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Quran Fragments Found In U.K. Library Are Among Oldest In The World


We're going to hear now about pages of the Quran that are almost as old as Islam itself. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in England have discovered these fragments in one of their library collections. Two pages are thought to have been produced between 568 and 645 A.D. during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Susan Worrall is the special collections director of the Cadbury Research Library where the pages were found, and she joins us from Birmingham. Welcome to the program.



What do these pages look like?

WORRALL: They're remarkably clear, actually. They're four sides on parchment, which is animal skin. The handwriting is beautiful. It's very legible. I think if people can read Arabic today, they may well be able to read some of the text itself.

SIEGEL: What does the discovery mean? And first, are you sure that this is the real deal, that they are as old as the test would suggest?

WORRALL: Well, I mean, the test has been done for us by the University of Oxford's radiocarbon dating unit. Like you said, they've come back with a result of 568 to 645 A.D. They say that's with a 95.4 degree of confidence. What's been tested is the parchment itself. And so it's not the actual ink on the page, but I think it's pretty reasonable to say - and certainly academics have said this - that for something like a Quran and something that's so high-quality, the parchment would have been made pretty much to order.

SIEGEL: Does the date range push back the assumption as to when the Quran was first committed to the page, I guess, to parchment?

WORRALL: That's an interesting question. I mean, it's possible that what we have predates 650, so it is one of those sort of parts of it that were written directly listening to the Prophet Muhammad. Or it may be just a very early, you know, neat copy of the writings. What it does show is that the Quran, academics believe, has actually changed very little, so the text relates very closely to the Quran that we would read today.

SIEGEL: Where is this Quran from, by the way? Where was this fragment found?

WORRALL: We don't know that certain, but based on the handwriting, academics have speculated that it's linked to a section of the Quran which is to be found in the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris in France. And so we do know where that originates from. The provenance, or the history of that, tells us that that comes from the first mosque that was built in Africa in 642 A.D. - so actually in Egypt.

SIEGEL: What was it like when you became aware of this - of how old this fragment, which has been in the library for decades - what was that discovery like?

WORRALL: It was a very exciting moment as you can imagine. I mean, we knew that this was an early Quran, you know, but we didn't know it was quite this early. So I think that we were sort of stunned silence and then just very excited and really trying to understand what the results might possibly mean.

SIEGEL: By coincidence, Birmingham happens to be a city of England - in England with a very large Muslim population. I understand it's been a day of great excitement the news that you've learned.

WORRALL: You're very right. I mean, Birmingham has got a fantastic multicultural population and we've been working closely with Birmingham Central Mosque, so the imam there has looked at the manuscript. He's incredibly excited. You know, it's wonderful globally for Muslim heritage, culturally for the city of Birmingham and really for the local community in Birmingham as well.

SIEGEL: Well, Susan Worrall, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

WORRALL: Thank you. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Susan Worrall is the special collections director of the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham in England where two pages of the Quran are housed, and after carbon dating, it's been determined they're almost 1,400 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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