FAQs

About the Birmingham Qur’an manuscript

What is the Birmingham Qur'an manuscript?

The Birmingham Qur’an manuscript is a two-leaf, four-page manuscript made of parchment, written in ink, containing parts of Surahs 18, 19 and 20 of the Qur’an. The manuscript forms part of the University of Birmingham’s Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, held in the Cadbury Research Library, and its catalogue number is Islamic Arabic 1572a.

How old is the manuscript?

The manuscript has been carbon-14 dated by the University of Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit to the date range 568–645 CE with a 95.4% degree of confidence. This places the parchment on which the text is written close to the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (who is generally thought to have lived between 570 and 632 CE). 

Is it the oldest in the world?

It is impossible to say whether this is the oldest Qur’an manuscript in the world. However, researchers have concluded that the manuscript is among the earliest written textual evidence of the Qur’an known to survive. We also believe it to be the oldest Qur’an manuscript in the UK.

How did the manuscript come to be in Birmingham?

The manuscript was bought in the 1930s by Alphonse Mingana with funds from Edward Cadbury, the Birmingham-based Quaker philanthropist and businessman. Mingana was building a world-class manuscript collection in Birmingham. Cadbury named the collection the Mingana Collection after its first curator. The collection came to the University of Birmingham when it merged with Selly Oak Colleges in the late 1990s.

How did the discovery come to light?

For many years, the pages had been bound alongside leaves of a similar Qur’an manuscript in the Mingana Collection, thought to date from the late seventh century. The possibility that a section of this manuscript could be even older came to light during in-depth palaeographic study of the document by Dr Alba Fedeli during her PhD research at the University of Birmingham. Dr Fedeli identified the script as Hijazi, which has few diacritical marks and no vocalization. The Cadbury Research Library decided to have the leaves radiocarbon dated independently following interest in the manuscript from the Berlin and Paris Academies, which were investigating early textual evidence of Qur’anic manuscripts for a project called Coranica, which coincided with Dr Fedeli’s research into the handwriting. 

What are the origins of the manuscript?

It is not possible to say with certainly where the manuscript was made or who the scribe was. From the handwriting, we can deduce that it may have been created in the Hejaz area to the west of the Arabian Peninsula, which includes the Islamic sacred cities of Mecca and Medina.

It has been suggested on palaeographic grounds that the fragment matches 16 pages held by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and that they form part of the same original manuscript. The folios held in Paris are believed to have a provenance from the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As at Fustat, south of Misr (Cairo), which was built in 642 – the first mosque built in Egypt and Africa.

Are there any articles published about the manuscript?

The Birmingham Qur'an manuscript is documented in the following catalogues and articles:

1961, D. Hopwood, ‘The Islamic Manuscripts in the Mingana collection’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society XCIII/3-4.

1982, K. ‘Awwad, ‘Aqdam al-makhtutat al-‘arabiyya fi maktabat al-‘alam’ (The Oldest Arabic Manuscripts in the World's Libraries), Baghdad, 1982.

1985, H. L. Gottschalk, D. Hopwood (eds) et. al. ‘The Islamic Arabic Manuscripts in the Mingana Collection’ Volume IV.

1997, L-A Hunt, ‘The Mingana and Related Collections. A Survey of Illustrated Arabic, Greek, Eastern Christian, Persian and Turkish Manuscripts in the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham’.

2009, Gerd-R. Puin: ‘The Alif in Qur’anic Orthography: Vowel letters and ortho-epic writing variants’

2009, F. Déroche, ‘La Transmission écrite du Coran dans les débuts de l'Islam. Le codex Parisino-petropolitanus.’ (Leiden – Boston).

2011, A. Fedeli, ‘The Provenance of the Manuscript Mingana Islamic Arabic 1572: Dispersed folios from a few Qur'anic quires’ in Manuscripta Orientalia, Vol 17, No 1, June 2011 pp.45-56.

About the parchment and ink

What is the manuscript made of?

The manuscript is made of parchment. Parchment is animal skin that has been de-haired and treated with an alkali solution, such as lime, and left to dry under tension. This process gives it its creamy white colour. The Birmingham Qur’an manuscript is probably made of goat or sheep skin, which were used for early Islamic parchments.

What is the radiocarbon dating result?

OxA-29418 Parchment, MS1572 Cadbury Research Library, d13C=-21.04  1456 ± 21 BP

The calibrated date range is as follows: OxA-29418 R_Date (1461,21) 95.4% probability 568 (95.4%) 645 calAD

The result will be published in Datelist in the University of Oxford’s journal Archaeometry number 36.

Do you have any information about the ink?

The brown ink from this period used on the manuscript would have been made from a carbon-based pigment, applied with a reed pen. The red ink, which may have been added later, could be made from kermes lake pigment, which was available at the time. The inks have not been age-tested as there is currently no scientifically reliable method of dating inks.

Is the manuscript a palimpsest?

There is no evidence to suggest the manuscript is a palimpsest. The manuscript has been closely examined under UV light and there is no evidence of underwriting. A palimpsest is a parchment that has been reused, with the original ink washed off and new writing placed over the top, usually at 90 degrees to the original. While there are other manuscripts in the Mingana Collection that are clearly palimpsests, the Birmingham Qur’an manuscript is not a palimpsest. In some photographs reproduced on the internet, what appears as a shadow of writing is the handwriting from the other side of the leaf showing through. This is evident on inspection of the original manuscript.

About the Mingana Collection

What is the Mingana Collection?

The University of Birmingham’s Mingana Collection is made up of more than 3,000 Middle Eastern manuscripts representing over 20 languages, spanning a period of 4,000 years. This unique and rich collection was acquired during the 1920s and 30s by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul who had settled in England. Mingana’s three trips to the Middle East to acquire manuscripts, and his purchases from European manuscript dealers, were funded by Edward Cadbury, who generously named the collection after its first curator. Manuscripts in the Mingana Collection (including the Birmingham Qur’an manuscript) can be viewed on the Virtual Manuscript Room.

Who was Alphonse Mingana?

Mingana described himself as a ‘writer and curator of oriental manuscripts’. Born in modern-day Iraq in 1878, he emigrated to the UK in 1913 and settled in Birmingham, where he worked with J Rendel Harris, then Director of Studies at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. Harris introduced Mingana to Edward Cadbury. Mingana died in 1937, before he was able to complete the four catalogues of the 3,000 manuscripts he had acquired for Edward Cadbury. The first three catalogues were completed during his lifetime. The fourth catalogue of the Islamic Arabic manuscripts in the collection was completed by Mingana’s successors and published in 1963, with a revised edition in 1985 (currently out of print). A summary of the contents can be found online.

Who was Edward Cadbury?

Edward Cadbury was the grandson of the founder of the Cadbury’s chocolate company. He was a Quaker with an interest in philanthropy. He acquired the manuscripts to raise the status of Birmingham as a centre for religious study and theological scholarship. He founded the Chair of Theology at the University of Birmingham in 1936, which continues to this day. The Edward Cadbury Charitable Trust was founded in 1945.

What is the Cadbury Research Library?

The Cadbury Research Library (CRL) is the name of the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections department. The CRL holds collections of over 4 million manuscripts and 200,000 rare books. 

Are there any other early Qur’an manuscripts in the Mingana Collection?

 There is another Qur’an manuscript written in Hijazi script in the Mingana Collection, believed to date from later in the seventh century and with the catalogue number Islamic Arabic 1572b. There is a ninth-century Qur’an manuscript written in Kufic script, with the catalogue number Islamic Arabic 1563.

Can I see the manuscript?

Will the manuscript be on public exhibition?

The manuscript is not on public exhibition due to the long-term preservation requirements. Free images can be downloaded for private study from the Cadbury Research Library Flickr site. For publication please contact the Cadbury Research Library Copying and Imaging Service.

The manuscript is not available for consultation by the public at the Cadbury Research Library. If you have a strong research requirement to view the original manuscript which is not fulfilled by the digital images made freely available, please put your request in writing to the Director of Special Collections.  Please be aware that you will need to have a particularly strong case to view this manuscript due to preservation issues. Your research access request will be considered by the University and you will be informed in due course.

 

I have more questions about the Qur’an, who can I speak to?

Please contact the Press Office