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Old Quran goes on show in UK… Just don’t call it ‘the’ oldest

Academic slams media reaction to the rediscovery of a 7th Century fragment of Islam’s holy book

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

It is, indisputably, really rather old.

But do two ancient leaves of the Quran, which go on show today at the University of Birmingham, really pre-date the Prophet Mohammed?

No, says the academic who rediscovered the 7th Century manuscript, who warns that news of the find has been twisted and “misused” by the world’s media.

The rediscovery of pages of an ancient Quranic text prompted excited headlines in July, after the manuscript, hidden in the vaults of the British university since the 1930s, was radiocarbon-dated to between 568 and 645, according to the Gregorian calendar.

The dates are significant because the Quran as we know it today was said to be compiled by Uthman, the third caliph, after 653, who ordered older written copies of Quranic text to be destroyed.

And so some news outlets, including the UK’s Independent newspaper, proclaimed the Birmingham manuscript “the world’s oldest” Quran.

Others, such as the right-wing Breitbart News Network, went further in claiming the document “pre-dates” the Prophet Mohammed – born in 570 – and therefore is something that “destabilises Islamic history”.

Neither claim is true, said Alba Fedeli, the PhD researcher who found the ancient document in the vaults of Birmingham’s Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts.

Carbon dated

Fedeli has been studying Islamic manuscripts for 15 years, and says she was not particularly surprised when the pages of the Quran were carbon-dated, with 95.4% accuracy, as being at least 1370 years old.

She found the parchment bound together with pages of a more recent Quran manuscript. But Fedeli analysed the two leaves and realised they were older – something that was confirmed when the parchment, probably made from sheep or goat skin, was carbon-dated at the University of Oxford.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Fedeli told Al Arabiya News. “I was expecting 7th Century. The results were not against my initial hypothesis.”

Fedeli stops short of saying the Quran pages are part of the world’s oldest – although many media outlets haven’t been so shy.

“I don’t like these competitions for saying ‘it’s the oldest’,” she said. “It is one of the oldest – it’s not the oldest, or the only one… It’s a piece of the beginning of the written transmission of the Quranic text.”

Fedeli also objects to media reports that pounced on the fact that the earliest date suggested by the carbon-dating actually predates Mohammed. “They misuse the results, choosing a particular year, and it’s not correct,” she said.

On show from today

The two-leaf, four-page manuscript goes on show today until October 25 at the University of Birmingham, which is charging a small admin fee for tickets to see it.

Written in Hijazi script, an early form of written Arabic, the pages contain parts of Surahs, or chapters, 18, 19 and 20. The university says the document may have been created in the Hijaz area, in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia, close to Mekkah.

It was brought to Birmingham by Alphonse Mingana, who built a massive manuscript collection in the UK city using funds from Edward Cadbury, the grandson of the founder of the chocolate company.

The pages remained unrecognised in the university library for almost a century until Fedeli looked more closely at them.

Josefine Frank, project curator for the Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, said there had been a great positive reaction to the manuscript in Birmingham, which has a large Muslim population.

“For the Muslim community, especially in Birmingham, it’s a great treasure to have here,” she said. “Everyone is awe-inspired by the manuscript. It brings history alive.”

Frank categorically denied suggestions made by outlets such as Breitbart, which said the text could pre-date Mohammed, and “thus contradicting traditional accounts of his life and radically altering” Islamic history.

“That’s not a position the University of Birmingham supports at all,” she said. “It doesn’t change Islamic history at all. If it does anything it confirms the accuracy of the historical Muslim accounts.”

But Frank said the Quran pages “must have been written very close to the lifetime” of Mohammed, and that it was possible they were written during the Prophet’s lifetime.

Doubts

Not everyone is convinced about the claims made by the university. Experts told The Saudi Gazette newspaper in July that the manuscript is likely to have been written many years after the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

One giveaway is that the manuscript contains separation lines between the chapters in red ink – practices that some contend was not common during the time of the Prophet.

Abdul Sattar Al-Halouji, a manuscript expert, told the Saudi Gazette that the university’s claim might just be a ploy to seek publicity. He said the animal-skin parchment might be old, but the verses may have been written later.

“It is not possible to ascertain that the parchments were written close to the time of the Prophet,” he told the Saudi Gazette. “The university should have examined the ink not the hide on which it was written.”

Adnan Al-Sharif, dean of libraries at Umm Al-Qura University in Saudi Arabia, also pointed to the way the verses are ordered as something that disproves some of the claims made about the Birmingham Quran.

“It was not customary during the Prophet’s time to separate between the Surahs. This copy seems to be organized and in order which was not so during the time of the Prophet,” he told the Saudi Gazette.

Further mysteries

Frank said that it is not possible to accurately carbon-date ink, and that there is no way of knowing whether the red chapter-dividing lines were added later.

She categorically denied claims that the document is a palimpsest, with the Quranic verses written on a reused older parchment. There is no “ghostly under layer” of older writing visible in the Birmingham document, she said. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that it’s a palimpsest or the parchment has been reused.”

Some non-Muslim scholars claim that the Quran was written down much later than history suggests. But the Birmingham find suggests otherwise, said Frank.

“What we can say with confidence is that by the mid-7th Century we have a written-down version of the Quranic text that has influenced Muslims ever since,” she said.

There are many more mysteries yet to unfold, with the Birmingham Quran fragments apparently matching 16 pages held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the National Library of France, suggesting they may have formed part of the same original manuscript.

Fedeli, who is now based in Budapest, said she is currently studying the connection between the Birmingham Quran pages and others from the same period.

“It’s a scattered manuscript,” she said.