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Early Quran Manuscripts, Ahmed W. Shaker

Ahmed W. Shaker is an independent researcher, translator, and editor. His field of study is in early Qur’anic manuscripts, particularly from the first two centuries of Islam.

Ahmed’s contributions, both in English and Arabic, shed light on early Quranic documents and their characteristics. He especially concentrates his research on Quranic collections, exhibitions, scribal practices, and the 19th/20th-century orientalists’ interaction with Quranic codices, and particularly how these codices helped shape Quranic manuscript studies as we know them today.

We talk to Ahmed about the importance of preserving Quranic manuscripts, co-translating Sir Isaac Newton’s An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture into Arabic and his aspirations for Quranic manuscripts studies in the future.

Your field of study is in early Qur’anic manuscripts, particularly from the first two centuries of Islam. Why is the preservation of the Quranic manuscripts especially important?

This question can be answered from two different perspectives. For Muslim scholars, the preservation of the Qur'anic orthography (known in Islamic literature as rasm al-muṣḥaf) is significantly important for text reproductions. According to the main Islamic schools, adhering to the ʿUthmānic rasm is compulsory for calligraphers and institutions willing to distribute copies of the Qur’an for the general public. Moreover, classical Muslim scholars like al-Danī (d. 440 AH), had to consult early Quranic manuscripts kept in libraries and mosques of major Islamic cities (Baghdad, Damascus, Basra, and Kufa) to record the orthographical features of Qur’anic words that differ from the standard spelling (eg. Ibrhm versus Ibrāhīm). Hence, the preservation of Qur'an manuscripts is vital for such inquiry. In recent years, there has been a tendency among Muslim scholars and academics to pursue this research even further, thanks to the preservation of manuscripts in digital form or through its publication as facsimile editions.

As for western scholars, they have a different approach—namely the historical-critical method. In this regard, they examine the history of the Qur’anic text through the oldest remaining physical evidence (i.e., manuscripts, papyri, inscriptions, and coins) in order to understand how the text was formed, collected, codified, transmitted, and cannonized. This approach, nevertheless, does not prefer to rely on Islamic literature as a primary source of knowledge on the matter, as it is generally thought to be anachronistic to the events it describes, or at best, later interpretations of “what-really-happened”. In this case, preserving and publishing Qur’anic manuscripts systematically is an indispensable procedure for anyone who works according to this research method in western academia.

Can you tell us more about 19th/20th-century orientalists’ interaction with Quranic codices, and how these codices helped shape Quranic manuscript studies as we know them today?

Well, the study of early Qur’anic manuscripts emerged in Western circles in the late 18th century. Manuscript scholars has identified the origins of this quest with the Danish theologian and orientalist Jacob Georg Christian Adler (d.1834). Adler, who was fascinated by Kūfic inscriptions, spent time studying early Qur’anic fragments kept at the Det Kongelige Bibliotek (“The Royal Library”) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In the 19th century, the number of Arabic and Qur'anic manuscripts acquired by European libraries had increased, and it only became possible to conduct research on them. In 1858, the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres organized a competition for the best critical book on the history of the Qur’an, alluding to the Qur’anic fragments purchased by the French National Library in 1830 (via Asslain de Chervil) as a prospective research source. The value of the prize was divided equally among the three winning participants: Michael Amari, Theodor Nöldeke, and Aloys Sprenger.

In fact, Amari submitted a thesis titled “Primitive Bibliography of the Quran” (originally in French), in which he examines the characterstics of Qur’anic manuscripts from the collection of Jean-Louis Asselin de Cherville, who served as the French vice-counsil in Cairo in 1806.

To give a practical example, the term “hijazi” that we generally use today to refer to the earliest form of Arabic writing in the seventh century, is associated with him. As S. N. Noseda noted:

“… the term hijazi itself stemmed from his work; it does not appear in this form in his writings, but the Italian Arabist made use, in the notices of the Bibkiotheque nationale catalogue, of the periphrasis “écriture du Hijaz” [writing of Hijaz], to describe the scripts of certain fragments of Asslein de Cherville’s collection.”

The 20th century successors such as Bergsträsser, Grohmann, and Abbot – to name a few – were also involved in studying, analysing, dating, and cataloguing Qur'anic manuscripts to better understand the history of the sacred text and Arabic palaeography (i.e., the study of evolution of Arabic script based on material evidence).

Consequently, by examining the works of selected Orientalists and theologians – some of whom I have mentioned above – from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we can trace the historical developments of the field of Qur'anic manuscript studies as we know it today.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Arabe 351 (the marginal note on f. 230r reveal that the Qur’anic juz’ was endowed to the Mosque of Amr in Egypt before it was ‘acquired’ by Asslein de Cherville and transferred to Paris in the 19th century)

Image credit: BnF/gallica


You co-translated Sir Isaac Newton’s An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture into Arabic and more recently, worked on The Library of al-Masjid al-Nabawi: History and Rarities. What is the translation process like?

As for the first work, it was the most difficult and daring of all—mainly for two reasons: It was my first experience translating an eighteenth-century English text into Arabic— a work filled with complex grammatical and rhetorical structure, technical jargons, and extensive historical analysis. And the second: translating who? The greatest physicist and mathematician, Isaac Newton. It was meticulous task, and we were delighted as a team (Hytham, Hiba, and me) to delve into the other, quite unknown, side of Newton's world: his religious and historical writings. Newton was a man of science and faith, and as David Brewster (d. 1868) once said: “If Sir Isaac Newton had not been distinguished as mathematician and a natural philosopher, he would have enjoyed a high reputation as a theologian.”

One of the phrases that still sticks in my memory is Newton's words in the introduction, where he asserts that falsifying truths leads to a loss of confidence in religion. He puts it so eloquently:

“There cannot be better service done to the truth, than to purge it of things spurious”.

The second work was also challenging (but enjoyable) as I was translating from Arabic (my native language) into English. This work is a catalog of Islamic manuscripts kept in the historical library of al-Masjid al-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina. In the book, the manuscripts are arrganged according to subject/sciences: Qur’anic manuscripts, Qur’an and Hadith sciences, Fqih and Usul al-Fiqh, Arabic laguage and literature, and miscellaneous manuscripts.

Furthermore, a fine exhibition of these rare manuscripts was held last year in Saudi Arabia.

So, after all, translation – to put it in Elsa Triolet words – is painful, exhausting, irritating, and desperate work. it requires abnegation, scruples, honesty and most importantly, talent.

The Arabic edition of An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture by Issac Newton. Trasnalted by Hytham Samir, Hiba Haddad, and Ahmed Shaker (Nama Centre for Research and Studies, Beriut, 2015)


You feature stories from news headlines on the Quran manuscripts blog. What is the most news interesting story you have encountered?

One of these appealing stories is about a 16th-century Ottoman Qur’an that was smuggled out of Turkey and offered for sale at Christie’s auctions in the UK, which was expected to fetch between £120,000 and £180,000. The rest of the story is quite dramatic.

During an armed robbery in 2015, four men approached the Turkish owner, pretended they were interested in purchasing the copy. Instead, they attacked the owner, sprayed him with pepper, and wrapped his face in tape. Fortunetly, they were identified and tried on forensic evidence, but the manuscript was not found with them.

Nevertheless, when this Qur’an was presented to Christie's for sale in 2017, the Turkish Embassy in London notified British authorities that the item was stolen. Interpol also contacted Interpol Manchester with a request for authorities in the UK to ensure the item's sale was halted and necessary steps were taken to guarantee its return to Turkey. The Metropolitan Police acted promptly by getting a warrant to seize the Qur’an.

Finally, a British judge ruled on the return of the important cultural artefact to Turkey.

What has been the most memorable moment of your career to date?

Among the unforgettable memories was a visit to the prestigious Cambridge University Library. In 2018, I visited Cambridge and sat for a month studying several Arabic manuscripts held by the university library. At that time, I met Yasmin Faghihi, head of the Middle East department at the library, who kindly helped me in my research. Together, we were trying to gather information to trace the origins of the Qur’anic manuscripts purchased by the library from E.H. Palmer and E.E. Tyrwhitt Drake in 1878, which then evolved into a book project that I am currently working on. The library preserves a valuable collection of Qur’anic manuscripts dating back to the first centuries of the Hijra, written in various kufic letter forms. It was one of the early times that I touched parchment with my bare hand, smelled it, and sensed the turning of the pages in a manuscript that is more than 1,350 years old. It was an incredible feeling!

Do you have a favorite manuscript?

Yes—British Library, MS. 2165. Written in hijazi script, the manuscript was purchased by the British Museum in 1879 from Rev. Greville John Chester, who likely bought it from Egypt as it was his favorite travel destination. Recent studies have shown that the manuscript contains Syrian features in terms of readings (qirāʼāt) and verse-numbering ('add al-āy), so it could have possibly originated in Damascus or Hims. The manuscript has 121 folios, containing over two-thirds of the Qur’anic text. Most manuscript experts today date it to the 7th/8th century C.E.

In 1894, Charles Reiu penned the following entry notes on MS. 2165:

· Foll. 121; 12.5 in. by 8.5; 24 lines, 7.5 in. long; written in Kufi, on stout vellum, probably in the 8th century.

· The character is thick, bold, and very unlike the stiff and conventional Kufi of most early corans , being written with a free hand, and, as it were, currentre calamo [with the pen running on].

· The Surahs were originally without titles, their beginning being only marked by a wider space between the lines. Titles have been subsequently added in smaller Kufi character, apparently of the 9th century, and in red ink.

What are your hopes and aspirations for Quran Manuscripts Studies?

In a recent study published by Fred Donner (University of Chicago), he pointed out the importance of research conducted on early Qur’anic manuscripts, to resolve some of the issues in the field of Qur’anic studies in western circles, such as the classical question: Was the Qur’an formed in the seventh century or in the 8th/9th century? In his article, Reflections on the History and Evolution of Western Study of the Qur'an, Donner concludes that “[t]he careful work of scholars like Déroche, Sadeghi, Puin, Sinai, Neuwirth, and others on early Qur’ān manuscripts (including the Ṣan‘ā’ manuscripts) has led to the identification and approximate dating of several very ancient copies, or partial copies,” adding firmly: “These make it quite certain that the Qur’ān—in some form—dates to the seventh century, and is not a text that slowly crystallized in the eighth or ninth century.”

I hope that future studies on Qur'anic manuscripts will help in providing answers to some of the common problems in the field of Qur'anic studies, particularly relating to the history and codification process of the text. Manuscripts are rich sources, and when studied and compared with what Islamic literary sources provide, the results are quite consistent. In fact, this has been demonstrated by the latest published studies in this field. In his 2010 essay, The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qurʾān of the Prophet, Behnam Sadeghi wrote the following reflection: “…but the modern critical reevaluation of the literary evidence has barely begun. And, significantly, any number of results have already demonstrated that if only one takes the trouble to do the work, positive results are forthcoming, and that the landscape of the literary evidence, far from being one of randomly-scattered debris, in fact often coheres in remarkable ways.”

What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you?

I think the future will be bright and full of surprises for the Arabo-Islamic art and culture. Currently, there are great scholarly initiatives such as workshops for teaching Arabic calligraphy for beginners, reviving and digitizing old Arabic scripts like Kairouani, Hijazi, and Kufic. In addition to training a new generation of Arab calligraphers in the arts of writing, illumination, and gilding. There is also a growing interest in the field of Arabic epigraphy—that is surveying, photographing, and studying ancient inscriptions found in different geographical areas of the Arabian Peninsula.

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