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More Hard Issues on the Qur’an Fragments

My plan is to make this the final post for now on the issue of the Qur’an fragments discovered at the University of Birmingham.  Obviously the discussion could go on forever (it’s been going on for 1500 years and is not likely to stop any time soon).   But I’m not a scholar of the Qur’an or of Islam, and I would prefer sticking to topics that are within my realm of expertise.

I know that comment itself will prompt emails from two groups of people, (a) from Muslims urging me to study the Qur’an so I will see that it is true and convert to Islam and (b) from Christians urging me to subject the Qur’an to the same kind of scrutiny to which critical scholars have subjected the NT, in order to show that Islam too has abundant problems.   The reason I know this will happen is because I get both kinds of emails, *all* the time!   But I’m sorry to say, I’m not going to convert to Islam and I’m not going to write about something that takes many years of diligent study for any real competency.  I have a lot on my plate already, and am quite happy both were I am in terms of my spiritual journey and the course of my future scholarship.

In this post I want simply to point out that there has been some very critical (negative) responses to the Qur’an fragments at Birmingham and to deal with one comment in particular I have received from a number of my Muslim readers.

First the responses.   There are some scholars who are not convinced that the fragments are helpful for showing that the Qur’an has been faithfully memorized and recorded since the seventh century.   I am no expert, and these scholars’ claims will be highly controversial – especially among the Muslim faithful.  But it’s important to bear in mind several sides of the debate.

I am particularly aware of the cautions of ….

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Intentional Changes of the Text
Fundamentalist Mistakes

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Wael Ibrahim  July 29, 2015

    I got your point perfectly, and I [as you mentioned] have no objections from a historical perspective. So historically speaking, what these fragments could tell a historian like yourself if its contents were perfectly matching the Qur’an being recited by Muslims today? Forget about whether the message is from High or not, what value will that add to historians if these fragments were proven to be intact and matching to the Qur’an we recite today?

    Thanks a lot for your time.

    3
    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2015

      If they are verified as a copy of the Qur’an (and not some other text that later was incorporated into the Qur’an) and if they are definitively dated to the seventh century (not that the parchment is dated then, but that the writing *on* the parchment is dated then) and if the wording is exactly like what is in the Qur’an today, then they would (historically) indicate that some Muslims (not all!) have memorized the text in the same way since the time in which the fragments were produced. Scholars are always extremely interested precisely in these “if’s”.

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      • Avatar
        Mhamed Errifi  July 30, 2015

        hello bart

        i dont know if your muslim readers told you this . there were several prophet muhamed dicsiples who have memorised the whole koran , but they did not know how to read and write. this is how arabic culture was back then. arabs before islam used to memorise poetry and never bother to write it down including poet who composed it and when islam appeared they began to memorise koran.then they passed koran to new generations using young children . children will begin to memorise koran in madrasas next to the mosque at early age all this was done orally not written you can find a child who has memorised the whole koran at age of 9 and he still does not know how to read or write arabic . this is how koran was preserved because millions have it stored in their memory and they were spread all over muslim empire this made it impossible for somebody to make changes and get away with it because you cant make other memoriser of the koran that you never meet who live 1000 miles from you to follow and accept your changes .

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      • Avatar
        Wael Ibrahim  August 4, 2015

        Very clear explanation and much appreciated.

        2
      • Avatar
        Malik  January 10, 2018

        Hi Dr.Ehrman,

        How long do people keep unwritten manuscripts/parchment around? Has anyone done research on the issue?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2018

          Short answer: it’s very hard to know (with respoect to “ancient” people)

  2. Avatar
    madmargie  July 29, 2015

    Good explanation!

    1
  3. Avatar
    qaelith2112  July 29, 2015

    Follow-up on Hoffman — he’s not a Christian nor any other religion. He does not identify with the label “atheist”, though as far as I know he has never indicated a belief in any gods. Beyond that, I have no idea whether he ever identified with any religions.

    1
  4. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 29, 2015

    It appears to be another story of inerrancy. The Qu’ran is inerrant, say its’ defenders. I think that there has been sufficient proof that this is not the case, and that it has been rewritten just as the Bible New Testament has been rewritten to reflect theological arguments. Human beings have agendas and both religions had their aggressive advocates. There are times when one would like to have a time machine to step into, ride back to particular moments, and view the happenings of that era. So, if you had your own time machine, Bart, what moment in time would you like to return to?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2015

      I would ask to be given 12 months, with no possibility of harm to myself, to be with Jesus and his followers six months before his death to six months after his death.

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  5. Avatar
    prince  July 29, 2015

    Again the hype over the sana’a codex negatively misunderstood by christian apologists has been refuted and deflated over and over again https://islamphobia.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/quran-sanaa-manuscript/

  6. Avatar
    JB  July 29, 2015

    Great post! Check your markup though, I think you used a pipe character | instead of a right bracket ] to indicate the private section (see [privateI above)

  7. Jeff
    Jeff  July 29, 2015

    Bart, you once wrote that your “trade” books often bring down vilification on you for making esoteric data (i.e., known only to scholars; e.g., certain problems with NT texts) accessible to us all. I hope the revelation below does not do more of the same but…

    Folks, here’s the spoiler: Arabic was not even a written language until late in the ninth century CE when Phoenician traders introduced the concept of writing to the Arabs in order to facilitate trade.

    Sorry

  8. Jeff
    Jeff  July 29, 2015

    One more thing. The notion of a “classical Arabic” may have a romantic ring to it but it is a myth; there is no such thing.

    Once again, sorry!

    • Avatar
      Shadi1990  September 21, 2017

      Classical Arabic is not a myth. People use it and make distinctions between it and modern day slang Arabic everyday. Including myself. Your statement is akin to saying that classical English is a myth.

      1
  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 29, 2015

    Yes, you cover this “oral” memory question quite thoroughly in your new book and cite lots of studies which tend to show that such memories undergone a lot of change as they are told and retold.

  10. gmatthews
    gmatthews  July 30, 2015

    Thanks for posting the links to R. Joseph Hoffman’s blog. His first entry was very enlightening and the second makes it sound like the whole story of the Quran being unchanged is falling apart, and like he writes, the media has already moved on so there will be no updates to the original story leaving the public blissfully ignorant.

  11. Jeff
    Jeff  July 30, 2015

    I actually DO know better than to make a flat statement like I did above (“Arabic was not even a written language until…”).

    What I should have said was “No evidence has yet been adduced that Arabic was a written language before mid-ninth century CE.” In this form the assertion is properly disprovable, as science should be.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2015

      And what makes you say that? I was under the impression that we had much older Arabic writings.

      1
      • John4
        John4  August 1, 2015

        “Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad in 632 CE.[20][21] Both a formal and informal version of Arabic existed during the Pre-Islamic Period. The informal dialect was used on coin and tomb inscriptions while the formal variety of Arabic was used on letters and contracts. However, contracts were sometimes written in a mixture of Formal and Informal Arabic, reflecting the large influence dialects had on the written language in Pre-Islamic Arabia.[22]”

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_language

        1
  12. Avatar
    MShirazKh  July 30, 2015

    There are powerful forces at work that would rather restore the status quo ante, particularly from the Christian side, and they tend to harp on apparent changes and differences in the Quranic text early on. Of course they would not accept the historical fact that the Quran was revealed piecemeal, and that Angel Gabriel annually rehearsed with the prophet, the portions that had been revealed so far, in toto, thus indicating the order in which they should come together, which did not change, except for hidden spaces where other verses would fit, being filled when they were revealed. Since the broadcasting of the verses revealed at a particular time to the faithful was on scraps of skin, bone, papyrus, etc., it was not possible to indicate where a collection of verses might fit in the sequence of so far revealed verses. This necessitated that, once revelation was complete, copies of the whole needed to be sent out, from the source where the Quran had been originally revealed, Medina, and spurious manuscripts that did not have the correct order be discarded.

    Another problem was that the script used did not distinguish between the various letters adequately. Thomas Milo, an Arabic Typographic expert has provided excellent reasons for why this happened – many Arabic letters are based on a cup shape, and words are formed by stringing these cup shapes together in flowing hand, and without diacritical marks differentiating between them, the actual word meant by a string of cup shapes could be interpreted ambiguously by a reader or copyist unfamiliar with the oral rendering.

    When this was discovered, efforts were made to disambiguate such letter combinations by elongating the vertical portions of some letters, joining specific combinations of letters vertically in a unique way, and adding dots as necessary above or below a particular letter, and discarding badly copied manuscripts having these mistakes. Here’s a short work of Milo’s illustrating this.

    http://www.academia.edu/910536/Arabic_script_and_typography_A_brief_historical_overview_2002_

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  13. Avatar
    MShirazKh  July 31, 2015

    Bart, aren’t you even curious as to why Muslims find your continued findings from documentary evidence from manuscripts regarding the Bible to be totally in keeping with what the Quran tells us about Jesus, the Bible, Jesus’ alleged death and Crucifixion?

    Perhaps the following excerpt from a rigorous listing of Islamic Dogma might help?
    (taken from http://masud.co.uk/ISLAM/misc/tahawi.htm)

    We say about Allah’s unity believing by Allah’s help – that Allah is One, without any partners.
    There is nothing like Him.
    There is nothing that can overwhelm Him.
    There is no god other than Him.
    He is the Eternal without a beginning and enduring without end.
    He will never perish or come to an end.
    Nothing happens except what He wills.
    No imagination can conceive of Him and no understanding can comprehend Him.
    He is different from any created being.
    He is living and never dies and is eternally active and never sleeps.
    He creates without His being in need to do so and provides for His creation without any effort.
    He causes death with no fear and restores to life without difficulty.
    He has always existed together with His attributes since before creation. Bringing creation into existence did not add anything to His attributes that was not already there. As He was, together with His attributes, in pre-eternity, so He will remain throughout endless time.
    It was not only after the act of creation that He could be described as `the Creator’ nor was it only by the act of origination that He could he described as `the Originator’.
    He was always the Lord even when there was nothing to be Lord of, and always the Creator even when there was no creation.
    In the same way that He is the `Bringer to life of the dead’, after He has brought them to life a first time, and deserves this name before bringing them to life, so too He deserves the name of `Creator’ before He has created them.
    This is because He has the power to do everything, everything is dependent on Him, everything is easy for Him, and He does not need anything. `There is nothing like Him and He is the Hearer, the Seer’. (al-Shura 42:11)
    He created creation with His knowledge.
    He appointed destinies for those He created.
    He allotted to them fixed life spans.
    Nothing about them was hidden from Him before He created them, and He knew everything that they would do before He created them.
    He ordered them to obey Him and forbade them to disobey Him.
    Everything happensACCORDING to His decree and will, and His will is accomplished. The only will that people have is what He wills for them. What He wills for them occurs and what He does not will, does not occur.
    He gives guidance to whoever He wills, and protects them, and keeps them safe from harm, out of His generosity; and He leads astray whoever He wills, and abases them, and afflicts them, out of His justice.
    All of them are subject to His will between either His generosity or His justice.
    He is exalted beyond having opposites or equals.
    No one can ward off His decree or put back His command or overpower His affairs.
    We believe in all of this and are certain that everything comes from Him.
    And we are certain that Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) is His chosen servant and selected Prophet and His Messenger with whom He is well pleased.
    And that he is the seal of the prophets and the Imam of the godfearing and the most honoured of all the messengers and the beloved of the Lord of all the Worlds.
    Every claim to prophethood after Him is falsehood and deceit.
    He is the one who has been sent to all the jinn and all mankind with truth and guidance and with light and illumination.
    The Qur’an is the word of Allah. It came from Him as speech without it being possible to say how. He sent it down on His Messenger as revelation. The believers accept it, as absolute truth. They are certain that it is, in truth, the word of Allah. It is not created, as is the speech of human beings, and anyone who hears it and claims that it is human speech has become an unbeliever. Allah warns him and censures him and threatens him with Fire when He says, Exalted is He:
    `I will burn him in the Fire.’ (al-Muddaththir 74:26)
    When Allah threatens with the Fire those who say
    `This is just human speech’ (al-Muddaththir 74:25)
    we know for certain that it is the speech of the Creator of mankind and that it is totally unlike the speech of mankind.
    Anyone who describes Allah as being in any way the same as a human being has become an unbeliever. All those who grasp this will take heed and refrain from saying things such as the unbelievers say, and they will know that He, in His attributes, is not like human beings.

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  14. Avatar
    gavm  August 1, 2015

    i love how all these muslims claim with no evidence “we’ve heard stories that the early muslims magically memorized the whole quoran perfectly, hence we believe it” god forbid one might have a belief with some evidence to back it up. Bart do you ever tell these muslims trying to get you on side that in yr opinion the most certain historical fact anyone could cant is that jesus died by crucifixion?

    • Avatar
      gavm  August 1, 2015

      i meant to say “anyone could want is that jesus died by crucifixion”

    • Avatar
      MShirazKh  September 1, 2015

      gavm, what is so magical about EARLY muslims memorizing the whole quran perfectly, when CONTEMPORARY Muslims regularly hear, especially during Ramadan, the whole Quran recited during prayers, from cover to cover, with people in the prayer congregation correcting the prayer leader whenever he slips up or is forgetful?

      3
      • Avatar
        MShirazKh  September 1, 2015

        I meant …correcting OR PROMPTING the prayer leader….

        2
  15. Avatar
    Jana  August 2, 2015

    It occurred to me the other night thinking about this blog that given that Christians were more concerned about the Death and Resurrection that Christ’s actual teachings would be of lesser importance. Therefore unnecessary for Salvation and thus unnecessary to record accurately. Would this be an accurate assessment?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2015

      I’d say most Christians think the sayings of Jesus are tremendously important.

      2
      • Avatar
        Jana  August 11, 2015

        Ok thank you and thought in antiquity as well? … then I am also perplexed as to why recording Jesus’s exact words wasn’t important. And why both accidental and deliberate word changes were made unless there was a hidden agenda as you’ve stated and I am learning!

        1
        • Bart
          Bart  August 11, 2015

          Yes it is perplexing. I suspect no one expected us to be here 2000 years later wanting to know his exact words!

          1
        • Avatar
          Omar6741  October 17, 2015

          Before asking about careful preservation of his words, we should ask why they didn’t preserve his language. To this day I find people from the Eastern Orthodox Church insisting that Jesus spoke Greek!

          1
  16. Jeff
    Jeff  August 6, 2015

    The earliest CLAIMED Arabic manuscript is a tiny, semi-legible fragment dated mid-sixth century. It has since been adjudged by most experts to be Phoenician, not Arabic.

  17. Avatar
    novotnycurse  August 11, 2015

    There’s further analysis by Gabriel Said Reynolds in the Times Literary Supplement (Published: 5 August 2015) : Variant readings – The Birmingham Qur’an in the context of debate on Islamic origins.

    Extracts below:

    “the very early dating of the Birmingham manuscript (568–645) – almost certainly before the reign of Uthman – casts doubt on the traditional story.”

    “the dates of the Birmingham manuscript are not simply early. They’re too early. Instead of rejoicing, the news about this manuscript should lead to head-scratching.”

    “Moreover, the extremely early date range of the Birmingham text (most of which is before even the date when Muhammad is said to have begun his preaching) seems to confirm the early dating of other manuscripts.”

    “It may be time to rethink the story of the Qur’an’s origins, including the traditional dates of Muhammad’s career. In other words, what observers have celebrated as something like evidence of the traditional story of Islam’s origins…may actually be, when considered carefully, evidence that the story of Islam’s origins is quite unlike what we have imagined”

    • Avatar
      Omar6741  October 17, 2015

      Reynolds is just grasping at straws here, unfortunately. The only head-scratching to be done here is in response to his fallacious reasoning.
      There is no problem at all with the date range arrived at by the radiocarbon procedure, for this just tells us when the animal whose skin was used for the parchment was most likely killed.
      Obviously, some of the years in the range are indeed too early for the writing of the Quran; yet that only helps us narrow the range further to the later end, i.e. 622CE — 645CE. The findings tell us that the writing was most likely in this range or soon after.
      So what, exactly, Professor Reynolds?

      1
  18. Avatar
    Omar6741  October 17, 2015

    I just read this very emotional and hasty blog post:
    https://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/the-bbc-birmingham-quran-facts-fiasco/
    This blog post cites a palimpsest manuscript that has been rigorously studied, yet the author of the blog is not aware of the conclusions reached by other researchers. The article to read is by B. Sadeghi and U. Bergmann in Arabica 57 (2010) 343-436, entitled “The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the
    Qurʾān of the Prophet”. These two authors examine the lower script of the palimpsest mentioned, and conclude, on the basis of a stemmatic analysis that “In any case, textual criticism suggests that the standard version is the most
    faithful representation, among the known codices, of the Qurʾān as recited by the Prophet.”
    Indeed, there has been a process of editing of manuscripts of the Quran, just as there has been a process of correcting of mistakes in memorization and oral recitation. Unlike the case of the New Testament, however, there is so far no good evidence that any theologically motivated corruptions have been retained in the canonical text.
    Islamic Studies still waits for its own Bart Ehrman. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Omar6741  November 16, 2015

      I made a comment on Hoffmann’s blog pointing out the relevant literature about the Quran he has obviously failed to read. My comment didn’t appear, which leads me to wonder about his objectivity and commitment to the truth when it comes to Islam.

      1
  19. talmoore
    talmoore  October 23, 2015

    When I read the Qur’an–even in Arabic–it never occured to me that it was a text worth memorizing, let alone following. It reads like the poetic ramblings of a crazy person. There are even verses within the Qur’an itself where Muhammed actually criticizes those who characterize his “prophecies” as the poetic ramblings of a crazy person, which only supports my impression.

    1
    • Avatar
      Omar6741  November 16, 2015

      And yet you can easily find devout Christian Arabs who listen to it every week for its beauty and majesty.
      Your experience may confirm what the Quran says about itself i.e. many will not respond because they have “locks on their hearts”.

      1
    • Avatar
      Shadi1990  September 21, 2017

      You read Arabic? I highly doubt that. Even Christians and Atheists, along with those who are Arabist orientalists in the west, give witness to the literally level of the Quran.

      1

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