Tests on a Quran parchment in the UK city of Birmingham have found it dates back almost to the time the Prophet Muhammad, making it one of the oldest known manuscripts of the Muslim holy book known to survive.
According to a radiocarbon dating analysis, the section of manuscript — which is part of a special collection at the University of Birmingham — was created between 568 AD to 645 AD. The Prophet Muhammad is generally believed to have lived between 570 and 632.
The final authoritative form of the Quran was fixed around 650 AD.
David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, said the finding could well "take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam."
Parts of the Quran contained in the tested fragments were very similar in content to the Quran as it exists today, he added, which "tends to support the view that the Quran that we now have is more or less very close indeed to the Quran as it was brought together in the early years of Islam."
Muslim tradition says the prophet received the revelations of the Quran between 610 and 632 — but it was not written down immediately. The first leader of the community after Muhammad's death, Caliph Abu Bakr, ordered the book to be written and it was completed by the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in 650.
Thomas said the test suggested the animal from which the parchment was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterward.
"It's an amazing story," Susan Worrall, director of special collections at University of Birmingham, told BBC Radio 4. Worrall said that the fragments had been bound to another manuscript dated slightly later. "The possibility that a section of the manuscript could be from even earlier came to light when one of our researchers was looking at the document. We sent the leaves off, after some thought, to be radio carbon dated"
She said the accuracy of the dates had been given with a 95 percent degree of confidence. "We're looking at the foundation of the Muslim religion," Worrall added.
The manuscript in question has long been part of the university's Cadbury Research Library. In the 1920s, Edward Cadbury, of Cadbury chocolate fame, lived in Birmingham and funded a priest to make trips to the Middle East and acquire manuscripts, according to Worrall, who said the idea behind the trips was that "he wanted to raise the status of Birmingham as being an intellectual center for religious studies and to understand all kinds of religions."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.