Written just decades after the birth of Islam, a rare fragment from a seventh-century Qur’an recently fetched almost 1 million pounds.
A preserved fragment like this is a rare find, and it is believed to be from the same Qur’an as others dated to around 650-750 CE and held in Paris and Leiden. Auction house Christie’s offered it on sale in late October 2020 and it fetched close to £1 million, a price that far exceeded its estimated price of between £250,000 and £350,000.
Christie’s sales of arts from the Islamic and Indian worlds attract the attention of collectors and there is usually a huge demand for arts, jewellery, and manuscripts. Among these items at the recent sale was the well-preserved historical folio from a 7th century Qur’an and its verses written in Hijazi script.
According to Frances Keyworth, a cataloguer in Christie’s Islamic Art Departments, this is an important early Qur’an folio. This particular fragment appears to have been contained within one of the oldest Qur’ans and offers a fine sample of one of the earliest forms of Arabic calligraphy. Written in Hijazi style, the script is composed of the vertical strokes commonly used during the seventh century.
The history of the Qur’an dates to 610 CE. The revelations from God were made to the Prophet Muhammed in stages, believed to have continued until he died around 632 CE. For several years after the Prophet’s death, the revelations made to him continued to be passed down orally in a unified version.
Subsequently, the fear that the memorized parts of the Qur’an would be lost resulted in the commission of the first written Qur’ans. During the first Caliphate of Abu Bakr, he commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, the Prophet’s personal assistant create the first written copies of the Qur’an with the assistance of other scribes.
Recitations of the Qur’an spread into far-flung areas of the Islamic Empire as it grew. The third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, directed a recompiled Qur’an to ensure uniformity in its reading. The task once again fell on Zayd ibn Thabit. He ensured that variant texts were suppressed and ensured the authoritative text was committed in the new Qur’ans.
Scholars agree that by 650 CE there must have been between four and seven complete copies produced. These were sent to Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and probably Mecca, while Uthman kept one in Medina. Uthman ordered the destruction of all variant copies.
Unfortunately, there are no known copies of these Qur’ans in existence now, but it is generally accepted that the Uthmanic Qur’an comprised all the 114 suras in the order they are known today. These are believed to have been passed down in the copies made subsequently, of which some fragments have been preserved, including the copy recently sold at the Christie’s auction.
Substantial in size, the folio measures 34.5 cm by 31 cm and is one of only a handful of fragments to have survived from the copies of the Qur’an made in the first decades after the founding of Islam.
The Hijazi script used on the folio was common until the eighth century CE, but it was gradually replaced by the Kufic script. According to Christie’s Frances Keyworth, the script could have been created by a scribe born in Muhammed’s time.
The text on the folio has remained remarkably unscathed and displays 18 out of 19 lines of the script. These are verses 82-90 from Chapter 19 of the Qur’an, and they speak of God’s love for people who act righteously.
The folio also has one of the earliest forms of Arabic manuscript illumination still in existence. It runs along the bottom of the folio in a geometric pattern and was used to indicate chapter breaks.
Other fragments still in existence
The majority of the 38 known fragments from the earliest Qur’an manuscripts in existence today are in museums. Only two fragments match the format, style, and size of the Hijazi folio recently sold. Some of the smaller fragments are in London’s British Library, the Vatican in Rome, and Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Museum.
According to Keyworth, the two larger fragments almost certainly come from the same manuscript as the one recently sold, and almost certainly written by the same hand. They form part of the collections at Netherland’s Leiden University (Or. 14.454b-c) and the Bibliothéque Nationale de France in Paris (Arabe 331).
Radiocarbon dating of the Leiden folio has confirmed the page’s origin to somewhere between 650 and 700 CE.
The most recent fragment sold formed part of a private collection that belonged to the former lecturer at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures at the New Sorbonne University Paris III. Doctor Jean-Michel Thierry de Crussol (1916-2011) was an authority on Armenian and Byzantine art.
Whenever these types of fragments from ancient Islamic manuscripts appear, they cause major excitement. They are immensely significant for scholars of Islam but are also highly sought by Islamic art collectors.
In 2008, Christie’s sold another important manuscript on vellum from a mid-seventh century Qur’an. It was estimated to fetch £100,000 but exceeded all expectations when it was sold for £2.5 million.
Shaker, Ahmed. “Al-taḥlīl al-Karbūnī al-Mushiʿ wa al-Makhṭuṭāt al-Qurʾāniyah al-Mubakirah” (i.e. Radiocarbon dating and Early Qur’an Manuscripts), Qur’an Manuscript Studies Blog, April 2015.
Shaker, Ahmed. “Auctioned Leaf of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest, Possibly Acquired by a Turkish Private Collector”. Qur’an Manuscript Studies Blog, July 2019.
Marx, Michael and Jocham, Tobias. “Radiocarbon (14C) Dating of Qurʾān Manuscripts”. Qurʾān Quotations Preserved on Papyrus Documents, 7th-10th Centuries, Brill, 2019, pp. 188–22.
Witkam, Jan Just. “Qur’an in higazi-like script (MS Leiden, Or. 14.545 c and Or. 14.545 b)”, available online at islamicmanuscripts.info (Courses on Arabic manuscripts).