One of the greatest treasures of Uzbekistan, and a part of our common world heritage, is the ‘Othman Quran’ (Usmon Qur’oni in modern Uzbek). This magnificent, awe-inspiring manuscript is one of the very first copies of the Holy Book. It is named after Uthman ibn Affan (born 42 BH/ 579 AD, died 35AH/656 AD), a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad and the third of the Rashidun (‘Rightly Guided’) Caliphs. According to popular tradition, this Quran was written during his life time for his personal use ‒ hence its name. Modern dating techniques such as radiocarbon analysis, as well as close textual study, suggest a slightly later date, possibly around the turn of the eighth/ninth centuries (AD).
There are many legends as to how it reached the territory of Uzbekistan. One of the most credible stories is that it was acquired by Tamerlane during his campaigns in the Middle East and it was he who brought it to Samarkand in the late fourteenth century. Another version is that it was given as mark of gratitude to Hoja Ahrar, a famous fifteenth-century Sufi master and healer, when he was travelling in the Muslim world. The Hoja brought the Quran back to Samarkand and gave it to the mosque that bears his name.
It remained there until 1869, when the Russian commander General Aleksandr Konstantinovich Abramov bought it from the custodians of the mosque (which, according to contemporary Western travellers such as Eugene Schuyler, was in a dilapidated state) and gave it to the Governor-General of Turkestan, who sent it on to the Imperial Library in St Petersburg. There it attracted much scholarly interest and several important studies were published. In 1917, immediately after the Russian revolution, as a gesture of friendship and reconciliation, the new Soviet authorities ceremonially returned the precious Othman Quran to the Muslim community; after a prolonged stop in Ufa (centre of the European Muslim administration), it finally reached Tashkent on 18 August 1923, where it was received with great pomp and rejoicing.
It was briefly sent to Samarkand, to the mosque of Hoja Ahrar, but then removed to the ‘Museum of the History of the Peoples of Uzbekistan’ in Tashkent, supposedly for ‘safe-keeping’. It was not until the end of the 1980s (perestroika period) that it was returned to the Muslim community. It was held in the historic Hast Imam mosque, where the Muftiat of Uzbekistan was based. This ultra-fragile document, curated by specialists, is now preserved in a secure case, in a carefully controlled environment.
The Othman Quran is a monumental work. Written on thick parchment in a beautiful, strong Kufic script, the folios measure 53 cm x 68 cm (approximately 21 in. x 27 in.). Originally there would have been some 950 folios, but only around a third of the work has survived in this codex. Individual sheets have been sold at various times and have found their way into international collections such as the Aga Khan Museum, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A number of facsimile copies have been published, starting with the 1905 St Petersburg edition, produced by the Russian oriental scholar S. I. Pisarev. The most recent facsimile edition appeared in 2004, a meticulous copy on parchment by scholars from the Islamic University in Tashkent. It was loaned to the British Library in 2007, for the internationally acclaimed exhibition ‘Sacred: Discover What We Share’. This unique event brought together the most precious manuscripts of the three great Abrahamic faiths ‒ Judaism, Christianity and Islam ‒ and displayed them together for the first time.
In Tashkent, interested visitors may now apply to the Islamic University for permission to view the original Othman Quran (in its protective case), as well as the facsimile copy of 2004, and many other valuable Islamic manuscripts. Most of them are centuries old, but one of the most interesting items is modern ‒ the Quran in Uzbek, in Braille script. In 2004, Uzbekistan became only the third country in the world to produce a Braille version of the Holy Scripture. In 2006, the Muslims of Uzbekistan presented a copy of the seven-volume work to the British Library. Similar gifts of the Quran in Braille (in Arabic) have been made to other countries, including the Michigan Islamic Center in the United States.