The Qur’anic Manuscripts of the Mingana Collection and their Electronic Edition

By Alba Fedeli

1. Birmingham: Qur’anic Manuscripts in the Mingana Collection

Fifteen years ago my late mentor, Sergio Noja Noseda, showed me a few ancient Qur’anic parchments published by Giorgio Levi Della Vida in his 1947 catalogue. Those images were the starting point for Noja Noseda’s studies in Qur’anic manuscripts when he was a young scholar following the advice of Giovanni Galbiati (1881-1966), the prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.  His story was the starting point of my studies in the same field. Subsequent movements from manuscript to manuscript led me to the University of Birmingham, England, where I am now based.

My research in Birmingham focuses on four early Qur’anic manuscripts of the Mingana collection, held in the Cadbury Research Library. The first fragment (MS Mingana Christian Arabic Additional 150) is a palimpsest that was hidden for many years by its scriptio superior and by being wrongly catalogued as an unknown Christian text.[1] Recently I identified its scriptio inferior as a portion of the Qur’anic text, perfectly fitting together with an incomplete half-folio of the famous Cambridge palimpsested codex, the so called Lewis-Mingana palimpsest (MS Cambridge University Library Or.1287). The second manuscript of the Birmingham collection is MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1572, nine parchment leaves in two parts. One part fits together with MS Marcel 17 in St. Petersburg and MS MIA67 in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, whereas the other part fits together with MS BnF ar. 328c in Paris. The third fragment (MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563) is composed of 39 parchment leaves. Finally, the Birmingham collection includes an uncatalogued papyri collection that Adolf Grohmann had inspected and recommended to a few German libraries, but due to difficulties in getting payment from Germany in the Thirties, the antiquarian Erik von Scherling of Leiden preferred to sell it to Mingana in Great Britain. Among these papyri, one fragment bears a small section of the Qur’anic text.

It is remarkable that all the fragments have the same provenance, in that after Alphonse Mingana had been appointed curator of the Selly Oak Colleges Library in Birmingham, he purchased from Erik von Scherling the papyri collection in 1934 and then—in May, September and October 1936—the above-mentioned Qur’anic fragments on parchment.[2]

MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, recto. MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, rectoSpecial Collections, University of Birmingham by courtesy of Cadbury Research Library

MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, recto. MS Christian Arabic Additional 150, rectoSpecial Collections, University of Birmingham by courtesy of Cadbury Research Library

2. Birmingham Qur’anic Manuscripts: Text, Contexts and Electronic Edition

First, my research on these Qur’anic fragments focuses on the comprehension of the linguistic characteristics they feature. Notably, a few deviations from the standard text found in the manuscripts reflect the linguistic competence of the scribes who were in charge of writing the text, and these linguistic features appear similar to the linguistic characteristics of early papyri. Secondly, the research explores the manuscript text by comparing it with the literature of the Islamic tradition, in order to comprehend the qirā’āt tradition as it is reflected in early Qur’anic manuscripts.

In addition, my research focuses on Alphonse Mingana’s papers held in the Cadbury Research Library, in seeking to place these manuscripts in their historical context. The papers give important information about the provenance of the manuscripts themselves,[3] as well as interesting information about scholars beyond the official story of their published works–thus depicting the atmosphere of Qur’anic studies in the ’30’s.

The outcome of the study of Birmingham early Qur’anic fragments will be their electronic edition.  Indeed, my work adopts the approach of digital philology in editing and tagging the manuscript texts, so that the text may be converted to XML, thus transferring the rich manuscript evidence to the web. I am doing this work thanks to the support of the Institute of Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing in Birmingham, whose scholars have extensive experience in the field of electronic editions—such as, for example, the Codex Sinaiticus Project.

This electronic edition will be not only an expedient way to exhibit the edition and the analysis of the manuscript text but it will also affect our access to it. The digital tools offer technological solutions suitable for representing the movements of the text and its stratigraphic layers, working contrary to the idea of a fixed edited text. Thus an electronic edition and digital philology represent a different approach to the manuscript text itself.

3. The Tools: Non-linear Editions of Stratigraphic Records in Reproducing Textual Images

The use of digital editions and digital tools in editing codices that are now scattered in various institutions—like the Birmingham-Cambridge or the Birmingham-Doha-St. Petersburg fragments—offers two distinct advantages: first, the possibility of a virtual reunification of the codices and second, the prospects of reconstructing each of the two layers of palimpsested fragments.

In addition to this ideal presentation of a virtual/digital reality, digital editions permit a non-linear edition of stratigraphic records. These Qur’anic fragments are stratigraphic records of information added at different stages. The digital edition perfectly renders their multi-layered nature, taking the reader beyond the limits of the linear printed edition. Early Qur’anic fragments are, in some cases, the results of a settlement of differences, a compromise between two (or three) different systems. In different historical moments the two systems could have been coexisting or competing. The manuscripts express a mélange, a compromise between two systems. The manuscripts’ text is a dynamic text and it has a variant nature. Here I am referring first to the stages of the writing process, in that manuscripts could be a mélange of three systems (coexisting and competing); and second to the coexistence of alternative readings marked by red dots (whereas there is no coexistence of alternative readings marked by diacritical signs), as well as to the competition between two alternative readings.

As regards the first mélange, the different stages of the writing process are marked in these manuscripts using different ink colors, i.e. brown, red and black inks.  In the electronic edition, the stages can be edited using the appropriate tags. Thus tags for first hand writing, second and third copyists/correctors, etc., offer the possibility of a stratigraphic transcription of the manuscript text, in contrast to the linear printed edition.

Furthermore, with reference to the second mélange, electronic editions offer the possibility of transcribing the coexistence and the competition of two different systems and the possible correction in the case of a competition that leads to the suppression of one of the two systems. The appropriate tags of alternative readings and the “corrector tags” attached to one of the two alternative readings offer the possibility of editing the information marked in the script. This means that the electronic edition contains all of the information from the stratigraphic records, so that the edition can later answer specific research questions through the established database.

4. The Manuscript Text: Using Digital Tools and Electronic Editions Means a Different Approach

Thus the digital edition of the Birmingham early Qur’anic fragments results in representing the systems performed in the manuscript text. In fact, if the image of a text (i.e. its transcription) can be viewed as a linguistic structure that represents a system,[4] these ancient Qur’anic manuscripts are particular expressions of the presence of more than one system. Thus the strategies adopted in transcribing the image of the text of the manuscripts and their systems are based on the digital philology tools. The starting point of these strategies chosen in editing and tagging the manuscript texts and the manuscript characteristics—like the above-mentioned tags of first hand and second copyist, as well as of alternative reading—are the guidelines gathered by the Institute of Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing and the manual of David Parker.[5] ITSEE’s Guidelines is a manual specifically pertaining to the transcription of Greek manuscripts, within the International Greek New Testament Project, and we have adapted these Guidelines to the characteristics of the early Arabic manuscripts of the Birmingham collection.

Finally, digital tools are not only tools for rendering in a non-linear edition the systems performed and added at different stages, but they also affect the methodology employed in editing the texts. In fact, the approach to early Qur’anic manuscripts prescribed by the characteristics of digital philology could be important in the field of Qur’anic studies, in that we are presenting the text as a series of manuscript artifacts[6] or, more precisely, as a process.[7] Given the fact that the variants and the characteristics featured in the manuscripts are presented as textual movements, the presumption is that we are considering the text as a process. The Islamic qirā’āt tradition itself has described the history and the transmission of the written text as a process, depicting the variety of the text; whereas early Qur’anic manuscripts reflect this variety, for example, in two coexistent readings.

MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563, f.26v, l.2

MS Mingana Islamic Arabic 1563, f.26v, l.2

Coexistence of alternative readings marked by red dots (’an ’asri and ’an-i-sri) in Q.26:52

This is the image of the manuscript text we are exhibiting in the electronic edition of the Birmingham early fragments. The importance of digital philology lies in the change of perspective that will help us to understand the richness of the manuscript texts, without imposing the limiting idea of a critical edition of the Qur’anic text.


[1] The fragment was hidden by a wrong label from 1939 to 2011, i.e. from the publication of the manuscript’s catalogue until its discovery in 2011. In fact it is highly probable that Mingana was aware of the content of the scriptio inferior of the palimpsested fragment, as we can infer from his correspondence about a few experiments he conducted in 1937 in order to obtain photographs of the palimpsest, applying ultraviolet lights.

[2] The details of the provenance of the early Qur’anic fragments of Birmingham were mentioned in Alba Fedeli, “The provenance of the manuscript Mingana Islamic Arabic 1572: dispersed folios from a few Qur’anic quires,” Manuscripta Orientalia, 17, 1 (2011), pp. 45-56.

[3] See the information about the Sinai provenance of MS Mingana Christian Arabic Additional 150 in Alba Fedeli, “The Digitization project of the Qur’anic Palimpsest, MS Cambridge University Library Or. 1287, and the Verification of the Mingana-Lewis Edition: ‘Where is Salām?’”, Journal of Islamic Manuscripts, 2, 1 (2011), pp. 100-117.

[4] Cesare Segre, Semiotica filologica. Testo e modelli culturali. Torino: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1979, pp. 64-65.

[5] David C. ParkerAn Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[6] Peter M.W. Robinson. “Manuscript Politics,” in Chernaik, W., Davis, C. and Deegan, M. (eds.), The Politics of the Electronic Text. Oxford: Office for Humanities Communication, 1993, pp. 9-15.

[7] “Every written work is a process and not an object” is the dictum proposed by D.C. Parker in his Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Qur’an Manuscripts and the History of the Qur’an (Interview Series Part 4)

An Interview with Eleonore Cellard, by Mehdi Azaiez

(iis.ac.uk)

(iis.ac.uk)

This week IQSA continues its interview series with Eleonore Cellard, PhD student in Qur’anic codicology at the Institut National des langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris. In this interview, Eleonore Cellard presents her achievements and research in the transmission of Qur’anic manuscripts in early Islam.

Eleonore, what are your academic achievements in the field of Qur’anic studies?

During my masters in the Arabic Language at INALCO, I had the opportunity to attend Déroche’s seminar about the codicology of Arabic manuscripts. A great part of this seminar was dedicated to the Qur’anic manuscripts. I later obtained state funding for my PHD project at INALCO, titled “The written transmission of the Qur’an: Study of a corpus of manuscripts probably from the second/ninth century.” During these three last years, I conducted my research in conjunction with teaching at INALCO.

Since 2011, I have been involved in the Franco-German project Coranica, working on the edition of the most ancient fragments of the Qur’an. As part of this project, I presented my research at the event “Les Origines du Corans, le Coran des Origines” in the French Academy (March 2011) and organized a workshop, “Manuscripta Coranica,” in Paris (October 2012).

What is the aim of your research?

The Islamic Tradition has meticulously recorded how the Qur’an was written, reformed and read. This history has been transmitted over the generations, relegating the manuscripts to the obscure nooks of the mosque. As testaments to ancient times, the manuscripts have preserved their own history, and today they are starting to reveal the imprecision of our knowledge of the Qur’an’s history.

The aim of recent academic studies is to better understand the manuscripts, their codes and their contexts. Thanks to this analysis, we hope to reach a new vision of the history of the transmission of the Qur’anic text by rearticulating the Islamic Tradition and Qur’anic materials.

Could you explain your work on Qur’anic manuscripts?

My study is based on a corpus of nine fragments kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Paris). The homogeneity of this corpus was first established according to paleographic criteria; indeed, all the fragments belong to the C group of Déroche’s classification system. According to this classification, these fragments could probably be dated from the second to the eighth century to the beginning of the third to the ninth century.

My analysis focuses on four main problems:

1. The problem of the manuscripts’ dating, using the paleographic criterion

2. The question of the textual division

3. The orthographic rules involving the notation of long vowels

4. The use of a dotting system for indicating the vocalization

1. As of now, the manuscript’s dating remains the main concern in our studies. Indeed, the physical and chemical analyses cannot propose any precise dating without an important chronological margin of +/- 50 years. This margin is considerable regarding the eventful history of the first three Islamic centuries. The paleographic criterion could be another method of dating. Based on comparisons between letters’ forms, it aims at reconstructing the evolution of the Qur’anic script. However, this approach, still undeveloped, presents two major difficulties for us: first, the lack of dated examples—manuscripts or inscriptions—and second, the existence of interferences between different paleographic styles in our C group. It thus implies the coexistence of different scripts, probably used in various regions, and is therefore at variance with the hypothesis of a linear chronological succession of scripts.

2. The question of the textual division covers two aspects:

  • In the different manuscripts, it is possible to notice different options taken by the copyists for separating the text: the separations of the Sura are represented in different manners: blank space, ornamentation, title with verse number, etc. Another separation—the five- and ten-verse division—also presents some variations in form. What do these variations refer to? It is difficult to answer such a question. My purpose here is to make an inventory of these variations.
  • The second aspect focuses on the semantic division within the verse separation. In our observation of the fragments, we find a great variation between the traditional systems of verse division recorded by the Islamic literature, and the divisions represented in the manuscripts. The problem here is to identify all these variations and to understand their origins.

3. At the orthographic level, the corpus reveals inconsistencies in the notation of long vowels: on one hand, we have no systematic notation of the medial alif, and on the other hand, we notice an important confusion between the values of the alif mamdûda and the alif maqsûra. According to these observations, we may wonder: What exact orthographic rules do these fragments follow? Are the variations some sign of a chronological evolution or a geographical repartition? Could these elements reflect the evolution of the Arabic language during this period?

4. The fourth problem concerns the vocalization of the manuscripts. The systems observed differ from what is recorded in the Islamic Tradition on two specific points:

  • According to the Tradition, the peculiarities which can be noticed in the vocalization of the manuscripts are attributed to a precise reader. In the fragments I have analyzed, some of the peculiarities appear frequently and are not directly connected to a given reading: the position of the dots (mainly in the notation of the hamza), the vocalic harmonization of the pronoun -hu/-hum, and a phonetic alteration of the vowel ‘a’ in the treatment of imâla. We may assume the existence of trends among copyists and readers that follow rules ignored by the Tradition.
  • Regarding the bi-colored dotting system, the Tradition tells us that its use refers to a canonical versus non-canonical reading. In the fragments I have analyzed, there is no systematic opposition or attribution of colors to one of the reading systems mentioned by the Tradition. Moreover red and green dots can alternatively refer to the same reader. We may question the real use of the bicolor system and its meaning. If the bi-colored system differentiates readings, it actually seems to be more the result of a competition between multiple readings than it does a difference between canonical and non-canonical readings.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.