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.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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