Oldest pages of the Koran found in England may date to Mohammed's lifetime
Two pages from a Koran, which are believed to have been written down by a contemporary of Mohammed himself, have been found in a library in England. The folios had been in a collection in the University of Birmingham's library for a century, but an expert who looked at them recently decided they should be dated using scientific methods. It has now been determined that they are the oldest known pages of the Koran in existence.
Radiocarbon dating conducted by Oxford University puts the age of the sheep- or goatskin pages between 568 and 645 AD with 95 percent accuracy. They had been in a collection with other Middle Eastern manuscripts. When researcher Alba Fedeli looked at them more closely, the decision was made to test them to estimate their age.
"They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam," said David Thomas, a University of Birmingham professor of Christianity and Islam. "According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Koran, the scripture of Islam, between the years 610 and 632, the year of his death."
Mohammed himself could not read or write, but it is possible he knew the person who wrote down this part of the Koran, the most sacred book to Muslims, who consider its every syllable the word of God.
The person who wrote the scriptures down “would have seen [Mohammed] probably. He would have maybe heard him preach,” Thomas said.
In this painting, a miniature from the book The Universal History of the World by Rashid al-Din, published in 1307, Mohammed receives his first revelation from the Archangel Gabriel. The Muslim faith says Gabriel recited the Koran, the word of God, to Mohammed, who had it inscribed. (Wikimedia Commons)
The pages are written in archaic Hijazi script and is very close in content to the Koran Muslims know today. The Koran is considered so holy to Muslims that they adhere exactly to the original language of 1,400 years ago when reproducing it.
“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 told the BBC. “These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Koran 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."
Thomas told the BBC that around the time of Mohammed the Koran was written on various objects, including camels' shoulder bones, rocks and palm leaves in addition to parchment, enough of which was difficult for Muslims to obtain to write down the entire book.
There are other manuscripts that may be as old as this one, the BBC says. Radiocarbon dating provides a range of years for an object being dated, and the years of this and other manuscripts overlap. But these two pages are among the oldest known surviving Koran manuscripts in existence.
Muhammad Isa Waley, a British Library expert on old manuscripts called the discovery exciting and Muslims would rejoice over it.
“These two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three caliphs,” Waley said. The three caliphs ruled Muslims from 632 to 656.
A closeup of one of the Koran folios, written in the early Hijazi Arabic script, found in the University of Birmingham's library.
Susan Worrall, the library's special collections director, said “in our wildest dreams" the folios were not expected to be so old. "Finding out we had one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the whole world has been fantastically exciting,” she said.
Featured image: An exceedingly rare discovery: two pages of the Koran on parchment or amimal skin, dating from around the time Mohammed himself walked the Earth.
By Mark Miller