July 28, 2015

Was the oldest fragment of the Quran just discovered in the UK?


(Image via Wikipedia)

(Image via Wikipedia)

In a surprising discovery at the University of Birmingham, a fragment of the Quran dated to the late 7th century may shed new light on the early days of the holy book’s publication history.

The New York Times reports that two folio pages bound into a Quranic manuscript were discovered to be from a different and possibly much older edition, possibly indicating that they were composed by a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad.

“We were bowled over, startled indeed,” said David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, after he and other researchers learned recently of the manuscript’s provenance.

The ancient pieces of manuscript, estimated to be at least 1,370 years old, offered a moment of unity, and insight, for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Professor Thomas said it provided tantalizing clues to help settle a scholarly dispute about whether the holy text was actually written down at the time of the prophet, or compiled years later after being passed down by word of mouth. The discovery also offered a joyful moment for a faith that has struggled with internal divisions and external pressures.

Muslims believe Muhammad received the revelations that form the Quran, the scripture of Islam, between 610 and 632, the year of his death. Professor Thomas said tests by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit indicated with a probability of more than 94 percent that the parchment dated from 568 to 645.

The two pages are written in an early form of written Arabic known as Hijazi script, and were originally brought to the University in the 1920’s by Alphonse Mingana, who mounted several expeditions to collect hundreds of ancient Syriac and Arabic manuscripts with the funding of chocolate baron Edward Cadbury. And while they are certainly old, it was dated using the parchment on which they were written, which doesn’t provide definitive proof of the date of composition.

Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later, he said.

[…]Graham Bench, director of the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, concurred, and added a caveat: “You’re dating the parchment,” he said. “You’re not dating the ink. You’re making the assumption that the parchment or vellum was used within years of it being made, which is probably a reasonable assumption, but it’s not watertight.”

The Quran is widely believed to have been preserved via the oral tradition and recorded via a collection of handwritten reproductions. While the process and agents that created the Quran in its final version remain a mystery, evidence that it was at least partially composed during Muhammad’s lifetime would be historically significant (especially in the aftermath of the destruction of rare book collections at Tripoli and Mosul) as well as spiritually significant to Muslim residents of Birmingham.

Professor Ayman S. Ibrahim, writing for First Things, helpfully breaks down what larger implications the discovery of early Islamic manuscripts have for the faith at large, and for millennia-old conflicts between the Sunni and Shiite sects.

 In truth, it is too soon to say exactly what the discovery means. If the text on the fragment is mostly the same as the passage of the Quran we have today, but not identical, this might undermine traditional Muslim beliefs. Moreover, if presumably the written script (the ink) is of the same time period of the parchment, this discovery would illustrate conclusively that at least some parts of Islam’s scripture could have been written as early as one or two decades after Muhammad’s death.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.