5 things you need to know about the discovery of what is possibly the world’s oldest Qur’an

Fragments of a 1,370-year-old Qur’an manuscript have been discovered by researchers at the University of Birmingham

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Radiocarbon analysis has dated the parchment on which the text is written to the period between AD 568 and 645. This places the Qur’an manuscript among the oldest in the world.

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Here are five things you need to know about the manuscript…

1) The manuscript dates from the time of the first three Caliphs – close to the period of the Prophet Muhammad, who is generally thought to have lived between AD 570 and 632. David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, says the manuscript could have been written less than two decades after Muhammad’s death.

This, says Thomas, means “the manuscript must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Qur’an read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed.”

2) The Qur’an manuscript is among the earliest written textual evidence of the Islamic holy book known to survive. This gives it global significance to Muslim heritage and the study of Islam.

3) Consisting of two parchment leaves, the Qur’an manuscript is believed to contain parts of Suras (chapters) 18 to 20, written with ink in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi. For many years, the manuscript had been misbound with leaves of a similar Qur’an manuscript, which is datable to the late seventh century.

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(Cadbury Research Library)

Susan Worrall, director of special collections at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham, said: “By separating the two leaves and analysing the parchment, we have brought to light an amazing find within the Mingana Collection.”

4) The manuscript is written in what Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, lead curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, calls “a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand”.

5) The manuscript indicates that the Uthmanic redaction may have taken place earlier than had been thought. Waley explained: “According to the classic accounts, it was under the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, that the Qur’anic text was compiled and edited in the order of Suras familiar today, chiefly on the basis of the text as compiled by Zayd ibn Thabit under the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. Copies of the definitive edition were then distributed to the main cities under Muslim rule.

“The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period.

“And it seems to leave open the possibility that the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process.”

The Qur’an manuscript will be on public display at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, from Friday 2 October until Sunday 25 October 2015.

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