Ancient manuscript brings
Fragments of manuscript possibly
dating from shortly after the
founding of Islam will be on display at
the Sharjah International Book Fair.
Roger Tagholm reports
It could be one of the oldest Qur’ans in the world and the
person who inscribed its verses may even have known the
Prophet Muhammad himself. Now a digital version of the
‘Birmingham Qur’an’ – so-called because an alert PhD student
at Birmingham University in the U.K. decided to take a closer
look at fragments of ancient text in the university’s collection
of Middle Eastern books and documents – is on display at this
year’s Sharjah International Book Fair.
The importance of these pieces of manuscript cannot be
overstated. They are written on parchment –goat or sheep
skin treated with an alkali solution such as lime, and left to
dry under tension –their author using a reed pen dipped in
brown pigment. Tests carried out by the Oxford University
Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit show that, with a probability
of more than 95%, they date from between 568 and 645.
Birmingham University deduces from the handwriting that
they may have been created in the Hejaz area to the west of the
Arabian Peninsula, which includes the Islamic sacred cities of
Mecca and Medina.
David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam at
Birmingham University, said: “[The fragments] could well take
us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam.
According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad
received the revelations that form the Qur’an, the scripture of
Islam, between the years 610 and 632, the year of his death.
“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the
Prophet Muhammad. He would probably have seen him and he
would maybe have heard him preach. He may have kno wn him
personally – and that is really quite a thought to conjure with.”
The Exhibition at this year’s Book Fair is part of the UK Guest
of Honour Programme, in the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative
Collaboration between the UK and the UAE. The University
of Birmingham in partnership with the British Council and
with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge
Development as strategic partner, presents a digital exhibition
of the Birmingham Qur’an manuscript; a piece consisting of two
parchment leaves of the Qur’an that have been radiocarbon
dated to the early seventh century, making them one of the
earliest examples of the Islamic holy book in existence.
The manuscripts are part of the Mingana Collection of more
than 3,000 Middle Eastern documents gathered in the 1920s
by Alphonse Mingana, a Catholic priest born in the ancient
kingdom of Chaldea in what is now modern-day Iraq. To read
about their history is to enter a rich, sepia-tinted, late nineteenth/
early twentieth century world of Arabian exploration, a period
when academics and scholars explored the region, making
discoveries that form the core of western collections today.
Mingana settled in the U.K. at the invitation of James
Rendell Harris, an English biblical scholar who was director
of studies at the Society of Friends’ Woodbroke College in
Selly Oak, Birmingham. Mingana worked at the college for
two years during which time he met Dr Edward Cadbury, the
Quaker owner of the famous Cadbury chocolate factory in
Cadbury had an interest in religion and wanted to make
Woodbroke both the intellectual and spiritual heart of the Society
of Friends. In the 1920s he financed three trips that Mingana
made to the Middle East to collect ancient Sryiac and Arabic
manuscripts Mingana’s excitement at some of his discoveries can
be seen in a letter he wrote to Cadbury on 24 October 1925. “Last
week … I had acquired 100 Syriac manuscripts. Today, I am in a
position to report that I have about 250 manuscripts. This is more
than my expectations could dream of. Hallelujah!”
After working at the John Rylands Library in Manchester,
cataloging its rare Arabic manuscripts, Mingana moved back
to Birmingham in 1932 to focus on cataloging the collection.
The first catalogue describing 606 Syriac manuscripts was
published in 1933.
Cadbury named the collection after its first curator and
today, the University of Birmingham’s Mingana collection
has manuscripts representing more than 20 languages and
spanning a period of 4,000 years.
For many years, the precious ‘Birmingham Qur’ran’
fragments had been bound alongside leaves of a similar Qur’an
manuscript in the collection, thought to date from the late
seventh century. But a PhD research student, Dr. Alba Fedeli,
identified the script as Hijazi, one of the earliest Arabic scripts,
and that led the university to carbon date the fragments.
Muslims and historians are captivated. It is extraordinary
to think that the person who made these brushstrokes may
have heard the Prophet Muhammad preach. The reaction of
Muhammad Afzal, Chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque,
demonstrates how these ancient fragments have reached across
the centuries. “When I saw these pages I was very moved,” he
said. “There were tears of joy and emotion in my eyes…”