About Scribal Changes

Built into Qur’an Gateway is an extensive database (and image library) of thousands of scribal changes found in hundreds of early Qur’an manuscripts. Qur’an Gateway makes it easy to explore and study this fascinating window in the early transmission and development of the qur’anic text. For example you can:

What is a "Scribal Change"?

For the purpose of aiding researchers on all aspects of the development of the written Qurʾan, we have included as a “change” anything that has altered the text as first written on a page. However, it will be useful for users to understand that there were a variety of reasons for changes. Among them:

  • Orthographic development. There was a process of change in the way the long vowels, ʾālif and wāw, were represented in the Qurʾan text. This process can be seen taking place in the Qurʾan manuscripts of the period, and it is quite common to find earlier manuscripts being “corrected” to later technical developments in the written patterns. An example of this would be the conversion of qāf-lām to qāla “he said” by the erasure of the tail of the original final lām (i.e. converting it to an ʾālif) and the insertion of another final lām after it.
  • Correction of scribal mistakes at the time of first writing. Sometimes scribes made mistakes because of being tired or due to other causes that were immediately recognized and corrected. In many cases, the features of page corrections suggest that they were made by the original scribe (OS) at or near the time of production. We have included indications in most cases of whether the ink, nib, and hand seem to match that of the main text of the page.
  • Correction of scribal mistakes soon after the time of first writing. It is possible in some instances that a proofreader who was not the OS corrected a manuscript soon after production and prior to the manuscript’s use for reading or recitation. For this reason, a different nib width or style/hand will not always be an indication of a long passage of time between original production and a given change.
  • Correction of scribal mistakes at some later date. It is possible to imagine that an actual mistake would have escaped the notice of the original scribe and a proofreader (if any), and, being noticed later by a user of the manuscript, corrected at some later date. Different nib, ink, and hand, as well as (sometimes) different script style, may be indicators of such a scenario.
  • Standardization of variant texts. The secondary literature of the third Islamic century and beyond acknowledges a degree of fluidity in the qur’anic text that came eventually to be codified in the form of qirāʿāt. Many of these can be seen in the manuscripts, both in the rasm text and eventually in the short vowels, sometimes represented in various colours of ink. However, the manuscripts seem to preserve a somewhat wider range of variance that was eventually drawn toward conformity; in some cases a change will represent a “correction” from a particular text form that may have been felt “correct” at the time of production of the manuscript but was later felt to deviate from the correct form — and these non-standard readings in manuscript were sometimes modified at a later time in order to make them “correct.”
  • Inexplicable changes. In the overwhelming majority of cases, changes in the manuscripts appear to draw the rasm closer to the forms that are in use today. However, occasionally a change in manuscript will draw a page out of conformity with the form that is standard today. The motivations for these rare instances of correction merit the attention of scholars.
  • A Special Note About “Coverings”

    We have included “coverings” in Qur’an Gateway, but these clearly are the most tentative of the potential change categories. It is important to say a few words about what they are and why we have chosen to sometimes include them.

    In some manuscripts, the acidity of the ink has over the centuries reacted with the parchment and weakened or even disintegrated it, necessitating repair lest the entire page be lost. One way of repairing the page in modern times has been the application of a cloth tape to the affected area. The problem with this is that this type of repair often covers and obscures the text. Some manuscripts are more affected by this phenomenon than others. One, the so-called Cairo muṣḥaf sharīf, is filled with such tapings.

    While in many cases it can be determined that the taping has been applied for purposes of repair, in some instances it does not appear from available images that repair was necessary at a given location, raising questions about the purpose of the tape application. In every event, that is, even if the taping was for purposes of repair, it would be valuable to scholars to be able to see what lies underneath. It is our hope that these manuscripts can one day soon be directly examined in order to make a better description and probably to remove from this database many of the entries currently listed under the category of “coverings.” In the meantime, it is important for users to understand that, while coverings do represent an intervention that affects access to the underlying text, they are in most cases not to be taken as “changes” in the ordinary sense of the word.

    All of the above types of manuscript interventions are represented in Qurʾan Gateway. We have tried to accurately describe the actual textual features of the manuscripts with regard to any post-production intervention on the page in order to make it easy for scholars without direct access to the manuscripts to conduct their research. We invite comments or suggestions if users find an error or ambiguity that requires clarification at any point, and we hope that the research we have made available will help drive further fruitful inquiry.

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