Ten Ancient Manuscripts of the Qur’an

Recent research indicates that the Qur’an has thousands of textual variants and changes. In fact, the Qur’an that is used today around the world does not seem to be based on the ancient manuscripts, but rather on oral transmission through Hafiz. The result is that the Qur’an that is used today has faced changes. If you want a primer on textual criticism of the Qur’an, I suggest this 21-minute video of Dr. Jay Smith discussing these issues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52PEVUpJBtk

I have extensively studied New Testament textual criticism, which is a study and comparison of New Testament manuscripts. These studies have led me to have a curiosity about the ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an. Since I know Greek, I can easily access ancient copies of the New Testament, especially through the online portal of the Center for the Study of New Testament manuscripts. However, I am not aware of any such portal that exists for ancient copies of the Qur’an.

Today, I asked Google’s Bard AI program to develop a table of the fifty oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an. Bard was able to provide a table of ten such manuscripts. In contrast, we have details of thousands of ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. This contrast clearly demonstrates the differences in relative values of studying the most ancient copies of their holy books between the Muslim community and the Christian community.

Here is the table that Bard developed:

Birmingham Quran ManuscriptBirmingham University Library, UK568-645 ADWritten in Hijazi script, one of the oldest forms of Arabic script.
Sana’a ManuscriptNational Library of Yemen, Sana’a650-670 ADContains the oldest known variant readings of the Quran.
Leningrad Quran ManuscriptRussian National Library, Saint Petersburg700-750 ADOne of the most complete Quranic manuscripts.
Topkapi Quran ManuscriptTopkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul800-850 ADDecorated with gold and silver calligraphy.
Samarkand Kufic Quran ManuscriptState Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow900-950 ADWritten in Kufic script, an early form of Arabic calligraphy.
Gotthelf Bergsträßer ArchiveUniversity of Münster, Germany1000-1050 ADContains a variety of Quranic manuscripts, including fragments, codices, and amulets.
Mingana Quran ManuscriptChester Beatty Library, Dublin1100-1150 ADWritten on parchment, which is made from animal skin.
Dublin Quran ManuscriptChester Beatty Library, Dublin1200-1250 ADOne of the most complete Quranic manuscripts.
Mosque of the Prophet Quran ManuscriptMasjid al-Nabawi, Medina1300-1350 ADWritten on parchment, which is made from animal skin.
Mosque of Omar Quran ManuscriptAl-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem1400-1450 ADWritten on parchment, which is made from animal skin.
The ten most ancient copies of the Qur’an with details (developed by Bard)

Here are a few reflections on these manuscripts before delving in more fully.

  1. The lack of a more developed list shows the lack of value among Muslim scholars in studying ancient copies of the Qur’an. Instead, most Muslims depend on Hafiz (students who have memorized the Qur’an) to provide an accurate transmission of the Qur’an. Therefore, Muslims prefer to depend on oral, rather than written, transmission of the Qur’an.
  2. It is almost impossible to have intelligent conversations about Quranic textual criticism. Most Muslim scholars have chosen not to explore this data. Instead, they simply say, “The Qur’an has never changed.” The feeling is that if they repeat that mantra, and ignore any evidence, that the problem will go away.
  3. More and more people are looking at Quranic textual criticism. People are completing PhDs on this topic and books are being published, mostly by non-Muslims. In fact, it seems that a number of Christians are studying in this field because they have skill regarding textual criticism because of their studies of the Bible using this approach. However, it seems to me that most Muslims simply see that as an attack on their religion by outsiders rather than a genuine engagement with data.
  4. I believe that the narrative will change over the next 20 years and that it will be generally acknowledged soon that the Qur’an has a textual history. After all, even Sahih al-Bukhari acknowledges the textual history of the Qur’an by telling the story of Caliph Uthman having the Hafiz of his time make an authoritative version of the Qur’an, burning the ancient copies, and sending his authoritative version to each of the Muslim provinces. Many Muslims still argue that the Topkapi and Samarkand manuscripts are Uthmanic recensions, even though the field of Quranic textual criticism has not only debunked that statement but also shown that there are a great deal of textual variants between those two manuscripts.

In summary, the Qur’an has a textual history. While Muslim leaders continue to push their narrative that the Qur’an has been faithfully transmitted without any change of any kind, the evidence is clearly against them. It seems like that a generation of Muslim youth will be confronted with this data and begin to ask intelligent questions. It will be interesting to see how the Muslim world responds to widespread doubt about the origins of the Qur’an.

Details about a Few of these Quranic Manuscripts

Birmingham Quran Manuscript. The oldest manuscript of the Qur’an indicates many textual variants in the Qur’an. The Birmingham Quran Manuscript, also known as the Mingana Quran, is believed to be one of the oldest surviving copies of the Quran. The manuscript was discovered in 1932 by Alphonse Mingana, an Iraqi scholar, during his visit to the University of Birmingham’s Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern Manuscripts. It consists of two leaves of parchment, written in an early form of the Arabic script known as Hijazi. Radiocarbon dating conducted in 2015 placed its origin between 568 and 645 AD, making it potentially older than any other known Quranic manuscript (click here for data on this dating this manuscript). The online portal to the Birmingham Qur’an manuscript is available here. Dr. Alba Fedeli is one of the foremost scholars on this manuscript. Her conclusions are available here: https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/5864/ A cursory scan of Dr. Fedeli’s work shows that she spent well over a hundred pages of this work detailing textual variants in early manuscripts of the Qur’an.

The Sana’a Manuscript. The second oldest manuscript of the Qur’an indicates even more textual variants. The Sana’a Manuscript, also known as the Sana’a Palimpsest, is a significant collection of ancient Quranic fragments discovered in the Great Mosque of Sana’a, Yemen, in the 1970s. The Sana’a Manuscript consists of parchment sheets reused for writing purposes, resulting in a palimpsest. Underneath the visible text, scholars discovered a previous layer of text that had been erased and overwritten. This discovery has allowed researchers to study the evolution and variation of the Quranic text. The manuscript’s textual variants and orthographic features suggest that the Quranic text underwent changes and revisions during its early transmission. These variations challenge the traditional Islamic belief in the Quran’s textual preservation and the absence of any changes over time. There have been many videos made to help people understand that the Sana’a manuscript very clearly demonstrates that many textual variants in the ancient Qur’an. Here is one video that I have enjoyed on this subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvPMDyBlUPA

The Leningrad Qur’an Manuscript. The Leningrad Qur’an Manuscript, also known as the Leningrad Codex, is an important manuscript that contains the complete text of the Qur’an. It was probably copied in Cairo in the 9th century AD, during the Abbasid period of Islamic history. The manuscript was written in Arabic and is currently in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It seems that this manuscript has not been well studied since data on it is difficult to find.

The Topkapi Manuscript. The Topkapi Manuscript, also referred to as the Topkapi Codex, is believed to date back to the early 9th century AD, making it one of the oldest known Quranic manuscripts. The Topkapi Manuscript consists of 99 leaves and contains Surahs 17 to 36 of the Qur’an. It is written on parchment and utilizes the Kufic script, which was prevalent during that period. The manuscript’s text lacks diacritical marks and vowel indicators, typical of early Quranic manuscripts. One distinctive feature of the Topkapi Manuscript is that it includes various annotations and corrections, demonstrating the scribal practices and textual development of the Quran during that era. These annotations provide valuable insights into the early transmission and recording of the Quranic text. Many Muslims argue that this is the best and earliest of the Quranic texts. While a book has been written detailing the textual variants of this manuscript, most find the cost of that book prohibitive from purchasing it: https://www.ircica.org/publications/studies-on-the-holy-quran/al-mushaf-al-sharif-topkapi-palace-museum-library-madina-nr-1

The Samarkand Manuscript. The Samarkand Manuscript, also known as the Samarqand Mushaf, is named after the city of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan, where it is currently housed.The manuscript is believed to have been written in the 8th century CE and is attributed to the Umayyad period of Islamic history. It consists of two volumes, with Volume 1 containing 282 parchment leaves and Volume 2 containing 268 leaves. The Samarkand Manuscript is written in the Kufic script, which was a prevalent style of Arabic calligraphy during that time. Recent studies indicate that the Samarkand Manuscript has many more variants than the Topkapi manuscript.

2 thoughts on “Ten Ancient Manuscripts of the Qur’an

  1. Hey David, great article. I recently watched a debate on this which was interesting. They talked about some of these manuscripts. My question is about the variations/annotations. Do you have any specific examples of what was changed/varied between manuscripts?


    1. Jeff, as someone who does not read Arabic, the variants are hard to access for me. There are scholarly sources that are helpful. I have enjoyed the writings of Keith Small on this subject. For example, this book is quite simple. https://www.amazon.com/Holy-Books-Have-History-Histories/dp/1450740774

      In addition, I plan to pick through this dissertation, which appears to show textual variants from a handful of manuscripts in detail. https://etheses.bham.ac.uk//id/eprint/5864/1/Fedeli15PhD.pdf

      There are numerous sources that detail textual variants, but most are hard to access and very costly. For example, the Al-Mushraf Al-Sharif books that detail textual variants in various Quranic manuscripts run from $150-400 per book.


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