Ancient Qur'an just one of many 'hidden treasures' at the University of Birmingham

Last week, the University of Birmingham announced that within its collections it holds one of the earliest Qur’anic manuscripts in existence. Radiocarbon analysis revealed that the document dates from within a few decades of the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad.

But this manuscript is not the only ‘hidden treasure’ at Birmingham. The shelves of the University’s Cadbury Research Library are home to the Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, a stupendous collection of more than 3,000 manuscripts written in over 20 languages across a span of nearly 2,000 years.

Focusing on the Christian Middle East, this stunning collection was brought together in the 1930s by a researcher called Alphonse Mingana, with funding from Edward Cadbury, a chairman of Cadbury Brothers and philanthropist who was one of the founders of the Selly Oak educational colleges in Birmingham.

Mingana bought some of the material, such as Qur’anic leaves, from European dealers, while he also toured the Middle East in search of manuscripts suitable for the collection. He was encouraged by James Rendel Harris, the first Director of Studies at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and a leading biblical textual scholar. The collection was initially stored in the Rendel Harris Library of the Selly Oak Colleges before being transferred to the Orchard Learning Resource Centre and subsequently to the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections when much of the Selly Oak Colleges’ collections became part of the University.

The Mingana is recognised as a ‘Designated Collection’ of international importance by Arts Council England and recently benefited from £95,000 of funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. Depending on exactly how one counts items, it is usually regarded as the third largest collection of Christian Oriental manuscripts in the world, after the Vatican Library and the French National Library in Paris. Yet, unlike those collections, it is hardly known, and very little research is carried out. However, every time someone takes the time to investigate, another treasure emerges.

As well as the ancient Qur’anic manuscript that hit the headlines last week, the collection includes several other examples of early Qur’anic fragments studied in detail by Dr Alba Fedeli as part of her PhD research at the University. Three of these are previously unknown manuscripts comprising a few pages each, while a fourth is part of an early manuscript dispersed across several libraries. These manuscripts provide vital evidence about the earliest written forms of the Qur’anic text.

Meanwhile, a recent visit by two scholars from Brigham Young University, USA, to examine boxes of unstudied papyri in the University’s collections yielded an amulet containing a verse from the New Testament written in the fourth century, as well as a second-century fragment from a manuscript of the Psalms in Greek.

Among the better-known manuscripts in the Mingana Collection is a beautiful copy of the Gospels written in the 12th century that features a saying of Jesus found in no other copy. It is believed to have been contained in one of the most fascinating and tantalisingly lost documents of early Christianity, the Diatessaron, a harmony of the Gospels compiled in the second century by a Syrian writer called Tatian.

Some of the manuscripts have been digitised and published online using a system developed by the University’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing.

The Mingana Collection contains material for doctoral theses and larger research projects and has the capacity to draw many more researchers to study it. It is time to share our secrets with the world.

Professor David Parker, Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, University of Birmingham