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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsSUSAN WORRALL; On the 22nd of July 2015, the University of Birmingham issued a press release titled a Quran manuscript held by the University of Birmingham has been placed amongst the oldest in the world thanks to modern scientific methods. Multiple coverage across the world's major outlets, including top billing on the BBC and the front page of the New York Times, demonstrated the interest in the story. Although coverage was extensive, the nature of that coverage varied widely between different news agencies. Many of the headlines incorrectly used the words discovery, . implying that the manuscript itself had just been found by the university.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 secondsIn reality, the manuscript had been in Birmingham since the 1930s, and the truth behind this story is far more interesting than the fiction. What brought the manuscript to prominence in 2015 was not its discovery but in fact a reevaluation of its dating, using its cutting edge scientific technique called radiocarbon dating. Together with a detached analysis of its script, carried out by Alba Fedeli at the University of Birmingham, drawing on earlier work by prominent international academics in this field. Research into material evidence of early Quranic text or history is an emerging field. Historically the dating of printed manuscripts has relied primarily on the Arabic Islamic tradition, so drawing on commentaries of the Koran.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 secondsWhen the catalogue in which the manuscript first appeared was published in 1962, the authors gave it the following description-- fragment of a Kufic Quran written probably in the eighth or ninth century. In recent years, academics have begun to re-evaluate and examine the dating of early Qurans held in worldwide collections. Increasingly, they're looking at the whole manuscript, using all of the different resources available to them. The Coranicum project is a really good example of this type of study. Looking at the material evidence of a manuscript might include examining it's handwriting-- and that's called paleography-- and the paper and the ink and the bindings-- which is called codicology-- and its provenance.

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 secondsSo that's where the manuscript might have come from and who might have owned it. Radiocarbon dating-- which my colleague Sarah Kilroy is going to talk about in a bit more detail-- provided a key layer additional information about the manuscript to add to the material evidence. Sarah is also going to look at some of the cutting edge work we've done, which was commissioned by the Cadbury Research Library on the manuscript in the last few months. Looking at all of this evidence together, we now open to say that the manuscript has the potential to be one of the oldest examples of the Quran in existence. And it's dating has been revised to mid seventh century.

How the radiocarbon dating of the manuscripts became a world-wide sensation

When watching this film consider these points:

  • Why was this news so important?
  • Why did the content and tone of the media coverage vary so much between different news channels, considering they all had access to the same press release?
  • How do modern scientific methods add to our knowledge of historical manuscripts?
  • Why do academics need to look at all aspects of a manuscript in order to understand its possible origins?

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This video is from the free online course:

The Birmingham Qur'an: Its Journey from the Islamic Heartlands

University of Birmingham