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A chance to discover secrets of Birmingham Qur’an


A historic Qur’an manuscript that originated in the Middle East 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 Qur’an — 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 Muhammad lived between 570 and 632, reported quoted by the Tehran-based Iran Daily on Tuesday.

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 recognize the words from the chapters 18-20 of the Holy Qur’an.

Visitors to the exhibition can engage with the manuscript, study the calligraphy, analyze the Hijazi script from Mecca and Medina, 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 organized 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 organized 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.’

In 2015, the University of Birmingham organized a three-week exhibition with the Qur’an as its centerpiece, 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 center 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 Qur’an and fragments preserved at the Bibilotheque Nationale de France in Paris.

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. 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 Qur’an. 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.

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, Shah adds.

The exhibition will be at Umm Al Emarat Park, from November 20 to 29, before transferring to Dubai in the spring.

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