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Eighth-century Qur'an

The Ma'il Qur'an is one of the very earliest Qur'ans in the world, dating back to the eighth century. Not only that, but it also probably hails from the Hijaz region of Arabia – a region which contains the holy places of Mecca and Medina, homes of the Prophet Muhammad.

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8th century Qur'an

Qur’an, Mecca or Medina, eighth century. Chapter 26, al-Shu‘ara’ (The Poets), verse 183 to Chapter 27, al-Naml (The Ant), verse 3
BL Or. MS 2165, ff. 76v–77
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Qur'an?

The Qur'an is the sacred book of Islam is the Qur'an. According to Muslim belief it contains the word of God as revealed through the archangel Jibril (Gabriel) to the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabic language. The text of the Qur'an is traditionally read aloud, as instructed in the very first revelation that Muhammad received: 'Recite in the name of your Lord'. The word 'Qur'an' comes from the Arabic verb 'to recite'.

Muslim tradition has it that Muhammad received the divine revelation between 610 and his death in 632, and that he received the first of these messages in the cave of al-Hira', while wandering alone outside Mecca. At first his message was ill-received in Mecca by merchants and religious authorities who objected to his teachings. Hostility to Muhammad forced him and his followers to migrate to Medina in the year 622, where his message was more readily accepted.

How were the contents of the Qur'an preserved?

The revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad were originally committed to memory by the early believers. Following the Prophet's death in 632, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, instructed Muhammad's secretary, Zayd ibn Thabit, to record them in writing. The original compilation of the text was made from oral recollections, and from early transmissions written on fragments of parchment, papyrus, stone, camel bone, palm leaves and leather.

With the spread of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula, it became necessary to establish a standard text to preserve the sanctity of the message and to fix an authorised spelling for all time. This text was collated and codified by order of the third Caliph, 'Uthman ibn 'Affan, about 650. This is the authoritative text of the Qur'an to this day.

How does the Qur'an relate to the Jewish and Christian Bibles?

Muhammad is seen as last in a line of prophets stretching back to Abraham, from whom Judaism and Christianity also claim descent. Abraham was the leader of a group of nomadic tribes in the Middle East some 4,000 years ago. He established a religion that departed from other beliefs in worshipping just one, all-powerful god. The revelations of Muhammad were seen as a cleansing of Abraham's tradition, which had grown corrupt in Judaism and Christianity.

Given this common heritage, it is not surprising that the Qur'an has much in common with the Bibles of Jews and Christians. Many of the stories of the early Prophets such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses are very similar.

Why is Mecca important for Muslims?

All able-bodied Muslims must perform the hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca - during their life. This is because the city holds the holiest site in all Islam, the Masjid al-Haram ('Sacred Mosque'). It was declared a site of pilgrimage by the Prophet Muhammad in 630. That was the year of his triumphant return to the city after years of exile in Medina. Inside the Sacred Mosque is the Ka'bah, a large cubical building said by Muslims to have been built by Abraham. In the Ka'bah is the 'black stone', an object Muslims believe was given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel.

Medina, as the location of the Prophet Muhammad's tomb, is considered the second holiest site in Islam.


Medina, with its monumental Qur'an

What makes this Qur'an special?

To the best of our knowledge, this Qur'an was produced in the Hijaz region, which includes the holy places of Mecca and Medina.

The text is penned on parchment in an early style of Arabic script called ma'il, one of a number of early Arabic scripts collectively named 'Hijazi' after the region in which they were developed. The word ma'il itself means 'sloping', in this case to the right. It is also notable for its lack of diacritical marks, the spelling symbols that distinguish between letters of similar shape.

In this Qur'an, as in other ancient fragments, there are no vowel signs or other aids to pronunciation, and the end of each verse is indicated by six small dashes in two stacks of three. The chapter heading in red ink has been added later in naskhi script, and differs from the rest of the text.