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Qurʾān Fragments in Cairo Genizah Manuscript Collections

Qurʾān Fragments in Cairo Genizah Manuscript Collections

The Cairo Genizah is not a topic that often arises when studying Qurʾanic manuscripts. The word genizah (plural: genizot) is, by most conventional wisdom, a Jewish term. It means ‘storing up’ or ‘hiding away’, referring to a hidden space – often in a synagogue or graveyard – where Jewish communities deposit texts that are too old or damaged for further use. This practice is a way to prevent the profane disposal of holy texts (especially biblical texts) like common rubbish. A Jewish community will often put all manner of texts that contain the name of God or Hebrew script into a genizah.

Some readers will notice that the Jewish practice of genizah is similar to the way that documents were stored in the Qubbat al-Khanza in Damascus. In fact, similar practices for hiding away old manuscripts are known from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities across the Middle East. One of the best known is the cache of manuscripts from the attic of Ṣanʿāʾ’s Great Mosque, among which the famous Codex Ṣanʿāʾ I was discovered.[1]

“The Cairo Genizah” then refers to a unique genizah in the neighbourhood of Fustat, also called Old Cairo, where the Cairene Jewish community stored their manuscripts for almost 1,000 years. Most of these manuscripts were placed into a hidden chamber on the second floor of the Ben ʿEzra Synagogue. More than 300,000 manuscript fragments are extant from this genizah, spanning the entire period between the 6th and 19th centuries.[2] Perhaps most remarkably, the Ben ʿEzra community deposited not just their Hebrew Bibles and prayer books, but practically every genre of text in every language an Egyptian Jew might encounter. These include many thousands of Arabic-script texts, some of which have no obvious connection to the Cairene Jewish community.

At least 25 of these Arabic manuscripts are fragments of the Qurʾan, and until recently very little was known about them. Since the Cairo Genizah was “discovered” and brought to Europe in the late 19th century, Genizah Studies scholars have been, for the most part, specialists in Hebrew and Judaism. As a result, while someGenizah Qurʾan manuscripts were catalogued in the early 21st century, it was not until 2018 that we conducted the first systematic study of this part of the collection.[3]

MS Cambridge, University Library, T-S Ar.38.64 (image provided courtesy of the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library)

This study uncovered seven previously unidentified Qurʾan manuscripts in Cairo Genizah collections and grouped the known manuscripts according to their script styles and material features. We found that these Qurʾan fragments exhibit features that range from the 9th to the 19th centuries, including some by professional scribes and others by relatively untrained hands. Some of them show evidence of previous binding and removal from larger codices, but others seem to have been produced as protective amulets and writing exercises. The one detail that unites all the fragments is that they come from small manuscripts, most likely owned by individuals for personal reading and study.

We utilised these manuscripts as a self-contained corpus to examine how the orthography – that is, the spelling practices – of Qurʾanic scribes changed over time. This analysis suggests that as time went on, trained scribes became increasingly likely to use full (plene) spellings for medial long a-vowels, up until the first printed editions of the Qurʾan in the early twentieth century. Additionally, we found that the writing of hamza became more common over time, but only among well-trained hands. Less professional writers, such as the people who produced the Qurʾanic amulets and writing exercises, almost always omitted hamza.

This orthographic evidence shows that the Cairo Genizah can provide useful data for studying the history of the Qurʾan, but it does not tell us why these Qurʾan manuscripts were deposited into a Jewish genizah in the first place. To some extent, we can only speculate, but it seems that there are multiple reasons that apply to different manuscripts. It has traditionally been assumed that much of the Arabic-script material in the Cairo Genizah was once part of the libraries of wealthy Jewish Cairenes, and when they passed away, their community deposited all their books into the Ben ʿEzra synagogue’s genizah, regardless of their contents.[4] This may be true for some of the Qurʾan manuscripts, as we know that medieval Jews engaged directly with the Qurʾan for polemical purposes. At least one medieval book list discovered in a Cairene genizah also lists a portion of the Qurʾan in the possession of a Jew.

MS Cambridge, University Library, T-S Ar.38.8 (image provided courtesy of the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library)

On the other hand, the physical characteristics of some fragments suggest alternative explanations. A few show clear signs of recycling for bookbinding. Medieval bookmakers frequently used old manuscript scraps to reinforce the bindings of new books, and when these books went into genizot, the recycled Qurʾan fragments would have gone with them. Other fragments contain only short sections of the Qurʾan that are known to be used as protective amulets (for example, Sūrat al-Mulk), or have been folded up in such a way that they could have been stored in amulet cases. Several block-printed Qurʾanic amulets have even been found in the Cairo Genizah, so it is possible that Jewish Cairenes used these manuscripts for their protective properties, the same as Muslims in their city.[5] Finally, twoGenizah Qurʾan manuscripts appear to be exercises performed by students learning to write Arabic calligraphy.[6] We cannot say for sure whether these exercises were written by Muslims or Jews.

Altogether, these fragments indicate that Cairene Jews had access to Qurʾanic manuscripts throughout the history of the Cairo Genizah. They also seem to have used those manuscripts for a variety of purposes, some of which might be unexpected. It is also likely that some Qurʾan manuscripts remain unidentified in Genizah manuscript collections around the world. We hope that by highlighting the known fragments, more Qurʾanic Studies scholars will investigate the Arabic portions of the Cairo Genizah and, eventually, uncover the rest of them.

Article reference (open access):

Connolly, Magdalen M. and Nick Posegay. 2021. “A Survey of Personal-Use Qurʾan Manuscripts Based on Fragments from the Cairo Genizah.” Journal of Qurʾanic Studies 23.2, 1-40.

References

Blair, Sheila. Islamic Calligraphy. Reprint. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Connolly, Magdalen M., and Nick Posegay. ‘A Survey of Personal-Use Qur’an Manuscripts Based on Fragments from the Cairo Genizah’. Journal of Qur’anic Studies 23, no. 2 (2021): 1–40. https://doi.org/10.3366/jqs.2021.0465.

———. ‘“An Arabic Qurʾān, That You Might Understand”: Qurʾān Fragments in the T-S Arabic Cairo Genizah Collection’. Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 11, no. 3 (2020): 292–351. https://doi.org/10.1163/1878464X-01103002.

Hoffman, Adina, and Peter Cole. Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. Jewish Encounters. New York: Nextbook : Schocken, Schocken Books, 2011.

Khan, Geoffrey. ‘The Arabic Fragments in the Cambridge Genizah Collections’. Manuscripts of the Middle East 1 (1986): 54–60.

Posegay, Nick. ‘Following the Links in T-S NS 192.11: A Qur’anic Exercise from a Cairene Public School’. Fragment of the Month: January 2020, 2020. https://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/departments/taylor-schechter-genizah-research-unit/fragment-month/fotm-2020/fragment.

Sadeghi, Behnam, and Mohsen Goudarzi. ‘San’a’ 1 and the Origins of the Qur’an’. Der Islam 87, no. 1/2 (2012): 1–129.

Schaefer, Karl R. ‘Eleven Medieval Arabic Block Prints in the Cambridge University Library’. Arabica 48, no. 2 (2001): 210–39.


[1] Sheila Blair, Islamic Calligraphy, Reprint (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006); Behnam Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi, ‘San’a’ 1 and the Origins of the Qur’an’, Der Islam 87, no. 1/2 (2012): 1–129.

[2] For an accessible introduction to the Cairo Genizah, see Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, Jewish Encounters (New York: Nextbook: Schocken, Schocken Books, 2011).

[3] For the results of this study, see Magdalen M. Connolly and Nick Posegay, ‘“An Arabic Qurʾān, That You Might Understand”: Qurʾān Fragments in the T-S Arabic Cairo Genizah Collection’, Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 11, no. 3 (2020): 292–351, https://doi.org/10.1163/1878464X-01103002; and Magdalen M. Connolly and Nick Posegay, ‘A Survey of Personal-Use Qur’an Manuscripts Based on Fragments from the Cairo Genizah’, Journal of Qur’anic Studies 23, no. 2 (2021): 1–40, https://doi.org/10.3366/jqs.2021.0465.

[4] Geoffrey Khan, ‘The Arabic Fragments in the Cambridge Genizah Collections’, Manuscripts of the Middle East 1 (1986): 54–60.

[5] Karl R. Schaefer, ‘Eleven Medieval Arabic Block Prints in the Cambridge University Library’, Arabica 48, no. 2 (2001): 210–39.

[6] Nick Posegay, ‘Following the Links in T-S NS 192.11: A Qur’anic Exercise from a Cairene Public School’, Fragment of the Month: January 2020, 2020, https://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/departments/taylor-schechter-genizah-research-unit/fragment-month/fotm-2020/fragment.


Written by

Nick Posegay
Nick Posegay is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, where he researches interfaith exchange in the intellectual history of Middle Eastern languages. He is also a Research Associate at the Cambridge University Library’s Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit and the author of Points of Contact: The Shared Intellectual History of Vocalisation in Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew.
Magdalen M. Connolly

Magdalen M. Connolly is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, where she researches written linguistic features of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian folktales from the early modern period. Magdalen will soon begin a Humboldt Research Fellowship at Ludwig-Maximilians University’s Institute for Near and Middle Eastern Studies.

QMSB

Nick Posegay and Magdalen M. Connolly

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