About Script Styles

ABOUT SCRIPT STYLES

In Qurʾan Gateway, there is a wealth of valuable data and research. Among these are the listings, in most cases, of the script styles of manuscripts. Since many people may not be familiar with these, we’ve written this page as an introduction.

One of the main questions that everyone naturally wants answered about a Qurʾan manuscript is “How old is it?” This is a natural and important question, because the answer to it is a key piece of information when it comes to other questions about the interpretation of the data that the manuscript contains. A conversion of abraham to ibrahīm in a manuscript may mean something quite different if it was done in the early 9th century than if it was done in the late 7th, for example. So, dating is not to be taken lightly.

There are different factors that go into discerning the time period in which a Qurʾan manuscript was produced. Among these are physical/codicological features of the manuscript. What are the page dimensions? Was it bound into quires? Does it have margins? What are the margin dimensions? Were the margins and lines ruled? Is the format of the page horizontal or vertical? How many lines were written per page? Is the number of lines uniform? What materials were used (both page and binding)? What illuminations, if any, exist on the pages? What is the orthography (letter and word forms, use of long vowels/matres lectiones, inclusion or absence of diacritics and short vowel marks, etc.)? Are there sura headings? What sort of single- and multi-verse dividers exist, where are they, and what form do they take? And so forth.

A second data point for discerning the age of a manuscript is radiocarbon dating. This process is destructive and requires a piece of the page from a manuscript. The results focus upon when the plant or animal material of the page died (not when the page was written) and give a set of concentric circles (to put it over-simply) that assign a highest probability of origin within a given date range, a lower probability to a somewhat wider range, and so on. Because of the difficulty and work involved both in getting permission to conduct these tests on a manuscript, and in actually doing the tests in a number of laboratories (to give multiple attestation to the results), radiocarbon dating data is not available at this point for most extant Qurʾan manuscripts. The exception is some of those that are felt to be particularly important or interesting, such as some of the palimpsests. Also, it should be noted that radiocarbon dating is not necessarily the pinnacle of methods for assigning an actual date to a manuscript; there have been manuscripts of known date of origin that have returned dates significantly earlier than their time of actual production. So, while radiocarbon dating is a helpful tool, it must usually be considered alongside other data to fill out the picture.

The third factor, and the one that is the topic here, is the script style. So, let’s talk about that for the rest of this help page.

The first thing to know is where the script styles you see in Qurʾan Gateway come from, and the answer is that, mostly, they are the creation of Prof. François Déroche who developed these classifications based upon his work with earliest Qurʾan manuscripts in the 1980s, and published in his book The Abbasid Tradition in 1992. The system Prof. Déroche developed has become the standard means of classifying script styles in early Qurʾans.

The script styles are indeed related to the age of a manuscript. In particular, it is important to remember that a given script style came into use at a particular time and place, was used for a period of time, and then would have gradually fallen out of fashion or been supplanted by another script style. The period of time during which a given script style would have been used might be relatively short (decades) or longer (centuries), and so it is not always possible to, taking script style alone, make a narrow guess at the time period of a manuscript. It is also important to remember that two script styles could have been in use simultaneously, for different purposes or in different regions. So, script style is helpful in establishing a general sense of age and relative chronology among manuscripts and fragments, but it is not a magic key that immediately pegs a given manuscript to a particular narrow date. 

Another note about script style is that it can be helpful when looking at corrections in manuscripts. Sometimes a correction has been made in a very similar style, but at other times corrections were executed in a script style that we know to have been quite later than that of the original style in which the manuscript was first written. So, these can give a sense of the passage of time between production and correction.

So, what are the script styles?

Following is a general relative chronology and description. Bear in mind that there is much work yet to be done on these and at this moment the script styles are most useful for describing manuscripts as being similar to each other and belonging to a similar time period. For more information, see  Déroche, F, The Abbasid Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1992).

It will not be the purpose here to describe the styles, but rather to give an initial idea of the time periods they represent.

Hijazi I-IV Late 7th century - early 9th century AD
Group A “very few examples survive … no external evidence has been discovered for dating them” (Déroche, op. cit. 35)
Group B B.Ia
B.Ib
“Inscription on the al-Taʾif dam which contains the date AH 58 (AD 677-8) is in a similar style, as are the graffiti from the beginning of the 2nd century AH (8th century AD) that Miriam Rosen-Ayalon discovered in the Negev.” (Ibid. cit., 35-6)
B.II “It appears … that B.II was in use fairly early in the 9th century.” (ibid., 36)
Group C C.Ia As early (possibly) as 691 AD (ibid., 36)
C.Ib 8th century AD
C.II  “Perhaps a little later” than C.I (ibid.)
C.III One document accompanying a manuscript written in this style “dates from the end of the 9th century” (ibid.)
Group D Five different styles of 3 sub-types. All are generally 9th and 10th century AD scripts. 

D.I
 “... became elaborated by the beginning of the 9th century AD and … remained popular at least until the end of the century and most probably into the next.” (ibid., 37)

D.II  “9th century AD or perhaps a little later; the matter is open to debate.”(ibid.)

D.III  May not be later than D.I in origin. “We may assign it provisionally to the second half of the 9th century AD.” (ibid.)

D.IV 
Late 9th to mid 10th century AD  

D.Va 


D.Vb


D.Vc

Group E Attested (in variant forms) in manuscripts from late 9th through early 12th century AD (ibid., 42)
Group F “We can … venture a dating to the 2nd century AH for this style.” (ibid.) 

TIP

You can easily see all the scribal changes recorded by Qur’an Gateway grouped and charted according to their script type using the Scribal Changes Recorded by Manuscript Script Style Chart.

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