THE VERY OLD BIRMINGHAM MANUSCRIPT OF THE QUR'AN has understandably received a great deal of media attention in the last day or so, but most of it has just repeated the same details. But here are two articles that give us a little more.
The Guardian view on Birmingham’s Qur’an: part of a rich and complex intellectual history
. This editorial gives some background on Alphonse Mingana, who was an Aramaic-speaking Iraqi Chaldean Christian, and on the Mingana Collection. PaleoJudaica readers who have been paying attention in the last day will be familiar with most of the information.
World's oldest Koran discovered in Birmingham: This really will rejoice Muslim hearts. All we need now is a Dead Sea Scrolls-era Book of Job to surface in Newcastle or Nottingham
(Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
). Bring it on! Aside from the amusing subheading, the article has some reflections on the implications of the manuscript and some contextual comparisons to the New Testament. Plus, he brings in a surprising connection with Edward Cadbury of Cadbury Chocolate.
Background on the story is here
. As far as I can tell, no one has taken up my call to inquire about the records that show that the manuscript has always been a part of the Mingana Collection. I don't really doubt that it has, but something about its history would be good to know. Where did Mingana get it and from whom and under what circumstances?
For that matter, other questions occur to me.
• How secure is the Carbon-14 dating? Has it been done repeatedly to confirm the range of dates? I am no expert on C-14 dating technology, but it does seem to me that fairly often wildly different dates come up in different tests on the same object, usually due to some kind of contamination of the sample. This seems particularly relevant in that the news reports say that this manuscript had been bound with another one.
• What is the likely provenance of the manuscript? Where was it composed? What can we learn about the manuscript from the script?
• I had also been about to ask what the name of the "PhD researcher" who noticed the manuscript was, because the BBC report did not originally give it. But I just checked again and the name is now there: Alba Fedeli is the sharp-eyed researcher who first realized the importance of the manuscript. Kudos to the BBC for noticing the lapse and correcting it.
UPDATE: An informative article has just been published by the New York Times
: A Find in Britain: Quran Fragments Perhaps as Old as Islam
(DAN BILEFSKY). It has some new information that at least addresses some of my questions and also questions that I should have thought to ask.
Tom Holland, the author of “In the Shadow of the Sword,” which charts the origins of Islam, said the discovery in Birmingham bolstered scholarly conclusions that the Quran attained something close to its final form during Muhammad’s lifetime. He said the fragments did not resolve the controversial questions of where, why and how the manuscript was compiled, or how its various suras, or chapters, came to be combined in a single volume.
Consisting of two parchment leaves, the manuscript in Birmingham contains parts of what are now Chapters 18 to 20. For years, the manuscript had been mistakenly bound with leaves of a similar Quran manuscript.
Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later, he said.
Professor Thomas said the text of the two folio pages studied by Ms. Fedeli, who received her doctorate this month, corresponded closely to the text of the modern Quran. But he cautioned that the manuscript was only a small portion of the Quran and therefore did not offer conclusive proof.
I should have thought to ask how much of the Qur'an survived in the fragments and which specific passages and what the relationship of those passages was to the text of the Qur'an we now have. Now we know: two pages, parts of Suras 18 and 20 (which verses?), and their text "corresponded closely" to the received text. (How closely? Are there variants?)
In the third paragraph quoted above, the issue of paleography and layout are raised, and it is very interesting that an Arabic paleographer thinks the writing on the fragments is later than the C-14 results indicate. Likewise this:
Graham Bench, director of the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, concurred, and added a caveat: “You’re dating the parchment,” he said. “You’re not dating the ink. You’re making the assumption that the parchment or vellum was used within years of it being made, which is probably a reasonable assumption, but it’s not watertight.”
I raised this issue myself in my earlier post
. Dr. Sarhan suggests the parchment could have been reused after being washed clean. If so, it looks washed very clean, because I can't see any sign of underwriting.
The opening paragraph of the article also says this:
LONDON — The ancient manuscript, written on sheep or goat skin, sat for nearly a century at a university library, with scholars unaware of its significance.
So we have a clear assertion that the fragments are part of the original collection, which is probably true, but I would still like to see the paper trail, or at least hear what it tells us.
Nothing specific yet about provenance, although presumably it was somewhere is Arabia.
I commend the scholars in Birmingham for getting out information on this discovery at a remarkable pace. Questions remain, and each new revelation raises more, but there is plenty to think about in the meantime. And let us remember that real progress is only going to come when, in due course, peer-reviewed publications of and about the manuscript come out. I remain a little skeptical that the text is quite as early as the initial reports indicate but, as usual with these things, I would be very happy to find that my skepticism is misplaced for a change.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader G. Firmin has pointed me, first, to a page congratulating
Dr. Fedeli on the completion of her thesis. It includes the abstract of the thesis. The thesis itself has been placed in the University of Birmingham's electronic depository of theses, but it will not be publicly viewable until May 2017. This is a common arrangement that allows a researcher to publish his or her research before the thesis is made public. I look forward to its formal publication in due course. The abstract opens as follows:
The Special Collections of the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham hold seven early Qur’ānic pieces on parchment and papyrus dating from the seventh century. Alphonse Mingana purchased them from the antiquarian dealer von Scherling in 1936.
Second, G. Firmin points to this
University of Birmingham press release, which tells us:
Dr Alba Fedeli, who studied the leaves as part of her PhD research, said: ‘The two leaves, which were radiocarbon dated to the early part of the seventh century, come from the same codex as a manuscript kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.’
So it does seem, as I expected, that there is a paper trail concerning the acquisition of the manuscript. And there is also the interesting news that more of the codex survives in Paris. It is not specified whether or not more fragments of this early manuscript survive in the remains of the codex in Paris, but it doesn't sound like it.
I'm going to try to get some actual work done now, but watch this space.
UPDATE (24 July): More here
, especially in the update.