In a darkened and temperature-controlled room at Birmingham University two leaves of ancient manuscript have sparked global interest. Fragments from what is believed to be among one of the oldest Qurans will go on display to the public on 2 October.
The two-leaf four-page manuscript, written in ink on animal skin, was only recently discovered to be much older than originally thought. Carbon-dating reveals it to be from between 568 and 645 AD and not the previously thought 8th century.
British Muslims, scholars, students and even Muslims from as far away as Malaysia are snapping up tickets to see for themselves the manuscript, which could have been written in the time of Prophet Mohammed who is thought to have lived between 570 and 632 AD.
"There has been phenomenal interest actually globally. I mean, it's been amazing. Obviously it's the Quran, it's very significant, we knew there would be interest but we were bowled over by how much interest there was," said Sue Worrall, Director of Special Collections at Birmingham University.
The manuscript has been in the university's vaults since the 1930's, but it wasn't until PhD student Alba Fedeli pushed to carbon-date the text that it was discovered it was much older than originally thought.
"The results for me, as a scholar, is seventh century. That means one of the earliest witnesses we have from the beginning of Islam," said Fedeli.
Islamic scholars are wondering if the writer of this text even knew Mohammed, but Fedeli warns that is impossible to say. Fedeli said all they can say for sure about the scribe is that its writer was a master.
"If you have a look at the two leaves they are very well written in the sense that the script is well proportioned and the lines are equal distance, one from the other one. I can say a lot about what he did about his work but I have no evidence for saying something about his life or his connections or his geographical location," she said.
The carbon-dating placing the fragments between 568 and 645 AD puts it in the range a few years before and after the lifetime of Mohammed. That's ignited much scholarly debate within the Muslim community about the origins of the Quran, depending whether you take the earlier or later date with that range. Fedeli warns though that it would be a mistake to pinpoint the date within that range, as scientifically it is impossible to know.
"Of course the dating has important implications because if you say that the manuscript is from the beginning of Islam it means that it is confirming the authenticity of the Quranic texts. If someone else is using the results in another way, taking or choosing the first period, the 568 (AD) you can deny the authenticity of the Quranic text so you can imagine the implications and the consequences. But I don't agree with this misuse of the results for saying something else," she said.
It has been suggested the fragments match 16 pages held in Paris at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and that they form part of the same original manuscript.
"I think subject to making sure the manuscript is protected properly and looked after properly, I think it is likely that it will go round to different locations," Worrall said.