization of the manuscripts are attributed to a precise reader. In the fragments I have analyzed, some of the peculiarities appear frequently and are not directly connected to a given reading: the position of the dots (mainly in the notation of the hamza), the vocalic harmonization of the pronoun -hu/-hum, and a phonetic alteration of the vowel ‘a’ in the treatment of imâla. We may assume the existence of trends among copyists and readers that follow rules ignored by the Tradition.
  • Regarding the bi-colored dotting system, the Tradition tells us that its use refers to a canonical versus non-canonical reading. In the fragments I have analyzed, there is no systematic opposition or attribution of colors to one of the reading systems mentioned by the Tradition. Moreover red and green dots can alternatively refer to the same reader. We may question the real use of the bicolor system and its meaning. If the bi-colored system differentiates readings, it actually seems to be more the result of a competition between multiple readings than it does a difference between canonical and non-canonical readings.

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