Sana'a: City of the Book: Since Its Discovery in Yemen in 1972 a Collection of Brittle Documents, Believed to Be among the Earliest Koranic Texts, Has Been the Subject of Fierce and Divisive Debate among Scholars of Islamic History

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From the outside Yemen's House of Manuscripts Flooks more like a jail than a library. Built in the early 1980s to house Yemen's vast collection of medieval Islamic writing, the boxy structure stands surrounded by barbed wire and is incongruously devoid of charm amid the cobbled warrens and ancient tower houses of Sana'a, one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities. The Grand Mosque next door is thought to contain architectural traces of the mosque erected on this site by order of the Prophet Muhammad himself. The drab appearance of the House of Manuscripts belies the significance of what lies within.

It is here that the Sana'a Manuscripts are kept, a trove of crumbling paper and parchment that includes some of the oldest, if not the oldest of all Koranic texts. Discovered hidden in the ceiling of the Grand Mosque in 1972, many of them have yet to be restored- small wonder considering the uproar ten years ago when a German scholar claimed they contained textual variations from the accepted Koran that called into question the Muslim belief that it is the unchanging, uncreated word of God.

It is not that the Yemeni authorities don't want people to see the manuscripts for fear of what they may contain, as is often claimed. Despite the earlier controversy, officials at the House of Manuscripts say they want to make the restored texts available to scholars worldwide, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. In 2008 its new supervisor, Sheikh Sam Yahya Hussain al-Amhar, launched a project to restore the remaining documents, including a second stash found in the Grand Mosque a year earlier.

Contention seems to follow the manuscripts at every turn, most recently over a contract to photograph the entire contents of the House of Manuscripts, including the 1972 find. Yemeni officials blocked the deal, saying it would be tantamount to giving away the country's national treasure; but the agreement set in motion bureaucratic changes that could lead to the complete Sana'a Manuscripts seeing the light of day.

The exact age of the texts is unknown. On a recent visit Anthar showed me several of the pages restored during the 1980s, including a sheet of verses from Sura Yusut; the 12th chapter of the Koran, written in the rightward slanting Hejazi script of the first and early second centuries of the Islamic era--probably not later than about AD 770. Pressed to show the oldest text he can find, he produces a scrap of parchment inscribed with the Islamic year 56 (AD 676), just 44 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Considering the first definitive written text of the Koran was compiled around AD 650, these are certainly among the earliest existing fragments. They are stored not in climate-controlled vaults but in wooden boxes, with thousands of pages still not restored and kept in plastic bags inside tin trunks, ready to disintegrate if not handled properly.

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Gerd-Rudiger Puin began an unfinished restoration project in 1981 and according to him some might prefer it if the Sana'a manuscripts disappeared. It was Puin, a retired professor of Islamic antiquities at Germany's Saarland University, who told the US magazine Atlantic Monthly in 1999 that the Sana'a fragments will help prove his theory that 'the Koran has a history' and that the holy book is in fact 'a cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhanamad'. Unsurprisingly many Yemenis were not pleased. A letter appeared in the Yemen Times arguing that aberrant Koranic texts, if found, should be destroyed, just as they were at the time of Caliph Uthman (c. 579-656), the man credited with compiling the written Koran based on the memory of the Prophet Muhammad's surviving companions.

Precious bundle

Puin's work on the origins of Islam has been met with both dismissal and ire, but even detractors give him credit for his work from 1981 to 1985 in restoring parts of the manuscripts. …