Fragments of what researchers say are part of one of the world’s oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an have been found at the University of Birmingham, the school said this week.
The ancient fragments are probably at least 1,370 years old, which could place the manuscript’s writing within a few years of Islam’s founding, researchers say, and the writer of the text may have known the Prophet Muhammad.
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 doctoral student, noticed their particular calligraphy. The university on Wednesday sent a small piece of the manuscript to Oxford University for radiocarbon dating.
David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham in England, said that when the results came back, he and other researchers had been stunned to discover the manuscript’s provenance.
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“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.”
Muhammad is believed to have received the revelations that form the Qur’an, 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 between 568 and 645.
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 Qur’an manuscript.
Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, 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 clean and used later for new writings, he said.
Thomas said the text of the two folio pages studied by Fedeli, who received her doctorate earlier this month, corresponded closely to today’s Qur’an.
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 known to survive.
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 Tübingen 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 2014. Fragments from Tübingen were radiocarbon-tested by a lab in Zurich and determined with 95 percent certainty to have originated from 649 to 675.