The Birmingham Qur’an Fragment: What should Christians Think?
Published: 6 August 2015 (GMT+10)
The BBC reports that some fragments of the Qur’an found at Birmingham University are among the world’s oldest.1 But it may be too soon for any definitive statements about the nature of this manuscript.
The parchment of the manuscript has been carbon-dated to sometime between AD 568 and 645. Muhammad lived in the seventh century AD, so this means the parchment dates to within a couple decades of his death. Carbon-dating is an accurate method for material within a few thousand years.
However, there are a number of very important things that the report does not note. The ink has not been carbon-dated, or if it has, this detail is not recorded in the news stories. It is a well-known fact that parchments can be washed and re-used—such re-used manuscripts are called palimpsests. If something regarded as worthless was written on the valuable parchment, it may have been used to write a copy of the Qur’an much later. Understandably, testing the ink itself is a rare practice because it requires the destruction of part of the writing.
It is possible to analyze the characteristics of the script itself to come to a rough date of composition, because the form of letters changes over time. Dr James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries notes that the script of the manuscript has a form of vowel pointing that is not present on the oldest established Qur’an manuscripts—the Paris and London Qur’ans.2
Media release vs academic publishing
The manuscript has not been published in any academic journals, and it is generally considered ‘bad form’ to release a manuscript find to the media before scholars have had a chance to vet it. We have noted this problem in the past with the lead codices and the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’, both of which were quickly discredited by scholars.
Until scholars have had a chance to examine the manuscript and go through the proper channels, the value of this find cannot be assessed. In fact, some Saudi scholars have raised doubts about this manuscript, and say it may be a publicity stunt. They said, “The university should have examined the ink not the hide on which it was written.” Also, the order of the text was not the same as it was in that era.3 If some Muslims are rejecting the claims that the manuscript is ancient, surely Christians can, too.
What should Christians think?
If this is actually a very old Qur’an manuscript, then we may have a look at what the earliest Qur’an looked like. From a historical point of view this is interesting, but from a religious point of view it doesn’t change much.
Muhammad’s claims differed from Christian claims from the earliest times, as the Qur’an itself shows. So establishing that these differences existed in the same form close to the lifetime of Muhammad does not change how Christians engage with Islam.
Media hype and anti-Christian bias
The BBC has had a decidedly anti-Christian bias, but for various reasons, this does not apply to Islam. One cannot imagine a first-century New Testament manuscript receiving the glowing coverage that this seventh-century Qur’an fragment got.
Christians have the most well-documented text of all ancient documents—the New Testament. This new Qur’an manuscript does not change that.
References and notes
- Coughlan, S., ‘Oldest’ Koran fragments found in Birmingham University, BBC, 22 July 2015, bbc.com. Return to text.
- White, J., The Birmingham Qur’an, Bart Ehrman, Equal Scales, and the Biblical Text of the London Confession, The Dividing Line podcast, 28 July 2015; aomin.org. Return to text.
- Saudi scholars discredit UK’s claim of ‘oldest Quran’, Arabian Business, 27 July 2015, arabianbusiness.com. Return to text.
Really, the antiquity of this fragment is meaningless, since it's a *fragment.* The Qur'an has a well-known textual history that involves its collation and expansion over a couple of centuries. Most of it does not date to within 100 years of the putative date for the death of Mohammed, but a few surat do. It would not be surprising that some fragments of what later were brought together as the Qur'an could be found floating around out there.
Be that as it may, it remains to be seen that this very early dating will stand. Carbon dating is notoriously unreliable - I've read of one example in which tissue from a living snail was dated to around 3000 years old. C-14 dating almost always errs towards greater age, and this may well be the case here.
More decisively is the fact that there appears to have been no real palaeographic analysis done yet - just a grad student who noticed that the text between two leaves didn't "flow." This same grad student herself observed that the text form is almost identical with that of the leaves these sheets were bound up with, and which date to 200 years later. In all likelihood, we'll end up finding out that these quranic leaves will be dated palaeographically to sometime in the 9th century.
We are all aware of the desperation in the islamists to raise the standard of Koran to near-status of the Bible, but it can never be anywhere because of the 100% consistency in the Scriptures. Sad still, the mainstream media fight against Christianity despite its clear positive on them. However, I am pleased even if no one talks the Truth already revealed in Yeshua (Jesus) lasts.
You mention the oldest Qurans in two museums, but isn't the Sanaa Quran even older than those and indicates many changes in history to the Quran so that it indicates that the Quran of today is not the same as the Quran produced by Uthman (the 3rd Caliph) some 30 years after the death of Mohammad?
I find it puzzling that the BBC is so enthralled with this questionable copy of the Qur'an -- when another ancient Qur'an has been found with much stronger marks of authenticity, which shows that it was written before Uthman compiled his version and burned the older ones. This Qur'an manuscript is designated as "DAM 0 1-27.1" and was found in the ancient Great Mosque in Sana'a in 1972. This manuscript demonstrates that the claimed "divinely perfect transmission of the Qur'an" is a myth.
Dr. Gerd R Puin, a renowned Islamicist at Saarland University, Germany -- is one of the few researchers who has been allowed to examine the manuscript, but his research has been like walking on egg shells trying not to upset orthodox Muslims. His findings were so controversial that Yemeni officials have now denied him access to the manuscripts -- and they remain under wraps.
This reaction is in stark contrast to the display of scores of ancient Bible manuscripts, like the Dead Sea Scrolls -- and it speaks volumes about which of the two books -- Bible vs. Qur'an is more verifiably authentic and reliable!
Perhaps even an ink test is not a sure test of age. In a novel a person made ink from ancient materials in order that his deception would pass this radiocarbon dating test.
I suppose that's a possibility, but that's where analysis of the writing itself would come in. Ancient script and modern script (and even a modern person trying to write in an ancient script) would look different from each other. Also, it would require someone to know the precise 'recipe' for a plausible ancient ink and to have all those ingredients at hand.
In short, while it might have been an interesting literary device, it would be very difficult to pull off in real life.
With the Muslim Aaqil Ahmed as BBC's Commissioning Editor Religion and Head of Religion & Ethics, one may expect the BBC to focus more on Islam related subjects. More important is the following:
Islam permits lying to deceive unbelievers. It's called al-Taqiyya.
Muslims lie when it is in their interest to do so and 'Allah' will not hold them accountable for lying when it is beneficial to the cause of Islam.
So you'll never know what to believe when a Muslim tells you a story or a 'fact'.
Like this article says: fact checking is needed for sure!
It would be interesting to see (if this is authentic and early) if this find sheds any light on the earliest Qur'an manuscript, the 'Hafsah Codex', which was intentionally burned by Muslims early on, within the 7th century, at the command of Uthman.
I cannot see why this would matter at all, really. The reputation of the Qur'an as an inspired holy book has been lost from studying its own claims and predictions. Finding an ancient version changes none of that...