What is believed to be fragments of the world’s oldest Qur’an have been discovered at the University of Birmingham in England. The manuscript, dating back at least 1,370 years, was unrecognised in the university library for more than a century. Alice Johnson reports.
In the middle of a low-lit, quiet, temperature-controlled room at the University of Birmingham (UOB), England, stands a glass case. What’s being displayed is remarkable. If you conjure up the image of a manuscript more than one thousand years old, what springs to mind? Probably something faded, cracked and too delicate to handle. In this case, however, two almost immaculately preserved pages of the Holy Qur’an dating back to between AD 568 and 645 look like the script has just dried on the animal skin on which it’s been inked.
In July 2015, PhD student Alba Fedeli discovered these two ancient pages bound within another (older) Qur’anic manuscript, which formed part of a collection of 3,000 religious texts brought to the UK by Alphonse Minghana in the 1930s. Originally, Minghana deduced that the pages dated back to the eighth or ninth century. After the pages were radiocarbon dated (with 95.4 per cent accuracy) at an Oxford University laboratory, however, the researchers were thrilled to discover that they were actually from the sixth century. When the two older leaves are compared to the manuscript in which it was bound, the writing is significantly different, which immediately alerted the researchers studying it.
“That led us as a library to look at it [the manuscript] again more closely,” Susan Worrell, Director of Special Collections, Cadbury Research Library, UOB, said. “We thought actually no the right thing to do, as we’ve got two separate things here, is to separate them and look at them individually.”
With her knowledge of ancient texts, Fedeli deduced from when the manuscript dated, and the radiocarbon dating then confirmed her suspicions scientifically - making it one of the oldest in existence. “I was quite taken aback by the fact that it corresponds with… the life of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH),” Worrell continued. This dating places the Qur’anic manuscript as having been written on the skin of an animal that lived either during the time of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) (who is thought to have lived between AD 570 and 632) or on the skin of an animal that lived within two decades of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).
“The radiocarbon dating of the Birmingham Qur’an folios has yielded a startling result and reveals one of the most surprising secrets of the University’s collection,” Professor David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam and Nadir Dinshaw, Professor of Interreligious Relations, UOB, said. “They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam.” Written in ink in the Hijazi script (an early form of Arabic), the parchment contains part of Suras (chapters) 18 to 20.
Radiocarbon (carbon 14) dating identifies quantities of carbon 14 isotopes in organic materials. Such accurate results can be obtained because of the scientific knowledge of this isotope’s half-life. However, some observers have criticised the method of dating the manuscript, saying that the ink itself should have been dated.
“Testing the ink is a different ball game to testing the parchment; and as far as we're aware, there's no currently no cited reliable method that would add to our understanding of that,” Worrell said, adding that to test the ink, the manuscript would need to be destroyed.
In terms of handling, Worrell said: “As a curator when you're caring for the manuscripts, you handle them with respect and cultural sensitivity, but you are looking after the manuscript so… you move them and you deal with them appropriately.” She added that the manuscript has not been touched with bare hands and is on display in a glass case, protected from any physical contact.
The manuscript has travelled halfway around the world since its origins. Another 16 pages of what’s believed to be from the same Qur’an are part of a collection at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. “With handwriting analysis… if you see them side by side, you can see the similarities,” Worrell said. “So the provenance for those 16 pages is very clear… So from that we can imply where this one comes from and its origins would be, we believe, in Egypt,” she continued. In fact, the manuscript is thought to have originated from the mosque of Amr Ibn Al As – the first ever built in Egypt.
From Egypt the manuscript made its way to Europe, before being bought by Minghana (under the employment of collector and philanthropist Edward Cadbury) in either The Netherlands or Belgium. The Minghana collection is vast, and contains many other manuscripts of varying religions that haven’t yet been studied. “There have been American researchers from Brigham Young University working on the ancient papyrus in the collection, and they have found some unknown text relating to the first version of Psalms,” Worrell said. “There’s some fantastic material in there,” she said of the collection, “I think they would benefit a lot from more academic research.”
With such a discovery so long after the collection was first gathered by Minghana, is there then a strong possibility that other ancient ‘treasures’ are hiding away bound up within the texts? “In other libraries or institutions there could be other fragments that once belonged to the same manuscript of the Minghana leaves,” Fedeli said. “There are still uncatalogued materials to be identified, and there could be a treasure among them,” she concluded.
The Qur’an was on display at the UOB from 2nd-25th October 2015, and will be studied further academically afterwards using specially-tailored computer programs.