A chance to discover the secrets of the Birmingham Quran

A digital exhibition of the manuscript in the UAE will highlight its importance

A handout photo of Digital Exhibition of the Birmingham Quran Manuscript (Courtesy: University of Birmingham) *** Local Caption ***  na20fe-focus-uk-uae03.JPG

A historic Quran manuscript that originated in the region, and is possibly one of the oldest in the world, has come to the UAE thanks to digital technology, giving people an opportunity to explore the rare document.

The Birmingham Quran – part of the Mingana Collection at the University of Birmingham – gained renown in 2015 after radiocarbon dating revealed it originated in the period 568-645. It was previously thought to belong to the eighth or ninth century. Prophet Mohammed lived between 570-632.

The parchments, with deep red alphabets inked on them as well as interesting diacritical markings, have stood the test of time. Scripted more than 1,000 years ago, anyone familiar with the text can immediately recognise the words from Surah Al-Kahf, Surah Maryam and Surah Ta-Ha, chapters 18-20 of the Quran. 

Visitors to the exhibition can engage with the manuscript, study the calligraphy, analyse the Hijazi script from Makkah and Madinah, and learn about the history of the document. As part of the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration, a year of exchange between the two countries organised by the British Council, the exhibition has arrived in Sharjah and will travel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The team looking after the manuscript at the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library are inviting people to discover its history. It is the first time the university has organised a digital exhibition on this scale outside the UK.

Susan Worrall, director of special collections at the Cadbury Research Library, said: “The exhibition is purpose-built for the UAE. The calligraphy is significant and beautiful and clear. The text flows and develops. You really get a sense of somebody sitting there and writing it down at that time.

“You can feel the link to the person who was creating it. I hope visitors to the exhibition can get an understanding of the origins of this particular manuscript, when it was created, the dating, the research and why it is in Birmingham.

“The Mingana Collection links to the UAE because of its significance to the Muslim religion. It’s deliberate that our first exhibition of this kind is in the UAE. I hope visitors to the exhibition will understand more about the text, the parchment, why it was written in such a way and how this manuscript fits into the development of world religion, and in particular, of Islam.”

In 2015, the University of Birmingham organised a three-week exhibition with the Quran as its centrepiece, drawing 9,000 visitors. 

The manuscript has been in Birmingham since the 1930s. It was acquired by Edward Cadbury, who was building a collection of Middle Eastern documents in the English Midlands city in an effort to make it a centre for academic excellence. About 3,000 manuscripts were acquired by his agent, Alphonse Mingana from Iraq, who had settled in Birmingham. Mingana was a manuscript expert and became a curator for Cadbury. He amassed this collection in the 1920s and 1930s. It was only acquired by the University of Birmingham in 1999 after it was gifted by the Edward Cadbury Trust.

Preserving such a document has its challenges, and the manuscript is kept in a climate-controlled room so that humidity and temperature are monitored.

Scholars have suggested a connection between the Birmingham Quran and fragments preserved at the Bibilotheque Nationale de France in Paris.

“The manuscript in France has a clear provenance to the Emir’s Mosque in Cairo. It’s possible the manuscript was written for that mosque,” said Sarah Kilroy, head of conservation and programming at the University of Birmingham. 

Dr Mustafa Shah, senior lecturer in Islamic Studies at SOAS University of London, explained the reason the manuscript has attracted such interest is because of the result of radiocarbon dating. There are manuscripts which are similar in characteristics and in terms of style and the use of diacritics. Such documents are preserved in Paris and St Petersburg. Dr Shah cautioned that most scholars would say carbon dating itself cannot and should not be the only criterion for putting a date on a script.

However, a combination of the result of the radiocarbon dating, knowledge of the script and of early Islamic history were used to fix the date of the Birmingham Quran. Visitors to the exhibition will notice its distinctive script: the type of characters, the style of the characters and the use of the dots as the manuscript has some diacritical markings in odd places.

“Today’s version of the Quran is fully vocalised and you have all the dots for the individual letters. In the early Islamic period these were not fully vocalised. These indicators would suggest that it belonged to the early Umayyad Period, around  665-670,” Dr Shah said.

In radiocarbon dating, the animal skin that the script is written upon is dated but the ink is not. In order to extrapolate the date from the ink, you have to use solvents which can pollute the actual script, so they cannot obtain an accurate reading, Dr Shah adds.

“When we look at the style of the manuscript, at the date, the use of diacritics, the style of the consonants, the verse markers, all of these fix it to the Umayyad period,” he said. The Umayyad dynasty ruled the Islamic caliphate from the death of the fourth caliph Ali in 661 until 750 [AD]. 

“The fact that it belongs to the Umayyad period should not diminish its historical importance. It corroborates the traditional accounts of the way in which the Quran was brought together.

“This certainly places the Quran in its historical context as coming from Hijaz. In the late 70s and 80s, a theory was developed by one academic and followed up by others, which suggested that the Quran wasn’t around at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and that the Quran wasn’t a fixed text for hundreds of years," he said.

“This manuscript, among others, shows that is not the case. It’s an important historical archive which confirms aspects of the traditional account.”

The exhibition will be at Umm Al Emarat Park, from November 20 to 29, before transferring to Dubai in the spring. Information about taking part in a one-hour calligraphy workshop is available from www.britishcouncil.ae. The University of Birmingham has also developed a four-week course, The Birmingham Quran: Its Journey from the Islamic Heartlands, which starts on November 20. More information about the free online course is at www.birmingham.ac.uk


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University of Birmingham delivers digital version of 'world's oldest surviving fragment' of the Quran to UAE