The Qur’an in Manuscript and Print

An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an
Ahmad Von Denffer

CHAPTER 3 : The Qur’an in Manuscript and Print


Writing, although not very widespread in pre-Islamic time, was well-known among the Arabs. The script used in the seventh century, i. e . during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, consisted of very basic symbols, which expressed only the consonantal structure of a word, and even that with much ambiguity.

While today letters such as ba, ta, tha, ya, are easily distinguished by points, this was not so in the early days and all these letters used to be written simply as a straight line.

From this very basic system of writing there developed over the ages, various types of script, such as Kufi, Maghribi, Naskh, etc., which spread all over the world.

The later invention of printing with standardised types has contributed to formalising the writing.

However, as far as the actual script of the Qur’an is concerned, there were two important steps which brought about the forms in which we have the Qur’anic text as it is today. These were the introduction of:

  • Vowelling marks (tashkil).
  • Diacritical marks (i’jam).


Tashkil is the name for the signs indicating the vowels in Arabic scripts. They were apparently unknown in pre-lslamic

times. These signs help to determine the correct pronunciation of the word and to avoid mistakes.

When more and more Muslims of non-Arab origin and also many ignorant Arabs’ [Yaqut reports in his book irshad that al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf himself once read ahabba in 9: 24 wrongly as ahabbu, see GdQ. 111, 124, note 6.] studied the Qur’an,

faulty pronunciation and wrong readings began to increase. It is related that at the time of Du’all (d. 69H/638) someone

in Basra read the following aya from the Qur’an in a faulty way, which changed the meaning completely: :

That God and His apostle dissolve obligations with the pagans (9: 3).

That God dissolves obligations with the pagans and the apostle (9: 3).

The mistake occurred through wrongly reading rasulihi in place of rasuluhu, which could not be distinguished from the written text, because there were no signs or accents indicating the correct pronunciation. Unless someone had memorized the correct version he could out of ignorance easily commit such a mistake. [See also fihrist, 1, pp. 87-8.] The signs or accents to prevent such problems were introduced not long before the i’jam and then got the shape they have to this day: [Hughes,T.P.: A Dictionary of Islam London,1895 p.687.]

It has been suggested that the origin of fatha is alif, the origin of kasra is ya (without dots as in early books), and the origin of damma is waw. Hamza was previously written as 2 dots. [Abbott, N.: The Rise of the North-Arabic Script and its Koranic Development, Chicago, 1939, p. 39]

I’jam (to provide a letter with a diacritical point)

The Arabic letters, as we know them today, are made up of lines and points. The latter are called i’jam. The ancient Arabic script did not have them, but consisted of strokes only.

The addition of diacritical points to the plain writing of strokes helped to distinguish the various letters which could be easily mixed up.

Without dots this word cannot be easily recognised. With i’jam, the letters of this word can easily be distinguished.

Although the i’jam (diacritical points) were already known in pre-Islamic times, they were rarely used. The very early copies of the Qur’anic manuscripts (and Arabic writing in general) did not have these signs. They were apparently introduced into the Qur’anic script during the time of the fifth Umayyad Caliph, ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan (66-86H/685-705) and the governorship of Al-Hajjaj in Iraq, when more and more Muslims began to read and study the Qur’an, some of whom did not know much of the Qur’an, and others were of non-Arab origin. It is said of the well-known tabi’l Al-Du’all that he was the first to introduce these points into the Qur’anic text.


Writing Material

Early manuscripts of the Qur’an were typically written on animal skin. We know that in the lifetime of the Prophet, parts of the revelation were written on all kinds of materials, such as bone, animal skin, palm risps, etc. The ink was prepared from soot.


All old Qur’anic script is completely without any diacritical points or vowel signs as explained above. Also there are no headings or separations between the sSras nor any other kind of division, nor even any formal indication of the end of a verse. Scholars distinguish between two types of early writing:

  • Kufi, which is fairly heavy and not very dense.
  • Hijazi, which is lighter, more dense and slightly inclined towards the right.

Some believe that the Hijazi is older than the Kufi, while others say that both were in use at the same time, but that Hijazi was the less formal style. [This is the view of N. Abbott: ‘We can no longer draw a chronological demarcation line between what are commonly termed the Kufi and the Naskhi scripts, nor can we consider the latter as a development of the former. This … now demands a more general recognition. Our materials show that there were two tendencies at work simultaneously, both of them natural ones’ (Abbott, op. cit., p.16) . See plates 5 and 6.]

Some Peculiarities of the Ancient Writing

Numerous copies of the Qur’an were made after the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, and the writers of these manuscripts strictly observed the autography of the ‘Uthmanic Qur’an. There are, compared to the usual Arabic spelling, some peculiarities. Here are a few of them, only concerning the letters alif, yti, WtiW, by way of examples: [For more examples see Kamal, op. cit., pp.47-9; a list of these peculiarities has been provided by M. Hamidullah: ‘Orthographical Peculiarities in the text of the Qur’an, in: Islamic Order, 3 (4), 1981, pp.72-86.]

  • The letter alif is often written on top of a letter instead of afterit,
  • The letter ya (or alif) of the word is omitted,
  • Some words have the letter waw in place of alif,


Most of the early original Qur’an manuscripts, complete or in sizeable fragments, that are still available to us now, are not earlier than the second century after the Hijra. The earliest copy, which was exhibited in the British Museum during the 1976 World of Islam Festival, dated from the late second century. [Lings, M. and Y. H. Safadi: The Qur’an, London, 1976, No. 1A. See also plate 6] However, there are also a number of odd fragments of Qur’anic papyri available, which date from the first century. [Grohmann, A.: Die Entstehung des Koran und die altesten Koran-Handschriften’, in: Bustan, 1961, pp. 33-8.]There is a copy of the Qur’an in the Egyptian National Library on parchment made from gazelle skin, which has been dated 68 Hijra (688 A.D.), i.e. 58 years after the Prophet’s death.

 What happened to ‘Uthman’s Copies?

It is not known exactly how many copies of the Qur’an were made at the time of ‘Uthman, but Suyuti [Makhdum, 1.: Tarikh al-mushaf al-‘Uthmani fi Tashqand, Tashkent 1391/1971 p. 17] says: ‘The well-known ones are five’. This probably excludes the copy that ‘Uthman kept for himself. The cities of Makka, Damascus, Kufa, Basra and Madina each received a copy. ‘ [GdQ, 111. 6, Note 1.]There are a number of references in the older Arabic literature on this topic which together with latest information available may be summarised as follows:

The Damascus Manuscript

Al-Kindi (d. around 236/850) wrote in the early third century that three out of four of the copies prepared for ‘Uthman were destroyed in fire and war, while the copy sent to Damascus was still kept at his time at Malatja. [GdQ. 111, 6. Note 1.]

Ibn Batuta (779/1377) says he has seen copies or sheets from the copies of the Qur’an prepared under ‘Uthman in Granada, Marakesh, Basra and other cities. [Salih, op. cit., p.87.]

Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1372) relates that he has seen a copy of the Qur’an attributed to ‘Uthman, which was brought to Damascus in the year 518 Hijra from Tiberias (Palestine). He said it was ‘very large, in beautiful clear strong writing with strong ink, in parchment, I think, made of camel skin’. [Salih, op. cit., p.88.]

Some believe that the copy later on went to Leningrad and from there to England. After that nothing is known about it. Others hold that this mushaf remained in the mosque of Damascus, where it was last seen before the fire in the year 1310/1892.’ [Salih, op. cit., p.89; Muir, in ‘The Mameluke Dynasties’ also writes that this manuscript was burnt in Damascus in 1893; see Abbott, op. cit., p.51.]

The Egyptian Manuscript

There is a copy of an old Qur’an kept in the mosque of al-Hussain in Cairo. Its script is of the old style, although Ki6, and it is quite possible that it was copied from the Mushaf of ‘Uthman. [Kamal, op. cit., p.56.]

The Madina Manuscript

Ibn Jubair (d. 614/1217) saw the manuscript in the mosque of Madina in the year 580/1184. Some say it remained in Madlna until the Turks took it from there in 1334/1915. It has been reported that this copy was removed by the Turkish authorities to Istanbul, from where it came to Berlin during World War I. The Treaty of Versailles, which concluded World War I, contains the following clause:

‘Article 246: Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, Germany will restore to His Majesty, King of Hedjaz, the original Koran of Caliph Othman, which was removed from Medina by the Turkish authorities and is stated to have been presented to the ex-Emperor William II.” [Israel, Fred L. (ed.): Major Peace Treaties of Modern History, New York, Chelsea House Pub., Vol. ll, p.l418.]

The manuscript then reached Istanbul, but not Madina. [The same information about this copy was published in a Cairo magazine in 1938 (Makhdum, op. cit., p.l9). Surprisingly the standard book Geschichre des Qorans, the third part of which was published in Germany in 1938, i.e. well after the Treaty of Versailles, although discussing the ‘Uthmanic Qur’an and old manuscripts in detail, makes no reference whatsoever to this event. Also, the writer of the History of the Mushaf of ‘ Uthman in Tashkent, indicates that he does not know what to make of this reference.]

The ‘Imam’ Manuscript

This is the name used for the copy which ‘Uthman kept himself, and it is said he was killed while reading it. [Ibn Said: al-Tabaqatal-kubra, Cairo, n.d., Vol. 111, (1). pp. 51-2.]

According to some the Umayyads took it to Andalusia, from where it came to Fas (Morocco) and according to Ibn Batuta it was there in the eighth century after the Hijra, and there were traces of blood on it. From Morocco, it might have found its way to Samarkand.

The Samarkand Manuscript [Makhdum, op. cit., p.22ff.]

This is the copy now kept in Tashkent (Uzbekistan). It may be the Imam manuscript or one of the other copies made at the time of ‘Uthman.

It came to Samarkand in 890 Hijra (1485) and remained there till 1868. Then it was taken to St. Petersburg by the Russians in 1869. It remained there till 1917. A Russian orientalist gave a detailed description of it, saying that many pages were damaged and some were missing. A facsimile, some 50 copies, of this mushaf was produced by S. Pisareff in 1905. A copy was sent to the Ottoman Sultan ‘Abdul Hamid, to the Shah of Iran, to the Amir of Bukhara, to Afghanistan, to Fas and some important Muslim personalities. One copy is now in the Columbia University Library (U.S.A.). [The Muslim World, Vol . 30 ( 1940), pp.357-8.]

The manuscript was afterwards returned to its former place and reached Tashkent in 1924, where it has remained since. Apparently the Soviet authorities have made further copies, which are presented from time to time to visiting Muslim heads of state and other important personalities. In 1980, photocopies of such a facsimile were produced in the United States, with a two-page foreword by M. Hamidullah.

The writer of the History of the Mushaf of ‘Uthmtln in Tashkent gives a number of reasons for the authenticity of the manuscript. They are, excluding the various historical reports which suggest this, as follows:

  • The fact that the mushaf is written in a script used in the first half of the first century Hijra.
  • The fact that it is written on parchment from a gazelle, while later Qur’ans are written on paper-like sheets.
  • The fact that it does not have any diacritical marks which were introduced around the eighth decade of the first century; hence the manuscript must have been written before that.
  • The fact that it does not have the vowelling symbols introduced by Du’ali, who died in 68 Hijra; hence it is earlier than this.

In other words: two of the copies of the Qur’an which were originally prepared in the time of Caliph ‘Uthman, are still available to us today and their text and arrangement can be compared, by anyone who cares to, with any other copy of the Qur’an, be it in print or handwriting, from any place or period of time. They will be found identical.

The ‘Ali Manuscript

Some sources indicate that a copy of the Qur’an written by the fourth Caliph ‘Ali is kept in Najaf, Iraq, in the Dar al-Kutub al-‘Alawiya. It is written in Kufi script, and on it is written: “Ali bin Abi Talib wrote it in the year 40 of the Hijra’. [Attar, D.: Mujaz ‘ulum al-qur’an, Beirut 1399/1979, p. 116]


From the sixteenth century, when the printing press with movable type was first used in Europe and later in all parts of the world, the pattern of writing and of printing the Qur’an was further standardised.

There were already printed copies of the Qur’an before this, in the so-called block-print form, and some specimens from as early as the tenth century, both of the actual wooden blocks and the printed sheets, have come down to us. [Grohmann, op. cit.. p.38; Exhibition in the British Library, London.]

The first extant Qur’an for which movable type was used was printed in Hamburg (Germany) in 1694. The text is fully vocalised. [Al-Coranus, lex islamitica Muhammedis, Officina Schultzio-Schilleriania. Hamburg, 1694; Exhibition No. 22.] Probably the first Qur’an printed by Muslims is the so-called ‘Mulay Usman edition’ of 1787, published in St. Petersburg, Russia, followed by others in Kazan (1828), Persia (1833) and Istanbul (1877). [Blachere, R.: Introduction au Coran, Paris, 1947, p. 133.]

In 1858, the German orientalist Fluegel produced together with a useful concordance the so-called ‘Fluegel edition’ of the Qur’an, printed in Arabic, which has since been used by generations of orientalists. [Fluegel, Gustav: Corani texn Arabicus. Leipzig, 1834.] The Fluegel edition has however a very basic defect: its system of verse numbering is not in accordance with general usage in the Muslim world. [See e.g. 74: 31, where he makes four verses out of one.]

The Egyptian Edition

The Qur’anic text in printed form now used widely in the Muslim world and developing into a ‘standard version’, is the so-called ‘Egyptian’ edition, also known as the King Fu’ad edition, since it was introduced in Egypt under King Fu’ad. This edition is based on the reading of Hafs, as reported by ‘Asim, and was first printed in Cairo in 1925/1344H. Numerous copies have since been printed.

The Sa’d Nursi Copy

Finally, the Qur’an printed by the followers of Sa’id Nursi from Turkey should be mentioned as an example of combining a hand-written beautifully illuminated text with modern offset printing technology. The text was hand written by the Turkish calligrapher Hamid al-‘Amidi. It was first printed in Istanbul in 1947, but since 1976 has been produced in large numbers and various sizes at the printing press run by the followers of Sa’id Nursi in West Berlin (Germany).


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s