History of the Qur'an: Oldest Ones, Assembling It

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Learned Man absorbed in the Qur’an (1878)
The Qur’an is primarily a collection of revelations voiced by Muhammad compiled after his death with the help of followers, some of who wrote down Muhammad’s accounts of the revelations or memorized them.

The first appearance of the Qur’an in book form is not known. A preliminary compilation of revelations was started around A.D. 633, a year after Muhammad’s death. According to legend Caliph Abu Bakr asked ibn Thabit, Muhammad's main secretary to collect the scattered verses of Muhammad's revelations. Other versions were also produced. Initially, from what scholars have been able to ascertain, four main proto-Qur’ans were used, each in a different region.

The authorized version of the Qur’an appeared about 650 under the 3rd Caliph Othman. This version was written without vowels and thus was read with different pronunciations depending on the way vowels were said in the language of the reader. Seven of systems of “reading” were accepted as orthodox and are still studied today. The text has remained almost unaltered to the present day since the 7th century. Because of its divine nature, the Qur'an has been considered by Muslims to be the "mother of all books," or the Umm al-Kitab.

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline islamonline.net ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding ispu.org; Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline

Qur’an (Quran, Koran) and Hadith: Quran translation in English alahazrat.net ; Quran in Easy English, Urdu, Arabic and 70 other languages qurango.com ; Quran.com quran.com ; Al-Quran.info al-quran.info; Quranic Arabic Corpus, shows syntax and morphology for each word corpus.quran.com ; Word for Word English Translation – emuslim.com emuslim.com/Quran ; Digitised Qurans in the Cambridge University Digital Library cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk ; Sunnah.com sunnah.com ; Hadith – search by keyword and by narrator ahadith.co.uk

Assembling the First Qur’an

Muslims believe that the Qur’an's 114 chapters (surahs) were initially preserved in oral and written form during the lifetime of Muhammad. The entire text was collected in an official standardized version some 15 or 20 years after his death. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Charles F. Gallagher wrote in “International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences”: It is not certain whether the Qur’an was written down during the lifetime of the Prophet. The tradition indicates that scraps of it were preserved, and an authoritative text was prepared by a commission appointed by the third caliph, ’Uthman, and copies of this circulated throughout the empire. However, difficulties in reading the imperfectly developed Arabic script and hesitancies in interpretation caused a reform in writing and the adjustment to a standard pronunciation, as well as the recognition of a certain number of reciters whose readings were by compromise accepted as orthodox. Toward the end of the first century A.H. the text as now used was standardized in most details. [Source: Charles F. Gallagher, “International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences”, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : Toward the end of his life, Muhammad began to create a physical copy of the revelations, but he was unable to complete this project before his death in 632 A.D. In the following years, his most trusted companions undertook the task of collecting them from written and oral sources. The final codified consonantal form of the Qur'an is thought to have been produced during the reign of 'Uthman (r. 644–56 A.D.), the third of the four "rightly guided caliphs" (al-khulafa-yi al-rashidun). [Source: Maryam Ekhtiar, Julia Cohen, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

According to the BBC: “Some Qur'anic fragments have been dated as far back as the eighth, and possibly even the seventh, century. The oldest existing copy of the full text is from the ninth century. Although early variants of the Qur'an are known to have existed, Muslims believe that the text we have today was established shortly after the death of the Prophet by the Caliph Uthman.” [Source: BBC, July 14, 2011]

Caliph Othman and the Qur’an

Election of Othman as the 3rd Caliph

According to legend Othman (ruled 644-656), the third Caliph, authorized a compilation of a new Qur’an after a general returning from Azerbaijan asked him to produce one authoritative version to end dissension among his troops who "differ over the Qur’an the way Jews and Christians differ over their scripture."

Othman appointed a committee that collected pieces of scripture that had been written down and memorized by people in contact with Muhammad. The group produced their version of the Qur’an that is still used today.

Copies of Othman's version of the Qur’an were sent to important towns with instructions that they were to serve as the official version of the Qur’an. All other copies were destroyed. As a result the content was fixed at an early date. There, however were reports, of other version in circulation for decades later. The greatest resistance to the new version reportedly came from reciters who had memorized other versions.

Scholars on the Early History of the Qur’an

Not all scholars agree with this assessment. In “ Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World” , the controversial scholar Michael Cook wrote, "There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Qur’an in any form before the last decade of the seventh century." Cook also asserts that the stories about Muhammad migration to and from Mecca evolved long after he died.

Many Scholars say that writings and stories from other religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism were absorbed into the Qur’an. Some claim that much of the material in the Qur’an was fabricated to support Muslim mythology and help spread the belief.

Gerd R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy at Saarland University, told Atlantic Monthly, "My idea is that the Qur’an is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad. Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information."

World’s Oldest Qur’an in Tashkent

Othman Koran in Tashkent, the world's oldest Koran

In an obscure corner of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, lies one of Islam's most sacred relics — Othman Qur’an, the world's oldest Qur’an . Ian MacWilliam of the BBC wrote: “It is a reminder of the role which Central Asia once played in Muslim history — a fact often overlooked after seven decades of Soviet-imposed atheism. The library where the Qur’an is kept is in an area of old Tashkent known as Hast-Imam, well off the beaten track for most visitors to this city. It lies down a series of dusty lanes, near the grave of a 10th century scholar, Kaffel-Shashi. The Mufti of Uzbekistan, the country's highest religious leader, has his offices there, in the courtyard of an old madrassa.[Source: Ian MacWilliam, BBC, January 5, 2006 /]

“Just across the road stands a non-descript mosque and the equally unremarkable Mui-Mubarak, or "Sacred Hair", madrassa, which houses a rarely seen hair of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, as well as one of Central Asia's most important collections of historical works. "There are approximately 20,000 books and 3000 manuscripts in this library," said Ikram Akhmedov, a young assistant in the mufti's office. "They deal with mediaeval history, astronomy and medicine. There are also commentaries on the Qur’an and books of law. But the oldest book here is the Othman Qur’an from the seventh century." /

“The Othman Qur’an was compiled in Medina by Othman, the third caliph or Muslim leader. Before him, the sacred verses which Muslims believe God gave to Muhammad were memorised, or written on pieces of wood or camel bone. To prevent disputes about which verses should be considered divinely inspired, Othman had this definitive version compiled. It was completed in the year 651, only 19 years after Muhammad's death. /

“This priceless Qur’an is kept in a special glass-fronted vault built into the wall of a tiny inner room. About one-third of the original survives - about 250 pages - a huge volume written in a bold Arabic script. "The Qur’an was written on deerskin," said Mr Akhmedov. "It was written in Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, so the script is Hejazi, similar to Kufic script." It is said that Caliph Othman made five copies of the original Qur’an. A partial Qur’an now in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is said to be another of these original copies. Othman was murdered by a rebellious mob while he was reading his book. A dark stain on its pages is thought to be the caliph's blood.” /

How the World’s Oldest Qur’an Arrived in Tashkent

Telyashayakh Mosque library in Tashkent, home of the Othman Qur'an

Ian MacWilliam of the BBC wrote: “The story of how the Othman Qur’an came to Tashkent is a remarkable one. After Othman's death it is believed it was taken by Caliph Ali to Kufa, in modern Iraq. Seven hundred years later, when the Central Asian conqueror, Tamerlane, laid waste to the region, he found the Qur’an and took it home to grace his splendid capital, Samarkand. It stayed there for more than four centuries, until the Russians conquered Samarkand in the 1868. The Russian governor then sent the Othman Qur’an to St Petersburg where it was kept in the Imperial Library. [Source: Ian MacWilliam, BBC, January 5, 2006 /]

“But after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin was anxious to win over the Muslims of Russia and Central Asia. Initially he sent the Qur’an to Ufa in modern Bashkortostan. But finally, after repeated appeals from the Muslims of Tashkent, it was returned once more to Central Asia in 1924. It has remained in Tashkent ever since. /

“Visiting dignitaries from the Muslim world often turn up to see the Othman Qur’an in the depths of old Tashkent, so it is odd that it is still kept in such an out of the way location. But the authoritarian Uzbek government has inherited a Soviet-era distrust of Islam, and still views much of its own Islamic history with suspicion. The mufti's official religious establishment is closely watched and takes care not to attract too much attention to itself. As a result, its greatest treasure, the world's oldest Qur’an, continues to sit quietly in the medieval quarter of old Tashkent.” /

Discovery of an Ancient Qur’an

During restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana'a in Yemen in 1972, laborers working in a loft between the inner and outer roof stumbled across thousands of parchment fragments that turned out to be the oldest examples of the Qur’an ever found. The discovery was the Muslim equivalent of finding the Dead Sea scrolls.

Some of the fragments dated back to the 7th and 8th centuries, around the time that the Qur’an was still being assembled. Not surprising the fragments contained aberrations from standard texts. While this was not surprising to historians it was troubling to clerics and devout Muslims who view the Qur’an as the unalterable unchanging Word of God.

Preliminary inspection of the fragments by Gerd R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy at Saarland University, revealed "unconventional orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment" and "seemed to suggest" the Qur’an "was evolving” as a text rather than simply the Word of God. After that Yemeni authorities shut off access to the fragments.

'Oldest' Qur’an Fragments

fragment of text from a 7th century Qur'anic manuscript

In July 2015, it was announced that the world's oldest fragments of the Qur’an had been found by the University of Birmingham. The BBC reported: “Radiocarbon dating found the manuscript to be at least 1,370 years old, making it among the earliest in existence. The British Library's expert on such manuscripts, Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, said this "exciting discovery" would make Muslims "rejoice". [Source: Sean Coughlan, BBC, July 22, 2015]

“The manuscript had been kept with a collection of other Middle Eastern books and documents, without being identified as one of the oldest fragments of the Qur’an in the world. The fragments were written on sheep or goat skin When a PhD researcher, Alba Fedeli, looked more closely at these pages it was decided to carry out a radiocarbon dating test and the results were "startling". Prof Thomas says the writer of this manuscript could have heard the Prophet Muhammad preach

“The tests, carried out by the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, showed that the fragments, written on sheep or goat skin, were among the very oldest surviving texts of the Qur’an. These tests provide a range of dates, showing that, with a probability of more than 95%, the parchment was from between 568 and 645. "They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam," said David Thomas, the university's professor of Christianity and Islam.

“The manuscript, written in "Hijazi script", an early form of written Arabic, becomes one of the oldest known fragments of the Qur’an. Because radiocarbon dating creates a range of possible ages, there is a handful of other manuscripts in public and private collections which overlap. So this makes it impossible to say that any is definitively the oldest.

“Dr Waley suggests that the manuscript found by Birmingham is a "precious survivor" of a copy from that era or could be even earlier. The manuscript is part of the Mingana Collection of more than 3,000 Middle Eastern documents gathered in the 1920s by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul in modern-day Iraq. He was sponsored to take collecting trips to the Middle East by Edward Cadbury, who was part of the chocolate-making dynasty.”

Significance of the 'Oldest' Qur’an Fragments

Prof Thomas told the BBC that the dating of the Birmingham folios would mean it was quite possible that the person who had written them would have been alive at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. "The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally - and that really is quite a thought to conjure with," he says. [Source: Sean Coughlan, BBC, July 22, 2015]

page of 7th century Birmingham Qur'an

Prof Thomas says that some of the passages of the Qur’an were written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels - and a final version, collected in book form, was completed in about 650. He says that "the parts of the Qur’an that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad's death". "These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Qur’an read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed."

Dr Waley, curator for such manuscripts at the British Library, said "these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three caliphs". The first three caliphs were leaders in the Muslim community between about 632 and 656. Dr Waley says that under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, copies of the "definitive edition" were distributed.

Muhammad Afzal of Birmingham Central Mosque said he was very moved to see the manuscript "The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them...When I saw these pages I was very moved. There were tears of joy and emotion in my eyes. And I'm sure people from all over the UK will come to Birmingham to have a glimpse of these pages."

Quran from 1203 Sells for Record $2.3 Million

In 2007, a Quran, written over 800 years ago and believed to be oldest complete copy of the sacred text, was sold for $2.3 million at an auction in London. Majd Arbil of IslamiCity wrote: The Quran, signed by Yahya bin Muhammad ibn Umar, is dated 17 Ramadan 599 (June 1203). The inscription in the manuscript was done in gold outlined in thin black lines, and the marginal notes are in silver outlined in red. This holy book was estimated to sell for up to $715,000 but it fetched $2,327,300. At the same auction two new world auction records were made for Islamic manuscripts. A 10th-century Kufic Quran from North Africa or the near East, was sold for $1,870,000. Both ancient manuscripts were offered for sale by the Hispanic Society of America, and were purchased by trade buyers in London. [Source: Majd Arbil Source: IslamiCity Oct 26, 2007]

“The Hispanic Society is a museum and reference library in New York for the study of the arts and cultures of Spain, Portugal and Latin America, and has a centre devoted to medieval studies The Kufic Quran was written on paper in a landscape format, a change from the earlier style of copying on horizontal parchment, Christie's catalog said. The Kufic script takes its name from Kufah in Iraq, an early centre of Islamic scholarship. The gold script Quran was bought in Cairo in 1905 by Archer Milton Huntington, the adopted son of railroad and ship-building magnate Collis P. Huntington and founder of the Hispanic Society.

Christie's sold 5.95 million ($11.8 million) of art from the Islamic and Indian worlds at the auction. "Today's extraordinary sale total is one of the highest ever for Islamic art at Christie's, reflecting the depth of demand and very strong prices realized throughout the field,'' William Robinson, director of Islamic art and carpets at Christie's, said in a statement.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art; National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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