The fragments of one of the world’s oldest manuscripts of the Quran has been found at the University of Birmingham (see “A Find in Britain: Quran Fragments Perhaps as Old as Islam,” New York Times, 7/22/2015).
The significance of these fragments was unrecognized for many years. The fragments were stored in the university’s library for about a century. Their importance became apparent after Alba Fedeli, a researcher at the University of Birmingham studying for her Ph.D., noticed the particular calligraphy on the fragments.
The university sent a small piece of the manuscript, written on sheep or goat skin, to Oxford University for radiocarbon dating. The manuscript is assessed over 1,300 years old, which would place its writing within a few years of the founding of Islam.
The manuscript is part of a collection of some 3,000 documents from the Middle East collected 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 Quaker chocolate-making family.
Grandson of the Quaker founder of the company, Edward Cadbury (1873-1948) joined the family business of Cadbury Brothers in 1893, becoming a managing director in 1899 and chairman in 1937, retiring in 1943. He was chairman of the Daily News newspaper in Britain from 1911 to 1930.
Cadbury was one of the founders of Selly Oak College, which merged into the University of Birmingham. He founded the Edward Cadbury Charitable Trust in 1945 to further his interest in education, religion and social welfare, together with the Quaker values of simplicity, equality, justice, peace and care of the environment.
In 1913, Alphonse Mingana came to England at the invitation of Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham. In 1924, Mingana made the first of three trips to the Middle East to collect ancient Syriac and Arabic manuscripts. The expedition was sponsored by John Rylands Library at the University of Birmingham and Edward Cadbury. These manuscripts formed the basis of the Mingana Collection.Mingana added to the collection with manuscripts acquired on two further trips to the Middle East in 1925 and 1929, both trips were financed solely by Edward Cadbury. In 1932, Mingana moved back to Birmingham to focus on cataloging the collection.