Between 2017 and 2019, the Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation embarked on an unprecedented scholarly journey. They uniquely addressed the question of compilation and codification of the Quran within Islamic scholarly heritage, while concurrently delving into the modern research on Quranic manuscripts. Across three pivotal conferences, this innovative approach took shape. During the inaugural event, titled “Noble Quran from Revelation to Compilation,” both Dr. Abdallah El-Khatib and I had our first academic encounter. Our joint journeys have taken us from Istanbul to Rabat, and most recently, to Berlin, for a profound discourse on “Quran Manuscripts, Past and Present: Cataloguing and Digital Tools,” a collaborative venture by the Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation, Berlin State Library, and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (Corpus Coranicum).
Berlin, with its rich intellectual heritage, saw us reunite with our colleague Mahmoud Zaki of the Qatar National Library. His insightful approach to the study of maṣāḥif within classical Muslim scholarship was illuminating. He showcased numerous useful references and works by both classical and modern Muslim scholars that deal with rasm, qirāʼāt, and other related matters. Furthermore, he unveiled some of the Qatar National Library’s Quranic masterpieces, emphasizing the transformative impact of digital tools in accessing manuscripts.
The Berlin workshop, held on 18-23 September 2023, was a multidimensional academic platform with lectures, seminars, interactive sessions, and exclusive glimpses into the ancient Quranic manuscripts housed in the Berlin State Library. There was also a dedicated segment on the printed editions of the Quran.
The workshop witnessed the active engagement of 26 international participants. These individuals not only enriched the discussions with their valuable questions but also displayed an evident thirst for knowledge throughout the six days. Judging by their enthusiasm and commitment, it’s clear that some of them are poised to become the next generation of scholars in this field.
I had the privilege to present a lecture titled “Early Quranic Manuscripts: History, Collections, and Dating Methods,” wherein I focused on the quest for Quranic manuscripts within the Western scholarly tradition. This focus deliberately excluded the works and contributions of classical and modern Muslim scholars, as the latter possess different context and methodology within the Islamic World. It’s essential not to conflate the two.
During the lecture, I highlighted early Quranic collections from four major repositories, which historically were early central mosques that stored these manuscripts: Cairo, Ṣanʻāʼ, Kairouan, and Damascus. By delving into the letters and diaries of German and French orientalists of the 18th and 19th century such as Jasper Seetzen, Asselin de Cherville, Jean-Joseph Marcel, I illustrated how and why they acquired ancient Quranic manuscripts, particularly from the Mosque of Amr in Egypt. These manuscripts subsequently found their way to European libraries such as Bibliothèque nationale de France and the National Library of Russia, playing a pivotal role in advancing research on Quranic manuscripts from the 20th century up to the present day.
In my lecture, I delved deeply into the intricacies of dating early Quranic manuscripts. Tracing the historical development of this question, I explored the progression from scholars like Grohmann to skeptics like Wansbrough. Despite the radical skepticism, I pointed out that 20th-century scholars had already attributed several Quranic fragments to the 1st/7th century. To provide a tangible context, I showcased specimens from Hijazi Quranic manuscripts from various collections and how they were dated using paleography, codicology, art history, and C14. Furthermore, I highlighted how Carbon-14 (C14) dating techniques have played a crucial role in corroborating the authenticity of paleographic dating to the 1st century AH. While these scientific methods have provided robust evidence, there remain skeptics who find it challenging to accept the findings.
In a subsequent seminar titled “Apologetics and Polemics in the Study of Quran Manuscripts,” I tackled prevalent misconceptions and misrepresentations surrounding Quran manuscript research that have surfaced in media outlets and apologetic works. This involves, for instance, referencing C14 results to imply that the Quran might predate the Prophet or, even more contentiously, claiming that the Quran was established in the 8th or 9th century. Using Toby Lester’s widely-referenced polemical article “What is the Koran?” (Atlantic Monthly, 1999) as our case study, participants actively read and analyzed its content. We closely read specific quotes from the article, particularly those concerning the Ṣanʻāʼ manuscripts. This scrutiny allowed us to identify biases, oversimplifications, and unsupported claims, leading to a profound and insightful discussion among the attendees.
Reflections from Dr. El-Khatib:
At the workshop, I presented a lecture titled, “Qurʾān Manuscript Marcel 3 in Saint Petersburg (NLR) and the Marcel Collection”. My discourse centered around two pivotal topics. The first delved into the rich history and unparalleled significance of Marcel’s collection located in Saint Petersburg (NLR). This treasure trove comprises 2,000 parchments, meticulously preserved within 130 codices, spanning from the 1st to the 7th centuries AH/7th to 12th centuries CE. Within this collection lie ornate Quran manuscripts from Iran and quaint pocket manuscripts. A standout piece I had the privilege to peruse was the “Purple Quran”, named for its distinctive paper hue. This work, originally spread across four volumes, found its home in the “al-Mūwaḥidīn Mosque” in Tunisia before 807 AH/1405 CE. Another manuscript of note is housed in the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies. Procured in 1936, this ancient tome is attributed to the revered Caliph ʿUthmān bin ʿAffān. The world got a glimpse of it when Prof. Efim Rizvan published its contents in 2004, tracing its origins to the waning years of the second century of the hijrah. I wrapped up my lecture by shedding light on the intricate paleographical, codicological, and vesre-counting system nuances of Marcel 3 and Marcel 5.
Subsequent to this, I spearheaded a seminar addressing a poignant question: “Why modern scholarship in the Muslim world shows concerns and reserves about the study of Qurʾān manuscripts?” I aimed to challenge this perception with a comprehensive bibliographical survey. Historical data reveals that modern Muslim Scholars, brimming with curiosity, have delved into the study of Quran manuscripts since as early as Muhammad Hamidullah who was introduced to German scholarship on Quran manuscripts in 1933. The flame was then carried by luminaries like Ghānim al-Ḥamad, Tayyar Altıkulaç, Bashīr al-Ḥimyarī, Abdullah Almuneef, and several others. Esteemed institutions, namely IRCICA in Turkey and the al-Furqan Heritage Foundation in London, have championed this cause. Furthermore, the global spotlight on Qur’an through exhibitions in countries like Turkey, the USA, and UAE, coupled with a plethora of MA and Ph.D. dissertations from the Islamic World, has enriched the field. We also owe a nod to Western Muslim scholars like Yasin Dutton, institutions like the Tafsir Center for Quranic Studies in KSA, and initiatives such as the one spearheaded by my colleague, Ahmed W. Shaker, in 2020 — the Quran Manuscripts Initiative.
Topics Discussed at the Workshop
Over the course of six days, the workshop presented a detailed program focused on the study of Quranic manuscripts. We discussed a variety of topics, ranging from historical perspectives to modern techniques. Topics included:
- Tracing the history of the field from past to present.
- Exploration of Quranic manuscripts in Islamic and European collections.
- Techniques for dating early Quranic manuscripts: Paleography, codicology, and C14 analysis.
- Paleography and codicology of early Quran manuscripts.
- Andalusian and Maghribī Quranic manuscripts.
- ʻUthmānic orthography (rasm) and Quranic readings (qirāʼāt) and as reflected in Muslim sources and early Quran manuscripts.
- Transcription, transliteration, cataloguing, and modern digital tools.
- Apologetics and polemics in the study of Quran manuscripts.
- Contemporary Muslim scholarship on Quran manuscripts.
In reflecting on the Berlin Quran manuscripts workshop, it becomes evident that such gatherings are more than mere academic exercises. They serve as vital hubs for the exchange of knowledge and the forging of collaborations. The diverse mix of seasoned scholars and enthusiastic newcomers showcased the dynamic and evolving nature of research on Quranic manuscripts. The integration of traditional Islamic scholarship with modern research methodologies underlined the potential of a holistic approach. As we look forward to more endeavors like this, there’s a collective optimism that the next generation of scholars, equipped with both Islamic traditional knowledge and modern tools, will further illuminate our understanding of the sacred text and its rich heritage.
Appendix: Speakers of the Berlin Workshop
The workshop featured contributions from Ali Aghaei, Umberto Bongianino, Alba Fedeli, Esra Gözeler, Abdallah El-Khatib, Michael Marx, Syed Hussain Murtaza, Syed Muhammad Naqvi, Christoph Rauch, Elaheh Shahpasand, Ahmed Wisam Shaker, Mahmoud Zaki, Sali Shahsivari, Boris Liebrenz, and Konrad Hirschler.
Ahmed W. Shaker
Independent scholar working on early Quran manuscripts and Islamic Inscriptions; Editor-in-chief of Quran Manuscripts Studies Blog
Professor of Exegesis and Quranic Studies, College of Sharia and Islamic Studies, Qatar University