Discovering Quranic Manuscripts, Dr. Éléonore Cellard

Dr. Eléonore Cellard is a specialist in Qur’ānic manuscripts. Her work incorporates fascinating Islamic scholarly traditions like traveling in search of knowledge "rihla fi talab al-‘ilm," and the spiritual power felt through working with relics and decoding what they symbolize.


We talk to Eleonore about how her connection to Qur’anic studies began and an insight into a world of Qur'anic manuscripts.

Why and how did you develop a connection and interest in Qurʿānic manuscripts?


I became interested in Qurʿānic manuscripts over twenty years ago. I was still a teenager when I was randomly leafing through the catalogue of an auction of Islamic art that contained a folio of the Qurʿān in Kufic script. I was instantly fascinated by the aesthetics of the calligraphy—this sober, angular writing, and the way that it was laid out on the page gave it a powerful majesty, so different from a Western aesthetic.


For years I collected images of Qurʿānic leaves in Kufic script, broken Kufic, and Maghribi. I spent hours trying to reproduce them, and my poor imitations soon covered the walls of my room. My parents started to be concerned when I made plans to engrave a calligraphic frieze inspired by the Alhambra…


This passion led me to major in Arabic at the Institut des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris. I later had the opportunity to take courses with Professor Déroche on the codicology of Arabic and Qurʿānic manuscripts. My path lay before me.


Could you explain your work on Qurʿānic manuscripts and what is the aim of your research?

In addition to the aesthetic appeal of handwritten Qurʿāns, I became interested in the historical aspects of ancient Qurʿānic manuscripts. When I first began my research using a corpus of manuscripts held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, I was struck by how little clear, precise knowledge existed about ancient Qurʿānic manuscripts. Where were they made, when, for whom, and by whom? How and in what contexts were they used? And finally, how did they circulate and manage to cross so many centuries until the present day? My research explores the evolution of writing techniques in order to shed light on the historical, geographical, and socio-economic contexts of the manuscripts. In other words, very little is known about these aspects of ancient Qurʿānic manuscripts. My goal is to answer multiple questions related to these contexts, such as: How did writing techniques develop over time and geographically? How did the scribes work? How were the manuscripts used? By increasing our understanding of the contexts of the manuscripts, we will be better able to grasp what they can tell us about their period, origins, environments, and obviously the text that they transmit.


What museums and galleries have you worked with?


Since beginning my research, I have had the good fortune to work with a number of institutions, beginning with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which holds a collection of several thousand ancient Qurʿānic leaves. They represent only a small sample from original bound volumes. Other leaves from the same volumes are often dispersed in collections around the world. For this reason, it requires significant investigation to identify and locate different fragments of the same manuscript and their histories across different collections. One of the manuscripts that I worked on for example – the Codex Amrensis 1 – led me to the Russian National Library in Saint Petersburg and to the Doha Museum of Islamic Arts in Qatar. More recently, my study of one of the copies attributed to Calif Uthman took place between five different collections: the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, the National Library of Egypt, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul, and the Detroit Art Institute. Naturally, my research has been made possible by the valuable assistance of curators and restorers in each institution.


In 2018 you discovered passages from the Bible behind a Qurʿān manuscript due to go on sale at Christie's. This was the only recorded palimpsest in which a Christian text had been effaced to make way for the Islamic holy text. How did you feel making that discovery and what impact did that have on the future of Qurʿānic manuscript research?


Palimpsests are relatively common among ancient manuscripts. In fact, I was working on one of these palimpsests when I discovered fragments of this manuscript at Christie’s. It was my training in deciphering different strata of script that immediately alerted me to the nature of the document I was dealing with. The palimpsest technique was well known at the time and in different book cultures, including – although less commonly – in the Islamic domain. It primarily shows the economic constraints related to the use of parchment. This recycling technique can be used for all types of text, including religious books, can be reused. But I was definitely not expecting to discover a Biblical, Coptic-language text that had been erased and covered by a Qurʿānic text (Fig.1)! The cope of this Copto-Qurʿānic text at Christie’s attests for the first time to the reuse of a Christian text in a Muslim context at an early period. There is a known example of the reverse situation, the Mingana-Lewis palimpsest in Cambridge, in which Qurʿānic texts were reused in a Christian context (MS Or.1287 is online on https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk).


Figure 1. The Copto-Qur palimpsest, sold at Christie’s Islamic art auction in 2018. permission of Christie’s

 

The greatest problem with the discovery was the close timing – I just had a few days to investigate the minimum required before the object disappeared into a private collection after the auction. Unfortunately, access to manuscripts is not always reliable. Heritage material can sometimes disappear, whether to circulate on the art market or to suffer more calamitous fates such as fires, deterioration, or lack of preservation. By documenting this heritage, a researcher also helps to protect it.

What has been the most memorable moment of your research journey so far?


The experience of discovering the Christie’s palimpsest was naturally one of my more memorable moments. Actually, every encounter with these manuscripts has been emotionally intense for me. You feel both privileged and humbled by these witnesses to such a long, rich history.



Can you tell us about your research project; the Qur’ān attributed to Caliph ‘Uthmān?


This project, which was funded in 2020 by the Central Bureau of Cults (Interior Ministry), centered on a manuscript discovered in the grand Mosque of ʿAmr at Fustat in Old Cairo. It was important on several levels. First, it was a monumental manuscript (fig.2): each leaf – there must originally have been about 650 – is the size of a whole animal skin! When it was complete, it must have weighed at least 50 kilograms!


Fig.2. Some leaves of the monumental Qur’an manuscript attributed to Caliph ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān. Paris, BnF Arabe 324.


 

The question is who was able to produce such a manuscript and under what circumstances. What is the connection between its current attribution as one of the copies of Caliph ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, written in his hand and stained with his blood, and the fact that he was assassinated while he was reading it. My study shows that in its present state, the manuscript was not created in a single context but in several. Over time, two manuscripts were mixed, other leaves were added to complete missing sections that had been destroyed or circulated in other sites, until the mid-19th century. The plan is to recover this history across the centuries.

What are some of the challenges researching Qurʿānic manuscripts?


Research on ancient Qurʿānic manuscript involves a number of problems. The first is working with a fragmentary corpus. The manuscripts to which we have access today are rarely complete. The first and final pages are often missing, where we might have found dates and references to the place, the name of the scribe, or whoever ordered the copy. Sometimes only two or three leaves of an entire manuscript remain. How can we know if the hypotheses that we develop about the presentation or a scribe’s work were valid for an entire volume? Sometimes, several scribes contributed to a single volume, sometimes ornamentation was only introduced between certain sūras.


Fig.3. Fragments of Qur’anic leaves, collection of Seymour de Ricci, BnF, Arabe 7193-5

 

After all, we need to keep in mind that the materials available to us today represent only a small fraction of what was produced at the time. These manuscripts discovered in mosques may have been intended for public use. How many manuscripts, perhaps of poorer quality, produced in private circles for personal use, have disappeared? In the end, we need to ask ourselves how representative our corpus really is and which Qurʿānic history it reflects?


Is there a particular period of manuscript production that is stylistically your favorite?


The ancient period that covers the first four centuries of Islam is my favorite. It corresponds to development and spread of Kufic script and to parchment as the preferred material.


This period is also the most mysterious. Because most of the manuscripts are not dated and their origins are impossible to determine, a lot of questions are unanswered: Were specific practices tied to particular regions? Why do the manuscripts have such a variety of different formats? Why are they horizontal vertical, or sometimes square? There are even manuscripts in the form of rolls (Fig.4).


Fig.4. Qur’anic leaves and rolls of the collection of the Great Mosque of Damascus, TIEM, Istanbul. (personal picture)

 

This diversity of forms, which can be seen in the writing, formats, layout, ornamentation, and in certain features of the text itself reflect a particularly dynamic phase in the history of the Qurʿānic book.


For people looking to learn more about Qurʿānic manuscripts, are there any useful resources you could recommend?


We have the good fortune of living at a time when institutions around the world put many of the items in their collections online. There is almost no longer any need to have special permission to see them. The catalogues of these collections, often written by specialists, represent fundamental documentation where we can find the principal information about a manuscript. If you want to go further, you can find a quantity of articles and monographs on Islamic manuscripts online on Prof. Jan Just Witkam’s site (http://www.islamicmanuscripts.info/).

With your knowledge of the development of Qurʿānic manuscripts over time, what do you think of the future opportunities and potential to continue this area of study, especially with the development of digital technology?


Much remains to be learned, and digitization plays an increasingly important role. But we also need to remember that not all manuscripts have been inventoried. Many collections still need to be digitized. But ambitious projects are under way around the world, like in Iraq and Yemen. This growing awareness of the importance of manuscript collections shows that we are at the dawn of a new era, when digital techniques will allow access to a larger body of material that has not been studied yet. The power of new technologies is also enabling new ways of treating and analyzing texts, giving us glimpses of surprising new knowledge that is waiting to be discovered. Ultimately, digitization will make it possible to fix and preserve an image of this heritage, which it is important to recall remains perishable and vulnerable to limitations in terms of how it is used, restored, and preserved.


For more information, follow Dr. Eléonore Cellard on Twitter https://twitter.com/cellardeleonore



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