The Value of International Collections: Birmingham Koran Extract Raises Interesting Questions

A document in the University of Birmingham special collections has been identified as one of the oldest known extracts of the Koran. Radiocardbon dating has suggested that the piece is at least 1,370 years old, dating from between 548 and 645. The intricate Hijazi script, written on either goat or sheep skin, is remarkably well preserved and is an exciting find for scholars and Muslims alike. The discovery also raises two immediately interesting points.

The extract is on two pieces of well-preserved parchment Source: NBC News
The extract is on two pieces of well-preserved parchment
Source: NBC News

How Old?

The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have received the words of the Koran from the angel Gabriel over a twenty-two year period, between 610 and his death in 632. The upper end of the dating of the Birmingham text is 645 and is therefore potentially one of the very first written extracts of the Koran. The writer may even have known the Prophet.

At the same time, however, it could theoretically date to as early as 548 according to the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. This is slightly more problematic as the Prophet Muhammad was not born until about 570.

Is this fragment older than the Prophet? If so, from where are its words derived? Are the believed dates of the Prophet’s life and his supposed revelations accurate? These are questions that may well be glossed over.

Artifact Wars

The Birmingham text is part of a collection of more than 3,000 manuscripts gathered in the Middle East by Assyrian theologian Alphonse Mingana, on the behest of chocolate entrepreneur and philanthropist Edward Cadbury.

Mingana's collection also includes this late-16th century Iranian manuscript Source: University of Birmingham
Mingana’s collection also includes this late-16th century Iranian manuscript
Source: University of Birmingham

Colonial powers – the British being foremost among them – have often been accused of plundering the cultural and archaeological heritage of their global dominions as a means of enhancing their museum exhibits and private collections.

Whilst there is undoubtedly some truth in this, the collection of artifacts by national institutions like the British Museum or the Louvre, for instance, has helped preserved culture that would otherwise have been eradicated in some of the world’s more volatile corners.

Governments in former colonised states are increasingly seeking to redeem ‘their’ possessions from some of the leading galleries and museums of the world. Such artifacts are, they claim, national treasures, to be exclusively reserved for the benefit of their own people.

It is reasonable to suggest that states should not be excluded from participating in the preservation and display of artifacts that originated in their countries. However, this is the value of museum exchanges and partnerships, which allows wonderful texts, sculptures and various other historic discoveries to be shared in a truly ‘global’ manner.

Without having been collected by Mingana for preservation in Birmingham, how likely is it that this fascinating Koran extract – and the myriad other manuscripts he salvaged – would have survived?

Culture and history are not the preserve of a single nation or people. Certain artifacts may be imbued with more meaning for certain groups but there should be a conscious effort to maintain the global heritage that the race of men has perpetuated for millennia. Petty squabbles over ownership – generally revolving around the desire to exploit – are counterproductive and more liable to result in the destruction of the past.

When we see the barbaric advance of ISIS and other terrorist cells intent on eradicating history, the importance of global institutions in rescuing precious artifacts becomes abundantly clear.

ISIS fighters have taken great pleasure in destroying historic artifacts
ISIS fighters have taken great pleasure in destroying historic artifacts

Fortunately in the case of the Birmingham Koran extract, the foresight and endeavour to retain a crucial – and potentially controversial – piece of history was duly exercised.


Historic Deal or Historic Mistake? Iran’s History Suggests a Tense Future for the Middle East

A historic deal or a historic mistake? The nuclear deal hatched out between Iran and the P5+1 group to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief has already proved divisive. President Barack Obama faces revolt in Congress and from key allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Other states in the Middle East and the West, in addition to the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have hailed the concord as a key breakthrough in securitising one of the world’s most volatile regions.

At last a deal has been struck Photo: ABC News
At last a deal has been struck
Photo: ABC News

But what about Iran? Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani and his chief negotiator in Vienna, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have received widespread praise for the deal, which could be the precursor to an Iranian economic renaissance. Will this be enough to halt Iran’s nuclear intentions? A look at its recent history suggests not.

Iran’s nuclear programme predates the current regime, originating during the dying days of the Shah’s US-backed rule. The Shah was keen to develop nuclear infrastructure as a civilian power source, much in the same way the current Iranian leadership claims it is pursuing nuclear energy. At the same time, however, there were rumours that the Shah potentially sought a nuclear deterrent to hedge against the communist ambitions of the Soviet Union and China, by then both nuclear states. Enemies in the Middle East also made the idea appealing, although it is unclear whether it was seriously pursued prior to the Islamic Revolution.

Undoubtedly, it was during the 1980s that a covert Iranian nuclear weapons programme began in earnest, even if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini was none too keen on the idea. Despite the Shah having signed up to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Iran’s goal of building a nuclear arsenal emerged in the 1980s.

It was during this decade that the Revolutionary Guards – chief protectors of the Islamic faith in Iran – took control of nuclear development. The timing was not coincidental. At the same timet he Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was pursuing its own nuclear warchest and, having entered into war with its neighbour in 1980, Iran had a key incentive to engage in a nuclear development race.

Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. It was bombed by both the Iranians and the Israelis in preemptive strikes
Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. It was bombed by both the Iranians and the Israelis in preemptive strikes Photo: NS Archive

Saddam’s brutal tactics during the Iran-Iraq War – including the use of chemical and biological weapons – meant that international focus remained on his nuclear programme on the conclusion of hostilities in 1988. This allowed Tehran to continue its pursuit unabated and it was given a helping hand in the 1990s by the renegade Pakistani nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan. Khan sold crucial nuclear technology to the Iranians who established sites at Arak and Natanz to pursue their dream, all the while insisting to the IAEA that their development was for peaceful purposes.

Despite its relatively brazen approach to nuclear development (although it is perhaps not quite in the same league as North Korea), it took until a 2002 revelation by the Marxist Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) group for the world to truly appreciate the scale of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Only then did a policy of economic, military and technological sanctions take hold which, despite a brief period between 2003 and 2005, failed to make Tehran halt its programme.


Of course, the Iranians have always insisted that their nuclear goals are for civilian and medical purposes only, though the evidence points elsewhere. Certainly, given its relatively tame counter-arguments to the accusations of the West, and its hardball antics during years of negotiations, it is easy to see why many point to Iran as disingenuous when it vows to curb its nuclear plans.

Current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is  a virulent anti-Western, anti-Israeli cleric who is unlikely to want Iran to give up on nuclear weapons for good. Whatever Rouhani and Zarif agreed, the Ayatollah would have to have signed off on and the celebrations in Tehran that followed the announcement of a deal suggests that he has pulled off a strategic coup.

Whilst it will be difficult for the Iranians to continue nuclear enrichment on a military scale with slated IAEA inspections, there appears little doubt that the suspension of the programme is merely that. At the earliest convenient opportunity, the reactors will go back into motion. Iran’s misleading and secretive development over the past three decades is testament to this.

As such, it would be no surprise to see Saudi Arabia take the nuclear path, joining Israel and Pakistan to make the Middle East an even less secure place than it is today.

A new war for the Middle East? Israel will strike Iran's nuclear facilities if there is no demonstrable shutdown
A new war for the Middle East? Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if there is no demonstrable shutdown

There is no doubting the good intentions of the P5+1 group and it may be that they have further plans to reinforce this deal with a more lasting settlement. However, the history of the Islamic Republic suggests that nothing but military force, or a violent revolution, will change its outlook and desire for regional supremacy. Given Israel’s nuclear status this will necessarily mean that Iran will have to replicate the achievements of its arch-enemy.

People are right to be sceptical; Iran is a state to be mistrusted. With sanctions relief creating extra funds to bolster its militia/terrorist allies in territories such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, the ‘historic’ nuclear deal may just have made the Middle East a whole lot more dangerous.

Chaotic, Disputed, Endangered: enduring trouble in the Sinai Peninsula

Egypt’s military has reportedly killed over 250 Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula during the past ten days. It continues the violent struggle between Cairo and its restive eastern province, which is fast becoming a base for dangerous fundamentalists pledging their allegiance to ISIS.


At the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, Sinai has always been a geopolitically vital area and its ownership has long been contested. Inhabited since prehistoric times, its northern coastline was a major trade route between Egypt and Palestine and in the first century AD the Roman Empire took control of the Peninsula.

The territory was wrestled back and forth between various Muslim successor states to the Romans before coming under Ottoman control in the 16th century. As Ottoman power declined in the 19th century, so did its grip on Sinai. A nascent Egyptian state was established by Muhammad Ali in 1805 which, whilst nominally a tributary of the Ottomans, was all but independent until the arrival of the British in 1882.

The entirety of Egypt (including Sinai) was effectively a British colony until 1936 when the Kingdom of Egypt was recognised as an independent state by London. Even then, the British maintained a military presence until 1952 before withdrawing as part of a general colonial retrenchment across the globe.

This is when the history of the Sinai Peninsula becomes even more contested and problematic. In 1948, the Arab-Israeli War saw Egypt send troops through Sinai in support of Arab forces in the former British Mandate of Palestine, which was being threatened by the new Israeli state. A reversal in fortunes saw the Israelis occupy part of Sinai for the first time before an armistice was signed in early 1949.

The 1956 Suez Crisis – when an attempted invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by British, French and Israeli forces in a bid to take control of the nationalised Suez Canal ended in a humiliating withdrawal – solidified the Egyptian-Israeli enmity that would continually boil over into war.

British troops prepare to depart Port Said after being forced into an embarrassing withdrawal Source: IWM
British troops prepare to depart Port Said after being forced into an embarrassing withdrawal
Source: IWM

In 1967 the Israelis finally captured Sinai during the Six-Day War, which was followed by a three-year War of Attrition orchestrated by the Egyptians in a failed attempt to recapture their lost territory. Further conflict broke out in 1973 after Cairo launched Operation Badr, initiating the Yom Kippur War. Again, the Egyptians could not recapture the Peninsula.

It would take the US-brokered Camp David Accords of 1978 and the subsequent Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty for the Israelis to concede the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt.

Whilst the Israeli-Egyptian peace has largely held, Sinai has remained unstable. Impoverished Bedouin Arabs – resentful of Cairo’s apparent disregard for their needs – and hardline Islamists have frequently staged attacks on foreign tourist resorts and government checkpoints.

Additionally, Sinai has become the main route through which Hamas has smuggled weapons into the Gaza Strip as part of its ongoing struggle against Israeli supremacy. A sophisticated network of tunnels – partially created and monitored by Hamas sympathisers on the Egyptian side of the border – have invited assaults from both the Israelis and the government in Cairo. It is now thought that Hamas and the Sinai insurgents are working together.

ISIS supporters certainly appear to be taking advantage of the inherent chaos in Sinai to establish a base close to Egypt and the other troubled states of North Africa, whilst also being within striking distance of the hated Israel.

Battle rages in Sheikh Zuweid, Sinai. Fighters loyal to ISIS have joined an existing Islamist insurgency by attacking checkpoints and killing civilians Source: Daily Telegraph

Complicating matters is the religious significance of the region. Mount Sinai, in the southern-central part of the Peninsula, is where Moses received the Ten Commandments during the Jewish exodus. It is therefore a revered place for all followers of the Abrahamic religions.

St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. Sinai is sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims Source: Berthold Werner
St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. Sinai is sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims
Source: Berthold Werner

Attempts to counter the violence in Sinai have tended to be military in nature, which has only perpetuated the various troubles. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has increased military action in Sinai to flush out militants and destroy their support networks, in addition to Hamas’ intricate tunnel system. Whilst this is necessarily part of any solution, more diplomatic, multilateral efforts should be made.

An agreement between Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians – in addition to their regional and international partners – on a coordinated approach to securitising Sinai is the preferable course. Such an outcome, however, is unlikely. Whilst Hamas remains in charge of the Gaza Strip, Sinai will be destabilised by attempts to smuggle in weapons, supplies and fighters. The Egyptians, too, appear reluctant to allow other states to interfere in their sovereign territory, particularly given how troublesome it has been to hold on to.

Without an agreed approach, though, there is no prospect for peace. An area with economic and multicultural potential is more likely to become a land bridge and sanctuary for terror, connecting the theatres of war between the Middle East and Africa. This may ultimately lead to a scenario that has always seemed inevitable: that the Sinai Peninsula will be beyond the control of every sovereign state, destined for perpetual conflict, the repercussions of which could spread far and wide.