A Qur'an Palimpsest from the Sanaa Qur'ans

One of the big formate Hijazi Qur'ans, found in the Great Mosque in Sanaa, is a palimpsest from early 8th century. Here is a picture of one of its sheets:

Palimpsest of Codex Sanaa 01-27.1, Dâr al-MakhTűTât al-Yamanîya, Sanaa,
(Photo: Gerd-Ruediger Puin; 1)


This codex is one of the Qur'an fragments/specimens which were found in 1972 in the loft of the Great Mosque in Sanaa, Yemen. These Yemeni Qur'ans were an object of scholarly research from 1980 onwards. Under the supervision of Dr. Albrecht Noth, Professor at the University of Hamburg, Dr. Gerd-Ruediger Puin was in charge of the scholarly as well as practical organization of the project from 1981 until 1985, when he was succeeded by his colleague Dr. Hans-Caspar Graf von Bothmer for another two years (2).

The above piece of 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, with some patience you will realize that under the darkbrown 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-boardlike pattern of the substrate is an artifact of the scanning procedure.

Without applying special technical means the older script is not readable, but it is undoubtedly a Qur'anic text, too. This is to be seen easily by a peculiarity of both layers of writing: The washed off script as well as the second writing display verse separators, i.e. some simple geometrical point patterns. Even in the above small piece of the palimpsest one may recognize such separators in both layers of writing. Additionally at least one separator of surahs (two parallel lines crossing the page from right to left, again with some patterns between them) clearly can be recognized in the original script of the palimpsest codex (to be seen in the above piece). Such separators were used only in Qur’ans. There seems to be not any exception in non-Qur’anic texts within other early-Islamic writings.

Why the older layer was wiped out cannot be said definitely untill it can be read in detail. But there is hardly any other explanation for this replacement of a Qur'anic text by another one conceivable than that the older text version might have scandalized theologians or other people in power or charge. This doesn't necessarily imply an alteration of the very text, since the formative period of the Qur'anic text already may have been completed, when the first script was written. Most probably the arrangement of the surahs was altered. And this hypothesis is corroborated by the fact that amongst the findings in Sanaa there are indeed Qur'ans with an arrangement of surahs different from the transmitted Qur'an.


1. Hans-Caspar Graf von Bothmer, Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Gerd-Ruediger Puin: "Neue Wege der Koranforschung". magazin forschung (Universitaet des Saarlandes, Saarbruecken) 1/1999, p. 33-46; courtesy of Dr. Gerd-Ruediger Puin.

2. Gerd-Ruediger Puin: "Observations on Early Qur'an Manuscripts in San'a'". - Stefan Wild (ed.), The Qur'an As Text, Leiden/New York/Koeln (E. J. Brill) 1996, p. 107-111

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