This is an unusually important post on how to solve the problem of the date of the Qur’an, by my colleague Stephen Shoemaker, connected with his earlier scintillating discussion based on his recent book Creating the Qur’an, which you can check out here: Amazon.com: Creating the Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Study eBook : Shoemaker, Stephen J.: Books
The question is: can’t you just do a scientific dating of the Qur’an manuscripts and quickly solve the question: when were they produced? The answer may surprise you. It enlightened *me*
Radiocarbon Dating and the Origins of the Qur’an:
The Perils of Scientism and Internet Sensationalism
Bart invited me to make another post or two about studying the origins of the Qur’an from a historical-critical perspective, and right off the bat I knew that I needed to write something about attempts to radiocarbon date early Qur’anic manuscripts. It turns out that over the last ten years this topic has become the 800-pound gorilla in the room (to mix metaphors), and much like an actual 800-pound gorilla in any room, it has become a huge distraction and a hindrance to clear thinking. To borrow another trite metaphor, many scholars have invoked the radiocarbon analyses of certain early manuscripts as if these were a kind of silver bullet capable of bringing an end to all further discussion about the Qur’an’s origins. With the evidence of “science” now firmly in hand, the conversation is over, they maintain, and abracadabra, the Qur’an’s early history is, as it turns out, exactly what the Islamic tradition says it is.
Nevertheless, the problem is that most scholars who are eager to impose such scientific closure on this thorny and contested topic do not appear to understand fully the subtleties and limitations of the method in question. In the interests of brevity, I will not explain in detail how this method of radiocarbon analysis works, although interested readers may consult the third chapter of my Creating the Qur’an, where I explain the process, its basis, and its limitations in clear and basic terms. There too I address in a much more sophisticated manner the various points that I make in this post, as well as identifying even deeper problems with the ways that radiocarbon dating has been used in Qur’anic studies.
Radiocarbon dating is of course a remarkable tool for the historian when used properly, but in our case, it turns out to be more of a chainsaw than a chisel, when the latter is what we need. For instance, if one needs to date an object broadly, say to determine whether it was manufactured in either late antiquity or the late Middle Ages, then radiocarbon dating is your best friend. With this sort of range in view, its results are clear and decisive. So, for instance, when scholars used this method to date the Shroud of Turin, the results definitively identified this object as a medieval, rather than ancient, fabrication. Within a range of centuries, then, radiocarbon dating is rock solid.
The problem in our case, however, is that debates around the formation of the Qur’an hinge on a matter of a couple of decades, rather than centuries. There can be little question that the Qur’an as we now have it had come into existence by the early eighth century, which radiocarbon dating solidly confirms. Yet the more pressing question is whether the Qur’an’s definitive, canonical form was established by around 650, or 670, or 690. Such precision is more than radiocarbon dating can provide, as any archaeologist or historian familiar with this method will acknowledge. It is a lesson that scholars of biblical studies, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular, learned decades ago, and even still New Testament scholars struggle to identify the dates of the earliest fragments of the gospels and Paul’s letters. But back to the Qur’an.
In recent years samples were taken from several early Qur’anic manuscripts in order to determine the date of their production using radiometric analysis. Some of the initial results appeared to align very favorably with the canonical account of the Qur’an’s origins (which I outlined in my previous post), quickly creating a sense among more traditional scholars that at last science had proven the “skeptics” wrong. The first efforts to date a Qur’anic manuscript using this method involved a single folio that was stolen from Yemen and now is in the possession of Stanford University. Although these initial results were published in a scholarly journal, soon thereafter radiocarbon datings of early Qur’anic manuscripts in Birmingham, England and Tübingen were announced on library websites, only without full publication and analysis of the data. Encouraged by online articles breathlessly heralding discovery of “the oldest Qur’an,” social media (and Twitter especially) quickly declared that the matter of the Qur’an’s origins had been decided. Science had proven the veracity of the traditional Islamic account of the Qur’an’s formation, a verdict pronounced via Twitter threads rather than through the careful argument and evidence of a scholarly publication. Science had spoken, and science was infallible.
Of course, any good scientist will tell you that scientific data must always, just like any other evidence, be carefully interpreted, and while scientific measurement can be decisive in some instances, in others, the investigator is confronted with significant ambiguity. Within a range of centuries, radiocarbon data is decisive. But beyond this broad scope, more precision requires greater interpretation of the radiometric data. And once we begin to reach for individual decades, the data can longer be meaningfully interpreted. Ironically, in applying this method of dating to early Qur’anic manuscripts, scholars have seemingly created more problems than they have been able to solve. For example, some folios returned dates indicating that the manuscript in question was a hundred years or more earlier than Muhammad himself!
In other instances, a single page was analyzed independently by as many as four different labs. One would expect that if this method were accurate and reliable, the results would be consistent, regardless of where the analysis was done. But instead, the results were often all over the place: a folio dated to 611-660 by one lab was determined by another to date sometime between 433-599; another folio dated 590-660 by one lab was dated by another to 388-535. Now, these results are rather decisive if one wants to know whether the object in question is ancient or medieval. Yet given such widely varying datings of the same object, one obviously cannot seek to pinpoint a particular decade. The data are too skewed, and even by the standards of radiocarbon analysis, these results were more inconsistent than one generally expects from this method. Still, the Qur’anic sages of the Twitterverse were unshaken. Clearly – they proclaimed with neither evidence nor argument – the labs that returned the data that they didn’t like simply had botched the job (I am not making this up).
Eventually, some scholars instead began to take the scientific data seriously and to ask whether, for whatever reason, something was not working quite right with the radiocarbon dating of objects from the early medieval Near East. And so, they turned to early manuscripts whose dates were already well established, through scribal notes or the like, and had them dated using radiocarbon analysis. In each instance, the date that was returned was significantly off, by as much as a century in some cases, further calling into question the use of this method for dating early Qur’anic manuscripts within more than a century or two. Of course, these problems do not mean that radiocarbon dating is worthless or does not work. Far from it. Yet it does remind us that we must respect the method’s limitations. We cannot ask it to do more than it is capable of and must likewise allow for its constraints.
Even so, something still seems to be significantly off in our efforts to date manuscripts from this era using radiocarbon analysis. Presumably there are some underlying errors in the framework that we use to analyze the raw data obtained from these objects. Such inaccuracies in interpretation have been relatively common in the history of radiocarbon dating, and as the discipline has progressed, these have regularly been corrected. Presently we stand at a moment where significant correction is seemingly needed for dating objects from the early medieval Near East. The good news, however, is that scientists who specialize in this kind of analysis are aware of the constant need for such adjustments, and already new avenues are being pursued that will potentially yield more consistent results in seeking to date early Islamic artifacts. Yet even once such refinements are in place, it remains extremely unlikely that radiocarbon dating alone will fully resolve the mystery of the Qur’an’s origins, and historical-critical investigation of the text itself will remain the most vital set of tools for this endeavor.
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