Tayyar Altıkulaç and His Contributions to Qur’ānic Manuscript Studies

By Ahmed Shaker*

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A facsimile edition of the Topkapı muṣḥaf (Photo by Ahmed Shaker, IRCICA Kütüphanesi 2016)

 The study of early Qur’ānic manuscripts emerged in academia as early as the late 18th century. François Déroche identifies the origins of this quest with the Danish theologian and orientalist Jacob Georg Christian Adler (1756-1834). Adler, who was fascinated by Kūfic inscriptions, spent time studying early Qur’ānic fragments kept at the Det Kongelige Bibliotek (The Royal Library) in Copenhagen, Denmark.[1] Today ‒ thanks to Alba Fedeli ‒ it has become possible to draw the history of Qur’ānic manuscript studies from 1856 to 1999.[2] Nevertheless, in her concise chronology, Fedeli does not mention the works of Tayyar Altıkulaç, who is best known for his contributions in reproducing several ancient manuscripts of the Qur’ān ‒ mostly attributed to ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān and ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib ‒ in facsimile editions,[3] in collaboration with the Research Centre For Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) in Istanbul. This article is intended to expand Fedeli’s chronology by placing Altıkulaç and his al-muṣḥaf al-sharīf volumes, dedicated to codices attributed to the caliphs ʿUthmān and ʿAlī, into the framework of Qur’ānic manuscript studies.

  1. A Short biography

Born in Devrekani in 1938, Tayyar Altıkulaç learnt Qur’ān by heart at the age of nine. He completed his intermediate and secondary education and graduated from Istanbul High Islamic Institute in 1963. Later, he was assigned as a teacher and director to İmam Hatip school besides teaching in Islamic institutions up until 1971. During this period, Altıkulaç studied Arabic language and literature at the University of Baghdad, preparing his doctoral thesis in tafsīr. Moreover, he held several religious-administrative positions in Turkey, in order: Vice-President of Religious Affairs (1971-1976); General Directorate of Ministry of Religious Education (1976-1977); Member of Ministry of Education Board (1977-1978); and lastly, he served as the President of Religious Affairs until exempted from office, as per his request, in 1986.

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Speaking of his academic activities, Altıkulaç has played a great role in the formation of Turkiye Diyanet Foundation, Center for Islamic Studies (İSAM), TDV Encyclopedia of Islam in which he authored and reviewed more than 1500 entries. he was also the first person to record a full recitation of the Qur’ān in Turkey. Consequently, he showed a great respect for Qirā’āt tradition, which led him to edit and publish some classic works of this genre such as al-Murshid al-wajīz by Abū Shāmah al-Maqdisī (Beirut 1975) and Maʻrifat al-qurrāʼ al-kibār by al-Dhahabī (Istanbul 1995, 4-Vols). Yet, his interests were not limited to teaching and scholarship but expanded into political roles as he took over the presidency of the Committees of National Education, Culture, Youth and Sport in the Turkish parliament for two terms, between 1995 and 2002. Also, he was among the founders of the Adalet ve Kalkınma, the current ruling party in Turkey.

  1. The Maāif Journey

Altıkulaç’s interest in old manuscripts of the Qur’ān go back to the late 1960s. By then, he was charmed by the existing information on the surviving copies of the Qur’ān, offered by two authors, mainly Muḥammad ʻAbd al-ʻAẓīm al-Zurqānī, one of Al-Azhar’s ʿulamāʾ, and Muhammad Hamidullah, the Hyderabadi scholar.

Al-Zurqānī (d. 1948) discussed some ancient copies of the Qur’ān located at Egyptian libraries and archives which many people attributed to the third caliph, ʿUthmān b.ʿAffān. Yet, he questioned the authenticity of such attributions; arguing that early muṣḥafs were free from decorations, akhmās (fifth-verse markers), aʿshār (tenth-verse markers), and fawāti al-sūwar (sūrah headings). Therefore, they could not be from the time of ʿUthmān. He then goes further to speak about the famed monumental muṣḥaf attributed to ʿUthmān at Al-Hussein Mosque (today at the Central Library of Islamic Manuscripts) in Cairo. Written in Kūfic script and showing signs of regional codices’ orthography, Al-Zurqānī concluded that it was very likely transcribed from one of the master muṣḥafs sent by ʿUthmān to the main cities of the Caliphate, possibly Medina or Damascus.[4]

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Muhammad Seif El-Shazli restores the Al-Husseini Mosque muṣḥaf in Cairo (Photo by Frédéric Neema, May 10, 1993)

After reading Al-Zurqānī’s account, Altıkulaç was passionate to lay his hands on this enormous muṣḥaf himself. During the summer of 1969, he travelled to Cairo explicitly for that purpose. Unfortunately, due to lack of official cooperation and, partially, his lack of experience at that early stage he did not succeed. Thankfully, four decades after this incident, he was able to examine the muṣḥaf, touch its sheets, and have it digitized on a CD. He wrote: “It weighs 80 kg […] I visited Cairo twice to see this muṣḥaf, and in one of the visits I showed disbelief, so I tried to lift it up myself. I realized—even though I didn’t weigh it precisely—it’s not less than 80 kg because its leaves are made of animal skins. In fact, all these maṣāḥif are made of gazelle skins.”[5]

Furthermore, Muhammad Hamidullah (d. 2002) maintained that master Qur’ānic codices sent by ʿUthmān to be lost due to catastrophes. In contrast, he listed three generally known muṣḥafs, of which all are attributed to ʿUthmān: one copy in Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul, another in Tashkent where it was reproduced as a facsimile in 1905, and lastly, a copy at India Office Library (today part of the British Library) in London. The latter is rather exciting as it bears a colophon, reading: katabahu ʿUthmān ibn ‘Affan! (copied by ʿUthmān ibn ‘Affan).[6] Evidently, Hamidullah was looking forward to study these copies as he was interested in early written witnesses to the text. In fact, he published a scaled black-and-white edition of the well-known Tashkent Muṣḥaf in 1985, though his edition did not include any paleographical or codicological analysis.

The preceding information served as a ‘guide’ for Altikulaç to start his scholarship on the early codices of the Qur’ān, as we shall see in the next section.

  1. IRCICA and al-Maṣāḥif al-Sharīfah

At the turn of the 21st century, Research Centre For Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) started its project by gathering ancient Qur’ānic codices and publishing them in  facsimile editions. In 2002, IRCICA published a Qur’ān from 582 AH/1186 CE known as muṣḥaf Fāḍil Bāshā, kept at Gazi Husrev-begova biblioteka in Sarajevo. This work was then followed in 2005 by the reproduction of another Qur’ān from 1217 AH/1803 CE known as muṣḥaf Qāzān (Kazan), which is believed to be the first printed Qur’ān in the Muslim world. Starting in 2007, IRCICA directed its attention towards reproducing early Qur’āns that are attributed to the caliphs ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān and ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, assigning this duty to Tayyar Altikulaç. Altikulaç’s job was to prepare these old codices for academic publication, hence providing a set of supplements such as introductions, commentaries, annotations, and a comprehensive transcription of the Qur’ānic folios to be placed side-by-side with the reproduced images. During the years 2007-2016, Altıkulaç published four early codices attributed to ‘Uthmān, held in several libraries and museums: Topkapı Palace Museum (H.S. 44/32), Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum (No. 457) in Istanbul, Central Library of Islamic Manuscripts and Museum of Islamic Art (No. 24145), both in Cairo, in addition to one codex attributed to ‘Alī in Ṣan‘ā’. More recently, he published two scattered Ḥijāzī fragments from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Arabe 328a-b) and the Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen (Ma VI 165). The latter has been radiocarbon dated to 649-675 CE with 95.4% confidence.[7] Furthermore, a new monograph has appeared in Turkish, entitled Günümüze Ulaşan Mesahif-i Kadîme. İlk Mushaflar Üzerine Bir İnceleme (Old extant copies of the Qurʾān. A study of the earliest copies). Written in concise and instructive style, the book aims to summarize the studies carried out by Altıkulaç on the works mentioned beforehand.

Altıkulaç’s observations on the Qur’ānic manuscripts he studied can be summarized in the following points[8]:

  1. Almost all these codices that have reached us are from the second half of the 1st century or the first half of the 2nd century AH (i.e. the Umayyad period; 661-750 CE).
  2. In terms of rasm or orthography, the Tashkent muṣḥaf is related to the Kūfa muṣḥaf, which is among the muṣḥafs sent by ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān to several Islamic cities; the Topkapi and Ṣan‘ā’ muṣḥafs are related to the Medina muṣḥaf; TİEM (No. 457) and St. Petersburg (E-20) are related to the Basra muṣḥaf; Central Library of Islamic Manuscripts (Cairo) muṣḥaf is probably related to the Kufa muṣḥaf; and London (Or. 2165) and Paris (Arabe 328) muṣḥafs are related to the Damascus muṣḥaf. They are either copied directly from the ʿUthmānic muṣḥafs or from copies that were copied from them.
  3. These manuscripts were written in distant locations in vast geographical areas, over the span of 1300 years.
  4. They were all transcribed by different scribes.
  5. The dimensions, number of folios and lines, as well as codicological characteristics of these manuscripts are dissimilar to one another.
  6. There is no difference among them in terms of sūrahs, the arrangement of āyahs within the sūrahs and their sequence. Nevertheless, some minor rasm variants and scribal errors have been observed.
  1. Closing remarks

During May 2016, I had the opportunity to visit Turkey. There, I met Tayyar Altıkulaç at ISAM in Üsküdar; a district located on the Anatolian shore of the Bosphorus. As we arrived in, he was transcribing the text of a Kūfic muṣḥaf on his computer. Later, he told me it is from Mashhad in Iran.[9] Accompanied by his assistant Elif Behnan Karabıyık, we spent a great time talking mostly about Qur’ānic manuscripts. However, we were surprised upon hearing that he intends to stop working, mainly because of aging. Though I believe his passion for early codices of the Qur’ān will lead him through. In 2014, for instance, he published an almost-complete Qur’ānic codex after receiving a letter from a German professor informing him of the existence of “a large-size Ḥijāzī Qur’ān” in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo and encouraged him to study it.

By reproducing seven Qur’ānic codices and fragments (see appendix 1), Altikulaç had done a great contribution to the emergent field of Qur’ānic manuscript studies. Based on his reproductions, scholars and researchers are now given the chance to conduct further studies and observations, with regards to palaeography, codicology, art history, and other related disciplines.

*Ahmed Shaker is an independent researcher whose work focuses on early Qur’anic manuscripts.

Appendix 1: Bibliography of al-Maṣāḥif al-Sharīfah

The following is a complete list of the al-maṣāḥif al-sharīfah editions published so far. It should be noted that the titles cited below are bilingual and are written in either English/Arabic or Turkish/Arabic.

Altıkulaç, T. (2007). al-Muṣḥaf al-Sharīf attributed to ʻUthmān ibn ʻAffān (The copy at the Topkapı Palace Museum). 1st ed. Istanbul: Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture.

Altıkulaç, T. (2007). Hz. Osman’a nisbat edilen Mushaf-ı şerîf (Türk ve İslâm Eserleri Müzesi Nüshası). 1st ed. İstanbul: İslâm Araştırmaları Merkezi.

Altıkulaç, T. (2009). al-Muṣḥaf al-Sharīf attributed to ʻUthmān ibn ʻAffān (the copy at Mashhad Imam Husaini in Cairo). 1st ed. Istanbul: Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture.

Altıkulaç, T. (2011). al-Muṣḥaf al-Sharīf attributed to ʻAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (the copy of Sana’a). 1st ed. Istanbul: Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture.

Altıkulaç, T. (2014). Mushaf-ı şerîf (Kahire İslâm Sanatları Müzesi Nüshası). 1st ed. Istanbul: Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture.

Altıkulaç, T. (2015). Mushaf-ı şerîf (Biblioethèque Nationale, Paris). 1st ed. Istanbul: Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture.

Altıkulaç, T. (2016). Mushaf-ı şerîf (Tübingen Nüshası). 1st ed. Istanbul: Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture.

[1] Déroche, F. (2014). Qurʼans of the Umayyads: A Preliminary Overview. 1st ed. Leiden: Brill, p.1.

[2] See Fedeli, A. (2015). Early Qur’ānic manuscripts, their text, and the Alphonse Mingana papers held in the Department of Special Collections of the University of Birmingham. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Birmingham.

[3] On facsimile editions of early Qur’āns, see Gacek, A. (2001). The Arabic Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography. 1st ed. Leiden: Brill, p.255; Shaker, A. (2015). “Facsimile Editions of Early Qur’an Manuscripts: A Survey.” International Qur’anic Studies Association blog. Available online at: https://iqsaweb.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/shaker_facsimile-editions.

[4] Zurqānī, M. (1995). Manāhil al-ʻirfān fī ʻulūm al-Qurʼān. 1st ed. Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, pp.330-331. Cf. Muṭīʻī, M. (2009). al-Kalimāt al-ḥisān fī al-ḥurūf al-sabʻah wa-jamʻ al-Qurʼān. 1st ed. Cairo: Dār al-Baṣā’ir, p.77.

[5] Altıkulaç, T., Shaker, A. and Hassan, M. (2014). Al-Maṣāḥif al-mansūbah ilā ʿUthmān and ʿAlī. 1st ed. [ebook] Qur’anic Studies Blog, p.13. Available at: https://quranmss.wordpress.com/2014/10/19/masahif_lecture.

[6]  Hamidullah, M. (1969). Introduction to Islam. 1st ed. Paris: Centre culturel islamique, p.22; Hamidullah, M. and Iqbal, A. (1993). The emergence of Islam I: History of the Qur’ān. 1st ed. [ebook], pp.35-38.

[7] Universität Tübingen (2014). Koran manuscript from early period of Islam. Tübingen University fragment written 20-40 years after the death of the Prophet, analysis shows. [online] Available at: https://www.uni-tuebingen.de/uploads/media/14-11-10Koranhandschrift_UB_Tuebingen_en.pdf [Accessed 21 May 2017].

[8] See Altıkulaç, T. (2010). “Oldest Surviving Mushafs.” In: U. Mujde, ed., The 1400th anniversary of the Qur’an. Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art Qur’an Collection, 1st ed. Istanbul: Antik A.Ş. Cultural Publications.

[9]  Attributed to ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib and kept at the Central Library of Astan Quds Razavi, this Kūfic codex was recently reproduced as a facsimile edition in a cooperation between the Center of Publication and Printing of Holy Qur’an and Astan Quds Razavi, edited by Tayyar Altikulaç. (Hawzah News Agency, August 2, 2016, available at http://en.hawzahnews.com/detail/News/344161

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