My post on Saturday about the discovery of two pages of the Qur’an in the library of the University of Birmingham that appear to date from the time of Mohammed himself. or a decade or so later, evoked more than the usual response. My facebook post has received nearly 260,000 hits. I think before that my previous highest hit total was 25,000 or so. Amazing amount of interest in this.
And so I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on the 3+ years of the blog: I’m going to post several comments that I have received (on the assumption that many people reading the blog do not read all the comments and my responses to them) (if I’m completely wrong about that, I’d like to know) (though I’m not sure how I could ever get enough responses to see that I’m *completely* wrong. 🙂 ) will say something about each one – the first two are typical of several that I’ve gotten. The last two are hard-hitting and particularly informative. (I will not name names here. Not sure why, other than that I haven’t asked permission. But if you want to see who posted what, that can be found on the comment page of the post)
Hi Bart, this brings back the question I asked before about the Qur’an’s version of Jesus. If those who copied the Qur’an were careful to avoid errors, then wouldn’t there be some more percentage of relevance in the Qur’an’s version of Jesus story? What are your comments on this, thank you.
Good question! But, no, actually, I would say that it wouldn’t have any relevance. The fact that later scribes accurately copied the Qur’an has no bearing on the question of whether the author(s) of the Qur’an had accurate information when they composed the book. With respect to Jesus, they would have had no independent information – only what they had learned from earlier Christians and Christian sources. (He/They were writing over 450 years after the Gospels of the New Testament!)
Isn’t it just the parchment that’s been dated, not the ink? Is there any reason to think that the writing is also old?
Yes, that’s right, just the parchment has been dated. It is very difficult to test the ink on such documents, because to do so requires you to destroy the ink! And it takes a good bit of it to be enough to be checked. So in theory the parchment could be from the 7th century, but the ink from, say, the 14th.
But in the judgment of most experts that would be highly unlikely (but see the final comment below, and my response). The only real reason for someone to use ancient parchment for a modern writing (when modern parchment would be in much better shape and easier to access and easier to use) is to make the writing look older than it was. That is something you might expect a modern forger to do, someone who knew that the parchment could be scientifically dated. But it’s not something that would be expected to be done in the Middle Ages. So more than likely the date of the parchment is pretty close to the date of the writing on it. As with all history, of course, this is simply a matter of probabilities, not certainties.
A few points. First, this is not time Qur’anic manuscript pages have has such an early date. All such manuscripts, including this one, are usually dated paleographically to the late 600’s or early 700’s, and it is thought that the process of making the parchment involved certain organic elements – I forget what they are – that would yield an older date.
That said, the fact there is such a cluster of dates c. 600 have caused some to wonder if Qur’ans really were circulating that early. This could give support to revisionist arguments that Muhammad did not actually reveal the text as the sacred book of Islam, but instead inherited or was otherwise somehow associated with an older lectionary of some kind.
This discovery does not seem particularly important next to the nearly complete Sana’a codex, which has a similar C-14 date, but has the chapters in a different order suggesting it predates the standardization of the text traditionally ascribed to Uthman (644-656) but possibly undertaken by Abd al-Malik in the 690’s.
Very interesting! I’m afraid I’m not an expert in any of these fields, and so have nothing to add, subtract, change, or challenge!
This is potentially exciting news, but when claims like this come via press release rather than via scholarly conferences and peer reviewed journals, I’m a little skeptical. This is an instance in which I would like to hear more from palaeographers and students of early Islamic codicology. I’m not a specialist in Arabic books and scripts, but the New York Times quoted a source (whose work is unknown to me) as follows:
“Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later, he said.”
The phenomenon of erased manuscripts that were reused (palimpsests) is known from other very early copies of the Qur’an, such as the so-called Sana’a palimpsest (see discussion here: http://ponderingislam.com/2015/02/05/understanding-the-sanaa-manuscript-find/) I would be interested to learn from specialists whether the writing of the Birmingham manuscript is in fact consistent with a date in the first half of the seventh century, and it would be good to know if the manuscript has been subjected to multi-spectral imaging to see if traces of any earlier writing might be present.
Very interesting indeed. Yes, of course, I completely agree that we should prefer scholarly presentations to press releases! But this item is in the news and is worth noting. I should say that the sensationalization one gets in this newspaper or another is somewhat countered if the story comes from an official press release by an academic institution rather than based simply on an interview that a single reporter has had and spun in order to sell newspapers. But absolutely I agree – the matter needs study and we shouldn’t take it, should decidedly not take it, as an established scholarly position.
On palimpsests: I’m puzzled — mainly by my ignorance. I’m not familiar with the phenomenon of a manuscript being *SO* thoroughly washed and cleaned that there is no visual evidence of the under-writing to the naked eye. The only palimpsests I know of (there are, of course, a number of famous ones that contain New Testament texts: Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus; the Syriac Sinaiticus; etc.) quite clearly (to the eye) have been washed and reused: you can tell simply by looking at them. Are there exceptions?