The “Qurans of the Umayyads” Book by a French Scholar Translated in Saudi Arabia

16 February 2023

Perhaps one of the most important contemporary books on the subject of Quranic manuscripts is the “Qurans of the Umayyads. A First Overview” book by François Deroche, a well-known French scholar of Quranic manuscripts. Due to the importance of this book, its translation into Arabic was published earlier this year by the Nouhood House of Studies under the title “Qurans of the Umayyads: A Historical Perspective on Early Quranic Manuscripts”.

The book, translated into Arabic by researcher Hossam Sabri, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Languages and Translation, Al-Azhar University, aims to provide an overview of Quranic manuscripts that were recorded during the Umayyad period, that is, during the first century of codification of the Quranic verses.

Who is François Deroche? François Deroche is a French scholar and orientalist specializing in the study of ancient manuscripts and paleography (the science of reading ancient texts), professor in the History and Communication of the Quranic Text at the College de France (the most prestigious research institution in France) and of the most prominent professors in the science of manuscripts, the Quran and sciences of ancient writing in general.

Many writers and scholars have carefully studied Deroche’s works, including Yassin Dyutun, a Quranic manuscript expert, who has reviewed the most important chapters of the “Qurans of the Umayyads” book and commented on some of its sections. He believes that one of Deroche’s greatest achievements is the fact that he provided a chronological division of the manuscripts belonging to that era. Dyutun recommended it to those interested in the early manuscripts of the Quran.

The preservation of the Quranic text as it was sent down to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is an acknowledged fact for all Muslims. However, the historical study presented in the book does not stop there, but takes us on an interesting journey through the history of early Quranic manuscripts that date back to the Umayyad era, and perhaps even earlier. In his study, Deroche examines the ways in which these manuscripts were written, the ambiguity of the letters and there different forms depending on regions and scribers. He also draws conclusions from the first manuscripts about the types of ink, paper and different materials used in copying, stages of development of the writing art over generations, confirming the role of manuscripts in providing the authenticity of what was written in the Quranic text.

The author also compares many early manuscripts of the Quran and the changes they underwent over a short period of time, in terms of the style of page output, their design, and the script used to write the Quran.

The introduction of the book gives a brief summary of the main points and topics covered, with particular emphasis on the historical facts proving that a particular manuscript belongs to a designated era. The author noted that due to the frequent absence of the first and last pages of manuscripts, it was necessary to use the radiocarbon method and his extensive knowledge of philology and history.
The focus is on one of the first, if not the very first, Umayyad manuscript, much of which is preserved in Paris and St Petersburg. The second chapter examines the subject of the Quranic writing in Hijaz script. He noted three manuscripts. One of them is now kept in Istanbul, the second one – in London, and the third one – in St Petersburg.

The author also describes other manuscripts preserved in Yemen and Tunisia. They belong to the oldest group of Quranic manuscripts and correspond to the codification methods of the first period. It is also likely that these manuscripts date back to the last quarter of the first century, that is, to 696 A.D. (the time of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan).

In the third chapter, the author discusses the issue of ‘changes in the form of the Quran’. He examines in it, in particular, two large manuscripts with a vertical arrangement, which illustrate a later stage in the writing of the Quranic texts. One manuscript, the “Umayyad Manuscripts of Damascus” is kept in Istanbul, and the second one, the “Umayyad Manuscripts of Fustat”, is kept in St Petersburg and Paris. In the two aforementioned manuscripts, very clear decorative circles appear on the pages between surahs of the Holy Quran, most of which contain plant patterns of stylized leaves. Due to such patterns, these manuscripts can be attributed to the Umayyad period.

Deroche notes that the Umayyads ‘issued a new Quran (with these patterns) to challenge the Christian Bible, which looked luxurious.’

In the fourth (final) chapter, the author explains that there are two large manuscripts that have gained renown among specialists. The first one is a large manuscript kept in Dublin, the second one – less massive but perhaps better known, the “Umayyad Manuscript in Sanaa”, kept in Sanaa. Both the Codex of Sanaa and the Codex of Dublin were created in the first decades of the VIII century, during the Umayyad rule. At this stage of manuscript-making, the interest in the luxurious appearance of the Holy Book was reflected in the Quran both inside and out. The Quran was large in size and its texts were beautifully written. Thus, a real culture of decorating the Quran emerged.

The aforementioned manuscripts are considered to be the most outstanding among those presented by the author in this book. Deroche wanted to show the reader that the early Umayyad manuscripts were more accurate than those preceding the epoch of Third Rashidun Caliph Uthman bin Affan, although the importance of the latter is certainly the preservation of the Quranic text. ‘But diacritical dots and voicing were not used in them [the early pre-Umayyad copies of the Quran]. Thus, the text did not have the solution that Uthman sought according to Islamic tradition,’ Deroche noted. In his book, he concluded that the Quran published during the Umayyad era gave this solution to the Muslims.



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