University of Birmingham finds what might be the oldest Qurʾanic text in existence

Infirmities notwithstanding, I couldn’t let this story pass by without at least mentioning it. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK have found a manuscript of a part of the Qurʾan that can be dated to the middle of the 7th century CE, shortly after Muhammad’s death:

Radiocarbon analysis has dated the parchment on which the text is written to the period between AD 568 and 645 with 95.4% accuracy. The test was carried out in a laboratory at the University of Oxford. The result places the leaves close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who is generally thought to have lived between AD 570 and 632.

The leaves had previously been mistakenly bound with a similar but slightly older (late 7th century) manuscript. Assuming the dating is accurate, these leaves would be among the very oldest written versions of Qurʾanic text still known to be in existence, and would certainly influence the debate over the Qurʾan’s origins (especially insofar as the text on these old parchments is nearly exactly the same as the modern text of the Qurʾan). Admittedly, dating the parchment doesn’t necessarily tell you when the text was written, but 6th-7th century Arabia wasn’t exactly home to a lot of folks who could afford to make/buy parchment just to have it lying around if necessary. If the parchment was made around the early 7th century, chances are it was used around that time as well.

The text is written in an early form of Arabic known as Hijazi, and the curator for Persian and Turkish manuscripts at the British Library, Muhammad Isa Whaley, says that the folios “almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs.” Birmingham Professor David Thomas went further than that:

Prof Thomas says the dating of the Birmingham folios would mean it was quite possible that the person who had written them would have been alive at the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with,” he says.

The early Muslim community at Medina wasn’t huge, and anybody who could write would have been especially unique (and potentially valuable) within that community. So as much as it sounds like hyperbole to say that “the person who actually wrote [this manuscript] could well have known the Prophet Muhammad,” that’s not all that outrageous a thought.

Pretty exciting find, no?

Photo of part of the manuscript (via Al Jazeera and the University of Birmingham)

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