Ancient Quran discovered in England will 'rejoice Muslim hearts'

In what has been termed a 'startling' discovery, the UK’s Birmingham University has unveiled parts of what may be the world’s oldest known version of the Quran, Islam’s holy text.

Manish Swarup/AP
In this July 18, 2015 photo, Indian Muslims offer Eid al-Fitr prayers at Jama Masjid, or Mosque, in New Delhi, India.

Though the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr just came to an end, many Muslims may find that they have yet another reason to rejoice.

In what has been considered a “startling” discovery, the UK’s Birmingham University unveiled what may be the world’s oldest remnants of the Quran, Islam’s holy text.

Researchers conclude that the Qur’an manuscript is among the earliest written textual evidence of the Islamic holy book known to survive,” the university wrote in an official statement. “This gives the Qur’an manuscript in Birmingham global significance to Muslim heritage and the study of Islam.”

Oxford University carried out a radiocarbon analysis of the text and found that the parchment on which it is written could be traced back to the years between AD 568 and 645 with 95 percent accuracy.

The results suggest the manuscript was written less than 20 years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, as he is generally thought to have lived between AD 570 and 632. 

“They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam,” wrote Professor of Islam and Christianity David Thomas and Professor of Interreligious Relations Nadir Dinshaw, both of Birmingham University.

According to Muslim tradition, Prophet Muhammad had a vision in 610. Speaking through the angel Gabriel, God ordained him to become the Arab prophet. Up until his death in 632, the Prophet and others continued to collect religious revelations that would form the Quran. 

Most of the revelations were originally preserved in the “memories of men,” the professors wrote, until Caliph Abu Bakr, Islam’s first leader after Muhammad, ordered the collection of all Quranic material in book form. 

The final written form was completed around AD 650 under the rule of the third leader, Caliph Uthman.

“Muslims believe that the Qur’an they read today is the same text that was standardized under Uthman and regard it as the exact record of the revelations that were delivered to Muhammad,” the professors wrote. The newly discovered text suggests that belief is highly plausible. 

"These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Qu’ran 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,” they added.

Preserved on two parchment leaves, the text contains parts of Suras (chapters) 18 to 20 written with ink in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi. For nearly a century, the manuscript had been misplaced with leaves of a similar Quranic manuscript, which is also datable to the late seventh century.

The manuscript is “one of the most surprising secrets of the University’s collections,” wrote Professors Thomas and Dinshaw.

The Quranic manuscript is part of the University’s Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts in the Cadbury Research Library. The library received the texts in 1920 from Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest who was born in Iraq and settled in England after philanthropist Edward Cadbury funded his trips to the Middle East to acquire historical texts.

'This is indeed an exciting discovery,” wrote Dr. Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library. “Along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script, [this] is news to rejoice Muslim hearts,” Dr. Waley added.

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