Ancient Quran manuscript found in Lamu

The Quran manuscript is part of a larger collection of ancient Arabic/Islamic texts owned by Ustadh Abubakar Mohammed Banchuoni of Pate Island.

Photo credit: Kalume Kaungu I Nation Media Group

The National Museums of Kenya (NMK) has discovered a Quran manuscript estimated to be more than 600 years old.

Mohamed Mwenje, curator in charge of the Lamu museum, said the document was recovered on Pate Island in Lamu East sub-county.

Mr Mwenje said the discovery is part of an ongoing five-year research undertaken by NMK in partnership with Anna Bang, a history professor at the University of Bergen.

Scott Reese, a leading expert in manuscripts particularly ancient Arabic texts and a professor at the University of Hamburg, is also involved in the research as is Raphael Micheli, a PhD student undertaking a thesis on ancient Arabic texts in East Africa.

Addressing journalists at the Lamu Fort, Mr Mwenje said the Quranic manuscript is part of a larger collection of ancient Arabic/Islamic texts owned by Ustadh Abubakar Mohammed Banchuoni of Pate Island.

He said that in their preliminary investigations, they found written Arabic dates on the script dated 813 AH of the Hijri calendar popularly followed in the Muslim faith.

“It was handwritten in decorative Arabic calligraphy, with black ink employed for the general text and red ink employed for decorative adaptations across various pages of the text to signify the end of an ayah (verse), the end of a surah (chapter) as well as the end of the Quranic book itself,” said Mr Mwenje.

“The borders lining around the Quranic script shape the text throughout the entire book, with chapter titles written in beautiful, bold red and black Arabic calligraphy. The book’s state of conservation appears to be well preserved and is covered by a black cardboard binding.”

Mr Mwenje said the museum is embarking on ascertaining the information in the text through formal scientific inquiries and similarly looking deeper into the codicology of the paper to determine the authenticity of the script.

Ms Bang expressed joy following the discovery of such a crucial document that will aid in their research.

She said the project, Manuscript to Print Transition in Coastal East Africa, seeks to examine the use of texts on the Swahili Coast when the manuscript made to print transition in the years between 1880 to 1950, and the onward lives of these texts from 1950 to date.

“This project that we’ve embarked on combines bibliographical studies, interviews, participant observation, ‘reading with informants’, historical studies of text and comparison across time and space, alongside digitising and cataloguing of manuscripts in Zanzibar and Lamu. We’re happy having started very well with this interesting discovery of the old Quran,” Prof Bang said.

Mr Reese said with the help of NMK, their target is to recover and translate historical Islamic manuscripts across the archipelago.

“The project maps manuscript and book collection in mosques, madrasas, and private homes in four locations where such mapping has not been done in Lamu including Pate and Siu islands in Lamu East,” said Mr Reese.

Mr Micheli, for his part, expressed optimism that his supervisors in collaboration with NMK will make his research journey interesting and successful.

Once the condition of the manuscripts is assessed, the Lamu museum will also undertake appropriate restoration and conservation measures.

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