Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Oldest Qur'an fragments?

IN THE MINGANA COLLECTION: 'Oldest' Koran fragments found in Birmingham University (Sean Coughlan, BBC). A little beyond PaleoJudaica's usual range, but an important story that is of tangential interest and which deserves some commentary.
When a PhD researcher looked more closely at these pages it was decided to carry out a radiocarbon dating test and the results were "startling".

The university's director of special collections, Susan Worrall, said researchers had not expected "in our wildest dreams" that it would be so old.

"Finding out we had one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the whole world has been fantastically exciting."

The tests, carried out by the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, showed that the fragments, written on sheep or goat skin, were among the very oldest surviving texts of the Koran.

These tests provide a range of dates, showing that, with a probability of more than 95%, the parchment was from between 568 and 645.

"They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam," said David Thomas, the university's professor of Christianity and Islam.

"According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Koran, 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 maybe have heard him preach

Prof Thomas says the dating of the Birmingham folios would mean it was quite possible that the person who had written them would have been alive at the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

"The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally - and that really is quite a thought to conjure with," he says.
So the radiocarbon test dates the parchment with a 95+% probability somewhere between about the time of the birth of Muhammud and less than two decades after his death. That could be of considerable interest for the text-critical study of the Qur'an and will also give lots of interesting codicological information about early Islamic manuscripts.

Two small points of caution. First, the test gives the date of the parchment, not the writing on it, so conceivably the text could have been written some time after the parchment was produced. But probably not a long time after. Second, and I hate to bring this up, but is it absolutely certain that this manuscript has been in the Mingana collection from the beginning? Given that modern forgeries are sometimes written on ancient material (notably, the Gospel of Jesus' Wife), I would like some assurance that the manuscript can be documented as part of Mingana collection from early on. This is probably the case, but the records of its acquisition and conservation would be worth checking. There's a question for a journalist to take up.

A comparably early Qur'anic manuscript is now housed on Uzbekistan. Past posts on Qur'an manuscripts are here, here, here, here, and here. And past posts on the Mingana Collection, which I toured back in 2003, are here, here, and here.

UPDATE (23 July): More here.