Well-preserved fragments of a Koran manuscript dating back some 1,370 years have been discovered in a library at Birmingham University. Written shortly after the death of Muhammed, it’s among the oldest texts of the Islamic holy book in existence.

The manuscript, written in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand (an early form of Arabic script), remained unrecognized in the library for almost a century. Researchers from the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections Department used carbon dating to place the the manuscript to a period between 568 and 645 AD with 95.4% accuracy. Muhammed himself lived sometime between 570 and 632 AD, which places this manuscript to within a few decades of his death. That’s remarkable.

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The parchment consists of two leaves, and contains parts of Suras (chapters) 18 to 20. For years, the document had been misbound with leaves of a similar Koran manuscript dating back to the late 17th century. It had been filed away at the University’s Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts.

In a statement put out by the university, David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam, explained the significance and the context of the discovery:

According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam, between the years AD 610 and 632, the year of his death. At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Instead, the revelations were preserved in “the memories of men”. Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels. Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad, ordered the collection of all Qur’anic material in the form of a book. The final, authoritative written form was completed and fixed under the direction of the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in about AD 650.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an they read today is the same text that was standardised under Uthman and regard it as the exact record of the revelations that were delivered to Muhammad.

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.

The document dates back to the time of the first three Caliphs, who compiled and edited the holy text in the order of the Suras today. The manuscript will be on public display at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, from Friday 2 October until Sunday 25 October.


Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by University of Birmingham.