The discovery of an early Quranic leaf at Louvre Abu Dhabi, belonging to Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest

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An early Qur’anic leaf (Q.5:18-28) in Hijazi style at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, of which Ahmed Shaker has identified to be part of the famous ”Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest’. Photograph Ahmed Al-Yammahi

By Ahmed Shaker

‘Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest’, ‘DAM 01-27.1’, or ‘Codex Ṣan‘ā’’ 1’ are all designations of a well-known Qur’anic manuscript. The manuscript was discovered, amongst nearly 1000 Qur’anic fragments, at the false ceiling of the Great Mosque in Ṣan‘ā’, Yemen in the 1970s. The manuscript is a palimpsest, which is “a piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.” Hence, it has two text layers, of which both are Quranic. However, it’s believed that the inferior text is from the mid-7th century CE, while the superior text is, perhaps, from the late 7th or early 8th century CE. Since its discovery in 1972, the manuscript has been examined by various scholars like Elisabeth Puin, Alba Fedeli, Asma Hilali, Behnam Sadeghi, and others. It has as many as 80 folios, preserved today at Dar al-Makhṭūṭāt and the Eastern Library, nearby the Great Mosque. Starting in 1992 through 2008, some folios were sold at auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonham’s. Of course, the identity of the buyers was not revealed. More recently, another missing folio of the same manuscript was discovered by Ahmed Shaker, an independent researcher in early Qurans, at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. So, we are now to speak of an 81-folia Qur’anic fragment, written in ‘Hijazi’ or ‘Mail’ style.

What’s the discovery?

As I was scrolling through some images on Twitter, a photograph of a Quranic leaf showed up to me. It was taken at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, with the following description written on it: “an early Quranic leaf in Hijazi script, 600-700 CE.” I was curious to know more by examining the photograph myself. The script, the 10th verse-marker, and the overall appearance all pointed towards DAM 01-27.1. At first, I thought it could be one of the auctioned folios, now on display at Louvre Abu Dhabi. “Oh, good to know its final destination,” I said. But as I looked over and over and did the comparisons, I concluded it’s not one of them. It’s entirely a new folio, which hasn’t been published, and likely, identified before. As it turns out, the folio fills the gap right at Q.5:9 to Q.5:32 which was previously missing. The side of the Quranic leaf at Louvre Abu Dhabi ends through “من قتل نفساً بغير نفس أو فساد في الأرض فكأنما قتل”. If the observation is accurate, the next corresponding folio should start with “…الناس جميعاً”, right? Well, it certainly does.

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The corresponding folio comes from a 2004 thesis of Razan Ḥamdūn, a Yemenite Grad-student who photographed the additional 40 folios of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest, kept at the Eastern Library

Confirmations

Mohsen Goudrazi, a researcher who had studied parts of this manuscript along with Behnam Sadeghi, confirmed the discovery. He tweeted, “My God. My heart just stopped. This must be from Sana’a 1. The uppertext of Christies 2008 folio runs up to Q 5:9, and one of the Eastern Library folios […] begins with Q 5:32 (with al-nās jamī’an) so this folio would fit exactly between them.”

Later on, Islamic-Awareness, a web-based reference in Quranic manuscripts, praised the discovery, calling it an “interesting find,” adding, “It would fit nicely between Christies 2008 auction folio and the one from Hamdoun’s thesis.”

Theory

How did this folio get to Louvre Abu Dhabi? Was it sold at an auction house before finding its way at the Louvre? We are still looking into that, but Elèonore Cellard, a post-doctorate researcher at the Collège de France, has shared an interesting opinion in this regard. She thinks that the folio sold at Christie’s in 2008 was indeed a bi-folio, that is a single sheet folded in half to make two leaves, which was then “separated in 2 folios for selling.” Presumably, the other folio settled in Abu Dhabi.

Time to call curators 

After the confirmation of this discovery, it’s necessary now to reach out the curators at Louvre Abu Dhabi to let them know about the finding and request more details concerning the acquisition of this early Qur’anic folio, which belongs to DAM 01-27.1.

It is reported that the Quranic folio is displayed side by side with a Gothic Bible, Buddhist sutras, and a Torah from Yemen. Moreover, the curators have attached the following description to the folio: “Palimpsest page of a Quran in Hijazi script. From the Arabian peninsula, Medina about 600-700.”

State of fragmentation 

Most of our early Qurans are in a fragmentary state, that is we do not have complete codices, but rather fragments scattered at various libraries, museums, auction houses, and private collections. It takes time and effort to find and regroup these folios accordingly, but we certainly do, and this fascinating discovery is one significant example. Moreover, the discovery of new folio from DAM 01-27.1 raises the possibility of finding more folios from the same Quranic manuscript, elsewhere.

*Last updated October 22, 2018 

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