Tuesday, 22 September 2015
Facts About Birmingham Quranic Manuscript Discovery - Louay Fatoohi
Two months ago came the exciting discovery of fragments of a Qur’anic manuscript that radiocarbon dating has shown to be among the earliest, if not the earliest, in existence. The manuscript was found in the Mingana Collection Middle Eastern manuscripts, which are held by the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, which is why it is often referred to as the “Birmingham Qur’an.” It is common practice to name old manuscripts of the Qur’an after the places where they were found. However, it is more accurate to call any manuscript of the Qur’an “muṣḥaf” rather than “Qur’an,” because the word “Qur’an” refers to the revelation whereas “muṣḥaf” denotes the compiled, written record of the Qur’anic revelation. I have previously published an article about the distinction between “Qur’an” and “muṣḥaf.” This is why I will call the newly found manuscript the “Birmingham muṣḥaf” rather than “Birmingham Qur’an.”
The fragments consist of two leaves that are made of animal skin, 33.3 cm by 24.5 cm in dimension. The verses of the Qur’an are written in clear Hijazi script. The text has skeletal dots that differentiate consonants. Skeletal dots were used well before the time of the Qur’an, as they are found in a number of ancient Arabic writings that predate Islam. The text of the two folios does not have diacritical marks for the short vowels. These marks are believed to have been introduced by Abū al-Aswad al-Du’alī (d. 69 H / 688 CE), a grammarian and close companion of the fourth caliph Imam ʿAlī bin Abī Ṭālib (40 H / 661 CE).
The folios are double-sided, making up four pages in total. They were almost certainly part of a complete muṣḥaf. The front page of the first leaf covers verses 17-22 from Chapter 16, “al-Kahf.” The back page of this leaf continues from verse 23 to verse 31.
The second leaf is from a later part of the Qur’an. The first half of the front page contains verses 91-98 of Chapter 19, “Mariam,” which are the last verses of the chapter. The second half contains the first 12 verses of Chapter 20, Ṭāhā. The back page contains verses 13-39.
There is more than one reason for considering these fragments to be extremely significant and for the incredible excitement they generated among both laypeople and scholars:
1) These two leaves were probably written just after the Prophet Muhammad (ṣallā Allah ‘alaihi wa ṣallām) died. The Prophet was born in 570 CE and received the first revelation of the Qur’an when he was 40 years old, i.e. around 610 CE. All verses of the Qur’an were written down as soon as they were revealed. So the Qur’an had all been written down by the time the Prophet (ṣallā Allah ‘alaihi wa ṣallām) departed this world in 632 CE. Most scholars believe that the Qur’an was first compiled in one volume during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (d. 13 H / 634 CE). This process was then formalized during the rule of ‘Uthmān bin ʿAffān (d. 35 H / 656 CE), around the year 29 H / 650 CE. Personally, however, I think the muṣḥaf was compiled during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (ṣallā Allah ‘alaihi wa ṣallām), but this is not the subject of this article.
Radiocarbon dating has dated the parchment to the period 568-645 CE with 95.4% accuracy. The writing on the parchment is likely to have been made immediately or shortly after the death of the animal it was taken from. One has to talk about a combination of range and accuracy level when using this technique, but the range suggests that the muṣḥaf to which the two leaves belong was probably written shortly after the departure of the Prophet (ṣallā Allah ‘alaihi wa ṣallām) or maybe even late in his life.
2) An equally significant fact is that the text on the two leaves is identical to the text of the muṣḥaf we have today. The text of each verse in the muṣḥaf that Muslims have today and the manuscript match word for word. Even the order of the verses in both is exactly the same. Furthermore, the front page of the second folio shows that the order of the chapters is also the same, with the Chapter of Ṭāhā following that of Mariam. In other words, the manuscript confirms that the Qur’anic text has been perfectly preserved and has reached us without being changed. Read more here
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