Birmingham Quran Manuscript
The manuscript is written in ink on parchment, using an Arabic Hijazi script and is still clearly legible. The leaves preserve parts of Surahs 18 (Al-Kahf) to 20 (Taha). It was on display at the University of Birmingham in 2015 and then at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 5 August 2016. The Cadbury Research Library has carried out multispectral analysis of the manuscript. The ink has yet to have its constituents tested.
The Mingana Collection, comprising over 3,000 documents, was compiled by Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s and was funded by Edward Cadbury, a philanthropist and businessman of the Birmingham-based chocolate-making Cadbury family.
The Birmingham leaves, now catalogued as Mingana 1572a, are folio size (343 mm by 258 mm at the widest point), and are written on both sides in a generously-scaled and legible script. One two-page leaf contains verses 17–31 of Surah 18 (Al-Kahf) while the other leaf the final eight verses 91–98 of Surah 19 (Maryam) and the first 40 verses of Surah 20 (Ta-Ha),all in their present day sequence and conforming to the standard text. The two surviving leaves were separated in the original codex by a number of missing folios containing the intervening verses of surahs 18 and 19. There are no diacritical marks to indicate short vowels, but consonants are occasionally differentiated with oblique dashes. The text is laid out in the format that was to become standard for complete Quran manuscripts, with chapter divisions indicated by a decorated line, and verse endings by intertextual clustered dots.
Although the Quran text witnessed in the two Birmingham leaves largely conforms to the standard text, their orthography differs, especially in respect of the writing (or omission) of the letter alif. Equally, the application of intermittent dashes to differentiate consonants varies from the counterpart pointing in the standard text at four places. Otherwise, the aspect in which the Birmingham Quran differs most substantially from the standard text is in its verse divisions; of the four surahs partially witnessed in these leaves, three have a verse division omitted in at least one place. Subsequent ultraviolet testing of the leaves has confirmed no underwriting, and excludes the possibility of there being a palimpsest.
Alba Fedeli, who was studying items in the Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern Manuscripts for her PhD thesis Early Qur’ānic manuscripts, their text, and the Alphonse Mingana papers held in the Department of Special Collections of the University of Birmingham, found the two leaves misidentified and bound with those of another seventh-century Quranic manuscript also written in Hijazi script (now catalogued as Mingana 1572b). Following an approach by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy in 2013 to contribute a sample from Islamic Arabic 1572 to the Corpus Coranicum project to investigate textual history of the Quran, which coincided with Fedeli’s research into the handwriting, the Cadbury Research Library arranged for the manuscript to be radiocarbon dated at the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. They determined the radiocarbon date of the parchment to be 1465±21 years BP (before 1950), which corresponds with 95.4% confidence to the calendar years CE 568–645 when calibrated.
The proposed radiocarbon date for the manuscript is significant, as the Islamic prophet Muhammad lived allegedly from c. 570 to 632. According to Sunni Muslim tradition it was Uthman (r. 644–656), the third caliph, who compiled and canonized the version of Quran since accepted and used by all Muslims worldwide; then he commanded that all previous versions be burned.
In the University announcement, Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said:
The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period. And it seems to leave open the possibility that the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process. In any case, this – along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script – is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.
David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham said:
The tests carried out on the parchment of the Birmingham folios yield the strong probability that the animal from which it was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterwards. This means that the parts of the Qur’an that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad’s death. These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Qur’an 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.
Saud al-Sarhan, Director of Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, has been more sceptical, questioning whether the parchment might have been reused as a palimpsest, and also noting that the writing had chapter separators and dotted verse endings – features in Arabic scripts which are believed not to have been introduced to the Qur’an until later. Saud’s criticisms have been backed by a number of Saudi-based experts in Quranic history who strongly rebut any speculation that the Birmingham/Paris Quran could have been written during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad. They emphasize that while the prophet Muhammad was alive, Quranic texts were written without any chapter decoration, marked verse endings or use of coloured inks, and did not follow any standard sequence of surahs. They maintain that those features were introduced into Quranic practice in the time of the Caliph Uthman, and so it would be entirely possible that the Birmingham leaves could have been written then, but not earlier.
Süleyman Berk of the faculty of Islamic studies at Yalova University has noted the strong similarity between the script of the Birmingham leaves and those of a number of Hijazi Qurans in the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, which were brought to Istanbul from the Great Mosque of Damascus following a fire in 1893. Professor Berk recalls that these manuscripts had been intensively researched in association with an exhibition on the history of the Quran, The Quran in its 1,400th Year, held in Istanbul in 2010, and the findings published by François Déroche as Qur’ans of the Umayyads in 2013. In that study, the Paris Quran, BnF Arabe 328(c), is compared with Qurans in Istanbul, and concluded as having been written “around the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth century.”
Joseph E. B. Lumbard of Brandeis University has written in the Huffington Post in support of the dates proposed by the Birmingham scholars. Professor Lumbard notes that the discovery of a Quranic text that may be confirmed by radiocarbon dating as having been written in the first decades of the Islamic era, while presenting a text substantially in conformity with that traditionally accepted, reinforces a growing academic consensus that many Western sceptical and ‘revisionist’ theories of Quranic origins are now untenable in the light of empirical findings – whereas, on the other hand, counterpart accounts of Quranic origins within classical Islamic traditions stand up well in the light of ongoing scientific discoveries.
In December 2015 François Déroche of the Collège de France confirmed the identification of the two Birmingham leaves with those of the Paris Qur’an BnF Arabe 328(c), as had been proposed by Alba Fedeli. Prof. Deroche, however, expressed reservations about the reliability of the radiocarbon dates proposed for the Birmingham leaves, noting instances elsewhere in which radiocarbon dating had proved inaccurate in testing Qur’ans with an explicit endowment date, and also that none of the counterpart Paris leaves had yet been carbon-dated. Mustafa Shah, Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has suggested that the grammatical marks and verse separators in the Birmingham leaves are inconsistent with the proposed early radiocarbon dates. Jamal bin Huwareib, managing director of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, has proposed that, were the radiocarbon dates to be confirmed, the Birmingham/Paris Qur’an might be identified with the text known to have been assembled by the first Caliph Abu Bakr, between 632 and 634 CE.
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- Elizabeth Goldman (1995), p. 63, gives 8 June 632, the dominant Islamic tradition. Many earlier (mainly non-Islamic) traditions refer to him as still alive at the time of the invasion of Palestine. See Stephen J. Shoemaker,The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
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