Fragments of what could be the world's oldest Koran have been found in an English library after laying unrecognized for nearly a century.
The finding "is news to rejoice Muslim hearts," Muhammad Isa Waley, lead curator for Persian and Turkish manuscripts at the British Library, said.
Written with ink in a surprisingly clear early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi, the manuscript consists of two parchment leaves and is part of the Mingana Collection, held in the University of Birmingham's Cadbury Research Library.
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The collection is made up of over 3,000 Middle Eastern manuscripts in over 20 languages and was the property of Alphonse Mingana (1878-1937), a Chaldean priest and historian. He built up his collection in the 1920s, when he embarked on three trips to the Middle East to purchase manuscripts.
The collection was later acquired "to raise the status of Birmingham as a center for religious studies and attract prominent theological scholars," the University of Birmingham said in a statement.
For years the manuscript had been bound with leaves of a similar Koran manuscript, which is datable to the late seventh century.
The importance of the two parchment leaves was first noticed by Alba Fedeli during her Ph.D. research, prompting a radiocarbon dating test.
The results were "exciting," said Susan Worrall, the university's director of special collections.
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The tests, carried out by the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, dated the parchment on which the text is written to between 568 and 645 A.D. with 95.4 percent accuracy. The dating places the leaves close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who is generally thought to have lived between 570 and 632 A.D.
"They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam," David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement.
He noted that, according to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Koran between 610 and 632 A.D., the year of his death.
"At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Instead, the revelations were preserved in ‘the memories of men.' Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels," Thomas said.
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It was Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad, that ordered the collection of all Koranic material in the form of a book. The final written form was completed under the direction of the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in about 650 A.D.
According to Thomas, there is a strong probability that the sheep or goat from which the parchment was made was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterwards.
"This means that the parts of the Koran that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad's death," Thomas said.
The manuscript contains parts of Suras (chapters) 18 to 20, written in a form that is very close to how the Koran reads today.
It will be on public display at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, from October 2-25.