The University of Birmingham has delivered an interactive digital version of what is very likely the world’s oldest surviving fragment of the Quran to the UAE.
It is the first time that this version, which offers the touch sensitivity of a tablet and has become known as the Birmingham Quran, has been seen outside of the UK. Two versions will form permanent centrepieces of next year’s UK-UAE Year of Cultural Collaboration events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
To mark the occasion, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was given a framed copy of all four pages of the fragment digitally reprinted onto vellum by Prince Charles during a ceremony at Al Jalili Fort in Al Ain.
The four pages – printed on two double-sided fragments – were identified last year by scholars as having been written either during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad or shortly after his death.
So far, said Professor Sir David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the English University, the only two copies of the digital version of the text exist outside the university are the ones now in the UAE.
“Because of the special nature of the document and its significance, although we want to share it widely with the world we will do that only in appropriate places and in appropriate ways, so at the moment we don’t intend to produce multiple digital facsimiles,” he said.
Nevertheless, it had “seemed very appropriate when it was put to us that this should be the centrepiece of the royal launch of the UK-UAE Year of Cultural Collaboration, and an excellent way of first bringing the Quranic fragment, in digital form, back to this part of the world”.
The idea had come, he said, “from multiple conversations and the stars rather nicely aligned”.
The original, although available for study by theological scholars, will remain in the care of the University of Birmingham’s Mingana Collection of more than 3,000 Middle Eastern manuscripts. While it will go on public display for a limited time next year in London, “the document of course requires constant appropriate preservation, which is one of the reasons why it won’t be on continuous display”, said Prof Eastwood, who was in Al Ain for the launch of the Year of Cultural Collaboration.
The fragment is believed to have found its way to Birmingham in about 1930, among thousands of manuscripts collected on behalf of Edward Cadbury, the philanthropist and heir to the British chocolate company, which forms the basis of the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library.
But Mingana’s greatest find, which lay hidden among an 18-page fragment of a Quran thought to date from the late 7th century, remained unrecognised for decades.
It was not until in the mid-1990s that a visiting scholar spotted a clue. Sixteen of the pages were written in Kufic script, which had developed around Kufa, south of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq, at the end of the 7th century.
But two others, beautifully penned and still vividly readable, were in Hijazi script, known to have originated in the Arabian peninsula in the vicinity of Mecca and Medina before the birth of Islam.
It would be another two decades before the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place.
Alba Fedeli, an Islamic studies specialist from Italy, went to Birmingham University to devote her PhD to unravelling the secret. As part of her research, and after careful consideration of the implications for the physical integrity of the document, the university authorised radiocarbon dating.
That took place last year at Oxford University and, accurate to within 95.4 per cent, it dated the parchment to between AD 568 and AD 645.
Prophet Mohammed is generally thought to have lived between AD 570 and 632, which means that at the very latest the fragment was produced no more than 13 years after his death.
This, as Prince Charles wrote in his foreword for The Ancient Quranic Leaves exhibition catalogue, makes the fragment “a sacred document of immense religious and cultural significance to people across the globe”.
When the fragment first arrived in Birmingham in the 1930s, there was no Muslim community. Now it is home to more than 150 mosques, catering to the 21 per cent of its 1.1 million residents who are Muslim.
There was, said Prof Eastwood, “something rather wonderful” about how Islam had followed the Quran to Birmingham and how Birmingham was now returning it, albeit in digital form, to the Arabian peninsula, where the faith and the document originated.
“One of the things that has struck us very powerfully has been the response of the Islamic community in Birmingham,” said Prof Eastwood. “They have embraced very warmly the Birmingham Quran, as they would describe it, and there were many reports of Muslim friends in tears when they saw the original in Birmingham. It has a real resonance for the community.”
A collaboration of strength
The purpose of UK/UAE 2017, says Gavin Anderson, director UAE at the British Council, is “to strengthen creative collaborations between the UK and the UAE … to give greater focus, depth and contemporary relevance to the long-standing relationship between both nations”.
The display of the historic manuscript is “the perfect example of how this collaboration continues to this day”.
Throughout 2017, the British Council will collaborate with British and Emirati partners to create “a diverse programme that spans the arts, literature, education, society, sport, science and trade”.
“Exploring the ways our respective cultural heritage and contemporary creative expression inspires innovation in all sectors and all areas of society, UK/UAE 2017 will strengthen cultural and economic ties between the two nations and identify major opportunities for future collaboration on both sides,” a spokesman said.
UK/UAE 2017 is organised by the British Council under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and the Prince of Wales.
* Jonathan Gornall
(via The National)