A Qur’an that may be the world’s oldest made a splash in July, when carbon dating at the University of Oxford placed it at about 1,370 years old — the era of Muhammad. The “Birmingham Qur’an,” named after the English university where it resides, was heralded as proof that modern texts have remained true to Muhammad’s original words.
But Houston, we have a problem.
That’s not only very, very old, it’s quite possibly too old.
This Qur’an may be older than Muhammad.
Let that sink in a moment.
The Times of London‘s science writer Oliver Moody writes:
If the dating is correct, the “Birmingham Koran” was produced between AD568 and AD645, while the dates usually given for Muhammad are AD570 to AD632… it could date back to Mohammed’s childhood, or possibly even before his birth.
That’s trouble. Trouble with a capital “T.” That rhymes with “P” and that stands for, um, pissed Muslims. (If you don’t get the reference, please remedy that grievous shortcoming immediately.)
The probability that this date range is correct was placed at over 94%. It’s a narrow window of time, to be sure, and at first blush you might think the potential overlap could preserve the story of Islam’s origins. But the problem is much bigger than it appears. David Thomas of the University of Birmingham explains:
According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam, between the years AD 610 and 632, the year of his death…
At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Instead, the revelations were preserved in ‘the memories of men.’ Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels… Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad, ordered the collection of all Qur’anic material in the form of a book. The final, authoritative written form was completed and fixed under the direction of the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in about AD 650.
So if Muslim tradition is correct, those events would have had to pass before the creation of the Birmingham Qur’an — so before Muhammad was born or while he was a child. Some pretty credible people are using some pretty dramatic language about this turn of events. Oxford University manuscript consultant Dr. Keith Small noted that though the parchment, not the ink was tested, he “believes that the dates are probably right and may raise broad questions about the origins of Islam,” adding:
This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, like that Mohammed 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 Mohammed receiving a revelation from heaven.
This would radically alter the edifice of Islamic tradition and the history of the rise of Islam in late Near Eastern antiquity would have to be completely revised, somehow accounting for another book of scripture coming into existence 50 to 100 years before, and then also explaining how this was co-opted into what became the entity of Islam by around AD700.
It destabilises, to put it mildly, the idea that we can know anything with certainty about how the Koran emerged — and that in turn has implications for the historicity of Mohammed and the Companions [his followers].
The New York Times added last month that:
Jeff Speakman, director of the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia, who was not involved with the research, said the dates and accuracy sounded reasonable. “Oxford is one of the premier radiocarbon laboratories in the world,” he said.
Dating of artifacts from the era in question is often more accurate than dating material from the last few hundred years, Dr. Speakman said.
The NYT article noted that the parchment was tested, not the ink, but an independent expert states the assumption their age is very close is reasonable:
Graham Bench, director of the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, concurred, and added a caveat: “You’re dating the parchment,” he said. “You’re not dating the ink. You’re making the assumption that the parchment or vellum was used within years of it being made, which is probably a reasonable assumption, but it’s not watertight.”
It’s no doubt an understatement of Biblical — I mean Qur’anic — proportions to say that Muslim scholars are displeased. Scholars like Shady Hekmat Nasser from the University of Cambridge (readers, please duly note that’s a first name, not an adjective), said: “these discoveries only attest to the accuracy of these sources.” The Islamic site OnIslam has a predictable headline in response: “Muslims Reject Claims that Qur’an Predated Prophet”:
Claims by scientists at the University of Oxford that the copy of holy Qur’an discovered in Birmingham last month predates Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has been widely rejected by Muslim scholars, who questioned the accuracy of historians’ numbers.
Questions surrounding that accuracy of the carbon analysis were raised earlier by Saudi and Turkish scientists.
Saudi scholars and archaeologists refuted Birmingham claims about discovering the Qur’an oldest copy, asserting that the red ink used to separate between chapters was not used during the era of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Therefore, they suggested that the manuscript might possibly be from the time of Othman Bin Affan who became Caliph many years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Halit Eren, General Director of the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), raised similar concerns. Mustafa Shah, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, said it was important to be wary of revisionist claims.
The OnIslam article closes with:
The Qur’an is a revelation from God, the creator of the worlds, so He is the original author… The Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) through the archangel Gabriel who helped the Prophet memorize the Qur’an, as reported in several authentic Hadith narrations.
After reading that last paragraph, I’m sure this next line won’t set off your skeptical radar or anything like that:
The unique copy will be examined by the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) in Istanbul to verify its actual date.
In other words, the dates can’t be right because that would make the Hadiths inauthentic. And just how would you estimate the probability of a Muslim scholar determining that the Hadiths are inauthentic?
(Image via YouTube. The article has been modified to include a passage from the New York Times.)