Generally speaking, the most revered artifacts of Islam that have survived the centuries have been preserved in places that make geographical sense: Mecca, Cairo, Istanbul and so forth. So it is unusual that the Uthman Qur’an, believed to be the oldest known copy of the Qur’an and which according to tradition was once in the possession of Uthman, Ali or both, ended up in a mosque on the very fringe of the Islamic world. Nevertheless this great literary treasure, located in the unlikely city of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, has been dated to the mid-7th century AD, making it one of the world’s verifiably oldest known Muslim artifacts.
The Qur’an, the Holy book of the Islamic faith, is attributed directly to the Prophet Muhammad, who is said to have received its verses in a series of divine visions either directly from God, angels or both. Muhammad in turn dictated the verses to his companions, who recorded them over a period spanning the last two decades of his life. Based on what is known of the Prophet, the original writings of the Qur’an were probably completed some time around the year 630 AD. While the original documents have long been lost to antiquity, new copies were prepared as fast the early Muslim scribes could complete them.
However, within a few years of Muhammad’s death, there were already several versions of the Qur’an in circulation. Not surprisingly, this immediately led to strife among the Muslim population, the same way that multiple versions of the Christian Bible had wreaked havoc among early Christianity five centuries earlier. The problem was not addressed until the reign of Uthman, the 3rd Caliph, who ordered the execution of a single, unified and reliable text. At its completion sometime in the 650s, Uthman declared it to be the sole authoritative edition of the Qur’an, had copies distributed through the Muslim world, and ordered all earlier versions destroyed.
During his lifetime, Uthman conquered huge territories for Islam and set the stage for the rise of the Umayyad dynasty. He also made many enemies, especially among the Shi’ites, and in 656 AD he was assassinated. It is said that his personal copy of the Qur’an, the first ever written in its final complete form, was stained by Uthman’s blood at the time of his death. According to tradition, his successor Ali had the Qur’an moved to Kufa in Iraq. It remained there until the late 14th century, when the armies of Timur, the last of the great Mongol khans, swept through the Middle East. Upon the sacking of Kufa, the Qur’an was seized as a great religious prize and brought back to Timur’s capital at Samarkand.
Uthman’s Qur’an remained in Samarkand for nearly five hundred years as a treasure of the Timurid and Mughal empires. In 1868 Samarkhand fell to the armies of Imperial Russia and the Qur’an was brought to Moscow. It remained there for half a century, but was eventually returned to the Muslims of Central Asia following the Revolution. Throughout most of the 20th century, Uthman’s Qur’an was passed among several of the Islamic Soviet states. In 1989 it was finally returned to Uzbekistan, and placed there in the Masjid Kast Imam for safekeeping. Because of its relatively recent arrival in Tashkent, word of the Uthman Qur’an is still spreading throughout the area. However, interest in the venerable book is growing, and each year the Masjid Kast Imamattracts increasing numbers of pilgrims, academics and the curious to see the precious artifact.
The Masjid Khast Imam is one of two major 16th century mosques in Tashkent. It is actually a large religious complex which includes a number of important buildings. The main entrance is through an enormous arched gateway covered in beautiful tile mosaics. Strangely, the gate dwarfs the rest of the structure and appears almost more like a triumphal arch than an entry to a mosque. Within the complex is the Mausoleum of Abubekr Mukhmmad Kaffal-Shashi, an important local scholar; a madrassah; and the Teleshayakh Mosque, where the Uthman Qur’an is kept.
The Uthman Qur’an is now well over thirteen centuries old, and is very much showing its age. Rough handling from its numerous owners has left less than half of it intact. Apparently the age of the Uthman Qur’an has been verified scientifically, so even if it did not belong to him, it almost certainly dates to his lifetime. The fabled spot of blood is now little more than an extremely faded brown smudge. What is left of the sacred book is now closely guarded and cared for.
The Masjid Khast Imam is located close to the old city center of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and the largest city in Central Asia. As of this writing, no visitor information was available for this site. Web: http://welcomeuzbekistan.uz/en (official tourism website of Uzbekistan)
Tashkent is home to many beautiful and venerable mosques and madrassas. The largest, the Kukeldash Madrassa, is currently undergoing renovation. Also in Tashkent is the Mausoleum of Yanus, one of the last of the Timurid Khans.