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Quran Dating no Later than 645 Found in Birmingham Library

Posted on Jul 23, 2015 by in Blog, Theology | 0 comments

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Pieces of Surahs Kahf (18), Maryam (19), and Taha (20) were found in Birmingham’s university library which date way back to the early 1600s. The latest date given, after carbon-dating by Oxford, was 645. This means that this manuscript of the Quran was written either during the lifetime of the Prophet (s) or shortly thereafter, as he died in 632. It is a truly amazing find! The New York Times reports the incredible story below:

Fragments of a manuscript kept at the University of Birmingham appear to be part of the world’s oldest Quran, and may have been written by a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad, researchers at the school said on Wednesday.

The ancient pieces are probably at least 1,370 years old, and they may help settle a scholarly dispute about when the Muslim holy text was written. The discovery also offers a moment of solidarity for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims at a time when their religion is under siege from inside and outside Islam.

The small pieces of the manuscript, most likely written within a few years of the founding of Islam on sheepskin or goatskin, sat in the university’s library for about a century. Last year, Alba Fedeli, a Ph.D. student researching early Quranic manuscripts, noticed their calligraphy did not match the pages with which they were bound. She pressed the university to send a small piece of the manuscript to Oxford University for radiocarbon dating.

“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.

Muhammad is believed to have received the revelations that form the Quran, the scripture of Islam, between 610 and 632, the year of his death. Tests by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit indicated with a probability of more than 94 percent that the parchment dated from 568 to 645.

During the time of Muhammad, Professor Thomas said, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Rather, the believed words of God as told to Muhammad were preserved in the “memories of men,” and recited orally. Parts of it were written on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels, he said.

Consisting of two parchment leaves, the manuscript found in Birmingham contains parts of Chapters 18 to 20. For many years, the manuscript had been mistakenly bound with leaves of a similar Quran manuscript.

Professor Thomas said the text of the two folio pages studied by Ms. Fedeli, who received her doctorate this month, corresponded closely to the text of the modern Quran. But he cautioned that the manuscript was only a small fraction of the Quran and therefore did not offer conclusive proof.

Omid Safi, the director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center and the author of “Memories of Muhammad, Why the Prophet Matters,” said that the discovery of the manuscript provided “further evidence for the position of the classical Islamic tradition that the Quran as it exists today is a seventh-century document.”

The manuscript is in Hijazi script, an early form of written Arabic, and researchers said the fragments could be among the earliest textual evidence of the Islamic holy book known to survive.

A manuscript from the University of Tübingen Library in Germany was found last year and sourced to the seventh century, 20 to 40 years after the death of the prophet. Fragments from Tübingen were radiocarbon-tested by a lab in Zurich and determined with 95 percent certainty to have originated from 649 to 675, making the Birmingham text a few years older.

Radiocarbon dating measures levels of a heavier form of carbon as it appeared in the atmosphere over time and becomes part of plants and, later, the animals that eat them. In this case, the Oxford laboratory measured the age of the goat or sheep whose skin was turned into parchment.

Jeff Speakman, director of the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia who was not involved with the research, said the dates and accuracy sounded reasonable. “Oxford is one of the premier radiocarbon laboratories in the world,” he said.

Dating of artifacts from the era in question is often more accurate than dating material from the last few hundred years, Dr. Speakman said.

Professor Thomas said the manuscript found in Birmingham would be put on public display, although the fragments were extremely delicate. He said the university had no intention of parting with the manuscript.

The fragments were part of a collection of more than 3,000 documents from the Middle East amassed in the 1920s by Alphonse Mingana, a theologian and historian who was born in what is now Iraq. His document-gathering expeditions to the Middle East were funded by Edward Cadbury, a member of the famous chocolate-making family.

In Birmingham, which has a large Muslim population, the discovery of the ancient manuscript was greeted with joy.

Appearing moved, Mohammad Afzal, chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque, said he had been granted access to the manuscript. “I am honored to see this manuscript, which is unique,” he said. “This goes back to the very early stages of Islam. All the Muslims in the world would love to see this manuscript.”

Muhammad Isa Waley, curator for the Persian and Turkish Section at the British Library in London, said it was an “exciting” discovery.

Professor Thomas said that the discovery could make Birmingham a draw for Muslims and scholars. But he noted that Muslims did not require a text to feel close to the Quran because for many, it was essentially an oral experience to be recited, memorized and revered.

“The Quran,” he said, “is already present in the minds of Muslims.”

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