The Sanaa Palimpsest

The Transmission of the Qur'an in the First Centuries AH

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Asma Hilali
Qur'an Studies Series
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     220 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Before the publication of Asma Hilali’s book, The Sanaa Palimpsest: The Transmission of the Qur’an in the First Centuries AH, access to the Saana palimpsest was difficult to access. Thanks to Hilali’s labors, however, we may now interact with one of the oldest Qur’an manuscripts yet discovered.

The “Sanaa palimpsest” takes its name from the city in which it was discovered, Sanaa, Yemen. It is a parchment of thirty-eight leaves discovered in the false ceiling of the Great Mosque of Sanaa and has been an object of interest since its discovery. Being a “palimpsest” (lit meaning “scraped”) means that it is a manuscript containing two superimposed texts, one on top of the other. The “lower” layer of the Sanaa is an older version of the Qur’an (ca. 7th century CE), which was eventually erased, with the same parchment being reused for an alternative, “upper” Qur’an text at a later date (ca. 8th century CE).

This volume has a clean, easy-to-follow structure divided into two basic parts. Part 1 describes the history and text of the Sanaa Palimpsest, which includes a primer on ancient Middle Eastern palimpsest techniques, as well as Hilali’s case for the significance of both layers of the manuscript for Islamic studies today. In addition, she provides immensely valuable graphic reconstructions of portions of the Sanaa and juxtaposes them with the famous Cairo edition of the Qur’an (as a point of reference) to show how they agree (or disagree).

Part 2, however, is a monumental work in which Hilali provides an annotated Arabic edition of the Sanaa Palimpsest, both the lower and upper text on the right-hand side of the page, with line-by-line critical notes on the left noting key scribal changes. This is, of course, what makes this volume so significant. To see for ourselves a potentially pre-Uthmanic version of the Qur’an (3) and the process of change to the text since then makes this volume invaluable for anyone interested in Qur’anic studies. Although the annotated edition is in Arabic (without translation), the critical notes do provide transliterations of the Arabic, which also note when the Sanaa text differs from the later Cairo manuscript. This, again, allows us to see with our own eyes the development and changes to the text of the Qur’an that have taken place throughout its transmission history.

One of many crucial questions that the book asks about the Sanaa Palimpsest is whether “the upper text is a ‘corrected’ version of the lower text” (16). Hilali, in contrast with some Qur’anic scholars before her, argue no. Instead, she asserts that the “upper and lower texts do not have any kind of textual link and the upper text does not reproduce the palimpsested text of the lower layer” (33). This, then, brings us to the bulk of Hilali’s book, which is to display especially the purpose of the lower text of the palimpsest. Hilali spends a large portion of the book demonstrating that that while the lower text is filled with mistakes, corrections, and fragmented readings, this was, in fact, part of its intended use. Her stated purpose for the book then becomes clear—namely, that the lower text was never actually intended to be an official copy of the Qur’an for public use. Instead, she argues that the lower text was “written in a fragmentary fashion consisting of multiple sessions of teaching or dictation circle” (67). This “dictation circle,” it seems, was essentially a kind of school that trained scribes for official work later on. The author argues that the text was deliberately “unfinished,” “intended for experimental use in workshop-like circles,” and was always “destined to be destroyed” (70). For Hilali, therein lies the value of the lower, and later, erased text. In her estimation, the lower text doesn’t so much demonstrate the stability or instability of the early Qur’anic text, but rather it provides a window into scribal and didactic techniques of “circle of teaching” of that day.

One of the several pieces of evidence she cites lies in the various scribal markings and signs embedded randomly throughout the text. For Hilali, this is proof that the document was composed over “several teaching sessions” (67) in an unsystematic way. In other words, the random, piecemeal process in which the lower text was written was not only deliberate but also evidence of its use in a kind of “scribal school” that trained future Qur’anic scribes. And for Hilali, the fact that the parchment was eventually used as a palimpsest for later text is proof of its purpose from the beginning to be recycled in the future.

This is, of course, just one of the many great features this book brings to the table. So many other intriguing issues and questions are raised, making this book an obviously valuable reference tool for anyone studying the Qur’an in particular, or even religious studies in general.

Looking at the work as a whole, however, other questions are prompted for further study: Do Hilali’s predecessors agree with her conclusions about the purpose of the Sanaa? How do their views differ? One limitation of H’s book is her lack of critical engagement of previous scholarship. But, as translation and critical-textual study comprise the bulk of the book, this limitation is understandable.

What we do know, however, is that whether you agree with all of Hilali’s assertions and conclusions, you cannot help but enjoy The Sanaa Palimpsest. It is extremely thorough, clearly written, remarkably accessible (especially for content so technical), historically illuminating, and incredibly interesting for anyone with a love for religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerod A. Gilcher is a PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at Gateway Seminary in Ontario, California.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Asma Hilali is a research associate in the department of academic research and publications at The Institute of Ismaili Studies.  Dr Hilali has worked in various research centres in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Her main interest is related to the transmission of religious literature in early and mediaeval Islam, and the issues of how religious texts were used and what impact this use had on their forms and contents.


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