AMRA Research Cafe: The Oldest Quran, July 16th 2016, Birmingham


28266362792_41648d958b_oAMRA research cafe attendees in the ‘Faith in Birmingham’ gallery

The Birmingham Qur’an manuscript is, undeniably, a magnificently rare item. Dated to between 568 and 645 AD, it is quite possibly the oldest surviving Qur’anic manuscript known anywhere in the world. Somewhat remarkably, it was discovered last year in the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham University. Yes, the Cadbury, the famed chocolatier was based in Birmingham and an avid collector of ancient manuscripts from across the world. Fortuitously for AMRA, Birmingham was within reach for a research cafe. Unfortunately, however, this manuscript is only on display until 3rd August, after which it is unknown when it will be shown again to the public.

Given this knowledge, AMRA decided to act and benefit from this rare chance to witness what is a vital piece of Islamic history, one which potentially connects directly to the earliest days of Islam. On Saturday 16th July, AMRA took the opportunity to view this incredible manuscript, before it returns to the care and study of the Cadbury Research Library.  

Immediately the enthusiasm was self-evident, as Khuddam from Sheffield and Manchester in the north, through to the southern coast in Southampton, hastily signed up to ensure their participation. The original allocation of 30 was pushed up to 40 as a result, whilst MTA International, Voice of Islam radio and the Review of Religions all had representatives present.


Dr. Rebecca Bridgman presenting the Birmingham Qur’an Manuscript

The presence of Dr Rebecca Bridgman added to the special nature and prestige of this AMRA research cafe. Rebecca is the curator responsible for this Qur’an display in the Birmingham Museum and Art gallery, and had graciously agreed to provide us with an exclusive tour and presentation on the exhibit. Sandwiched in between was a presentation from AMRAs own archaeologist, Rizwan Safir, who spoke on how radiocarbon dating works, and the issues surrounding the age of the Birmingham Qur’an.

The research presentations only enhanced the sense of gravity attributed to this manuscript. At the end of the formal presentations, Rebecca guided us through the museum and into the ‘Faith in Birmingham’ gallery, to see the exhibit. The anticipatory demeanour of the attendees was palpable, as everyone cautiously crowded around the small exhibit to have a prolonged viewing. Rebecca stayed with us throughout, happily answering questions as the solemnity and intimacy of the exhibit captured those viewing it.


Attendees gather around the exhibit to get a closer look

The result was a unique and emotional experience. The feedback from those that attended was evidence enough of the extraordinary nature of this special event. “I feel honoured and humbled to be here” was the most common response. One attendee simply replied “Alhamdulillah” several times.

As the event drew to a close and all returned to Birmingham Daarul Barakat Mosque for Zohr and lunch, there came a chance to reflect. So what had we learnt?


Does it date to the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw)?

The Prophet Muhammad (saw) lived from 570-632 AD. This manuscript is dated from 568-645 AD. The first issue which comes to mind is of course the range of radiocarbon dates provided. This is common for radiocarbon dating, as the further something dates back in history, the wider the range and degree of accuracy. Some scholars have wrongly pointed towards the earliest date in the range to suggest that the Qur’an predates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). This is frankly wrong, and something Rebecca pointed out during her presentation.

photo_2016-07-25_10-53-01Rizwan Safir speaking on how radiocarbon dating works, and the issues regarding the Birmingham Qur’an

The reason is that there are a number of factors which must be considered when looking at the dates provided. Firstly, what was tested for radiocarbon dating was the parchment itself, which is a piece of animal skin usually prepared for writing. It is common for parchment to have been prepared, but not written on until sometime later. The ink on this parchment may well have been written many years after the animal was slaughtered, but ink cannot be sampled as only organic material (anything living) is datable. However, the style of writing (known as Hejazi) as well as the lack of diacritics (meaning vowels, which were standardised at the time of Hadhrat Uthman after 644 AD), all suggest this to be from the very earliest days of Islam. As Professor David Thomas – Professor of Christianity and early Islam at Birmingham University – has stated, this “could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam.”


Why is this in Birmingham?

How has what is quite possibly the oldest Qur’anic manuscript ended up in Birmingham? Fortunately, documentary evidence has allowed us to retrace its path from over 1300 years ago in Arabia, through to modern day Midlands, UK. As alluded to above, it begins with Edward Cadbury who collected ancient manuscripts related to faith. Cadbury was a Quaker Christian with an interest in understanding faiths around the world, and was keen for the people of Birmingham to share in that knowledge. He employed a man called Alphonse Mingana in the 1930s to collect such manuscripts, who in turn bought this particular example from a dealer in Leiden, the Netherlands.


Dr. Rebecca Bridgman guiding AMRA on a tour of the ‘Faith in Birmingham’ gallery

It was unknown where this Qur’an was before its acquisition in Leiden, until an almost identical example was found in Paris, with the exact same style of writing and binding down its spine. The Paris example had detailed evidence tracing back to a mosque in Egypt – the mosque of Amr ibn al-As – and so it became clear that the Birmingham Qur’an must have been held in the same location. Thus, this delicate parchment travelled from Makkah or Medina, into Cairo, through to Leiden and eventually, via Edward Cadbury and Alphose Mingana, to Birmingham where it currently rests.


How was it discovered?

Alba Fedeli, an Italian researcher, was handling the Birmingham Manuscript when it immediately conjured a sense of familiarity. It had reminded her of a similar parchment housed at the Bibliotech National in Paris. As mentioned previously, the Paris manuscript derives from one of the oldest mosques in the world, in Cairo. Hence when Fedeli compared the two manuscripts in scrutinous detail, it was clear that this was something special. It had the same handwriting, and even the fragments were remarkably similar. Minute pieces from the manuscript were then submitted for radiocarbon dating, revealing the true origin of this Qur’an.


The Birmingham Qur’an manuscript

A reminder that the Birmingham Qur’an is only on display until August 3rd 2016. See the poster below from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Don’t miss out on what is potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Watch this space for more from this, and other research cafe’s, including exclusive interviews, videos and photos. Sign up to AMRA here to be part of similar exciting and stimulating AMRA events.