by Dr. Keith Small, Honorary Fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Book, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
Recently, little known pages of a manuscript at the University of Birmingham were twice propelled to international fame. First was July 22nd when the BBC announced that radiocarbon dating had given a date range of 568-645 CE with 95% accuracy, making this possibly the oldest Qur’an manuscript in the world. In the news release, this was said to be confirmation of the historical integrity of the text of the Qur’an. The second time was August 31st, with the news that some scholars see this instead as evidence that the Qur’an could be older than Muhammad, and as such physical evidence that the entire edifice of Islamic history should be rewritten. Two diametrically opposed scholarly interpretations of the same manuscript – how can this be? This is because the breadth of the date range of these test results allows various interpretations for scholars.
If these pages date to the early or middle part of the date range, from 568-610, then the controversial idea of there being a Qur’an-like book before Muhammad is very possible, even likely. Either that or Muhammad’s prophetic career needs to be pushed back well into the 6th century. Both of these ideas disagree radically with Islamic tradition and current academic consensus. Not only would the content on these pages predate Muhammad’s career, but the form, layout and script of the manuscript points to an established written literary culture that would have taken at least decades to develop. Options from this date range would then have a Qur’an-like book coming into existence from an oral version originating at least in the early 6th century, well before Muhammad’s prophetic call in 610, if not his birth in 570, rather than the Qur’an being the first Arabic book in the mid-to-late 7th century.
If the pages date to the latter part of the date range, from 610-645, then there is more ground for support of the traditional narrative of the Qur’an’s origins, but even here there are problems. First, if they date to within Muhammad’s career (610-632) they demonstrate that there was an established scribal culture in the early Muslim community, something which goes against the picture in Islamic historical tradition. If it dates to the last 13 years of the date range (632-645), the years immediately after Muhammad’s death, it is also problematic for that same reason and more.
Islamic tradition gives the Battle of Yamama as one of the major reasons for bringing together the disparate oral and written parts of the Qur’an left after Muhammad’s death. This battle, just months after Muhammad’s passing, saw the slaughter of 400 men who had the entire Qur’an memorized. The fear was that the Qur’an would then be lost if it was not immediately gathered from the memories of survivors. To remedy the situation the Caliph, Abu Bakr, ordered any oral or written parts to be gathered into a written collection for safekeeping. Added to this story are other collection stories leading up to the third Caliph, Uthman who is said to have performed the most thorough collection and revision around 650. He ordered all written copies of the Qur’an gathered from Muhammad’s surviving companions and from these he ordered one official text to be produced and all texts variant to this one burned. This manuscript would be an incredibly rare survival of this cull. It should have been destroyed.
Also, if the Birmingham manuscript truly dates before 645, then its text, which has many indications of being produced in a culture acquainted with books, provides evidence of a scribal culture that is much more developed than what is described in the Islamic Qur’an collection stories for this period.
Many have come to expect science to be the final arbiter for questions of this kind. In this case this early radiocarbon date raises more questions than it provides answers. The dates arrived at are so at odds with those obtained through other established means that many scholars, including me, are withholding final judgment until more information becomes available while exploring all options.
[This article was originally published on 9th September 2015 in the Huffington Post]