by Ahmed Shaker
‘Serendipity’ is a word coined by the English author and politician Horace Walpole in the mid-18th century. In a letter sent to his friend, Sir Horace Mann in 1757, Walpole expressed his admiration of a Persian fairy tale about the adventures of The Three Princes of Serendip who “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Thus, gradually, the word had become known in the Western literature to indicate the role coincidence plays in the discovery of unexpected things, or as modern dictionaries put it: “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”
I learned about this word lately as I interviewed Alba Fedeli–a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham–to discuss digital philology and Quranic manuscripts. When I asked her: “How did your interest in Quranic manuscripts come about?” she stated that, despite her enthusiasm for manuscripts since childhood, serendipity remained an influential factor in finding what would be her new career. It was the late Italian Arabist, Sergio Noja Noseda (1931-2008) who inspired her to study early Quranic manuscripts and involved her in his projects without prior planning from her side. Furthermore, young Noseda was fascinated too by the Giorgio Levi Della Vida’s (1886-1967) Frammenti coranici in carattere cufico [i.e. Quranic Fragments in Kufic Characters] (1947), of which he would spend long hours navigating through its pages that extensively describes a number of ‘Kufic’ Quran fragments kept at Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.
The present article aims at introducing the reader to the life and works of an Italian scholar, who specialized in Islamic law, Arabic language and literature, Islamic civilization, and above all was one of the most prominent contributors to Quran manuscript studies in the late 20th century, as evident from his Sources de la transmission manuscrite du texte coranique series.
Sergio Noja Noseda (1931-2008): His Live and Works
Sergio Noja Noseda was born in Pola, Italy, on 7th of July, 1931. After completing his university studies, he enrolled in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. In 1964, he published, in collaboration with Giovanni Galbiati (1888-1966), an Arabic legal manuscript, accompanied by Italian translation, entitled Aḥkām al-ʻAtīqah wa hya qawānīn lil-Naṣārī min al-ʻArab: Precetti e canoni giuridico morali per Arabi cristiani. Later on, he published an unknown copy of an apocryphal Arabic gospel attributed to Thomas.
In 1967, Noja was appointed lecturer at the University of Turin, where he taught Islamic law for a decade. At the time, he published an Italian translation of parts from Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: Detti e fatti del Profeta dell‟Islam, raccolti da al-Buhari (Turin, 1983); a catalogue of oriental manuscripts kept at Turin University National Library: Fihris al-Makhṭūṭāt al-ʻArabīyah wa-al-Turkīyah wa-al-Fārisīyah fī al-Maktabah al-Waṭanīyah (Turin, 1974); and a catalogue for the Arabic manuscripts in the Royal Library: Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts in the Royal Library of Turin (Rome, 1984).
Despite being passionate for Oriental manuscripts, Noseda focused his attention on the history of Arabs and Islamic civilization. To this purpose, he published a modern biography of Prophet Muḥammad in Italian, which was distinguished by the employment of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and the representation of extant archaeological excavation from Arabian Peninsula before Islam. Therefore, it was admired widely inside and outside Italy. The biography was succeeded by the publication of four titles in a series dedicated to the ‘History of Muslim communities’ which comprehensively covers a wide range of historical periods from Arabs before Islam to the withdrawal of Russian military troops from Afghanistan in 1988.
The series included the following titles:
1. ‘Muhammad the Prophet of Islam’ (1990).
2. ‘The Expansion of Islam: From the Death of the Prophet to the Mongols (632-1258)’ (1993).
3. ‘The Age of Islamic Inertia: From the Fall of Baghdad to the Fall of Napoleon in Egypt’ (1994).
4. ‘Modern Islam: From Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt to the Withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan’ (1995).
In 1976 – based on a recommendation from Francesco Gabrieli (1904-1996) – Noseda was assigned professor of Arabic language and literature at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan. And in 1991, he was elected member of the Lombardo Academy of Sciences and Literature, following a nomination from Cardinal Martini (1927-2012) for Noseda to fill the position of Trustee of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
In 1998, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic – the highest granted award in the fields of arts, literature, and economics in Italy. In the same year, he founded the Ferni Noja Noseda Studi Arabo Islamici (Lesa) with the aim of publishing and distributing classical Arabic literature and Islamic studies publications in Italy. Moreover, the foundation was known for its efforts in reproducing the earliest extant witnesses of the Quranic text (i.e. fragments, codices, papyri) as facsimile editions. Therefore, the foundation launched the Amari Project; which will be discussed in details in the next section.
The Amari Project (1998-2001)
Among the goals of the Ferni Noja Noseda Studi Arabo Islamici was to publish the most valuable and oldest Quranic manuscripts in today’s libraries as full-scale replicas. Hence, the Amari Project was launched in the late 20th century, in remembrance of the late Michele Amari (1806-1889). Amari, who was a fugitive from the Bourbons in Naples, found refuge in France. As an Orientalist and Sicily historian, he was interested in studying Arabic language and collecting every historical or geographical reference to the island of Sicily that could be found in the Arabic manuscripts acquired by the Royal Library (now Bibliothèque nationale de France) in Paris. The library, in turn, sponsored and assigned him with the task of classifying the manuscripts of the Arabic department.
The manuscripts Amari worked on included a substantial number of ancient Qurans as part of the Jean-Louis Asselin de Cherville’s (1772-1822) collection. Many of these Quranic manuscripts – purchased by then Royal library in 1833 – were acquired from the Mosque of ‘Amr in Al-Fusṭāṭ during Napoleon’s campaign to Egypt.
The Amari Project – in honorary of Michele Amari – was officially inaugurated in 1998. In collaboration with François Déroche, Noseda published the first volume of the Sources de la transmission manuscrite du texte coranique [i.e. Sources of the handwritten transmission of the Quranic text] series, entitled: Les manuscrits de style hịǧāzī. 1, Le manuscrit arabe 328 (a) de la Bibliothèque nationale de France. Written in the so-called Māʼil script (i.e. cursive), this Qur’anic manuscript is considered one of the oldest Qurans in the world today. The edition has reproduced the first 56 folios; that is BnF Arabe 328a. However, in 2009, Déroche was able to identify more dispersed folios at the National Library of Russia (Marcel 18; 18 folios), which – based on codicological and paleograhical criterias – found to resemble the same manuscript in Paris, raising the number of folios to 98, which represent about 45% of the Quranic text. Other corresponding folios, though minimal in quantity, were also located at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vat.Ar.1605; 1 folio), and The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London (KFQ 60; 1 folio). The new Latin designation, which brings all the scattered folios together, has become known as Codex Parsino-Petropolitanus.
In 2001, Noseda and Déroche published the first part of the second volume of the series, entitled Les manuscrits de style ḥiǧāzī. 2, tome 1, Le manuscrit Or. 2165 (f.1 a 61) de la British Library. The manuscript, Or. 2165, is the British Library’s oldest Quran in Māʼil style, and dated to the 7th or 8th century CE. In full, it has 121 folios, but the facsimile edition included the first 61 folios only. The rest of the 60 folios were scheduled for a future publication, but have never been released since. On the provenance of Or. 2165, Noseda tells us that historical information about this Quranic fragment is almost ‘non-existent’. However, there is a note that appears in the flyleaf at the end of the manuscript, reading: «Br of the Rev. Greville J. Chester 29 April 1879». In fact, Greville John Chester (1830-1892) was a clergyman and manuscripts collector, who was interested in natural history, archaeology, and Egyptology. He would travel almost every winter outside the country, where Egypt was his favourite destination. Based on this observation, it is likely that he acquired this manuscript from Egypt, and then presented it to the British Library who made the purchase in 1879. As in the case of Codex Parsino-Petropolitanus, other scattered folios of the same manuscript, Or. 2165, were located at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (BnF Arabe 328e; 6 folios), and Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah, Kuwait (LNS 19 CA; bi-folium). Therefore, the number of folios was extended to 128. Furthermore, Ms. Or. 2165 and its affiliated folios represent about two-thirds of the Quranic text.
The Amari Project aims to:
1. Enable scholars and researchers to access the most valuable and oldest witnesses of the Quranic text (i.e. fragments, codices, papyri) from world’s libraries, by reproducing them in full-scale replicas; which would make the comparison with other Quranic manuscripts possible.
2. Attach a CD-ROM with each volume, containing the actual transcription of the Quranic text as presented in manuscripts, in computerized Naskhi script; that would facilitate the electronic comparison between the modern printed Qur’ans and the early Qur’anic manuscripts.
Among the other objectives of Amari Project was the compilation and reprinting of articles – which are now hard to find or out of print – written by leading philologists and manuscript experts. The first and second volumes had already included essays by Gotthelf Bergsträsser, Otto Pretzl, Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, and Michael Amari. Their writings represent the core of this type of scholarship in the West, from the nineteenth century until the first half of the twentieth century.
Unexpected Death and Resumption of the Project
On 31st of January, 2008, professor emeritus Noja Noseda died in a sudden traffic accident in the city of Lesa. He was highly active then. On one hand, he and his team, who travelled to Yemen on numerous occasions, obtained a license from the Yemeni officials to photograph and publish three early Qur’anic fragments from the trove of Ṣanʿāʾ. These fragments would have been published as part of Sources series.
On the other hand, the third volume of Amari Project, which was a combination of early Qur’anic fragments from various libraries, was ready to be printed. Moreover, he even completed the second part of volume two, which would have included the folios (62-121) of the British Library’s oldest Quran–Or. 2165.
With the death of Noseda, the Amari Project, as well as the works of the Ferni Noja Noseda Studi Arabo Islamici, were suspended. As for the status of the project after his death, his pupil, Dr. Alba Fedeli, told me that the work has been transferred to the German-French team, represented by the Corpus Coranicum project in Berlin. Moreover, in 2011, Brill announced a new series entitled “Documenta Coranica” (i.e. Quranic documents); edited by François Déroche, Michael Marx, Angelika Neuwirth, and Christian Robin. The new German-French series will publish the most valuable and oldest Qur’anic witnesses (i.e. fragments, codices, papyri) in the form of replica, accompanied by essential comments and marginalia. The first volumes, currently being prepared, include the early Qur’anic fragments from the trove of Ṣanʿāʾ, and a complete edition of the British Library’s oldest Quran – Ms. Or. 2165.
In commemoration of his memory, his friend, Efim Rezvan, produced a short film titled “From Russia with Love: In Memory of Professor Sergio Noja Noseda.” Noseda, says Rezvan, was proud of his successful attempts to establish academic ties between Arab Muslim scholars and their Western counterparts to study the traditions of early Qur’anic manuscripts. To this purpose, the International Center for Research and Cataloguing of Ancient Arabic Manuscripts was established, and two scientific sessions were held in Cairo, in the years 2006 and 2007.
There is no doubt that the growing field of Qur’anic manuscript studies has lost a fine scholar and a prominent contributor. After decades of stagnation, Noseda was able to revive the studies conducted on early Qur’anic manuscripts and fragments. Without Amari Project, it would not have been possible to observe the presence of Qur’anic manuscripts in the academic works that dealt with the Qur’an, its compilation, and textual transmission.
“The British Library’s Oldest Qur’an Manuscript Or. 2165”. Journal of Qur’anic Studies. Vol 4, no. 2, 2002, pp. 110-112.
Baker, Colin. “The British Library’s Oldest Qur’an Manuscript Now Online”. Asian And African Studies Blog, 2016, https://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2016/04/the-british-librarys-oldest-quran-manuscript-now-online.html.
Conte, Rosa. Bibliographia Selecta: Sergio Noja Noseda / List of Sergio Noja Noseda’s Publications, 2017. 10.13140/RG.2.2.25723.82728.
Déroche, François, and Sergio Noja. Le Manuscrit Arabe 328 (A) De La Bibliothèque Nationale De France. Fondazione Ferni Noja Noseda, 1998.
Déroche, François, and Sergio Noja. Le Manuscrit Or. 2165 (F. 1 A 61) De La British Library. Fondazione Ferni Noja Noseda, 2001.
Déroche, François. La Transmission Écrite Du Coran Dans Les Débuts De L’islam. Le codex Parisino-petropolitanus. Brill, 2009.
Rezvan, Efim. “From Russia With Love”: Prof. Sergio Noja Noseda (1931-2008)”. Manuscripta Orientalia, vol 14, no. 1, 2008, pp. 72-72.
Rezvan, Efim. “The Mingana Folios In Their Historical Context (Notes In The Margins Of Newspaper Publications)”. Manuscripta Orientalia, vol 21, no. 2, 2015, pp. 32-38.
Roberts, Royston M. Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries In Science. John Wileyand Sons, 1989.
Shaker, Ahmed. “Al-Mustaʻrib Al-Īṭālī Sergio Noseda Muḥaqqiq Al-Maṣāḥif Al-Ḥijāzīyah”. Idaat, 2017, https://www.ida2at.com/italian-arabist-sergio-noja-noseda-korans-detective-drama