The Sana'a palimpsest is one of the oldest Qur'anic manuscripts in existence. It was found, along with many other Qur'anic and non-Qur'anic fragments, in Yemen in 1972 during restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana'a. The manuscript is written on parchment, and comprises two layers of text (see palimpsest). The upper text conforms to the standard 'Uthmanic Qur'an, whereas the lower text contains many variants to the standard text. Radiocarbon analysis has dated the parchment containing the lower text to before 671 AD with a 99% accuracy.
Discovery and assessment
In 1972, construction workers renovating a wall in the attic of the Great Mosque of Sana'a in Yemen came across large quantities of old manuscripts and parchments, many of which were deteriorated. Not realizing their significance, the workers gathered up the documents, packed them away into some twenty potato sacks, and left them on the staircase of one of the mosque's minarets.
Qadhi Isma'il al-Akwa', then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, realized the potential importance of the find. Al-Akwa' sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the West German government to organize and fund a restoration project.
The preserved fragments comprise Qur'anic and non-Qur'anic material. Of special importance is a palimpsest with two layers of text, both of which are Qur'anic. While the upper text is almost identical with the modern Qur'ans in use (with the exception of spelling variants), the lower text contains significant diversions from the standard text. For example, in sura 2, verse 87, the lower text has wa-qaffaynā 'alā āthārihi whereas the standard text has wa-qaffaynā min ba'dihi. Such variants are similar to the ones reported for the Qur'an codices of Companions such as Ibn Mas'ud and Ubayy b. Ka'b. Carl Ernst, an Islamic studies scholar, states that the manuscripts "do not appear to have any startling or major changes but belong to the class of minor textual variations that have been known for centuries." Variants occur much more frequently in the Sana'a codex, which contains "by a rough estimate perhaps twenty-five times as many [as Ibn Mas'ud's reported variants]".
The lower text of the manuscript was erased and written over, but due to the presence of metals in the ink, the lower text has resurfaced, and now appears in a light brown color. A number of reasons may have led to erasure of the lower text: some pages of the codex may have been destroyed or worn out, thereby requiring the production of a new codex, for which the already available parchment was used. (This was a common practice in ancient times. When enough of a manuscript's writing wore off—ink does not bond to parchment like it does to paper—all of the writing was washed off to make the expensive parchment usable for a new text. This was an ancient way of recycling.) Alternatively, the standardization of the Qur'anic text by 'Uthmān may have led to the non-standard lower text becoming obsolete, and thereby erased. The parchment upon which the lower codex is written has been radiocarbon dated with 99% accuracy to before 671 AD, with a 95.5% probability of being older than 661 AD and 75% probability from before 646 AD.
About the manuscript
The palimpsest codex shows two layers of script. Both scripts are of the Hijazi type: firstly, a dark brown script is part of surah 20:1–10 (surah Taahaa or al-kamiyl). Secondly, under the dark brown script, traces of a light brown script are recognizable. This latter original script was washed off from the parchment so that it might be used again. The chess board-like pattern of the substrate is an artifact of the scanning procedure.
The manuscript is not complete. About 80 folios are known to exist: 36 in Yemen’s Dār al-Makhṭūṭāt (House of Manuscripts), 4 in private collections (after being auctioned abroad), and 40 in the Eastern Library of the Grand Mosque in Sana’a. Many of the folios in the House of Manuscripts are physically incomplete (perhaps due to damage), whereas those in private possession or held by the Eastern Library are all complete. These 80 folios comprise roughly half of the Qur'an.
The lower text of the folios in the Eastern Library has not been studied yet. However, the folios in the House of Manuscripts and those auctioned abroad have been studied. The German scholar Elisabeth Puin (of Saarland University), whose husband was the local director of the restoration project until 1985, has transcribed the lower text of six folios (and one side of another folio) in four successive publications. In 2010 Behnam Sadeghi (Professor of Islamic Studies at Stanford University) published, an extensive study of the four folios auctioned abroad, and analyzed their variants using textual critical methods. In March 2012, Behnam Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi (of Harvard University) published a long essay containing a complete edition of the lower text of the folios in the House of Manuscripts and those auctioned abroad, along with an analysis.
Restoration of the thousands of fragments found in 1972 began in 1980 under the supervision of the Yemeni Department for Antiquities. It was funded by the Cultural Section of the German Foreign Ministry. The find includes 12,000 Qur'anic parchment fragments. All of them, except 1500–2000 fragments, were assigned to 926 distinct Qur'anic manuscripts as of 1997. None is complete and many contain only a few folios apiece. "Albrecht Noth (University of Hamburg) was the director of the project. Work on the ground began in 1981 and continued through the end of 1989, when the project terminated with the end of funding. Gerd R. Puin (University of Saarland) was the local director beginning with 1981. His involvement came to an end in 1985, when Hans-Caspar Graf von Bothmer (University of Saarland) took over as the local director. Bothmer left Ṣan'ā' in the following year, but continued to run the project from Germany, traveling to the site almost every year.
Beginning in 1982, Ursula Dreibholz served as the conservator for this project, and worked full time in Ṣan'ā' until the end of 1989. She completed the restoration of the manuscripts. She also designed the permanent storage, collated many parchment fragments to identify distinct Qur'ānic manuscripts, and directed the Yemeni staff in the same task. The manuscripts are located in the House of Manuscripts, the Dār al-Makhṭūṭāt (DAM), in Ṣan'ā', Yemen. After 1989, Bothmer would visit the collection periodically. In the winter of 1996–7, he microfilmed all of the parchment fragments that have been assigned to distinct Qur'anic manuscripts. Of the remaining 1500–2000 fragments, he microfilmed a group of 280. The microfilms are available in Ṣan'ā' in the House of Manuscripts."
Puin, and his colleague Graf von Bothmer, have published only short essays on the Ṣana'a find. In a 1999 interview with Toby Lester, the executive editor of The Atlantic Monthly website, Puin described the preserved fragments by the following:
"Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam's first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What's more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God."
The mathematician Jeffrey Lang wrote a letter to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly about the interview:
[I]t should be mentioned that the article's alarmist tone concerning the discovery of the Yemeni manuscripts seems totally uncalled for. Lester admits that so far the manuscripts show some unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. However, the past existence of such manuscripts is well known to Muslims and those that did not completely agree with the Uthmanic text were eliminated in various ways. The recovery of an ancient manuscript dating back to the earliest history of Islam that differs in minor ways from the Uthmanic text and that was eliminated from circulation will hardly cause Muslims to feel the need to rewrite their history; if anything, it will only confirm it for them."
In another interview, Puin said:
"So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Qur'an is Allah's unaltered word. They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Qur'an has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Qur'an has a history too. The Sana'a fragments will help us accomplish this."
Puin claimed that the Yemeni authorities want to keep work on the Ṣana'a manuscripts "low-profile"."
In 2000, The Guardian interviewed a number of academics for their responses to Puin's remarks, including Dr Tarif Khalidi, and Professor Allen Jones, a lecturer in Koranic Studies at Oxford University. In regard to Puin's claim that certain words and pronunciations in the Koran were not standardized until the ninth century, The Guardian reported:
Jones admits there have been 'trifling' changes made to the Uthmanic recension. Khalidi says the traditional Muslim account of the Koran's development is still more or less true. 'I haven't yet seen anything to radically alter my view,' he says. [Jones] believes that the San'a Koran could just be a bad copy that was being used by people to whom the Uthmanic text had not reached yet. 'It's not inconceivable that after the promulgation of the Uthmanic text, it took a long time to filter down.'
The article noted some positive Muslim reaction to Puin's research. Salim Abdullah, director of the German Islamic Archives, affiliated to the Muslim World League, commented when he was warned of the controversy Puin's work might generate, "I am longing for this kind of discussion on this topic." 
Based on interviews with several scholars, Sadeghi and Goudarzi question Puin's claims regarding Yemeni suppression of research on the manuscripts and Puin's statement that the Yemenis did not want others to know that work was being done on them. For instance, they note that in 2007 Sergio Noja Noseda (an Italian scholar) and Christian Robin (a French archaeologist) were allowed to take pictures of the Sana'a palimpsest. They write that according to Robin, his colleagues were "granted greater access than would have been possible in some European libraries." They report a similar view from Ursula Dreibholz, the conservator for the restoration project, who describes the Yemenis as supportive. They quote Dreibholz as saying that the Yemenis "brought school children, university students, foreign delegations, religious dignitaries, and heads of state, like Franҫois Mitterrand, Gerhard Schröder, and Prince Claus of the Netherlands, to see the collection.”
Sadeghi and Goudarzi conclude:
"Although the Yemeni authorities' openness proved a boon to scholarship, they were to be punished for it. The American media amplified the erroneous words of G. Puin, purveying a narrative that belittled Yemen and misrepresented the work done there. The Arab press in turn exaggerated the American story. The outcome was a media discourse in Yemen borne of three stages of misrepresentation. This embarrassed the Yemeni authorities responsible for the House of Manuscripts, and the Head of the Antiquities Department had to defend before Parliament the decision to bring in the foreigners."
- Historiography of early Islam
- History of the Qur'an
- Textual criticism
- Uthman Quran
- Topkapi manuscript
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- The UNESCO Restoration Project
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- "A Qur’an written over the Qur’an – why making the effort?"