Koran fragments found in Britain dated to the dawn of Islam

LONDON — Fragments of what researchers say are part of one of the world’s oldest manuscripts of the Koran have been found at the University of Birmingham, the school said Wednesday.

The fragments are probably at least 1,370 years old, which could place the manuscript’s writing within a few years of the founding of Islam, researchers say, and the writer of the text may have known the Prophet Mohammed.

The small pieces of the manuscript, written on sheep or goat skin, sat in the university’s library for about a century until Alba Fedeli, a Ph.D. student, noticed their distinctive calligraphy. The university sent a small piece to Oxford University for radiocarbon dating.

David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, said that when the results came back, he and other researchers had been stunned to discover the manuscript’s provenance.

“We were bowled over, startled indeed,” Thomas said in an interview. The period when the manuscript was produced, he added, “could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam.”

But Saud Al Sarhan, director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript was as old as the researchers said, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters, features that were introduced later.

He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed and reused later for new writings, he said.

Mohammed is believed to have received the revelations that form the Koran, 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 Mohammed, Thomas said, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Rather, the revelations were preserved in the “memories of men,” and parts of it were written on parchment, stone, palm leaves, and the shoulder blades of camels.

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

Thomas said the text of the two folio pages studied by Fedeli corresponded closely to today’s Koran.

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. Susan Worrall, the director of special collections at the Cadbury Research Library of the university, said the discovery was significant for Muslim heritage and for the study of Islam.

A manuscript from the University of Tubingen Library in Germany was found last year and sourced to the seventh century, 20 to 40 years after the death of the prophet, according to a news release in November.

Sarhan of the King Faisal center said that there was a sort of competition now among researchers to find the earliest Koran, but that the discovery in Britain would have little effect on people’s beliefs, since Muslims believe “the Koran has not been changed since the Prophet Mohammed.”

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.

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Source: Boston Globe