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Carbon Dating Reveals One of the Oldest Known Copies of the Quran

Manuscript fragments found in U.K. library were written between 568 and 645

The fragments comprise two parchment leaves, written in Hijazi script on sheep or goat skin. (Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham)
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Leaves from an ancient Quran manuscript that have been housed at the rare book collections of the University of Birmingham in the U.K. since the 1920 were recently estimated to be nearly 1,500 years old. That puts the fragmented parchment among the oldest copies of the Islamic holy book in the world, notes Maev Kennedy for The Guardian.

The exact origin of the manuscript remain a mystery, writes Kennedy, but the papers arrived nearly 100 years ago through a theological scholar named Alphonse Mingana. For most of the intervening years, the fragments remained hidden in another document collected by Mingana until recently, when Alba Fedeli, a researcher who was studying the text, noticed the script was out of sync with the rest of the text, explains Dan Bilefsky for the New York Times.

Whoever wrote the text used ink and a type of script called Hijazi to inscribe part of Suras (or chapters) 18 to 20 of the Quran onto pieces of goat or sheep skin. Researchers at an Oxford lab were able to use radiocarbon dating to determine when the animal that the skin belonged to died. Their tests put the age of the parchment between 568 and 645 AD.

Given its age and style, the script could be part of the same document as other ancient Quran parchment leaves held at Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, noted Fedeli in a statement. Those leaves come from Egypt’s oldest mosque, founded in 642 AD, writes Kennedy.

The script might have even written around the time of the founding of Islam and soon after lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, who is believed to have lived between 570 and 632 AD. David Thomas, a theological researcher at the University of Birmingham, told Sean Coughlan of the BBC that the author of the parchment could have easily known Muhammad or seen him preach.

According to Islamic lore, early Muslims memorized pieces of scripture and inscribed them onto palm leaves, pieces of animal skin parchment and even camel bones. Around 650 AD, caliph Uthman assembled a finalized version of the Quran. Thomas explains in a statement, “Muslims believe that the [Quran] 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.” This text seems to support that belief.

Of course, some religious scholars are already expressing skepticism over just how old the Quran in question is. On his blog The New Oxonian, theological historian R. Joseph Hoffmann points out that the thing that tipped off Fedeli — the fact that the older Quran seemed different from the newer version — might also be a sign that this ancient text isn't as ancient as she thinks. Just how much the Quran has might have changed in the early years of Islam is the subject of some debate. Though the manuscript is archaeologically significant either way, Hoffmann argues that one would expect to seem more variation in such an old version.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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