The Times and “Rewriting Islamic History”


Last month, Birmingham University announced that they had discovered Qur’anic fragments that were carbon-dated to being amongst the very earliest to have ever been found. It was a fabulous story that thrilled Muslims worldwide.

Today, there is a peculiar story published in The Times  claiming that the Birmingham fragments “may predate the Prophet Muhammad” thereby calling into question the entire traditional account of the history of the Qur’an and Islam. By all accounts, this is a very serious claim, but what is the evidence behind these claims? Let’s take a look…


Sadly, The Times is behind a firewall so I can’t reproduce the entire article for you, but can tell you that the story, by Oliver Moody, appears to be a highly mischievous one.

Consider the following which is an extract taken directly from The Times article:

“At the time the discovery was hailed as confirmation that the Koran had faithfully preserved the words passed on by Muhammad for more than 1,350 years. Now, several historians think the parchment appears to be so old that it contradicts most accounts of the Prophet’s life and legacy, and may “radically alter the edifice of Islamic tradition”. These claims are strongly disputed by Muslim scholars.”

Who are these “several historians”? The Times article mentions only two.

The first is Tom Holland – who presented a laughably poor  documentary about the early history of Islam on Channel Four a few years ago and whose accompanying book In The Shadow Of The Sword (which I reviewed here) contained schoolboy errors about the Qur’an. After a big build up in his book which began by seeking the “solid bedrock” on which Islam is founded, he admitted – over 300 pages into his book, that:

“…the text of the Qur’an itself does seem to derive authentically from the Prophet’s lifetime…Such a resource is, in consequence, beyond compare: one that positively demands to be sifted for clues to the Prophet’s career and background. Identify these, and it may then be possible to find reflected in the Qur’an glimpses, not merely of the Prophet’s personal circumstances but of something even more suggestive: the broader context of the age.” (p310)

The second is Keith Small, whom the Times describes as a “Koranic manuscript consultant at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library”. This is true, but The Times omits his other title. Dr Small also happens to be on the staff of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

Nevermind. So, what is the evidence behind the claim that the Birmingham University “parchment appears to be so old that it contradicts most accounts of the Prophet’s life and legacy” that they have uncovered. Well, it turns out that these two “historians” have not uncovered anything new whatsoever! As Birmingham University pointed out last month, the fragments have been carbon dated with a 95% probability to the period 568 to 645 CE ie. to a period that very closely corresponds to the time (610 – 632 CE) when the traditional Muslim narrative maintains that the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an.

The straw the two historians appear to clutch at is that the earliest date in that range (568 CE) is just before the Prophet Muhammad was said to have been born (circa 570 CE). However, carbon dating is not an exact science which is why a range of dates is almost always presented by scientists when using the method to date objects. Secondly, the dating is of the parchment not the actual text of the Qur’an it contains. The parchment is logically bound to have been produced prior to the ink being written on it.

So, the story is really a non-story.

Indeed, compare what the sensationalised and badly-evidenced Times story says with what the actual academics who researched the Birmingham University fragments say:

“The tests carried out on the parchment of the Birmingham folios yield the strong probability that the animal from which it was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterwards. This means that the parts of the Qur’an that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad’s death. These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Qur’an read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed.”

Thankfully, we have the exhibition of the Birmingham University fragments to look forward to at the Barber Institute in just over a month from now, God Willing.

Update 1: The Independent reports that “Fragments of ‘world’s oldest known Koran’ unlikely to pre-date Prophet Mohamed, says expert

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5 Responses to The Times and “Rewriting Islamic History”

  1. Here is the full text of the article:

    A copy of the Koran that may predate the Prophet Muhammad could rewrite the early history of Islam, scholars believe.

    Scientists at the University of Oxford said last month that carbon dating of a fragment of the holy text held by a Birmingham library suggested that it was among the oldest in the world.

    At the time the discovery was hailed as confirmation that the Koran had faithfully preserved the words passed on by Muhammad for more than 1,350 years. Now, several historians think the parchment appears to be so old that it contradicts most accounts of the Prophet’s life and legacy, and may “radically alter the edifice of Islamic tradition”. These claims are strongly disputed by Muslim scholars.

    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. At the very latest, it was made before the first formal text of the Koran is supposed to have been collated at the behest of the caliph Uthman, the third of the Prophet’s successors, in 653. At the earliest it could date back to Muhammad’s childhood, or possibly even before his birth.

    Some academics believe the text’s impact could be comparable to discovering of a copy of gospel sayings that dated back to the infancy of Jesus.

    Tom Holland, the historian and author of In The Shadow of the Sword, said evidence was mounting that traditional accounts of Islam’s origins were unreliable or even wrong.

    This would be especially challenging for the Salafist branch of Islam, whose offshoots include al-Qaeda and Islamic State, and which attempts to rebuild the politics and lifestyles of Muhammad’s contemporaries as described in later historical sources, most of which were only compiled after AD800.

    “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 Muhammad and the Companions [his followers],” Mr Holland said.

    Other very old Korans — particularly a more eccentric text found in the roof of the Great Mosque in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen and carbon-dated to the sixth or seventh century — seem to confirm that the holy verses were circulating in written form at least before the Prophet’s death.

    Keith Small, Koranic manuscript consultant at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, said that carbon dating was not always reliable and the dates announced last month applied not to the ink but to the parchment. The provenance of the text is also unclear and its calligraphic script is characteristic of later inscriptions.

    Yet Dr Small believes that the dates are probably right and may raise broad questions about the origins of Islam. “If the [radio carbon] 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 Muhammad, and moves back the years that an Arabic literary culture is in place well into the 500s,” he said.

    “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.

    “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.”

    Muslim academics are more sanguine about the dates of the Birmingham Koran. Mustafa Shah, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, said it was important to be wary of revisionist claims. “If anything, the manuscript has consolidated traditional accounts of the Koran’s origins,” he said.

    Shady Hekmat Nasser, from the University of Cambridge, said: “We already know from our sources that the Koran was a closed text very early on in Islam, and these discoveries only attest to the accuracy of these sources.”

  2. Ash says:

    This Tom Holland character, makes the likes of his fellow Islamaphobes, Douglas Murray, Steve Emerson seem semi-Intelligent. Tom I know your reading this my Dear Old Chum…! Let me tell you in the legendary Kronk gym in Detroit, once a guy had been their a few weeks and shown what his natural gifts were, he was usually assigned a nickname commensurate with his skillset. So we here by Christen you “The Moron”, Tom “The Moron” Holland, has a nice ring to it.

    My Dear Old Thing,I would like to invite you to come and post here so I can show the historicity of “Detroit Free Style Academics”,.

    Inayat in future articles on this Chap, I suggest you show him the courtesy of including his nickname, so that way everyone knows the caliber of his historicity.

    Maybe we can elevate the Journalist who wrote the article as “Super Moron”, after waging Crusades and propaganda against Islam for a Thousand Years and having failed abysmally, now we have laughable attempts by the establishment and the Zionist media to re-write Islamic history….!

  3. sarahimr2015 says:

    Learn about the true Islam! Its doesn’t fall short, nor does it go to the extremity, rather ISLAM IS BALANCE

    here is the real Islamic history

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