‘Oldest’ Quran manuscript found in Birmingham University

A generic Quranic page in Arabic text.

A recently discovered manuscript at Birmingham University could be one of the world’s oldest fragments of the Quran, thanks to scientific analysis.

Tests at Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit dated the parchment between AD 568 and 645 with 95.4 per cent accuracy. That timeline is a close match to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (AD 570 and 632).

This accidental discovery gives new significance to the study of Islam in Birmingham. A PhD researcher, Alba Fedeli, decided to get the parchments tested. The manuscript was misbound with leaves of a similar seventh century Quran manuscript.

Susan Worrall, Director of Special Collections (Cadbury Research Library), at the University of Birmingham, said:  “We are thrilled that such an important historical document is here in Birmingham, the most culturally diverse city in the UK”

The manuscript, which consists of two parchment leaves, contains parts of Suras 18 to 20, written in Hijazi, an early Arabic script.

According to Professor David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam, the findings are significant. With a ‘degree of confidence’ the parchment text is traceable to less than two decades after Muhammad’s death.

“These portions 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,” he said.

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said “these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three caliphs”.

There was no successor after Muhammad’s death. Responsibility fell upon the so-called al Khulafa’ al Rashidun or ‘four rightly-guided caliphs’. Individuals picked from Muhammad’s most loyal companions. That leadership lasted between AD 632–56.

Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph, standardised the Quranic text, and destroyed other collections. His death in 656 was the precursor to Islam’s first civil war following the  nomination of his successor.

The manuscript is part of the University’s Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, held in the Cadbury Research Library. In total, the Mingana Collection holds more than 3,000 Middle Eastern documents collected by a Chaldean priest named Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s.

Edward Cadbury, the Quaker philanthropist, bank-rolled Mingana’s exploration. He wanted to raise the profile of Birmingham as a place of religious studies.

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