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‘Oldest’ Qur’an manuscript – the hype and the facts
Photograph of manuscript released by University of Birmingham

‘Oldest’ Qur’an manuscript – the hype and the facts

British university claims it has found 1,370 year-old copy of Qur’an, Muslim scholars react with discretion.

By Abeera Siddiqui

Sharjah, UAE


And what is that in your right hand, O Moses?”

He said, “It is my staff; I lean upon it, and I bring down leaves for my sheep and I have therein other uses.”

Allah said, “Throw it down, O Moses. So he threw it down, and thereupon it was a snake, moving swiftly.

(Qur’an 20: 17-20)

When this conversation took place between Allah and Musa (عليه السلام) many millennia ago, it was a grand event in the history of humanity – the man who spoke to his Lord, received Prophethood, was given a miracle in which his staff turned into a python and hand glowed bright after he pulled it out of his pocket.

Today, the same event’s documentation has become a miracle for many people.

A recently discovered manuscript of the Qur’an has captivated the minds of both Muslims and non-Muslims across the world, making international headlines. Part of The Mingana Collection (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/archives/mingana/index.aspx) in the University of Brimingham for decades, this manuscript was accidentally discovered when a PhD student rummaged through the records for her work. Radiocarbon analysis has dated the parchment on which the text is written to the period between AD 568 and 645 with 95.4% accuracy, according to the university

The beautiful hijazi script across this two-fold manuscript shows parts of Surah Kahf, Maryam and Taha (surah 18-20) being written down by someone who could have been a companion of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم).

The BBC reported David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Brimingham, saying: “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.”

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, believes that this mushaf is definitely from or before the period of the khilafah of Uthman (رضي الله عنه).

In an official statement from the university, he said: ‘This is indeed an exciting discovery. We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs. According to the classic accounts, it was under the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (رضي الله عنه) that the Qur’anic text was compiled and edited in the order of Surahs familiar today, chiefly on the basis of the text as compiled by Zayd ibn Thabit under the first Caliph, Abu Bakr (رضي الله عنه) . Copies of the definitive edition were then distributed to the main cities under Muslim rule.

“The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period.”

However, Muslim scholars have taken a more thought-out stand on this discovery.

In an article published in the Saudi Arabian newspaper, Saudi Gazette the arguments made by Muslims scholars have been clearly laid out.

According to the report, there are a couple of issues when accepting the university’s claim that this is in fact the oldest manuscript. Firstly, red ink was not used to mark the beginning of a surah during the time of the Prophet and secondly, the parchment being 1,370 years old does not prove the manuscript is that old as well. What needs to be tested is the ink, not the hide it was written on.

“The hide may be old but the writing may be new,” Abbas Tashkandi a manuscript expert is quoted as saying by the newspaper.

Another comment by the university that is not acceptable from a Muslim standpoint is the claim that this manuscript proves that there is “little or no alteration” to the Qur’an.

In a detailed comment , Dr. Muhammad Salah, US-based scholar and the religious supervisor of Al Huda TV, commented on this subtle implication calling it “poison in the honey” and saying Muslim’s believe there has been absolutely no alteration to the text, and the Qur’an is the verbatim word of Allah.

He also clarified what a thought-out reaction from a Muslim should be: Great, we’re very excited for this discovery as now more people might want to further explore the book.

As for the miracle of its preservation, a Muslim’s belief in it is not dependant on such discoveries of ancient parchments. Our belief stems from a deeper understanding and study of the Qur’an and sunnah.

Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) says:

إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُونَ

Indeed, it is We who sent down the dhikr (Qur’an) and indeed, We will be its guardian.

(Qur’an 15:9)

This promise of Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) is evident if one simply considers the phenomenal oral tradition through which the Qur’an has been preserved. Hifz of the Qur’an made sure that these words were not just preserved on parchment, but in the hearts of Muslims – unaltered in any shape or form. The Qur’an, according to Muslim belief, was reviewed by Angel Jibreel himself. Narrated Abu-Huraira: “Gabriel used to repeat the recitation of the Qur’an with the Prophet (ﷺ) once a year, but he repeated it twice with him in the year he died.”(Sahih al-Bukhari 4998)

From Angel Jibreel, to the Prophet (ﷺ), to his companions all the way to us today … over several centuries, oral memorisation and recitation is probably the most definitive proof of the fact that the Qur’an has been preserved like no text in human history. If this isn’t a miracle, then what is?

About Abeera Rashid

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