A Koran manuscript etched on sheep or goat skin may be the oldest discover so far, according to a radiocarbon dating. The fragments, preserved in pristine condition and written in a surprisingly clear Hijazi script, were found in the University of Birmingham’s library. The dating shows the Koran copy is at least 1,370 years old, and was edited between 568 and 645 by a person who likely knew the prophet Muhammed himself. Though it’s not clear if it’s the oldest Koran fragment, it’s definitely out there among the earliest Islamic texts – a reason to rejoice for the large Islamic community in Birmingham.
The manuscript is part of the Mingana Collection of more than 3,000 Middle Eastern documents gathered in the 1920s by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul in modern-day Iraq. No particular attention was given to it until a PhD researcher, Alba Fedeli, reviewed some of the documents in the collection and thought a radiocarbon dating was worth the try. Carbon-14 dating is a way of determining the age of certain archeological artifacts of a biological origin up to about 50,000 years old. It is used in dating things such as bone, cloth, wood and plant fibers that were created in the relatively recent past by human activities.
Not in their “wildest dreams” did the researchers expect the script to be that old.
“Finding out we had one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the whole world has been fantastically exciting,” said the university’s director of special collections, Susan Worrall.
“They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam,” said David Thomas, the university’s professor of Christianity and Islam.
“According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Koran, the scripture of Islam, between the years 610 and 632, the year of his death.”
“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with,” he says.
The revelation of the Quran was not an isolated event in time. It was a constant stream of verses descending to Muhammad throughout the 23 years of his prophethood in Makkah and Madinah. The Prophet appointed numerous Companions of his to serve as scribes, writing down the latest verses as soon as they were revealed. Mu’awiya ibn Abu Sufyan and Zaid bin Thabit were among the scribes who had this duty. For the most part, new verses would be written on scraps of bone, hide, or parchment, since paper had not yet been imported from China.
The Arabia of the 600s was mainly an oral society, however. Because very few people could read or write, a huge emphasis was placed on ability to memorize long poems, letters, and other messages. Muhammad’s companions learned and recorded the Quran by memorization, then disseminated it across the whole Arabian peninsula. Hundreds and thousands of people, many of them travelers to Madinah, memorized the holy Muslim text.
During the reigns of the first caliphs, however, a need to compile all the verses into a central book arose. Taking preemptive action, the caliphs who ruled the Muslim world after the death of the Prophet feared that if the number of people who had the Quran memorized dipped too low, the community would be in danger of losing the Quran forever. As a result, the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who ruled from 632 to 634, ordered a committee be organized, under the leadership of Zaid bin Thabit, to collect all the written pieces of Quran that were spread throughout the Muslim community. The plan was to collect them all into one central book that could be preserved in case the people who had the Quran memorized died out. The final version, collected in book form, was completed in about 650.
Prof Thomas says “the parts of the Koran that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated 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 Koran 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.”
The local Muslim community in Birmingham is in delight, but news of these early Koran parchments has been well received all over the world.
“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,” said Muhammad Afzal, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque.