Scholars split by claim that Koran scrap rewrites story of Islam

Carbon-dating of a fragment of text kept at Birmingham University provokes unholy row

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The Independent Online

When chocolate magnate Edward Cadbury funded the acquisition of some 3,000 Middle Eastern manuscripts in the 1920s, he did so in the hope that it would turn Birmingham into a global focal point for religious research.

Some 90 years later, the Quaker philanthropist’s aspirations have been realised in spectacular fashion in the form of four pages of the Koran in early Arabic script which have sparked fierce debate over whether they could rewrite the founding story of Islam.

Leading Oxford academics this week said carbon dating of the parchment, which suggested it dated from between 568-645 AD, may change our understanding of the way in which Islam’s holy book was compiled.

But the assertion that the document, kept at Birmingham University, is part of one of the world’s oldest Korans – and could possibly date from the early years of the Prophet Mohamed’s life, which is generally thought to have been between 570 to 632 – is strongly disputed by other scholars.

It is a tenet of Islam that Mohamed received the divine revelations that form the Koran between 610 and the year of his death. But it has long been maintained that the articles of the Muslim faith were not written into book form until about 650, having hitherto been passed on in the “memories of men” or written piecemeal on materials from palm leaves to the shoulder blades of camels.

But the radiocarbon analysis of the “Birmingham Koran”, documents which were recently rediscovered by a PhD student inside a more recent version of the holy book, opens the possibility that a text of the Koran was in circulation during Mohamed’s lifetime. Some historians argue that the earliest end of the date range also leaves open the theory that the document was in existence during the Prophet’s childhood or even before his birth.

Dr Keith Small, an expert on Koranic texts at the University of Oxford, told The Times: “This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, such as that Mohamed 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 Mohamed receiving a revelation from heaven.”

Such an interpretation would substantially rewrite the history of Islam and challenge fundamentalist branches of the faith.

But it is also strongly contested by other scholars, who point out that the science of carbon dating is contradicted by other evidence.

They argue that a study of the orthography of the pages – the spelling, grammar and other conventions of language – shows that it can be dated to the second half of the seventh century and therefore fits in with the more traditional explanation of the Koran’s development.

Among the tell-tale features that indicate that it is from a later version of the holy book are the use of verse markers and marks denoting how a consonant should be pronounced. Such devices, it is argued, were not in use during the Prophet’s life.

Dr Mustafa Shah, senior lecturer in Islamic studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, told The Independent: “When you look at this, it is clear they simply fit with the stylistic conventions of Arabic linguistic form of the later seventh century.”

Scholars have also pointed out that the carbon dating, carried out at Oxford University, was conducted on the animal skin parchment and not the ink used to write the Koran pages.

Such was the expense of obtaining parchment in the early days of Islam, however, that it was common practice  simply to wash off the ink from already existing texts considered redundant and recycle them with new calligraphy. Dr Abbas Tashkandi, co-founder of the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, said: “The hide may be old, but the writing may be new.”

According to the convention long established by Sunni Muslim scholars, the definitive Koran was compiled under the rule of Uthman, the third caliph or successor to Mohamed, who was elected from 644 to 656.

Those in charge of maintaining the manuscript, which is due to go on public display for three weeks next month, are careful not to make overly bold claims for the significance of their text.

But David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at Birmingham University, defended the dating, saying it was “at least likely” that the parchment was prepared solely for the Koran from which the Birmingham pages originate and thus used soon after the animals which provided it were slaughtered.

Timeline: Writing of the Koran

AD610

The Prophet Muhammad receives his first revelation in the form of a visit from the archangel Gabriel while praying in the Cave of Hira, near Mecca. Then aged 40, the Prophet continued to receive revelations for the next 23 years.

632

Scholars have hitherto agreed that at the time of the Prophets death the Koran did not exist in book form. As Islam grew and Muhammad gathered followers he had encouraged them to learn and recite the revelations and his teachings, some of which were also recorded by literate Muslims on clay tablets, palm fronds and camel bones.

633

According to Sunni tradition, Abu Bakr, the first caliph or political and religious successor to Muhammad, ordered that all the verses of the Koran, hitherto preserved in the memories of the Prophet’s followers, be collected and written down.

Under the oversight of Muhammad’s personal scribe, a committee collected and verified all the verses. They were written down in a single manuscript and presented to the caliph. It is believed this process happened within a year of Muhammad’s death.

650

The third caliph, Uthman, became aware of small differences in the Koran as Islam began to expand out of Arabia into Persia and across North Africa. In order to preserve the sanctity of the text he ordered the creation of a standardised copy of the book as given to Abu Bakr. Other versions of the text were supposedly destroyed.

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