Leiden’s oldest Koran fragments more than a century older than previously believed

The very oldest Koranic fragments owned by the Leiden University Libraries date back to the second half of the seventh century, between 30 and 70 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. This has been shown by newly conducted radiocarbon analyses. This finding agrees with official Islamic teachings.

Papyrus fragment older than originally thought

One of Leiden University’s oldest Koran fragments, from the second half of the seventh century A.D.

One of Leiden University’s oldest Koran fragments, from the second half of the seventh century A.D.

The Koranic fragments, which are on papyrus and parchment, do not themselves bear a date. ‘On the basis of the elongated, slanted Arabic script known as Hijazi we did know that the fragments in Leiden must be old,’ says Dr Arnoud Vrolijk, curator of Oriental manuscripts in the Special Collections department of the Leiden University Libraries. The papyrus fragment had been cautiously dated to about 770–830 A.D., but the recently completed analysis has shown that it is older than that, dating from the period between 650 and 715. ‘Well over a century older than we thought,’ says Vrolijk. No one had ever ventured to estimate the age of the parchment fragments. ‘Now we can say that the oldest fragment on parchment probably dates from the period 650–700.’


Committed to writing during Uthman’s caliphate

‘What’s interesting,’ says Vrolijk, ‘is that according to official Islamic teaching the Koran was first committed to writing during the caliphate of Uthman, who ruled from 655 to 656. The results of the analysis are in very close agreement with that, or at least don’t contradict it.’ Many Western Islamic scholars are sceptical about such an early date for when the Koran was set down in writing. They believe that the canonical text of the Koran was only written down much later, in the ninth century or even later.’ Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Arabists and historians at Princeton University who received an honorary doctorate from Leiden University in 2013 also joined in the discussion. They are among the sceptics.

Test result from carbon-14 dating of the Leiden Koranic fragment

Test result from carbon-14 dating of the Leiden Koranic fragment

Extra investment in the fragments

In the wake of the carbon-14 analysis the University Libraries decided to make an extra investment to improve the physical condition of the old parchment. In the libraries’ own restoration workshop Karin Scheper stabilised the material and reinforced the fragile edges with new parchment.


How does the C14 method work?

Radiocarbon analysis makes it possible to date organic materials with relative precision. This technique measures the proportion of carbon-14 isotopes in the material. The test can only be conducted in specialised labs and is relatively expensive. To analyse the fragments of parchment, a tiny amount of the original material was needed. After the fragments were photographed, minute pieces weighing about 20 milligrams were removed from parts of the fragment that were not written on. The samples were then tested by the Technische Hochschule in Zürich, Switzerland. ‘It isn’t possible to determine the dates more precisely than these findings,’ says Vrolijk, ‘because contrary to what is generally believed, carbon-14 dating doesn’t yield an exact result. There is always a margin of a few decades in both directions.’

Major research on the early history of the Koranic text

Restoration expert Karin Scheper working on a fragment of the Koran on parchment

Restoration expert Karin Scheper working on a fragment of the Koran on parchment

Under the coordination of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademi der Wissenschaften, two institutes – one German (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and the other French (Agence Nationale de Recherche) – began the international Coranica project, aimed at research into the early history of the Koranic text. The research deals not only with the text, but also with the physical fragments. The researchers are including in their research fragments located in places like Berlin and Paris. Although more fragments are held elsewhere, Leiden University is also being featured in the research due to a number of fragments in its collections. Leiden University was happy to co-operate.

This autumn one of the fragments of parchment can be seen in the exhibition ‘Sacred Places, Sacred Books: Judaism, Christianity and Islam’, at the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library in Antwerp.'

(21 July 2014)


See also

Last Modified: 23-07-2014