"The textual variants in the Yemeni Koran, simply by showing that the text is not always and everywhere the same, explode the mainstream Islamic belief that the Koran was delivered in perfect form to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, and has always been miraculously preserved from variant readings."
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In 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, a gravesite containing a mash of old parchment pages was discovered. It became clear that this parchment hoard is an example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave.” In this case, the site was the resting place for tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Using a technique called “carbon dating,” some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard were dated back to the seventh and eighth centuries, or Islam’s first two centuries. Until now, three ancient copies of the Koran were said to exist. One copy in the Library of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and another in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, date from the eighth century. A copy kept in the British Library in London dates from the late seventh century. But the Sana’a parchment pages are even older. Moreover, these pages are written in a script that originates from the Hijaz—the region of Arabia where the prophet Muhammad purportedly lived. This makes the Yemeni Korans not only the oldest to have survived, but one of the earliest copies of the Koran ever.
In 1981, the first scientific undertaking to study the Yemeni Koran was initiated by a group headed by Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin and his group recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments. Their preliminary inspection revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Interestingly, some of the sheets were also palimpsests—versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off or erased versions.
To quote Puin: “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’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 Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”
The idea that the Koran is the literal Word of God, perfect, timeless, and permanent, is crucial to Islam, in particular, to the Islamists at the forefront of spreading sharia and jihad. However, some of the Sana’a fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Indeed, this evidence compels one to conclude that the Muslim holy book has undergone a textual evolution rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
This explosive ramification has made the State of Yemen reluctant to give further access to the Sana’a fragments. Fortunately, before the door was shut to Western scholars, another German academic, Graf von Bothmer, made 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, which remain at the University of the Saarland.