Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Qur'an before Muhammad?

THE BIRMINGHAM QUR'AN FRAGMENTS AGAIN: UK researchers say Quran fragments could predate Muhammad. Historians say carbon dating on recently discovered text could ‘destabilize’ views on who compiled the Islamic holy book, and when (Times of Israel).
Fragments of an ancient Quran discovered in Birmingham University in July may predate the prophet Muhammad, thus undermining core beliefs of Islam, UK researchers told The Times on Monday.

Scientists at the University of Oxford carbon dated the artifact and found it to have been created between 568 AD and 645 AD. Muhammad is believed to have lived between 570-632 AD. So while the dating process does not necessarily contradict Islamic tradition, it does raise the possibility that the book, or parts of it, was written before the prophet was even born, or during his infancy.

“It destabilizes, to put it mildly, the idea that we can know anything with certainty about how the Quran emerged,” Historian Tom Holland told the Times. “And that in turn has implications for the historicity of Muhammad and [his followers].”

Oxford’s Keith Small added: “This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Quran’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.”

This article is based on one in the London Times which is not available to me. I am skeptical of this suggestion, at least for the reasons given here. In the first place, radiocarbon dating is an inexact science that only gives a range of dates and the range given for this manuscript goes to later than the lifetime of Muhammad, so there is no necessary conflict with the traditional story of the the origins of the Qur'an. Second, the new evidence could also suggest that the dates of the lifetime of Muhammad need to be adjusted rather than that some of the Qur'an was written before his time. Third, there is some reason to think that the radiocarbon dates of early Qur'an manuscripts are coming out systematically too early, in which case the issue does not arise.

I would certainly not exclude the possibility that the Qur'an incorporates earlier sources, although it seems quite stylistically uniform throughout, which would make me think that any earlier material has been reworked thoroughly when incorporated. But this is not my area of expertise and I am open to any amount of correction. But that should be on the basis of more convincing evidence than the speculation being presented in the articles above.

On a side note, a number of people on Facebook have pointed out that in its coverage of this story, the Daily Mail manages to interview Professor Nadir Dinshaw, who died in 2002.
Professor Nadir Dinshaw, who studies interreligious relations at the University of Birmingham, described the discovery as 'startling'
In reality this was a quote from "Professor David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam and Nadir Dinshaw Professor of Interreligious Relations at the University of Birmingham."

Background on the Birmingham Qur'an fragments and related matters is here and links.