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Islamic History ( 22 Sept 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Birmingham Mushaf between Simple Facts and Manufactured Controversies

By Louay Fatoohi

22 September2015

Article Reproduced on New Age Islam from the Author’s Blog by His Permission

Two months ago came the exciting discovery of fragments of a Qur’anic manuscript that radiocarbon dating has shown to be among the earliest, if not the earliest, in existence. The manuscript was found in the Mingana Collection Middle Eastern manuscripts, which are held by the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, which is why it is often referred to as the “Birmingham Qur’an.” It is common practice to name old manuscripts of the Qur’an after the places where they were found. However, it is more accurate to call any manuscript of the Qur’an “Mushaf” rather than “Qur’an,” because the word “Qur’an” refers to the revelation whereas “Mushaf” denotes the compiled, written record of the Qur’anic revelation. I have previously published an article about the distinction between “Qur’an” and “Mushaf.” This is why I will call the newly found manuscript the “Birmingham Mushaf” rather than “Birmingham Qur’an.”

The fragments consist of two leaves that are made of animal skin, 33.3 cm by 24.5 cm in dimension. The verses of the Qur’an are written in clear Hijazi script. The text has skeletal dots that differentiate consonants. Skeletal dots were used well before the time of the Qur’an, as they are found in a number of ancient Arabic writings that predate Islam. The text of the two folios does not have diacritical marks for the short vowels. These marks are believed to have been introduced by Abū al-Aswad al-Du’alī (d. 69 H / 688 CE), a grammarian and close companion of the fourth caliph Imam ʿAlī bin Abī ālib (40 H / 661 CE).

The folios are double-sided, making up four pages in total. They were almost certainly part of a complete Mushaf. The front page of the first leaf covers verses 17-22 from Chapter 18, “al-Kahf.” The back page of this leaf continues from verse 23 to verse 31.

The second leaf is from a later part of the Qur’an. The first half of the front page contains verses 91-98 of Chapter 19, “Mariam,” which are the last verses of the chapter. The second half contains the first 12 verses of Chapter 20, āhā. The back page contains verses 13-39.

There is more than one reason for considering these fragments to be extremely significant and for the incredible excitement they generated among both laypeople and scholars:

1) These two leaves were probably written just after the Prophet Muhammad (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām) died. The Prophet was born in 570 CE and received the first revelation of the Qur’an when he was 40 years old, i.e. around 610 CE. All verses of the Qur’an were written down as soon as they were revealed. So the Qur’an had all been written down by the time the Prophet (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām) departed this world in 632 CE. Most scholars believe that the Qur’an was first compiled in one volume during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (d. 13 H / 634 CE). This process was then formalized during the rule of ‘Uthmān bin ʿAffān (d. 35 H / 656 CE), around the year 29 H / 650 CE. Personally, however, I think the Mushaf was compiled during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām), but this is not the subject of this article.

Radiocarbon dating has dated the parchment to the period 568-645 CE with 95.4% accuracy. The writing on the parchment is likely to have been made immediately or shortly after the death of the animal it was taken from. One has to talk about a combination of range and accuracy level when using this technique, but the range suggests that the Mushaf to which the two leaves belong was probably written shortly after the departure of the Prophet (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām) or maybe even late in his life.

2) An equally significant fact is that the text on the two leaves is identical to the text of the Mushaf we have today. The text of each verse in the Mushaf that Muslims have today and the manuscript match word for word. Even the order of the verses in both is exactly the same. Furthermore, the front page of the second folio shows that the order of the chapters is also the same, with the Chapter of āhā following that of Mariam. In other words, the manuscript confirms that the Qur’anic text has been perfectly preserved and has reached us without being changed.

To illustrate this extremely impressive fact as clearly as possible, I have asked my younger brother Faiz, who is very skilled in using graphics editing software, to attach to the image of each page of the manuscript the corresponding text of the Qur’an from the Mushaf in circulation. The text of the Mushaf has been split on each line to match how it appears in the manuscript. The parts of the text that are illegible because of damage to the manuscript have been shaded in the created image of the Mushaf. The four images clearly show how the text of the Mushaf today matches the early manuscript exactly.


Leaf 1 – front page: Verses 18.17-22 (click on image to enlarge)


Leaf 1 – back page: Verses 18.23-31 (click on image to enlarge)


Leaf 2 – front page: Verses 19.91-97 & 20.1-12 (click on image to enlarge)


Leaf 2 – back page: Verses 20.12-39 (click on image to enlarge)

 3) Another point worth making is that the end of each verse has been marked on the manuscript with a group of dots. Again, the manuscript and today’s Mushaf agree on when each verse starts and ends.

These are the simple facts about the Birmingham Mushaf. They are in line with the traditional account in the Islamic primary sources about the preservation of the Qur’anic revelation, including these statements in the Qur’an itself:

Verily, it is We who revealed the Remembrance [the Qur’an], and verily, We are its Guardian. (15.9)

Surely those who disbelieved in the Remembrance [the Qur’an] when it came to them [were wrong]; surely it is an impregnable Book. (41.41) Falsehood cannot come to it from anywhere; [it is] a revelation from One who is Wise and Praised. (41.42)

But the discovery of the Birmingham Mushaf has also revealed uncompromising and almost irrational objection to the concept of the preservation of the Qur’an. Some have tried to turn the significance of this stunning discovery on its head, claiming that it questions rather than supports the preservation of the Qur’anic text! The piece of information that has been used to serve this purpose is the date range that the radiocarbon examination has assigned to the parchment. As the earlier part of this range goes back even before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām), it has been suggested that the Birmingham Mushaf may predate its Prophet! In other words, the claim is that the Prophet (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām) simply copied and used texts that were already in circulation.

All of the instances in which this claim was made that I have come across carefully fail to mention a critical fact. The Qur’an was revealed over 20 years or so, yet the range suggested by the radiocarbon dating for around 95% accuracy is as wide as 78 years, because of limitations of the technique and the nature of parchment. This means that it is mathematically impossible for any text from the time of the Prophet or shortly after him to avoid the suggestion that it existed before him. Even if the radiocarbon dating range, whether for this or another manuscript, was narrower, it would still be more than 20 years, and those who would like to advance this claim would continue to do so.

This claim is made in a clearly misleading way. Those claimants express their view in a way that suggests that the claim is the “result” of the newly found manuscript. This is completely untrue and misleading. This claim can be made regardless of the details and facts of any manuscript, because radiocarbon dating would probably always yield a date range that is bigger than the 20 years over which the revelation of the Qur’an took place. In other words, the Birmingham Mushaf is being presented as the reason for a claim that actually has nothing to do with that manuscript. This claim is nothing other than a belief that is held independently of the Birmingham Mushaf, which this manuscript does not support in any way.

While the discovery of the Birmingham Mushaf has been misrepresented as potentially indicating that the Qur’anic text had existed even before the Prophet (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām) was born, the more popular, though no less absurd, claim against the preservation of the Qur’an has so far been that it continued to be developed many decades after the Prophet died! This bizarre claim has been embraced only by a minority of scholars, not least because there is not a shred of evidence to support it and there is plenty of evidence, including old manuscripts, that refutes it. So this older, baseless claim has now been joined by the exact opposite claim that the Qur’an existed before the Prophet Muhammad (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām) was born! They both share the same objective, however, of discrediting the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad.

Interestingly, the Qur’an itself documents in several verses the different accusations that were levelled at the Prophet Muhammad in his lifetime. Some of these charges, which probably mainly came from polytheistic Arabs, accused Muhammad of basing the Qur’an on confused dreams; making it up; and being merely a poet, a madman, or a soothsayer:

No! They (the disbelievers) say: “[The Qur’an is] medleys of dreams; no! He has made it up; no! He is a poet. So let him bring to us a sign as the former [prophets] were sent with.” (21.5)

And they (the disbelievers) say: “O you [Muhammad] to whom the Remembrance (the Qur’an) has been revealed, you are a madman!” (15.6)

Therefore continue [O Muhammad!] to remind; for by the grace of your Lord, you are not a soothsayer or a madman. (52.29)

Another charge was that the Qur’an was a collection of ancient stories that was being taught to, and written down for, the Prophet Muhammad by some people:

And they [the disbelievers] say: “[The Qur’an is] stories of the ancients that he [Muhammad] has had written down, as they are read out to him morning and evening.” (25.5)

Time has not changed much! The Birmingham Mushaf proves yet again that there is nothing that will convince someone who has already decided against accepting the preservation of the Qur’anic text:

Even if we opened for them a gate into the sky, through which they climb (15.14), they would still they say: “Our eyes have been dazzled! No, we are a people bewitched!” (15.15)

Copyright © 2015 Louay Fatoohi



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  1. Every thinking Muslim should take cognizance of what propelled the holy Qur’an from being an incomplete, distorted or a missing book to remain a completely preserved and fully memorised religious scripture that continues to be a living voice of the divine messages. The complete preservation of the holy Qur’an was so vital to Islam that God had ensured it in its early phase by making a strong divine assertion: “Indeed We have sent down the Qur’an, and indeed We Ourselves surely are its Guardians” (15:9). This is one of the miracles of the Qur’an that no one has been able to change even a letter of its text, despite every possible effort by the Arab pagans.
    However, We Muslims need to take a hard look at the common perception about the collection of the holy Qur’an. It is generally believed that the Qur’an had not been duly compiled and shaped into a book in the prophetic era and that it was finally done later during the caliphate of the Prophet’s beloved companion, Hazrat Usman (r.a). The commonly believed story goes like this.  All the materials like parchments and shoulder bones of animals which carried different portions of the holy Qur’an were scattered in different places. The work of collecting them meticulously with collective testimony started in the lifetime of the first Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Abu Bakr (r.a.). But the Quran we read today was finally canonised in the time of the third Caliph Hazrat Usman (r.a) who then ordered the burning of all personal copies of the Qur'an.

    Though this story is entirely based on traditions, all reported through Ibn-e-Shihab Zuhri (r.a), I find it difficult to believe. For it contradicts what the holy Qur’an clearly speaks about itself.
    God referred to the Qur’an as “Al-Kitab” (the book) for several times in the holy Qur’an, like in the Qur’anic verses: 2:2, 10:1, 11:1, 16:89 etc. 
    The holy Qur’an made it clear that “It is indeed a most honourable Qur’an in a book well guarded” (56:77, 78).

    The Qur’an asserted that it was written on parchment (5:2, 3).
    It also mentioned that: “It is recorded in honoured sheets, exalted and purified, carried by the hands of messenger-angels, noble and dutiful” (80:13-16).
    All the aforementioned Qur’anic verses clearly say that the holy Qur’an had been fully preserved and given the form of a book right in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Therefore, the reports by Ibn-e- Shihab Zuhri stand contradictory to the primary source of Islam. However, they could not be rejected outright, because it is quite probable that the Caliph Abu Bakr (r.a) got authentic copies of the Qur’an prepared with the help of the original Mushaf (text) of the Qur’an already in existence. In fact, this was the original Mushaf of the holy Qur’an which was placed near a column of the Prophet’s mosque (al-Masjid al-Nabwi). The very fact that this column is called “Ustuwana-e-Mushaf” is substantial evidence that the Mushaf (the holy Qur’an in form of a book) was already in existence in the Prophetic era.
    The Prophet (pbuh) paid great heed to the preservation of the Qur’an in his lifetime. He exhorted nearly all his companions to commit each verse of the Qur’an to their memory. (1) He also prescribed the regular recitation of the Qur’an to them as an act of worship. He had made many of his companions learn the Qur’an by heart through different means such as memorising, repeatedly hearing and regularly reciting them particularly during the daily meditative prayers. Thus, the entire Qur’an was memorised verbatim by many of his companions in his lifetime. Some of them were Zaid ibn Thabit, Ubayy ibn Ka’b, Muadh ibn Jabal, and Abu Zaid (2). They memorised not only all the verses of the Qur’an, but also their actual pronunciation, which later came to be known as Ilm-e- Tajweed, which even later came to be known as a complete Qur’anic  science in itself.

    By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi 27/09/2015 04:13:26
  2. Dear Louay Fatoohi Saheb,

    I wish you could respond to my comment on your last article on Birmingham Quran's recently discovered pages. This is actually a very deep and important topic that needs scholarly responses from devout Muslims, not just rejection and mere summary dismissal that it's false as it has got to be false. I am eager to see your response.

    The revisionist arguments start from Goldziher's 1880 argument that the Hadith narrations were developed centuries after the demise of the Prrophet (saw) in response to controversies in Iraq. It's essentially a non-Muslim scholarship that is begging for intelligent Muslim commentary. ​

    I would be grateful if you could bring to bear your enormous scholarship on the subject. You may reject it of course, but it has to be in a scholarly manner. Mere devotional writing has no particular value. Internet is full of that. New Age Islam must promote rationalism and tadabbur in every possible way and on every possible subject.

    Do please work on the subject and come up with a reasonable response that can be appreciated by scholars. We have scholars from many of the top universities of the world as readers. They may not post comments but they write to me occasionally giving their responses and some of them tell me they are awaiting your response on this issue. 

    By Sultan Shahin 25/09/2015 16:21:42
  3. Dear Louay Fatoohi Saheb, You say: “While the discovery of the Birmingham Mushaf has been misrepresented as potentially indicating that the Qur’anic text had existed even before the Prophet (Sallā Allah ‘Alaihi wa Sallām) was born, the more popular, though no less absurd, claim against the preservation of the Qur’an has so far been that it continued to be developed many decades after the Prophet died! This bizarre claim has been embraced only by a minority of scholars, not least because there is not a shred of evidence to support it and there is plenty of evidence, including old manuscripts, that refutes it.”


    Though I am not an authority on the subject, it seems to me that the "not a shred of evidence" part ignores a very substantial, serious tradition going back to 1880 of historical revisionism that cannot be dismissed summarily in this way. At the very least, there is a consensus that the authorized version of the Quran that we have today emerged during the third Caliph Hazrat Osman’s period, that is, 24 years after the demise of the Prophet (saw). Muslims were asked to accept this version and burn their own copies. Some Muslims are believed not to have complied with the order and retained their copies or parchments bearing only a few pages. Some pages from these non-standard versions are also said to have been found later, the Sana’a manuscripts, for instance, though they seem to vary only marginally.

    The biggest proof of Quran’s authenticity is considered to be the fact that though Muslims differed and fought bitterly over many issues, there I hardly any controversy among them on the authenticity of Quran.


    Thus while what you say may be substantially correct, you should not completely ignore or summarily dismiss scholarly studies. You may refute them, of course. Aqeedat (devotion) has no place in scholarship. When we are writing in devotion, we can say what we like, what we believe in. But when we are writing a scholarly piece, it should meet the parameters of scholarship and cannot totally ignore or dismiss any serious objection summarily without noting and then refuting it.

    By Sultan Shahin 24/09/2015 15:01:50
  4. The author writes: "Radiocarbon dating has dated the parchment to the period 568-645 CE with 95.4% accuracy. The writing on the parchment is likely to have been made immediately or shortly after the death of the animal it was taken from."
    This is nonsense. The age of the parchment does NOT indicate the age of the writing on it. Pieces of parchments were regulalrly washed clean and used over again. Is there anything in the script that indicates that it could NOT have been written after such and such date? No serious scholar has made the claim that it was written before the adent of Islam. 
    By C M Naim 24/09/2015 07:12:48