Fragments the world’s oldest Koran, which dates back almost to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, have been found hidden inside the pages of another book in a university library.
The pages from the Islamic holy book manuscript are thought to be between 1,448 and 1,371 years old, making it the earliest copy of the the Koran in existence.
It was discovered bound within the pages of another far younger Koran from the late seventh century at the library of the University of Birmingham.
Researchers say the script used in the two books is similar, meaning the older pages could have been thought to belong to the seventh century Koran.
The two ancient pages, which contain parts of the Suras, or chapters, 18 to 20, may have been written by someone who actually knew the Prophet Muhammad who founded the Islamic faith.
The discovery is thought to be particularly significant as in the early years of Islam, the Koran was thought to have been memorised and passed down orally rather written.
Professor David Thomas, an expert on Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘If it is what we now think it is, is very important indeed.
‘Islam is associated, of course, with the Prophet Muhammad, and he lived in the late sixth and early seventh century.
‘Now this manuscript could well have been written just after he died.’
Speaking to the BBC, he added: ‘The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad.
‘He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally.’
The animal skin parchment was dated, using radiocarbon dating at the University of Oxford, to between 568AD and 645AD with around 95.4 per cent accuracy.
The Prophet Muhammad is thought to have lived between 570AD and 632AD.
He is thought to have founded Islam sometime after 610AD and the first Muslim community was founded in Medina in 622AD.
During this time the Koran was memorised and recited orally but Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad’s death, ordered the Koranic material to be collected into a book.
The final authoritative written form was not completed until 650AD under the third leader Caliph Uthman.
Professor Thomas said the pages found in the Birmingham University library suggest the parts of the Koran it covers have not changed much since those early days.
He said: ‘The parts of the Koran that are contained in those fragments are very similar indeed to the Koran as we have it today, and so this tends to support the view that the Koran that we now have is more or less very close indeed to the Koran as it was brought together in the early years of Islam.’
The pages formed part of the Mingana Collection, which was gathered by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born near Mosul in modern day Iraq.
Sponsored by Edward Cadbury, from the chocolate dynasty, he collected 3,000 Middle Eastern documents, which were placed into the care of the University of Birmingham by Cadbury.
Susan Worrall, director of special collections, University of Birmingham, said: ‘The dating of this manuscript is a great discovery for the University.
‘We’re now aware of a genuine treasure in the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections, a treasure that is of global significance to Muslim heritage and to the study of Islam.’
The script on the pages is the Hijazi script, which was an early form of Arabic.
Professor Nadir Dinshaw, who studies interreligious relations at the University of Birmingham, described the discovery as ‘startling’.
He said: They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam.
‘According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam, between the years AD 610 and 632, the year of his death.
‘At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Instead, the revelations were preserved in ‘the memories of men’.
‘Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels.
‘Muslims believe that the Koran they read today is the same text that was standardised under Uthman and regard it as the exact record of the revelations that were delivered to Muhammad.
‘The tests carried out on the parchment of the Birmingham folios yield the strong probability that the animal from which it was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterwards.
‘These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Koran read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed.’