A researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham recently discovered an ancient goat- or sheep-skin manuscript in the university library, which researchers yesterday confirmed contains pieces of what may be the world’s oldest copy of the Quran.
According to an article in the New York Times, Alba Fedeli noticed that the manuscript appeared to contain two incorrectly bound pages among other Quranic pages from a more recent date, and that the calligraphy scripts (written in Hijazi, a form of early Arabic) did not match. Researchers at the University of Oxford used radiocarbon testing to determine that the manuscript was at least 1,370 years old, and may have been transcribed during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. The two parchment leaves represent parts of Chapters 18 and 20.
The discovery is particularly important, as Muslims believe that Muhammad received divine revelations between 610 and 632 A.D. (the latter being the year of his death), yet the test results date this Quran somewhere between 568-645 A.D. Islam teaches that Muhammad’s revelations were not collectively written down in book form until much later, confined to memory, recitation, or at best, written fragments on parchment, stone, palm leaves, and ingeniously enough, the shoulder blades of camels. Even today, many Muslims do not require a physical copy of the Quran to feel closer to its messages, considering it an “oral experience to be recited, memorized, and revered,” as Dr. David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, put it to the Times.
Skeptics, such as Saud al-Sarhan, director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, point to the fact that the Arabic script includes dots and separated characters, characteristics that were not introduced until a later date. al-Sarhan also reminded the Times, though the date of the manuscript skin itself might be accurate, it also might be a palimpsest, as leaves were sometimes washed and reused.
Nevertheless, the city of Birmingham, which has a large Muslim population, is celebrating the news of the manuscript’s discovery. The manuscript will soon be on public display.