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Birmingham Qur’an manuscript, is it as early as claimed?

30th Oct 2015
Birmingham Qur’an manuscript, is it as early as claimed?

Qur’an Manuscript found at University of Birmingham (photo University of Birmingham)

Zuher Hassan

It is rare for good news to be reported, unless it is a scientific or archaeological discovery.

Orientalists usually get a bad press from Muslims – until a “feel good” story is reported. The Bir ming ham Qur’an manuscript is such a case; there has been wide reporting of the early dating of two folios (a leaf or two sides of a page) of the Qur’an, in the press, on TV and social me dia. This has created euphoria among Muslims, who feel vindicated in their belief that their scripture has been scientifically verified.

More surprising are some loose statements from Professor of Christianity and Islam Professor David Thomas, and Professor of Inter-religious Relations at the University of Birmingham, Nadir Dinshaw such as, the Qur’an folios “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.” Even more startling is the comment by Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, that “the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process.”

It is certainly not the intention of the writer to put a damper on such a rare story. The Birmingham Qur’an folios, in the writer’s opinion, must not be analysed in isolation and should be considered alongside other such manuscripts found in libraries in the east and the west.

Moreover, there is a wealth of Qur’an scholarship which must be considered, both Muslim as well as oriental, which goes unnoticed or receives a bad press due to prejudice and misunderstanding.

The two folios of the Birmingham manuscript were incorrectly bound with seven other folios belonging to another manuscript. These two folios contain portions of Chapter 18 verses 18-31, Chapter 19 verses 91-98 and Chapter 20 verses 1-40. They were brought over to the UK in the 1920’s as part of 3,000 Syriac and Arabic manuscripts from the Middle East by Professor Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean Catholic priest, born near Mosul in Iraq, who died in 1937.

Dr Alba Fedeli studied these folios as part of her PhD research at Birmingham University, and the folios were radiocarbon dated to the period 568 and 645 CE/AD with 95.4% accuracy. According to Muslim tradition, the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (p) between 610-632 CE/AD. This has led to Thomas’s suggestion that “the parts of the Qur’an that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad’s death.”

A parchment is animal skin usually from a calf, sheep, or goat. In the early days of Islam, before the invention of paper, parts of the Qur’an were written on palm folios, parchment as well as animal bones. Professor Thomas states that “the animal from which it was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterwards.”

Although 95.4% accuracy of the radio carbon dating may be considered to be a very high probability of the parchment’s early dating, carbon dating is an imprecise science and different laboratories produce different results as noted by Professor Gabriel Reynolds in the Times Literary Supplement. Limitations of carbon dating include the size of the sample, how it is handled, the logarithmic decay rate and the different ratios of Carbon 14 to Carbon 12 in the atmosphere at different periods of history.

Reynolds also refers to the case of the Sana’a parchment where a laboratory in Arizona produced a result of 75.1 % chance of the manuscript pre-dating 646 CE/AD whilst other fragments from the same parchment produced dates of 543-643 CE/AD and 433-599 CE/AD. Similar variations in dating have occurred with the Dead Sea scrolls and Reynolds cites the Isaiah scroll as a specific example “(with a 95 per cent probability) variously either to 351–295 BC, or 230–53 BC or, according to laboratories 351–296 BC, or 203–48 BC.”

Doubts have also been cast by Director of Research at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saud al-Sarhan, arguing against an early dating of the Qur’an on the grounds of the manuscript contains dots and separated chapters, although it could be argued that these may be later additions. Dotting of Qur’anic manuscripts may also have been much earlier than generally assumed as argued by A Jones in The Dotting Of A Script And The Dating Of An Era: The Strange Neglect Of PERF 558, A. Jones, Islamic Culture, 1998, Volume LXXII, No. 4, pp. 95-103.

Both Reynolds and al-Sarhan point out that dating of a parchment is not the same as dating the text itself, as a piece of writing on a parchment may be erased and another text may be over-written, as is the case with the Sana’a manuscript. The dating of the ink may be a better indicator, although even this may have similar issues as the parchment dating in addition to issues of contamination from the parchment.

Scholars such as Dr Keith Small, Qur’anic manuscript Consultant at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, would like to opt for an earlier dating of between 568 and 610 CE and argue that, “If the [radio carbon] dates apply to the parchment and the ink, and the dates across the entire range apply (my italics), then the Koran – or at least portions of it – predates Muhammad, and moves back the years that an Arabic literary culture is in place well into the 500s”.

He continues, “This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven.”

The parchment has been dated with a window of 77 years (568-645 AD/CE), and in principle, an earlier date is equally possible than a later date. However, the fact is that the ink has not been dated and therefore such revisionist claims appear to be without much foundation. Moreover, the parchment has not been tested, at least according to the writer’s knowledge, for the existence of any erased lower text, which would make an early dating of the present text impossible.

The rare Qur’anic parchment dubbed as Sana’a I was found amongst the various other Qur’anic and non-Qur’anic fragments discovered during the restoration of a wall in the attic of the Great Mosque of Sana’a. Qadhi Isma’il al-Akwa’, then the President of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, realising the importance of the finds, sought international assistance for the preservation of these fragments. This began, in earnest, in 1980 by German scholars under the supervision of the Yemeni Department for Antiquities.

This parchment comprised of two layers of text, known as a palimpsest with the upper text being almost identical with the Qur’an in use today, whilst the lower text had significant variants. Although the lower text had been erased and written over, it has resurfaced in a different colour and in 2012 Benham Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi studied the 36 folios from Yemen’s Dār al-Makhṭūṭāt (House of Manuscripts) and published an article entitled “Ṣan‘ā’ I and the Origins of the Qur’ān” in the journal Der Islam 87 (1-2): 1–129.

Earlier in 2010 Sadeghi had also published a study of the four folios auctioned abroad and analysed the variant readings, whilst the German scholar Elisabeth Puin, whose husband was the local director of the restoration project until 1985, transcribed the lower text of several folios in five successive publications between 2008 and 2011.

The importance of the above studies cannot be underestimated as the lower text of the Sana’a palimpsest frequently differs from the standard text of the Qur’an, although Sadeghi and Goudarzi pointed out that only “a small fraction of the variants do make a difference in meaning.”

This may, at first, appear to be shocking for the vast majority of the Muslims; however, Islamic texts of the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries (CE) discussed variant readings and reported that different Masahif (Qur’an codices) attributed to various companions had been in existence as late as the 8th century. The text of Kitab al Masahif by Abu Bakr Abd Allah bin Abi Dawud Sulayman al-Sijistani provides some material on this and Arthur Jeffrey had discussed this in his book “Materials for the history of the Qur’an in 1937.

Qur’anic exegeses of the classical period contain sections of variant readings and the seven or ten readings Qira’at/Ahruf have been accepted by majority of the Muslim Scholars. The Hafs transmission of ibn ‘Amir’s reading is the one which is recited most widely in the Muslim world but the Warsh transmission of Nafi’s reading is found in Algeria, Morocco, parts of Tunisia, West Africa and Sudan. Libya, Tunisia and parts of Qatar and Yemen have readings other than the ones mentioned above. Therefore variant readings are not as alien to Muslims as would appear at first sight.

Another early manuscript is the codex Parisino-petropolitanus, which was discovered in the store of discarded Qur’anic manuscripts at the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Fustat and bought by French Orientalist Jean-Louis Asselin de Cherville (1772–1822) when he served as Vice-Consul in Cairo during 1806–1816. The codex is held in various collections, with 70 folios at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, 46 folios in the National Library of Russia in Saint-Petersburg and one folio each in the Vatican Library and the Khalil Collection in London. Francois Deroche in 2009 and 2013 published his research on the Parisino-petropolitanus codex.

Another manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France contains 16 folios and it has been suggested that Birmingham folios form part of this manuscript.
The Tubingen University announced an early dating of three samples of a fragment of a Qur’an between 649 -675 CE.

Corpus Coranicum, a research project led by Prof Angelika Neuwirth at the Free University of Berlin is documenting the Qur’an in its handwritten form and oral tradition, and includes an extensive commentary interpreting the text in the context of its historical development. Most of the source material for this work is based on photographs of early Qur’anic manuscripts collected by Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl. The 450 rolls of film were claimed by Anton Spitaler to have been destroyed in the British RAF bombardment of the Bavarian Academy of Science on April 24, 1944. Spitaler who died in 2003 admitted to Neuwirth in the 1990’s that he had hidden these photographs and offered to give it to her.

This is an exciting period of the study of early Qur’an manuscripts as some of the variants seem to predate those recorded by early Muslim works. Future work will hopefully enrich us on this issue, as other early manuscripts are being studied by researchers.

From the above, it should be suggested that we should not jump on the bandwagon every time something favourable towards the Islam and Muslims is published or broadcast, rare as it may be. Instead reason and tolerance should prevail in all our judgements, actions and reactions to them.

For the lay person the articles in Wikipedia on Early Qur’anic manuscripts are a good starting point for information on this subject. The website also contains a wealth of information on the Qur’anic Manuscripts.

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