When researcher Dr Alba Fedeli stumbled upon two leaves of parchment filled with text from the Qur’an, little did she know it would one of the most historical finds of the century.
Last week, it was confirmed that the Qur’an manuscript, which remained unrecognised in the University of Birmingham library for almost a century, is at least 1,370 years old, making it among the earliest in existence.
Radio-carbon dating, a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material, was used to find the age of pages of the Muslim holy text, which date back to the seventh century.
Fedeli, who studied the leaves as part of her PhD research, told Eastern Eye she was “fascinated” by its history.
“The artefact was here in Birmingham, catalogued as an old Qur’anic manuscript and carefully preserved by the Library. I simply decided to study it in depth.
“It is impossible to say with certainty the date of the manuscripts and which one is the oldest, despite the results of the radiocarbon analyses.
“However, what we can say with certainty is that the Birmingham manuscript is among the earliest Qur’anic manuscripts in existence.”
She added: “Every time I have the possibility of looking at an old manuscript, I am fascinated by its history and how it came to us.”
The manuscript is part of the Mingana Collection of over 3,000 Middle Eastern documents gathered in the 1920s by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul in modern-day Iraq.
He was sponsored to take collecting trips to the Middle East by Edward Cadbury, who was part of the chocolate-making dynasty.
The collection was acquired to raise the status of Birmingham as an intellectual centre for religious studies and attract prominent theological scholars.
Fedeli, an Italian who came to study in Birmingham in 2011, said she originally came across the artefacts in 2010 and later on decided to present a research project to the University for studying the early Qur’anic manuscripts of the Mingana Collection.
“I always liked ancient manuscripts and my late mentor, Sergio Noja Noseda – an Italian Professor of Arabic language and literature and Sharia, was able to guide me through the field of early Qur’anic manuscript, infusing me with his enthusiasm for this subject.”
Consisting of two parchment leaves, the Qur’an manuscript contains parts of chapters known as suras written with ink in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi.
Susan Worrall, director of special collections at the university, said: “The radiocarbon dating has delivered an exciting result, which contributes significantly to our understanding of the earliest written copies of the Qur’an.
“We are thrilled that such an important historical document is here in Birmingham, the most culturally diverse city in the UK.”
The radiocarbon-dated show the dates to be between AD568 and AD645, a result regarded by scientists who tested it at Oxford as 95.4 per cent accurate.
“We knew it was going to be a good date, but when we actually got the dates it was just an ‘oh my goodness’ moment,” added Worrall.
David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam added that the text is “very similar indeed to the Qur’an as we have it today”.
“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 Mohammed (peace be upon him) or shortly afterwards,” he said.
Muhammad Afzal, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque, said he was “honoured” to read the text, adding: “All the Muslims of the world would love to see this manuscript.”
“When I saw these pages, I was very moved. There were tears of joy and emotion. And I’m sure people from all over the UK will come to Birmingham to have a glimpse of these pages.”
The Qur’an manuscript will be on public display at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, from October 2-25.