NYTimes: Quran fragments perhaps as old as Islam

On Wednesday, researchers at the University of Birmingham revealed the startling finding that the fragments appeared to be part of what could be the world’s oldest copy of the Quran, and researchers say it may have been transcribed by a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad.

“We were bowled over, startled indeed,” said David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, after he and other researchers learned recently of the manuscript’s provenance.

The ancient pieces of manuscript, estimated to be at least 1,370 years old, offered a moment of unity, and insight, for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Professor Thomas said it provided tantalizing clues to help settle a scholarly dispute about whether the holy text was actually written down at the time of the prophet, or compiled years later after being passed down by word of mouth. The discovery also offered a joyful moment for a faith that has struggled with internal divisions and external pressures.

Muslims believe Muhammad received the revelations that form the Quran, the scripture of Islam, between 610 and 632, the year of his death. Professor Thomas said tests by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit indicated with a probability of more than 94 percent that the parchment dated from 568 to 645.

During the time of Muhammad, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today, Professor Thomas said. Rather, the words believed to be from God as told to Muhammad were preserved in the “memories of men” and recited. Parts were written on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels, he said.

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