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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 15   16-31 December 2015

Fragments of one of the World’s Oldest Quran Manuscripts Discovered in Birmingham

Professor A. R. MOMIN

The Quran, which is believed by Muslims to be the last testament in a long series of divine revelations, was revealed to the Prophet, who was unlettered, incrementally over a period of 23 years. Since the Quran was destined to be the last and final message of God, its preservation in its original form and language was of utmost importance. The Prophet adopted, under divine instruction, two methods for the preservation of the text of the Quran: memorization and writing. As soon as the verses of the Quran were revealed, the Prophet would memorise them and recite them in his prayers and in the course of his conversations with his companions. He also encouraged his companions to memorise the verses of the Quran as often as possible. During his lifetime, scores of his companions, including some women, had memorised the entire text of the Quran. These included Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu ad-Darda, Abu Zayd, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, Ubbay ibn Ka’ab, Zayd ibn Thabit, Hudhayfa, Ubada ibn as-Samit, Abdullah ibn Umar, Amr ibn al-‘As and Muadh ibn Jabal. The ladies who had memorized the whole text of the Quran included Aishah and Hafsah, the wives of the Prophet, and Umm Warqa.

During the Prophet’s lifetime, the written fragments of the Quran existed in a scattered state. They were not compiled or bound together in one volume. During the caliphate of Abu Bakr, seventy companions of the Prophet, who had memorized the Quran, were killed in the battle of Yamama in the twelfth year of the Hijra (633 AD.) This unfortunate event caused great anxiety and apprehension among the Prophet’s senior companions, particularly Umar, who suggested to Abu Bakr to have the scattered fragments of the Quran collected in one volume. After some hesitation, Abu Bakr agreed to the suggestion and commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, who had served as the Prophet’s scribe and secretary, to carry out this task. Zayd transferred on parchment, which was made from calf hide or goat skin, the verses of the Quran that were written on stone slabs, palm branches and shoulder blades of camels. Though a hafiz himself, Zayd cross-checked each verse on the testimony of at least two companions who had memorized them. This shows the extreme care and meticulousness with which he went about his assignment. The work of compilation and arrangement was completed in a year. The completed manuscript of the Quran was kept in the custody of Abu Bakr, who passed it on to Umar before he breathed his last. After Caliph Umar’s assassination the manuscript came in possession of his daughter and the Prophet’s wife Hafsah, who had also memorised the Quran. Aishah, Hafsah and Umm Salma had their personal copies of the Quran.

During the caliphate of Uthman, the frontiers of the Islamic state extended up to Azerbaijan and Armenia in Central Asia. Hudhaifah ibn al-Yaman, a companion of the Prophet who had taken part in the battles of Armenia and Azerbaijan and had thereafter travelled far and wide in the course of his other military campaigns, was astounded and distressed to find that many Muslims in the farther regions of the Islamic state pronounced certain words of the Quran differently from those of mainland Arabia. On his return to Madinah in 25 Hijra, he approached Caliph Uthman, informed him about the disturbing situation he had encountered and requested him to commission the preparation of an orthographically and phoenetically standardized copy of the Quran.

Realising the gravity of the problem, Caliph Uthman requested Hafsah to hand over the manuscript of the Quran which was prepared at the instance of Abu Bakr, so that it could be used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex. He then appointed a four-member committee, which included the veteran Zayd ibn Thabit, Abdullah ibn Zubayr, Sa’id ibn al-‘As and Abdur-Rahman ibn al-Harith, to oversee and execute the preparation of a standardized text of the Quran according to the diction of the tribe of Quraysh, to which the Prophet belonged. The committee adopted a meticulous methodology for the purpose. It began its work by collecting fragments of the Quran, under oath, which were written by the companions during the Prophet’s lifetime. The scribes took care to eliminate ambiguities in pronunciation and spellings in the verses, and standardized the spellings. The master copy prepared by the committee was compared and collated with Aishah’s personal copy of the Quran. The committee found no discrepancies and inconsistencies between the copy that was prepared at the instance of Caliph Abu Bakr, which was used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex, and the personal copy of Aishah. The whole project was personally supervised by Caliph Uthman, and the final copy was read out before a gathering of the companions for approval and endorsement. The committee thereafter prepared five or seven copies of the standardized text in the Hijazi scirpt, and the original copy was returned to Hafsah. These copies were dispatched to the main cities of the Islamic state, including Makkah, Madinah, Kufah, Basra, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, along with an accredited “reciter” (qari) who would recite the verses of the Quran according to the standard Arabic diction. One copy was kept in the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah and another was kept by Caliph Uthman as his personal copy.

It is estimated that there are over 250,000 extant manuscripts or fragments of the Quran, many of which date from the first century Hijra. This is corroborated by a statement of Ibn Hazm (d. 456 AH/1064 AD) to the effect that by the time of caliph Umar’s death (24 AH), nearly 100,000 copies of the Quran were in circulation in Makka, Madina, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other cities. Nearly 210,000 folios of ancient Quran manuscripts are preserved at Turk ve Islam Eserleri Muzesi (Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art) in Istanbul. A large and hidden cache of very old Quran manuscripts – estimated to be more than 40,000 – was discovered at the Great Mosque of San’a in Yemen in 1965.

In the past few decades a large number of fragments of ancient Quran manuscripts have been discovered and are now in libraries and museums in Europe, Turkey, Yemen and Bahrain. Some of these manuscripts have been dated through radiocarbon analysis to the first century of the Islamic era and a few very close to the time of the Prophet. Some of the Quran fragments discovered at San’a in Yemen were written not more than 15 years after the Prophet’s death. A radiocarbon dating of the San’a palimpsest, discovered in 1972, suggested a date before 671, with 99% accuracy. The radiocarbon analysis of fragments of the Quran at Tubingen University in Germany suggested that it was written between 649 and 675, 20-40 years after the Prophet’s death. The fragments of the Quran in the Orientalist collection of Leiden University were written in the second half of the 7th century, 30 to 70 years after the death of the Prophet. Some fragments of the Quran at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris, at the Vatican and at the National Library in St. Petersburg, Russia have been dated to the first century of the Islamic era.

Discovery of the Birmingham Text

The Mingana Collection at Birmingham University’s Cadbury Research Library has more than 3,000 manuscripts from the Middle East. The manuscripts at the Mingana Collection were gathered by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul in present-day Iraq. He was commissioned by Edward Cadbury to collect Arabic manuscripts from the Middle East in the 1920s.

Two folios of an ancient Quran manuscript, written on parchment in a fairly legible Hijazi script, were discovered in the Mingana Collection in October 2015. Radiocarbon analysis of the parchment on which the text is written suggested a date between 568 and 645 AD, with 95.4% accuracy. The test was carried out at the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford. The two folios were lying undiscovered at the Birmingham University library for almost a century.

The Prophet passed away in 632 AD. The radiocarbon date suggests that the text was written by a person who was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet and was in all probability one of his companions. The text contains verses 23-31 from Surah Al-Kahf and 91-98 from Surah Maryam and some verses from Surah Taha. There are no no diacritical marks on the verses. The arrangement and sequence of verses is exactly identical with that of standard Quran copies, which testifies to the belief held by Muslims that the chapters and verses of the Quran were arranged according to the prophet’s instructions.

The Hijazi script of the Birmingham text bears a close resemblance to that of a number of ancient Quran manuscripts at the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum in Istanbul. Some of these manuscripts were brought to Istanbul from the Great Mosque of Damascus following a fire in 1893. It also resembles the Hijazi script in the fragments of ancient Quran copies at San’a, Bibiliotheque Nationale de Paris, Leiden, Tubingen, Turkey and St. Petersburg.

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