Friday, July 24, 2015

On the origins of the Qur'an - with update on the Birmingham fragments

BACKGROUND: The origins of the Koran: From revelation to holy book (Behnam Sadeghi, BBC). This is a good summary of both the traditional understanding of the early history of the Qur'an and the current scholarly state of the question, which at present are much the same. But it is still pretty early days for the latter.

This discussion is of interest to PaleoJudaica not only because I have been following the recent story of the fragments of a very early Qur'an manuscript found in the Mingana Collection at the University of Birmingham, but also because the Enoch Seminar is now bringing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars (and specialists in the early history of all three areas) into a discussion of Jewish and Christian traditions in late antiquity in relation to the origins of the Qur'an and Islam. This is an exciting development that is likely to result in important advances in the scholarly understanding of all three areas.

UPDATE: Robert Cargill has just posted a link at the Facebook Unofficial SBL/AAR Member Group to the following blog post by R. Joseph Hoffman: THE BBC-BIRMINGHAM “QUR’AN” FACTS FIASCO (The New Oxonian). Read it all, but it concludes:
So to repeat: What we have at Birmingham is the discovery of leaves of parchment, probably recycled and scraped and used by a religious teacher to record bits of memorized narrative from sources that finally make their way into the Qur’an. That there should be some overlap in these extracts and later editions of the Qur’an as copied and printed is not at all surprising. But as there is no prototype, it can hardly be said to be evidence of an unalterable textual tradition. There is no compelling reason to think that this slim discovery proves the inviolability of the Islamic holy book, or vindicates any doctrine. In fact, if treated intelligently and using the methods of western textual criticism, this could shed light on how books like the Qur’an evolved over time to become compendiums of the words of men regarded as the prophets and teachers of their tradition. So far however, we see little evidence that the find will be treated in that way. As Gerd Puin has said, “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad. Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants…” What we have at Birmingham perfectly illustrates that point.
Qur'anic origins is not my area of expertise, but I cannot find any indication that Dr. Hoffman has published anything in the area either. He has, however published the book The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, (Prometheus Books, January 2, 2006), so he has published about Islam. Most of his work seems to have been on early Christianity. Past PaleoJudaica posts on some of it, mostly in relation to the Jesus Project, are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Be that as it may, I am not in a position to evaluate his post, but the evidence he cites certainly raises the possibility that specialists in Qur'anic origins may find problems with the early evaluations of the Birmingham fragments.

Inevitably there must be a long period in which the manuscript is published in a critical edition and other specialists have time to digest the evidence and publish their own judgments. This will take years.

But meanwhile, watch this space.

And if any readers come across discussions of the Birmingham fragments by specialists in the origins of the Qur'an, please do point me to them.

UPDATE (25 July): More on the Birmingham fragments here.