Two pages of an ancient Koran have been discovered hiding in plain sight at the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library in the United Kingdom. The pages date to between A.D. 568 and A.D. 645, making them among the oldest Koran manuscripts yet discovered.
“If the dating is correct, then we are taken back to maybe 20 years from the period in which the foundational events of Islam were taking place,” David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, said in an interview.
Graduate student Alba Fedeli discovered the ancient pages inside a slightly newer manuscript in the university’s collection of Middle Eastern texts. The leaves, Thomas said, came to the library sometime in the 1920s and somehow became bound to a section of another Koran. Fedeli realized the mistake when she noticed that the handwriting on two of the pages looked different from the others.
Correspondence between the collector and the antiquarian who sold the manuscripts detailed two separate sales and confirmed what Fedeli had begun to suspect: she had an unknown, ancient text on her hands.
A lab at the University of Oxford used radiocarbon analysis to date the parchment, and discovered that the pages dated to nearly 1,400 years ago.
“I’m an academic, so my first response was doubt,” Thomas said. “Surely they can’t be that early.” But, he added, radiocarbon dating has a high degree of accuracy.
The ink itself has not yet been tested, and the text could have been written long after the parchment was made. However, Thomas said, “Our supposition is that the parchment would have been prepared expressly for this particular project of writing the Koran.”
The writing on these fragments comes from Suras (chapters) 18 to 20 and closely resembles the text of the Koran read today. The similarity supports the view, Thomas said, that the Koran’s text was stabilized early in Islam’s history rather than added to or changed over time.
This fall the manuscript will be displayed where it was found, at the University of Birmingham. Thomas calls the manuscript stirring. “The person who wrote this may have known the Prophet, [or] he may have known somebody who knew the prophet,” he said. “So we are given a link almost to the Prophet Muhammad himself.”