Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsSUSAN WORRALL: The radiocarbon testing of the parchment of the Birmingham Quran at the University of Oxford Radiocarbon Acceleration Unit placed the sample within an 80-year time period. This time period of 568 to 645, with a 95.4% probability, places the Birmingham Quran amongst the oldest radiocarbon-dated Qurans in existence This period of 80 years needs to be looked at as a range. It's incorrect to pick off one single date within the range, and radiocarbon dating can only give us a span, not an exact year. The date range of the Birmingham Quran suggests that the manuscript dates back to the first century of Islam, close to the life of the prophet Muhammad, who is said to have lived between 570 and 632.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 secondsAccording to the Islamic tradition, Muhammad received the revelations that form the Quran between 610 and 632. It's believed that the Quran in its authoritative form was established under the third caliph, said Calpih Uthman. And 19 years after the death of the prophet Mohammed, Uthman is understood to have commissioned a committee to produce a standard copy of the text of the Quran Five of these authoritative Qurans were sent to the major Muslim cities of the time and, according to some accounts, Mecca. And all other varying copies of the Quran were to be destroyed. Uthman kept his own, we understand, for his own use in Medina.

Skip to 1 minute and 45 secondsAlong with the Birmingham Quran, only a handful of other complete and partially complete early Qurans have been radiocarbon-dated to such a significant time period in the development of Islam. The Sana'a manuscript was found during restoration work on the Great Mosque of Sana'a in Yemen in 1972. Written on parchment, it's a palimpsest, so a manuscript where the parchment has been used and the original text overwritten by a later text. This isn't the case with the Birmingham Quran, and we'll explore this a bit later when Sarah Kilroy looks at this in more detail in the conservation studio. Like the Birmingham Quran, the text of the Sana'a manuscript is written in a Hijazi script.

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 secondsThe parchment's been radiocarbon-dated with a 99% accuracy to before 671, and with a 75% probability from before 646. In November 2014, the Universe of Tuebingen in Germany announced that a partial Quran manuscript they cared for had also been radiocarbon-dated. The radiocarbon results for this manuscript are 649 to 675, with a 95% confidence. Like the Birmingham Quran, it's also written in a Hijazi script, having previously been classified as Kufic in the original 1930s catalogue. The Samarkand Kufic Quran, also known as the Uthman Quran, Samarkand codex, Samarkan manuscript, and the Tashkent Quran, is kept in the Khast Imam library in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Radiocarbon dating of this manuscript gave a date range of 765 to 855, with a 95.4% probability.

Skip to 3 minutes and 36 secondsAnd so material evidence supports a dating of round about the eighth or ninth century for that Quran. Along with the Birmingham Quran, which is believed on material evidence to be linked to the Quranic fragment in the Bibliotheque National in Paris, many early Qurans are separated, with parts lost or fragments in different institutions. It's only by detailed academic and scientific study that these various parts can be pieced together and a clearer view of the oldest surviving Quran still in existence begins to emerge.

The significance of the dating

When watching this film consider these points:

  • Why is it important to place the dating of the Birmingham Qur’an within its historical context?
  • Why do we need to consider radiocarbon dating as a range rather than to pick one single point on the graph?
  • How does the radiocarbon dating of the Birmingham Qur’an compare with other early Qur’ans which have been radiocarbon dated?

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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