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Tashkent's hidden Islamic relic

By Ian MacWilliam
BBC News, in Tashkent

In an obscure corner of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, lies one of

Islam's most sacred relics - the world's oldest Koran.

It is a reminder of the role which Central Asia once played in Muslim history
- a fact often overlooked after seven decades of Soviet-imposed atheism.

The library where the Koran is kept is in an area of old Tashkent known as
Hast-Imam, well off the beaten track for most visitors to this city.

It lies down a series of dusty lanes, near the grave of a 10th century scholar,

The Mufti of Uzbekistan, the country's highest religious leader, has his offices
there, in the courtyard of an old madrassa.

Just across the road stands a non-descript mosque and the equally
unremarkable Mui-Mubarak, or "Sacred Hair", madrassa, which houses a
rarely seen hair of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, as well as one of Central
Asia's most important collections of historical works.

"There are approximately 20,000 books and 3000 manuscripts in this

library," said Ikram Akhmedov, a young assistant in the mufti's office.

"They deal with mediaeval history, astronomy and medicine. There are also
commentaries on the Koran and books of law. But the oldest book here is
the Othman Koran from the seventh century."

Sacred verses

The Othman Koran was compiled in Medina by Othman, the third caliph or
Muslim leader.

Before him, the sacred verses which Muslims believe God gave to
Muhammad were memorised, or written on pieces of wood or camel bone.

To prevent disputes about which verses should be considered divinely

inspired, Othman had this definitive version compiled. It was completed in
the year 651, only 19 years after Muhammad's death.
This priceless Koran is kept in a special glass-fronted vault built into the wall
of a tiny inner room.

About one-third of the original survives - about 250 pages - a huge volume
written in a bold Arabic script.

"The Koran was written on deerskin," said Mr Akhmedov. "It was written in
Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, so the script is Hejazi, similar to Kufic script."

It is said that Caliph Othman made five copies of the original Koran. A partial
Koran now in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is said to be another of these
original copies.

Historical text

Othman was murdered by a rebellious mob while he was reading his book. A
dark stain on its pages is thought to be the caliph's blood.

It was Othman's murder that precipitated the Shia-Sunni divide which has
split the Muslim world ever since.

Later disputes over the succession led to a division between the mainstream
Sunnis, and supporters of Othman's immediate successor, Ali, who became

The story of how the Othman Koran came to Tashkent is a remarkable one.

After Othman's death it is believed it was taken by Caliph Ali to Kufa, in

modern Iraq. Seven hundred years later, when the Central Asian conqueror,
Tamerlane, laid waste to the region, he found the Koran and took it home to
grace his splendid capital, Samarkand.

It stayed there for more than four centuries, until the Russians conquered
Samarkand in the 1868. The Russian governor then sent the Othman Koran
to St Petersburg where it was kept in the Imperial Library.

But after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin was anxious to win over the
Muslims of Russia and Central Asia. Initially he sent the Koran to Ufa in
modern Bashkortostan.

But finally, after repeated appeals from the Muslims of Tashkent, it was
returned once more to Central Asia in 1924. It has remained in Tashkent
ever since.
Visiting dignitaries from the Muslim world often turn up to see the Othman
Koran in the depths of old Tashkent, so it is odd that it is still kept in such an
out of the way location.

But the authoritarian Uzbek government has inherited a Soviet-era distrust

of Islam, and still views much of its own Islamic history with suspicion.

The mufti's official religious establishment is closely watched and takes care
not to attract too much attention to itself.

As a result, its greatest treasure, the world's oldest Koran, continues to sit
quietly in the medieval quarter of old Tashkent.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2006/01/05 12:48:12 GMT