Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries

An Embarassment of Riches: Sanaa, 13th March 2008
March 13, 2008, 5:14 pm
Filed under: Yemen


Orientalists have a lot to answer for. They theorised, justified and organised the projection of European power in the Middle East for centuries, starting with Napoleon. They’re not finished yet–although these days, they are more apologetic about the power bit.

One of the side effects of the business of Orientalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was the transportation of large amounts of art and artefacts back to Europe, to tantalise world-hungry and wistful westerners for generations to come.

I have been one of those wistful types. The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin contains Europe’s finest private collection of Quranic manuscripts (which may even rival that of the Louvre). It was the first place that I encountered the marvel of Islam’s early religious art. An example contained there, by 11th Century Baghdad scribe Ibn al-Bawwab, was a treasure. Before I learned to read Arabic, as an undergraduate I remember pressing my nose against the display cases wondering what all those carefully inscribed lines and marks actually meant.

Consequently, from a personal point of view, the discovery this week that Sanaa holds an astonishingly large collection of early Quranic manuscripts was a delight. However, from the point of view of the Yemeni government, muslim believers, and just about everyone else, this fact is something of a headache.

In 1972, around 40,000 papyrus and vellum codices were discovered hidden in a ceiling of the Great Mosque in Sanaa’s old city, where they had been mouldering for God knows how long. Some of the manuscripts turned out to be, after carbon dating, from the 7th and 8th centuries AD–i.e. from the first years of Islam.

To date, apparently 15,000 of these manuscripts have been cleaned and flattened, and presented. They are housed in the Dar al-Makhtoutat in Sanaa, just beside the Great Mosque–a place which so far I’ve had no luck getting into.

Such a trove ought to be a centrepiece of world scholarship into the history of Islam, into the history of religious texts, into the history of the Arabian Peninsula. How did these texts come to be here? Whose hand wrote them? What part do they play in the history of the Quran? What can they tell us about the first years of the Islamic Caliphate? A new field of debate and inquiry ought to have opened up in the thirty-odd years since their discovery. But it hasn’t.

Why not? The arrival of the Orientalists, for a start. Following the 1972 find, the Yemen government invited a team of scholars, amongst them Gerd. R. Puin, from Saarland University in Germany, to preserve and arrange the texts. As mentioned, that has to an extent been done. But since then, something has prevented full dissemination of the information gleaned from that process. It still isn’t really clear to me what, but I have a feeling that it’s got something to do with Mr Puin himself, and the fact that the Sanaa texts appear to contain discrepancies between what is written in them and what is now accepted as the standard text of the Quran. Mr Puin seems to have an agenda in this respect:

“So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Qur’an is Allah’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 Qur’an has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Qur’an has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us accomplish this.”

This quote is attributed to him in an Atlantic Monthly article from 1999. Faced with this sort of attitude, it is no wonder that, as has been reported, the Yemeni Government has frozen up scholarly access to the texts. If the quotes are accurate, to me, it seems ridiculous that the “Ha ha, your religion isn’t true” line qualifies as scholarship.

Are the textual discrepancies really the most important thing about the Sanaa Manuscripts? Is it necessary to “prove” objectively that a text has a history so that one can exercise moral authority over people that believe it ‘fell from the sky’? People believe all sorts of crazy things, but they will continue to believe them whether or not a German orientalist has evidence to the contrary.

Accordingly, there has and will be significant resistance to work on Quranic manuscripts that had this sort of objective in mind. The Yemeni authorities will hardly want to draw criticism for allowing infidels to meddle with the holy book: The argument that the Quran is created in time and has a history has been landing scholars in political hot water from the Mu’tazilites to Nasr Abu Zayd.

I hear reports that other scholarly work on these treasures is ongoing, but of what nature, I do not know. Once I manage to get into the Dar al-Makhtoutat, I might have a better idea about what is going on in this field. For now, I still have my nose pressed up against the glass.


5 Comments so far
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Not really knowing the context of Puin’s remarks makes this all a little unclear, but I think we can have a little more sympathy for a guy coming from a western academic context – where exegetical practice as it is practiced by the sane (a category into which alas many French academics do not fall) was formed up in a centuries long bunfight with purple-headed witch doctors to bring some kind of reality into the way the bible was treated. Perhaps the man is just a little unwilling to hand over the results of his work (which he was, after all, invited to come in perform) to thee tender mercies of the modern equivalent of those now thankfully vanquished medieval god wackos who for whatever reason (not the place to speculate on what a combination of qat and heat will do to the brain) still believe that the ineffable substance of the divine consciousness some poured itself into some guy’s left ear while he was passed out on a hillside one night to emerge unadulterated through the tip of his holy pen the next morning.

But, like I said, a little hard to take a position without really knowing the context a bit better.

Comment by MC

The context of the remarks, as much as we can know them, without being aware of what the weather was like on the day he made them and what colour his drawers were, is contained in the helpfully provided link to the Atlantic Monthly article.

Comment by jeff black

[…] About Me Dar al-Makhtoutat: Sanaa, 16th March 2008 March 16, 2008, 7:29 pm Filed under: Yemen Last week I was convinced that the work of a team of German orientalists who restored and displayed part of the Sanaa manuscript trove were operating with some sort of secularist agenda. […]

Pingback by Dar al-Makhtoutat: Sanaa, 16th March 2008 « Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries

[…] the past week or so, I have been attempting to dispel at least some of my ignorance of what the Sanaa collection of manuscripts contains. I haven’t been very […]

Pingback by Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries

Up until the Yemenite authorities allow an unfettered study of the so-called Sanaa manuscript by whoever wishes to do so, the obvious charge by the world would be that the Yemenits are hiding a big embarassment.

Comment by Ibrahim Mahfouz

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