The Birmingham Qur’an Fragment: What should Christians Think?
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.