Papyrus fragment – of what? Lesson 1 - Dr. Jelle Bruning

Papyrus was made exclusively in Egypt, where the papyrus plant grows. But it was used throughout the Mediterranean region, initially for wrapping, and since about 3000 BCE also as a carrier of text. It was easier to produce than parchment and perfect for scrolls. But papyrus proved less useful for making codices, which consist of single or folded sheets, because it frays at the edges and splits when it is folded. As the popularity of the codex for larger texts increased, that of papyrus decreased, although it was still used especially for single leave documents. Many papyri that survive today are fragments.

Whether these fragments initially belonged to a single sheet document, such as a letter or a contract, or to a longer text, is often difficult to tell. It can, however, be a burning question. Physical aspects of the papyrus may help to solve it.

About this manuscript

Title: Papyrus sheet with Qur’ānic text

Classmark: Or. 8264

Subject: Qur'ān

Format: Fragment

Extent: 1 folio, leaf height 133 mm, width 107 mm

Date of creation: Late 7th or 8th century CE (radiocarbon analysis)

Language(s): Arabic

Script: Ḥijāzī

This papyrus was catalogued as "probably a writing exercise" but it may have been something else. Written on this sheet of papyrus are verses from the Qur’ān (Sūra 71, verses 10-25) on both sides. It could therefore be a fragment of a part (juz’) of a Qur’ān or even of a complete muṣḥaf. If it is, that would be significant for the discussion about the codification of the text of the Qur’ān. According to Muslim tradition, the caliph ʿUthmān (r. 644-656 CE) organised the standardisation of the text of the Holy Book around 650 (to rule out any misunderstanding about the reading of certain words or verses) and after that no other versions than this ʿUthmanic rasm have circulated. Modern scholars, on the other hand, suggest that, in spite of codification efforts in the mid-7th century, variant recensions of the Qur’ān were still produced throughout the 7th century, and even later.

What we read on side 1 of this papyrus is, line by line:

ربكم انه كان غفارا

يرسل المسا عليكم مد

ررا ويمدكم بامول وبنين

ويجعل لكم جنات ويجعل

لكم انهارا ما لكم لا *

ترجون لل‍ه وقرا وقد

خلقكم اطـ[ . ]را الم ر

[كيـ]ـف خلق الل‍ه سـ[ـبـ]ـع سموت

[طبـ]ـقا وجعل القمر فيهن نورا و

[جعـ]ـل الشمس سر[ا]جا والل‍ه ا

[نبتـ]ـكم من الارض نبتا ثم يعد

[كم] فيها ويخرجكم اخرجا ا

[لل‍ه] جعل لكم ا [ . . ] بسطا لتسلكو

Text between square brackets (e.g.: [word]) is not visible on the papyrus, often broken off.
A full stop between square brackets indicates a letter that is not visible. The number of full stops represents the number of illegible letters.

Now compare this spelling with that of the ʿUthmanic rasm of a modern Qur’ān, for instance here, at the Corpus Coranicum. Note that the spelling is not the same.

If this papyrus has been part of a muṣḥaf or juz’ (part) of a Qur’ān, that would corroborate the view that versions with variant spelling still circulated in the late 7th or even in the 8th century Common Era, that is many decades after the Revelation is believed to have taken place.

Perhaps, however, we have here a fragment of something else. It may have been simply a writing exercise, as it was catalogued. Or perhaps its scribe intended the papyrus to be used as a single sheet, for instance as a talisman, that would protect its bearer. The verses speak of the uncertainty of people’s fate after their death, and of the different fates that will befall believers and unbelievers in the hereafter; good verses to ward off evil and to comfort those who suffer. Talismans could be produced by specialists, but they were also made by less trained believers. They sometimes occur with the “mistakes” laymen would make, especially if they were writing from memory and not from an example.

More about this manuscript: palaeography exercise Ḥijāzī.

Further reading
Bloom, J.M. Paper before Print, Yale UP 2001, 19-29.
George, A., The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy London 2010, 31-34.
Sadeghi, Behnam and Mohsen Goudarzi, ‘Ṣanʿāʾ and the Origins of the Qurʾān’ in Der Islam 87 (2012), 1-129.
Bsees, Ursula, ‘Qurʾānic Quotations in Arabic Papyrus Amulets’ in Qurʾān Quotations Preserved on Papyrus Documents, 7th-10th Centuries, and the Problem of Carbon Dating Early Qurʾāns. Andreas Kaplony and Michael Marx (eds), 112-38. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2019.


  1. What other physical characteristics on both sides of this papyrus may indicate that it was intended either as a talisman or a page in a Qur’ān?

  2. Compare the palaeography of this papyrus with that of other early copies of the Qurʾān. Look for example at these Leiden manuscripts Or. 14.545a, Or. 14.545b, Or. 14.545c (to which Radiocarbon analysis ascribes a similar date) or at manuscripts published on Islamic Awareness. Would you say that the handwriting on this papyrus is common for manuscript copies of the Qurʾān?