The BBC announced enthusiastically Wednesday that “what may be the world’s oldest fragments of the Koran have been found by the University of Birmingham.” This news is not only of interest to scholars and Muslim intellectuals; it appears to buttress the Islamic claim that the Qur’an’s text has remained unchanged for 1,400 years – which is purported to be proof of its divine origin.
There is only one problem with all this: the BBC article raises more questions than it answers, and reveals more about the wishful thinking of the academic and media establishments than it does about the Qur’an.
The article is riddled with academic and journalistic sloppiness. We’re told that the radiocarbon dating shows, “with a probability of more than 95%, the parchment was from between 568 and 645.” Very well, but does the ink date to that time as well? We are not told. Parchment was often reused in the ancient world, with the earlier text erased and written over, and so if a parchment dates from 645, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the text does.
However, it is impossible to discover any more details from this shoddy BBC presentation. The best photo of this manuscript that the BBC provides shows clear traces of another text underneath the main text. It is not clear from the photo whether that is the text from the other side bleeding through on the photograph, or even if there is any text on the other side; nor does the BBC tell us whether or not the parchment shows signs of having been a palimpsest — that is, a parchment that was used more than once for different texts. There is also some red ink in the top lines of the manuscript in the photo but not in the succeeding lines. Has the red ink faded from the other sections, or is it itself evidence of the ink fading? Or is it a later hand filling in areas that had faded away (and possibly altering the text)? The BBC doesn’t tell us, yet this is an extremely salient point. Another recently discovered and much-touted fragment of the Qur’an, now in Germany and dated from between 649 and 675, shows clear signs of alteration, raising the possibility that the Qur’anic text was altered over time (image available here). If this is a possibility also for the University of Birmingham manuscript, the BBC should tell us so. But it doesn’t.
What’s more, if the text along with the parchment really dates from between 568 and 645, it may not be a fragment of the Qur’an at all. The Qur’an, according to Islamic tradition, was compiled in its definitive form in the year 653 by the caliph Uthman, who ordered all variant texts burned and the canonical version distributed to all the provinces within his domains.
As I show in my book Did Muhammad Exist?, however, there are numerous reasons to doubt this story. The principal one is that if the entire Islamic world had copies of the Qur’an by the mid 650s, why is it that not until the latter part of the seventh and early part of the eighth century do mentions of the Qur’an begin to appear? The Dome of the Rock inscriptions date from 691; they are made up of many Qur’an verses, but out of their Qur’anic order and some with notable changes in wording. Who would have dared to change the words of Allah? And the first clear reference to the Qur’an as such occurred around the year 710—eighty years after the book was supposedly completed and sixty years after it was supposedly collected and distributed. During a debate with an Arab noble, a Christian monk of the monastery of Beth Hale (of which there were two, one in northern Iraq and the other in Arabia; it is not known in which one this monk lived) cited the Qur’an by name. The monk wrote, “I think that for you, too, not all your laws and commandments are in the Qur’an which Muhammad taught you; rather there are some which he taught you from the Qur’an, and some are in surat albaqrah and in gygy and in twrh.”
By this point Arab armies had conquered a huge expanse of territory, stretching from North Africa, across the Levant, Syria, and Iraq, and into Persia, and yet those eight decades of conquest had produced scarcely a mention of the book that supposedly inspired them. And when the Qur’an finally was mentioned, it appears that the book was not even in the form we now know. Surat albaqrah (or al-Baqara) is “the chapter of the Cow,” which is the second, and longest, sura of the Qur’an. The eighth-century monk thus quite clearly knew of a Qur’an that didn’t contain this sura; he considered surat albaqrah to be a stand-alone book, along with gygy (the Injil, or Gospel) and twrh (the Torah). It is unlikely that the monk simply made an error: who ever mistakes a chapter of a book for a separate book?
So if this is a fragment of the Qur’an as it now stands (and what portion of the Qur’an is it, anyway? Neither the BBC nor its quoted academics tell us), and yet it could date from as far back as 568, two years before Muhammad is supposed to have been born, it might not be a fragment of the Qur’an at all. It could instead be a portion of some source that later became part of the Qur’an, as did Surat al-Baqara.
The BBC quotes Professor David Thomas, who also doesn’t tell us what exact portions of the Qur’an this manuscript contains, and who raises even more questions when he says: “These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Koran 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.”
This is a very strange statement. The BBC, and apparently the University of Birmingham, are advertising this as an ancient fragment of the Qur’an. Presumably when Thomas says that “these portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Koran read today,” he means that the larger whole of which they once formed a part was “very close” to the Qur’an. But how close is “very close”? Mainstream Muslims maintain that the Qur’anic text has undergone no alteration at all since it was first “revealed.”
So when Thomas says that his fragments were once part of something “very close to the form of the Koran read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration,” he is already departing from the standard story of Qur’anic origins that he is claiming to support. The text has undergone “little or no alteration”? Well, which is it? Little alteration, which no matter how little would explode the Islamic claim of its divine origin and perfect protection, or no alteration, which would support that claim?
The Guardian illumines some of this in its own report when it says: “The significance of Birmingham’s leaves, which hold part of Suras (chapters) 18 to 20, was missed because they were bound together with another text, in a very similar hand but written almost 200 years later….The verses are incomplete, and believed to have been an aide memoire for an imam who already knew the Qur’an by heart, but the text is very close to the accepted authorised version.”
Suras 18 and 20, with their long stories of Moses (very odd ones in 18, along with material about Dhul Qarnayn, who is usually assumed to be Alexander the Great, and the Christian story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus), and sura 19, with its extended retelling of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ, are some of the most obviously derivative sections of the entire Qur’an — reinforcing the impression that this could be a fragment of a source of the Qur’an, not the Qur’an itself. And indeed, it is not the Qur’an itself, we are finally told, for “the verses are incomplete, and believed to have been an aide memoire for an imam who already knew the Qur’an by heart, but the text is very close to the accepted authorised version.” Very close is how close? Any deviation could just as easily be not an aide memoire for an imam, but evidence of editing and change, as Islam was being developed in the latter part of the seventh century and the early part of the eighth.
In sum, the more one looks at this curious story, the less there is to see. It seems indisputable that an ancient manuscript has been confirmed to be ancient. Has its text been altered? We aren’t told. Is it part of the Qur’an? We can’t be sure. Does it correspond to the modern standard Qur’anic text? We aren’t told. The only thing we can really be sure of about this story is the closing statement from Dr. Muhammad Isa Waley: this “is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.” As is so often the case with the mainstream media, that may be the primary objective all along.