That is, until Alba Fedeli, a researcher at the University of Birmingham studying for her doctorate, became captivated by its calligraphy and noticed that two of its pages appeared misbound alongside pages of a similar Quranic manuscript from a later date.
The scripts did not match. Prodded by her observations, the university sent the pages out for radiocarbon testing.
On Wednesday, researchers at the University of Birmingham revealed the startling finding that the fragments appeared to be part of what could be the world’s oldest copy of the Quran, and researchers say it may have been transcribed by a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad.
“We were bowled over, startled indeed,” said David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, after he and other researchers learned recently of the manuscript’s provenance.
The ancient pieces of manuscript, estimated to be at least 1,370 years old, offered a moment of unity, and insight, for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Professor Thomas said it provided tantalizing clues to help settle a scholarly dispute about whether the holy text was actually written down at the time of the prophet, or compiled years later after being passed down by word of mouth. The discovery also offered a joyful moment for a faith that has struggled with internal divisions and external pressures.
Muslims believe Muhammad received the revelations that form the Quran, the scripture of Islam, between 610 and 632, the year of his death. Professor Thomas said tests by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit indicated with a probability of more than 94 percent that the parchment dated from 568 to 645.
During the time of Muhammad, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today, Professor Thomas said. Rather, the words believed to be from God as told to Muhammad were preserved in the “memories of men” and recited. Parts were written on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels, he said.
Tom Holland, the author of “In the Shadow of the Sword,” which charts the origins of Islam, said the discovery in Birmingham bolstered scholarly conclusions that the Quran attained something close to its final form during Muhammad’s lifetime. He said the fragments did not resolve the controversial questions of where, why and how the manuscript was compiled, or how its various suras, or chapters, came to be combined in a single volume.
Consisting of two parchment leaves, the manuscript in Birmingham contains parts of what are now Chapters 18 to 20. For years, the manuscript had been mistakenly bound with leaves of a similar Quran manuscript.
Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later, he said.
Professor Thomas said the text of the two folio pages studied by Ms. Fedeli, who received her doctorate this month, corresponded closely to the text of the modern Quran. But he cautioned that the manuscript was only a small portion of the Quran and therefore did not offer conclusive proof.
Omid Safi, the director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center and the author of “Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters,” said that the discovery of the manuscript provided “further evidence for the position of the classical Islamic tradition that the Quran as it exists today is a seventh-century document.”
The manuscript is in Hijazi script, an early form of written Arabic, and researchers said the fragments could be among the earliest textual evidence of the holy book known to survive.
A manuscript from the University of Tübingen Library in Germany was found last year and sourced to the seventh century, 20 to 40 years after the death of the prophet. Fragments from Tübingen were radiocarbon-tested by a lab in Zurich and determined with 95 percent certainty to have originated from 649 to 675, making the Birmingham text a few years older.
Radiocarbon dating measures levels of a heavier form of carbon as it appears in the atmosphere over time and becomes part of plants and, later, the animals that eat them. In this case, the Oxford laboratory measured the age of the goat or sheep whose skin was turned into parchment.
Jeff Speakman, director of the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia, who was not involved with the research, said the dates and accuracy sounded reasonable. “Oxford is one of the premier radiocarbon laboratories in the world,” he said.
Dating of artifacts from the era in question is often more accurate than dating material from the last few hundred years, Dr. Speakman said.
Graham Bench, director of the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, concurred, and added a caveat: “You’re dating the parchment,” he said. “You’re not dating the ink. You’re making the assumption that the parchment or vellum was used within years of it being made, which is probably a reasonable assumption, but it’s not watertight.”
Dr. Sarhan of the King Faisal center said that there was a sort of competition now among researchers to find the earliest copy of the Quran, but that the discovery in Britain would have little effect on people’s beliefs, since Muslims believe that “the Quran has not been changed since the Prophet Muhammad.”
Professor Thomas said the manuscript found in Birmingham would be put on public display.
The fragments were part of a collection of more than 3,000 documents from the Middle East amassed in the 1920s by Alphonse Mingana, a theologian and historian who was born in what is now Iraq. His document-gathering expeditions to the Middle East were funded by Edward Cadbury, a member of the famous chocolate-making family.
In Birmingham, which has a large Muslim population, the discovery of the ancient manuscript was greeted with joy.
Mohammad Afzal, the chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque, said he had been granted access to the manuscript. “I am honored to see this manuscript, which is unique,” he said. “This goes back to the very early stages of Islam. All the Muslims in the world would love to see this manuscript.”
Muhammad Isa Waley, curator at the Persian and Turkish Section at the British Library in London, said it was an “exciting” discovery.
“We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three caliphs,” he said. He added that, according to classic accounts, it was under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, that the Quranic text was compiled and the suras arranged into the order familiar today.
Professor Thomas said that the discovery could make Birmingham a draw for Muslims and scholars. But he noted that Muslims did not require a text to feel close to the Quran because for many, it was essentially an oral experience to be recited, memorized and revered.
“The Quran,” he said, “is already present in the minds of Muslims.”