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The “world’s oldest Qur’an manuscript”

September 8, 2015

You may recall seeing, back in July, the news that radiocarbon dating showed that a Qur’an manuscript at the University of Birmingham was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the world. The parchment evidently dates to 568-645 AD at 2-sigma, or 95.45%, accuracy. I was somewhat surprised to see, a few days ago, that it was back in the news. I’m not sure whether this second wave of media attention has anything to do with the upcoming exhibition of the manuscript in October, but it seems like it might.

The twist this time around, though, is the idea that the fragment may predate Muhammad. Keith Small is quoted in the Independent piece and states that the date

gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, like that Mohamed and his early followers used a text already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda.

Admittedly, I’m not exactly an expert on the history of the Qur’an’s composition, but nonetheless this surprised me a bit, because I hadn’t heard this idea before. I’ll also point out, before moving on, that this date doesn’t really seem to me to support this very strongly. If, to use Edwards, Lindman, and Savage’s famous phrase, “probability is orderly opinion, and . . . inference from data is nothing other than the revision of such opinion in the light of relevant new information” (full, embarrassing disclosure: I first encountered this phrase on the dreaded Wikipedia), this new date gives us little reason to prefer this theory or the traditional one, as most of the more balanced stories have already pointed out.

It’s strange, though, that none of the pieces I’ve read mentions the “revisionist” history I’m more familiar with, as that seems to me to be what’s really “destabilized” (as Tom Holland phrases it) by this date. The tendency among the revisionist historians has not been to argue for an early dating, but rather a late one. Nevo and Koren (2003: 11), for example, argue that the Qur’an “was not canonized until the end of the 2nd century A.H. or perhaps early in the 3rd” (that would be the late 8th to early 9th centuries AD). While their view is fairly extreme, some degree of “late” dating is standard in the revisionist view (Motzki wrote an article in Der Islam that summarizes many of these and which is, happily, available here on his Academia.edu page). These ideas have been debated for decades (see, for example, Whitcomb’s archaeological consideration of earlier works by Nevo and Koren, also happily available on his Academia.edu page), but this new date is a pretty big problem for the “late canonization” camp. It’s still possible, I suppose, that fragments existed earlier but weren’t codified into the Qur’an until much later, but this view doesn’t seem very tenable in light of the Birmingham Qur’an. Perhaps this isn’t a big deal because there isn’t anyone who thinks this these days, anyway?

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