A British university disclosed Wednesday that scientific tests prove a Quran manuscript in its collection is one of the oldest known and may have been written close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
The announcement by the University of Birmingham thrilled Muslim scholars and the local community, which boasts one of the country's largest Muslim populations. The find came after questions raised by a doctoral student prompted radiocarbon testing that dated the parchment to the time of the prophet, who is generally believed to have lived between 570 and 632.
"This manuscript could well have been written just after he died," David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, said of the fragment written in ink on goat or sheepskin.
"Parts of the Quran that are contained in those fragments are very similar indeed to the Quran as we have it today. This tends to support the view that the Quran that we now have is more or less very close indeed to the Quran as it was brought together in the early years of Islam."
Muslim tradition says the prophet received the revelations of the Quran between 610 and 632 — but it wasn't written down immediately. The first leader of the community after Muhammad's death, Caliph Abu Bakr, ordered the book to be written and it was completed by the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in 650.
Thomas said the tests conducted by Oxford University suggest the animal from which the parchment was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterward.
"This means that the parts of the Quran that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad's death," he said.
The two parchment leaves contain parts of suras, or chapters, 18 to 20. The manuscript is written with ink in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi.
The manuscript has long been part of the university's Cadbury Research Library. But it had been bound improperly and was attached to the leaves of a manuscript with a similar script that is not as old.
The carbon dating was undertaken after an Italian doctoral research student, Alba Fedeli, noticed the difference in the writing.
The library houses approximately 200,000 pre-1850 books dating from 1471 and some 4 million manuscripts. Funded by Quaker philanthropist Edward Cadbury — of chocolate fame — the collection was acquired to raise the status of Birmingham as an intellectual center.
Birmingham is also a center of Islam in Britain, with about 20 percent of the city describing themselves as adherents of the faith. The planned display for the manuscript in October could prove a boon to the local economy, with adherents already expressing an interest in traveling to the city to see a piece of history.
"A lot of people from Birmingham and all over the country will love to see it," said Muhammad Ali, the administrator at Birmingham Central Mosque and one of a handful of people invited to view the manuscript three weeks ago after its importance was recognized.
The Associated Press