What a newly dated early Quran tells us about Islam

Published: July 30, 2015

A fragment of a Koran manuscript is seen in the library at the University of Birmingham. PHOTO: REUTERS

For the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, the idea that the Holy Quran is a seventh-century text disseminated by Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), is neither new nor particularly controversial.

But in academia, the history of this holy text is much more opaque. For researchers in Islamic studies, historical evidence dating the Holy Quran back to Islam’s foundational era has proved elusive. This has led to hotly contested academic debates about the early or late canonisation of the Holy Quran, with a small handful of scholars claiming that the book is a product of a much later (mid-eighth century and after) age of compilation or even confabulation, when Abbasid-era scholars rationalised and expanded the Muslim religious corpus.

Recent scholarly work on early manuscript fragments of the Holy Quran such as those discovered in Sanaa, Yemen in 1972, gave us portions of Quranic text carbon-dated to a few years after the Holy Quran was officially standardised by one of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) early successors, the caliph, Hazrat Usman (RA), in around 650 CE. But there has been little clinching evidence to settle the debate about the dating of the text from a scholarly rather than a devotional perspective.

A new discovery

But this picture seems to have changed overnight. Two Quran fragments unknowingly held since 1936 in the University of Birmingham’s manuscript collection have been definitively dated to the era of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) life or a little later.

The writing of the two folios (with text corresponding to chapters 18-20 in the modern Holy Quran) has been placed somewhere between 568 and 645 CE, which is very close to the conventional dating offered for the Prophet’s (PBUH) ministry, 610-632 CE.

Given the more than 95 per cent accuracy of the carbon dating involved, carried out at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, this discovery indicates that these fragments are in all probability contemporary with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself.

No wonder that the University of Birmingham, and the city as a whole, has welcomed the news with excitement and pride. There seems some poetic justice in the fact that a city that is home to one of the most multicultural communities in the world (described without irony on Fox News as a “no-go area” for non-Muslims) should now, as it surely will, become a veritable Makkah for both non-Muslims and Muslims eager to examine for themselves these almost 1,400-year-old pages, which are offered in a clear, legible, even beautiful hand.

Handwriting hesitation

Certainly, the discovery will have its detractors, and no doubt these will be of two kinds. First, from those historians who are cautious, even sceptical about carbon dating as a tool of evidence.

On the whole, palaeography (the study of handwriting) and carbon dating have worked side-by-side to offer a clearer picture than ever of the date-range of various textual materials for ancient and medieval history. But historians schooled in palaeography or philology (the study of historical language) can often find the evidence furnished by carbon dating to be unfeasibly early. There have been clear instances of carbon dating specifying a timeframe which is undermined by a study of language (such as dialect or idiom), of script and of what I will call circumstantial evidence, namely what is known from written histories or from archaeological remains about the spread of texts and of ideas.

French scholar François Déroche, for example, argued in 2014 that carbon dating seems to offer too early a time period for the Umayyad-era (661-750 CE) Holy Qurans that he has examined. Such discrepancies can usually be attributed to the fact that carbon dating provides a reasonably accurate assessment of the date of the medium of writing — for example, the death date of an animal whose skin is used for writing on — rather than the date of the writing itself. Yet, the widespread use of the method for dating ancient and medieval texts and artefacts bears witness to its importance as a powerful tool for establishing a reasonable range of dates for any given object.

Hardwired sceptics

The other group who may find fault with this discovery are those writers for whom Islam is a collection of ideas and strictures developed in a much later (post-conquest) era and projected back on to the seventh century. For such hardwired sceptics, it may be that no historical evidence carries the power to shift their convictions. This new discovery may be dismissed by such voices as part of the global conspiracy to give Islam’s self-created narrative more credence than it deserves.

But for academic historians of early Islam, the early stabilisation of Quranic text is one of the few areas which a broad spectrum of scholars agrees on. In the words of the recently departed historian Patricia Crone, a widely acknowledged expert on early and medieval Islam,

“We can be reasonably sure that the Quran is a collection of utterances that [Muhammad (PBUH)] made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. [He] is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death — how long after is controversial.”

It is this last point of controversy that the Birmingham discovery illuminates. Clearly, Quranic verses with a very close match to the version we have today were being transcribed during or soon after the Prophet’s (PBUH) lifetime. So historians of early Islam have good reason to feel excited, if not gratified, by this discovery.

This post originally appeared here.

Fozia Bora

Fozia Bora

The author studied Islamic History at the University of Oxford, specialising in medieval Arabic historiography. She is Lecturer in Middle Eastern History and Islamic History at the University of Leeds. She tweets as @FoziaBora

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Nofel

    The discussion within Academia and historical evidences are important having said that i also want everyone (specially Muslims) to be cognizant that there is no official manuscript of Quaran or if someone raise where and how Quaran is saved we cannot point out that this publisher or body has the real and official manuscript.

    The Quaran resides in the heart of Ummah as an ‘Ijmah’ (consensus), from Prophets days quaran was memorized by multiple people and it is still going on. This form of Ijmah can be known as “Qoli tawatar’ (verbal uninterrupted repetition) and no other book (or any other phenomena) has this quality and tradition.Recommend

  • BHAGWAT GOEL

    ISLAM IS A FAITH OF OVER 160 CRORE PEOPLE BUT SADLY IT IS MUSLIMS THEMSELVES PARTICULAR FROM THE ISLAMIC STATE OF PAKISTAN NEED SERIOUSLY TAKE ATTACKS ON ISLAM AND PRACTICE. INTERNET IS FULL OF QUESTIONS.MAULANAS SHOULD APPRECIATE THAT EVEN EDUCATED MUSLIMS RAISE QUESTIONS. THEY MUST COME OUT AND SATISFY SUCH PEOPLE. IT IS THE DUTY OF MAULANAS TO ENSURE THAT PERCEPTIONS ABOUT ISLAM REMAIN STRONG AND RESPECTED.Recommend

  • Skeptic

    Fossil evidence indicates modern man evolved at least 100,000 years ago. The first sections of the Quran were written 1,300 years ago.
    Recommend

  • Goher

    We don’t need old copy of Qur’an specially the one that was held in university library since 1936, we already have authentic version of Qur’an and nothing is going to be changed in it (God willing), regardless of so called discovery. Is this an attempt to change Islam and/or Qur’an ? ..(again)Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    It tells that Quran is compiled by cruel Hashmite Darbar who made prophets family flee and take shelter in Sindh, just as Romans compiled Bible two hundred years after death of Yeshu/Jesus in SriNagar to divide and enslave the natives ie Jews.Recommend

  • pk

    After all it is myth where Donkeys fly, Jinn speak, birds pelt stone to win war. Recommend

  • Ravian

    I have read a lot about this discovery but I am curious to know if there is any difference between this manuscript and the modern version?Recommend

  • Tea Drinker

    That only shows that human learnt the right way of leading life only 1300 years back and were living in ignorance for more than 98300 years. Sigh!Recommend

  • Parvez

    Same like the British Constitution…….but the British appear to be doing quite well.Recommend

  • Babur

    According to Islamic theology (as well as other Abrahamics), Adam was present when the first man appeared so it really isn’t a contradiction.

    The Quran is the last in a series of messages .Recommend

  • Babur

    People were judged by rules according to their times. For example many pre-Islamic people may have consumed alcohol, but it was not a sin until later.Recommend

  • 19640909rk .

    of course. Look at the progress made by Islamic world. Tremendous.Recommend

  • Messenger.03

    Scientific and technological progress might be the two things the Islamic world lacks but when it comes to progress of morales and h humanity,the Muslim world has recieved the best ever tool for that.
    Islam.Recommend

  • Bharat Indian

    you are asking too much from poorly informed Maulanas.Recommend