British Library Digitizes One of the World’s Oldest Qur’an Manuscripts

Pages from the British Library's oldest Qur'an manuscript (images via British Library)
Pages from the British Library’s oldest Qur’an manuscript (all images via British Library)

One of the world’s oldest Qur’an manuscripts is now online, digitized in full by the British Library. The text dates from the 8th century — making it the oldest of its kind in the institution’s collection. It represents a rare example of an intact manuscript from this period, as Colin F. Baker, the library’s head of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Collections, notes.

A page at the end of the manuscript showing acquisition details (click to enlarge)
A page at the end of the manuscript showing acquisition details (click to enlarge)

This copy contains 121 folios representing over 2/3 of the complete holy text, written in the early māʼil script — a calligraphic writing that tends to slope to the right on the page. Its writer penned the verses on vellum, and the pages were then folded, sewn, and bound into a codex for convenient reading.

One page of the text includes English writing: details of the book’s acquisition, revealing that one Reverend Greville John Chester sold it to the library in 1879. Quite the Victorian traveler and adventurer, Chester visited Egypt and the Near East multiple times to cultivate his interests in archaeology, Egyptology, and natural history, and to collect relevant objects. Baker notes that the clergyman likely found this manuscript in Egypt, although it was probably originally produced in the Hijaz region in present-day Saudi Arabia. The māʼil script is one of a few Arabic writings collectively named for the area, and Baker provides further background on its distinguishing characteristics:

It can also be recognised by the distinctive traits of some of its letters, for example, the letter alif does not curve at the bottom but is rigid, and the letter yā’, occurring at the end of a word, turns and extends backwards frequently underlying the preceding words.

In early Qur’āns there are no vowel signs, and this early style of script is also notable for its lack of diacritical marks to distinguish between letters of similar shape. Verse numbering had also not yet been established; the end of each verse was indicated by six small dashes in two stacks of three. The sūrah [chapter] headings were added much later in red ink in the recognisable space purposely left blank to distinguish between the end and the beginning of chapters. Red circles surrounded by red dots to mark the end of every ten verses were also added later.

England is home to a number of ancient Qur’an manuscripts: the British Library also holds an 11th-century Qur’an that presents one of the earliest examples of the naskhi script, and last year, researchers at the University of Birmingham found in its archives a manuscript of the holy book that appears to be another one of the world’s oldest. Radiocarbon dating placed its creation between 568 and 645 CE; according to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations between the year 610 and his death in 632 CE.

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