University of Birmingham exhibits one of oldest Quran fragments
London - The fragments of manuscript are old, among the oldest examples of the Quran ever found but they certainly don’t predate the Prophet Mohammad, as some excitable media outlets claimed.
Some of the oldest fragments of the Quran are on display at the University of Birmingham. The pages have been carbon dated to between 568 and 645, meaning it likely predates the rule of Caliph Uthman, the third of Islam’s four Rightly Guided Caliphs, responsible for the compilation and canonisation of the Quran in its current form.
According to some accounts, Uthman ordered the destruction of all other copies of the Quran. However, the two pages, now part of the university’s Mingana Collection, somehow escaped the purge. At the latest, the two leaves were completed less than 20 years after the death of Prophet Mohammad — the person who inscribed them would very likely have been alive during the lifetime of the Prophet and may have been one of his companions.
Susan Worrall, director of special collections at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham, said: “The radiocarbon dating has delivered an exciting result, which contributes significantly to our understanding of the earliest written copies of the Quran.”
The two leaves show parts of Surat al-Kahf, Surat Maryam and Surat al-Taha in early Hijazi script, an early form of Arabic writing that is very angular and does not include dots or diacritical marks but is still legible to modern readers.
“We are thrilled that such an important historical document is here in Birmingham, the most culturally diverse city in the UK,” Worrall said.
Away from the uproar surrounding the age of the two seventh-century leaves, the story of their discovery or rediscovery in the archives of the Birmingham University in between the leaves of another older Quran manuscript is also interesting.
It was researcher Alba Fedeli who made the finding. “I was able to recognise that it was composed of two groups of leaves, coming from two different manuscripts,” she said.
Historically significant discoveries are not just made at archaeological digs but also among uncategorised or mis-categorised artefacts and documents in university and museum vaults as well, Fedeli said.
“Libraries, museums and archives have collections that are waiting to be studied, understood and shared,” she added.
Muslims and non-Muslims from across the world have headed to Birmingham — a city with one of the largest Muslim communities in the United Kingdom — to see these long-lost fragments of Islam.
Visitors have taken to pinning notes complimenting the exhibition at its entrance.
“This is how you bring communities together and increase integration and openness,” read one. “A truly spiritual experience. The revelation in each manuscript is invaluable,” read another.
“When I saw these pages I was very moved. There were tears of joy and emotion in my eyes. And I’m sure people from all over the UK will come to Birmingham to have a glimpse of these pages,” Muhammad Afzal, chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque, told the BBC.
But just what do the two pages reveal? That is the question that Fedeli is wrestling with.
“Two pages cannot say a lot as they are only a fragment, a piece to be connected with the other early Quranic fragments scattered all over the world. All these early Quranic manuscripts, all together, are the oldest witnesses we have about the beginning of Islam. They can shed new light on the historic [nature] of Quranic text, but they should be studied in comparison and connection with other manuscripts. This is the research I am pursuing now,” she said.
As for the media’s preoccupation with the precise age of the manuscript, Fedeli is less understanding, saying that carbon dating is just one tool that academics use. “The results of radiocarbon analysis give us a period and not a precise year. The results should be used as a piece of a bigger part in connection with previous results based on the analysis of the script and the text as well as in connection with the analysis of other manuscripts.”