Genomics, Proteomics, and Early Qur'ans


The project “Genomics, Proteomics, and Early Qur’ans” was launched in November 2023 by Professor Alain Fouad George, Director of the Khalili Research Centre. It applies new techniques of scientific analysis to generate transformative research on early Qur’ans. In the first three centuries of Islam, the Muslim empire became the largest that the world had ever seen, ranging at its peak from Iberia to the Indus and Oxus rivers. Throughout these territories, significant resources were devoted to the production of Qur’an manuscripts – so much so that today, despite centuries of loss and destruction, over 250,000 folios are preserved in collections worldwide. These artefacts are key witnesses for the history not just of Islamic art, but also of the Qur’anic text and Islamic civilisation; but with rare exceptions, we possess no evidence of their date or provenance, which makes their analysis particularly challenging.


Meanwhile, recent advances in the fields of proteomics (the study of proteins and their structure) and genomics (DNA sequencing) have opened up new possibilities in the field of Western manuscripts (see the Beasts2Crafts and 1000 Ancient Genomes projects).  These manuscripts, like early Qur’ans, were written on parchment: in other words, on scraped, chemically treated and polished animal skins. A new avenue of research was inaugurated when Prof. Matthew Collins and his collaborators discovered that eraser crumbs collected as waste from conservation procedures could be used to extract protein and DNA samples from the parchment. The method has the major advantage of being essentially non-invasive, as the molecules are transferred to the eraser by static electricity. It enables the proteomic and genetic analysis of the animals from which skins were taken in order to determine their species, sex, region of origin by comparison with a growing database of bone and parchment data (see the AncestralWeave ERC project).

At the heart of “Proteomics, Genomics, and Early Qur’ans” lies the proteomic and DNA sampling of early Qur’ans and Syriac, Hebrew, and other manuscripts from the Middle East and North Africa. These have never been carried out before for DNA, and almost never for proteins: the project aims to proceed to their large-scale analysis, then to use this as a basis for further spectroscopic, art-historical and textual analyses. The first batch of samples is currently under analysis, based on samples taken from manuscripts at Cambridge University Library. It will soon be expanded to other collections.

Project led by: Prof. Alain George (University of Oxford)

Main collaborators:  Prof. Matthew Collins (University of Copenhagen), Prof. Daniel Bradley (Trinity College Dublin), and Ms Kristine Rose-Beers (Cambridge University Library)

The current project phase is funded by The University of Oxford and The Khalili Research Centre.

The main partner institutions for the project are The University of Copenhagen, Cambridge University Library, and Trinity College Dublin.