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The History of Osman's Koran

Osman's Koran is recognized as a remarkable and unique monument. It is an essential part of Muslim historical and cultural heritage. Kept in a special chamber in Barak-Khan Madrassah in Tashkent, Osman's Koran continues to be an unflagging attraction for researchers, pilgrims and tourists from many countries of the world.


The earthly life of the Koran (or Qu'ran as currently preferred English transliteration of the Arabic original) started on the 24th day of Ramadan in the year of 610 CE. On the night of that date Allah began to transmit the Koran – "the book of the books" – to the earth. Until then "the Mother of all books", created by no one and existing eternally, had been lying under the throne of Allah in the seventh heaven.

When Allah decided to reveal the Koran to people, he selected for this fateful mission Mohammed, a 40-year-old resident of Mecca, a trader and caravan guide from the Arabian tribe of Qurayish. Mohammed himself never asked why it was him who had been chosen: such was the Allah's will. Anyway, no one could ever answer this question.

The Prophet was very modest about his role in creating of the Koran. He was absolutely convinced that the author of the revelations was Allah himself and that he, Mohammed, served only as a messenger of Allah's words. The Prophet frankly said that he had been utterly surprised to hear all the revelations, that he had heard them for the first time in his life, and had never even tried to change a single word in the divine exhortations.

This is where Koran is safety kept

Allah had been delivering the wording of the Koran to Mohammed through the angel Jibril (Gabriel) over a course of 23 years, part after part, to the Prophet's dying day. Mohammed received revelations at night and in the daytime, while he was awake and asleep, alone or with people. The revelations differed in length, but each of them had a clear idea, containing one of the tenets of the faith.

Three years later after Mohammed had got the first revelation, he began to preach Islam. At first it was not a success: idolaters demanded miracles, while the Prophet asserted that the main miracle of the new religion was the Koran itself.

At that time Mohammed had reached the age of 43, the age of wisdom. An extant description of the Prophet's appearance, provided by his contemporary who eye witnessed him, presents Mohammed as a man of medium height, slender and broad-shouldered, with a big head, open forehead, thick wavy hair, a long black beard, black arches of adjoining brows, big twinkling eyes, long eyelashes, a nose with a little hump, and a confident gait. This description can well be regarded as an ideal portrait of an Arab.

The personality of the Prophet never appears less impressive, for he was not a god but a human being. According to Arabian historians, Mohammed had an impeccable reputation. He was famed for his easy temper, honesty, conscientiousness, great intelligence and wit. The Prophet showed no conceit and selfish ambitions. When he became the head of the Arabian tribes, he turned down the king's title malik which was offered to him. His life was simple and subject to the interests of the umma ('a Muslim community'). He considered himself the final Prophet of Allah, "the Seal of the Prophets".

The Koran as a complete canonical compilation is a large book composed of 114 suras ('chapters'). A sura consists of ayats ('verses'). The total number of ayats is 6247, or 6360 if to include the sura-commencing verses: "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, and the Merciful!" Theologians have even counted the words in the Koran: there are about 78 000 of them.

Osman's Koran

Though the Koran appears in the form of a book, it is not a book in its usual sense. The Koran is neither a hagiography nor a historical treatise. According to the Koran itself, it is "a message from the Lord of the worlds", "word of Allah", "a message from the Creator of the Earth and Heavens". The Koran is Allah's revelations which "He delivered to His Prophet".

The contents of the Koran are many and various. There are exhortations, prescriptions on ritual and legal matters, spells and prayers, didactic narratives and parables. They all make up the doctrine of Islam with the main virtue to be submission to divine will, for "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Messenger".

The only recognized language of the Koran is Arabic. Allah gave a direct instruction on this matter in the Koran: "… We have made the Koran Arabic". According to Muslim tradition, only the original Arabic text of the Koran is considered the real "holy book", as the original language of the revelations is inseparable from their content. Translations of the Koran into other languages can never be authentic; they are considered only glosses, inexact interpretations of the original meaning. That is why all Muslims who do not know Arabic are advised to learn it.

Islam is rightly called a worldwide religion. According to the Koran, Islam is set not only for the Arabs but for the whole humankind: "Say, 'Oh, people! I am the Prophet of Allah to all of you". As early as the first years of Islam expansion, the Muslim community entered into alliances with non-Muslim tribes; in exchange for patronage and protection they retained the right to profess their own religions – Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism. It was then that the Koranic principle of equality of faiths and religious toleration was made public: "There should be no compulsion in religion". It would do only good if people recall these words more often.

One of the most distinguished characteristics of the Koran is its 14-century-long invariability. After completion of the original authenticated texting of the Koran in 651, none of the mortals may change a single letter in Allah's revelations. Along with this, rulers are deprived of the right to make laws; they are entitled only to issue edicts. "The legislative initiative" belongs exclusively to Allah: "Allah removes and sets up whatever he wants; He has the Mother of the Book".


Initially, the Koran was spread verbally, from listener to listener; when there were attempts to write it down, it was fragmentary and unsystematic, in spite of the fact that the Prophet urged to preserve "each word of Allah". The added complication was that the Prophet was directed by Allah to modify some parts of the Koran in the course of his earthly life. Mohammed did it in a peculiar way: "When we abrogate a tradition or direct to forget it, we provide another, a better or a proper one instead". That is why the ayats of the Koran are divided into "abrogative" and "abrogated". So, according to this theological theory more that one third of the chapters of the Koran consists of "abrogated" verses.

The death of the Prophet in 632 brought a bitter grief to the Muslim community. It was also followed by great worry among them: the inflow of the revelations ceased, and the divine book of Islam was still in disembodied and disordered state. Moreover, the number of the Prophet's companions was decreasing: one by one they died of old age, illnesses, or wounds. There was a risk that the text of the Koran, kept by the faithful in the form of fragmentary and separate pieces, would be lost.

By then, four "righteously guided caliphs" one by one entered the historical arena: Abu Bacr, Omar, Osman and Ali. Omar is said to be the first to initiate the compilation of the Koran; he advised his predecessor Abu Bacr to carry out this noble task. Abu Bacr followed the advice and gave the assignment to Zayd ibn Thabit, who was one of Muhammed's scribes during his last years of life.

Zayd began working with great enthusiasm. It is said that he collected and compared separate pieces of the Koran on parchment, bones, stones, leather, and palm leaves, in short on everything then used for writing. Besides, he began recording narratives of Mohammed's contemporaries, all those who memorized "Allah's revelations".


After the pieces of the Koran thus unified were written on ordered sheets and approved by "the editorial board", the first version of the Koran was compiled and placed between "two covers". However, it was not re-recorded or copied. Under the conditions of political struggle in the Arab Caliphate there appeared many variant copies and accounts of the Koran, which paved the way for controversy. It was Caliph Osman (reined from 644 until 656) from the Umayyad clan who put an end to the dangerous willfulness and discrepancies in the religious matters.

Osman was a remarkable personality. He persistently and vigorously pursued the policy of consolidating theocratic power, of developing the country's economy and expanding the territory of the caliphate by annexing Iran and Central Asia. Osman had a very high prestige, which was also due to the fact that he was a relative of the Prophet: he was successively married to two of Mohammed's daughters Ruqayyah and Ummi Kulthum, earning him the respectful nickname "Possessor of Two Lights".

The basic principle that Osman adhered to in his actions was strict observance of all the directions of the Koran. But the sacred book free from discrepancies and contradictions was still to be made. In order to produce a standard copy, Osman turned to the same man, Zayd ibn Thabit. Osman commissioned a kind of editorial board, consisting of sakhabs ('companions of the Prophet') to assist Zayd. First of all they collected the written "Allah's revelations" from all individuals who had any. The editors compared each of the obtained pieces with the text of the first version of the Koran, either accepting or rejecting them, and in the end reached the targeted integrity of the book.

The desire to introduce a unified version of Koran urged Osman to the act that brought him a lot of criticism from scholars and theologians: he directed to destroy all the originals of the written "Allah's revelations", which had been collected through force or brought voluntarily. The final compilation of the Koran was completed in 656. Zayd ibn Thabit was rewarded with 100 000 dirhams from the treasury. The committee made five copies of the sacred book; each of them was sent to the most important centers of the caliphate: to Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Kufa and Basra. The original version stayed with Osman. It is said that he was reading that very book of the Koran when the mutineers came and killed him, leaving stains of the righteous caliph's blood on its pages. The unified text of this Koran was accepted as canonical in the most widespread Sunni Islam.

Manuscript Koran. 1275

Today we cannot help admiring those who worked on this great ancient manuscript, who wrote and decorated it. The book is written in the older Kufic scripts on 353 sheets of thick strong parchment with one side of the sheet being yellow-coloured, smooth and glossy, whereas the other side being white, of fine wrinkled texture. Each sheet has 12 lines, which occupy a considerable part of its space. Instead of 69 missing sheets, which were once torn out or lost, there are paper dummy substitutes imitating parchment. Each sura is separated off by a colored strip of little patterned squares or little coloured oblongs. The suras have no titles, but they all, except the ninth sura, begin with the words "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful!"

Then there comes a blank period in the life of Osman's Koran. The manuscript disappeared with no trace. But later there appeared a few copies of the Koran with bloodstained pages; each of them was claimed to be the genuine Osman's. It may well be that among them there was the original version of Osman's Koran, though it is impossible to prove its authenticity. At least in those times no one in the Muslim community was concerned about the authenticity of Osman's Koran to be proved. To doubt the authenticity of the relic was considered a blasphemy.

According to Arminius Vambery, a well-known Hungarian orientalist who dressed as a wandering dervish made a trip to Central Asia in 1863, he saw a huge book of the Koran, written on gazelle skin, which was placed on a lectern inside the mausoleum of Amir Temur in Samarkand. He wrote that he had heard from reliable people that it was the very book written by the second caliph; that the great military leader Temur had brought that sacred book from the Turkish Sultan Bayezid's treasury in Bursa.

In 1868, when the troops of the Tsarist Russia entered Samarkand (later a part of Zarafshan District of Turkestan General Governance), Osman's Koran was being kept in the mosque of Khoja Akhror, a sheikh of Sufic order, who lived in the 15th century. Many pilgrims would come to the mosque to worship the book and ask it for blessings. On great holidays the book would be taken out from the mosque to be shown to the public.

The head of the madrassah's library Murod Gulyamov (right)

Along with other matters, General Abramov, the governor of the district, developed a keen interest in the ancient and rare Koran… There are several versions on how Osman's Koran appeared in Samarkand. Some scholars believe that it was the theologian Abu Bacr Kaffal al-Shashi who brought it from Baghdad in the 10th century. A tradition says that it was one of Khoja Akhror's muris -novices who on his way back from Mecca cured a ruler of Constantinople and in reward managed to obtain Osman's Koran. Most researchers, however, believe that Amir Temur took possession of the book as a trophy during one of his campaigns in Syria or Iraq and then the book was kept in his royal library. Later for some unknown reasons the Koran appeared in Khoja Akhror Mosque.

Now it is highly unlikely to find out what made Osman's Koran leave the mosque. Whatever was the reason, the book fell into General Abramov's hands for a nominal reward of 100 roubles. He sent the book to Tashkent, to Turkestan General-Governor Kaufmam. Being a patron of arts, Kaufman, for his turn, forwarded it to Saint-Petersburg, where it was deposited in the department of manuscripts of the Public Library. Thus for the first time in its centuries-old history, the Moslem sacred book was doomed to find itself outside the Muslim world.

But, as the saying goes, "Every cloud has a silver lining". Scientists got the opportunity to thoroughly examine the rare book. A. F. Shebunin, a Russian orientalist, determined that the manuscript dated back to the 8th century and that it had been made in Iraq; that it could have been one of the five copies of Osman's Koran, which was sent to Basra after the text of the Koran, had been unified.

Marble stand for the Koran in the courtyard of Bibi-Khanim mosque (Samarkand)

The published works of the scientists aroused a keen public interest in Osman's Koran. Parts of it were photographed and lithographed for sale. In 1905 a limited edition (50 pieces) of sumptuous facsimile copies of Osman's Koran of almost the size of the original was published.

They say that every book has its fate. For Osman's Koran the fate still had something else in store. Following the October coup of 1917 the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, seized power. Lenin, as we know, was an atheist, and did not believe in holiness of religious scriptures. But as a politician he knew that an act of returning Osman's Koran to the Muslims would have a beneficial propaganda effect. Especially since the Muslims longed for getting the Koran back.

On December 14th, 1917 the Regional Muslim Congress of Petrograd National District addressed a letter to the People's Commissariat of Nationalities Affairs. In the letter it was noted that "Osman's Koran, a sacred treasure and heritage of the whole Muslim world, ought to be with the Muslims; all the Muslims of Russia crave for it".

Five days later, on December 19th, the Soviet of People's Commissars decreed that Osman's Koran should be immediately returned, and corresponding directions were given to the people's commissar of education A. Lunacharskiy.

The precious relic was brought to Ufa, where Muslim Spiritual Council of Russia was then based, and handed over to the local Muslim community. Yet the last step was still to be made: to return the relic home, to Turkestan. Many public and religious activists in Turkestan Province were hard at it. Finally, in 1924 Osman's Koran was brought to Tashkent in a special railroad car. The manuscript was not given a permanent address straight away, and would be moved from one temporary location to another. Yet all these dislocations were made so to say within the home region. It was only in 1941 that Osman's Koran was for long placed in the History Museum of Peoples of Uzbekistan in Tashkent.

Barak-Khan Madrassah (Tashkent)

By the way, wherever the book was moved, its huge marble rest had always remained in its original place, in Bibi-Khanim Mosque in Samarkand. Those several attempts to shift it just failed because it was very heavy. In 1989 Osman's Koran was transferred to the Spiritual Council of Muslims of Uzbekistan. Now it is kept in a special chamber of the library of this organization, in Barak-Khan Madrassah.

Such is the centuries-old history of one of the books of the Koran, of the Muslim scripture sacred to over billion people of the world. Osman's Koran – this glorious and unique monument of Islamic history and culture – continues to attract to Uzbekistan researchers, pilgrims and tourists from many countries.

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