A partial Qur’an manuscript in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library has been radiocarbon dated to between 568 and 645 A.D., which makes it one of the earliest Qur’ans known to survive, perhaps even the earliest. The Prophet Muhammad lived around 570 to 632 A.D., so the sheep or goat who whose skin was used to make the parchment was his contemporary or died very soon after he did.
Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet received the revelations of the angel Gabriel in the last two decades of his life, transmitting them orally to his closest and most trusted companions who memorized them word for word. According to Sunni Islam, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and after his death the first caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, fearing that the people who memorized the scripture would die before they could pass it down, ordered the verses written down. That text was then used by the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, as the basis for the definitive version of the Qur’an which was widely copied and distributed in 650 A.D., just 18 years after Muhammad died. (The Shi’ite tradition holds Uthman Ibn Affan solely responsible for collecting the revelations into a single written scripture.)
The manuscript consists of two folios with parts of Suras 18 through 20 written in a beautiful tilted Arabic script called Hijazi that is so clear it can be easily read by Arabic readers today. The pages have been in the library for decades, one of more than 3,000 of Middle Eastern manuscripts collected by Chaldean priest Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s at the behest of Edward Cadbury, chocolate magnate in a long line of chocolate magnates who, when they weren’t busy making delicious creme-filled confections, founded a consortium of colleges later absorbed by the University of Birmingham. The folios were mistakenly bound with the folios of another Qur’an written 200 years later in a very similar hand. There are no records of where Mingana acquired these particular leaves, but the parchment and script look like Qur’an fragments from the earliest mosque in Egypt (founded 642 A.D.) that are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
Dr. Alba Fedeli noticed the folios while doing research for her PhD. While the handwriting on those two pages at first glance seemed identical to that on the rest of the manuscript, she saw that the content stuck out, that it didn’t seem to fit with what came before and after. Fedeli pointed out the discrepancy to Susan Worrall, director of the library’s special collections, who decided to have them carbon dated by experts at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. They were shocked by the results.
Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “This is indeed an exciting discovery. We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs. […]
“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. In any case, this – along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script – is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.”
The folios will go on display at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts from October 2nd through October 25th.