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“