British scholars have suggested that fragments of the world's oldest known Koran, which were discovered last month, may predate the accepted founding date of Islam by the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

The Times of London reported that radiocarbon dating carried out by experts at the University of Oxford says the fragments were produced between the years 568 A.D. and 645 A.D. Muhammad is generally believed to have lived between 570 A.D. and 632 A.D. The man known to Muslims as The Prophet is thought to have founded Islam sometime after 610 A.D., with the first Muslim community established at Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia, in 622 A.D.

"This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran's genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven," Keith Small of Oxford's Bodleian Library told the Times. 

The two sheets of Islam's holy book were discovered in a library at the University of Birmingham in England, where they had been mistakenly bound in a Koran dating to the seventh century. They were part of a collection of 3,000 Middle Eastern texts gathered in Iraq in the 1920s.

Muslims scholars have disputed the idea that the Birmingham Koran predates Muhammad, with Mustafa Shah of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies telling the Times: "If anything, the manuscript has consolidated traditional accounts of the Koran's origins."

The first known formal text of the Koran was not assembled until 653 A.D. on the orders of Uthman, the third caliph, or leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad's death. Before that, however, fragments of the work had circulated through oral tradition, though parts of the work had also been written down on stones, leaves, parchment and bones. The fragments of the Birmingham Koran were written on either sheepskin or goatskin.

Small cautioned that the carbon dating was only done on the parchment in the fragments, and not the actual ink, but added "If the dates apply to the parchment and the ink, and the dates across the entire range apply, then the Koran — or at least portions of it — predates Mohammed, and moves back the years that an Arabic literary culture is in place well into the 500s."

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