Episode 75: The Birmingham Qur’ān

Host: Samantha Rose Rubino, Doctoral Student, Department of History
Guest: Christopher Rose, Assistant Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Birmingham Qur'an ManuscriptIn the summer of 2015, an obscure Qur’ān manuscript hidden in the far reaches of the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham grabbed attention worldwide when carbon dating revealed that the book was one of the oldest Qur’āns known to exist. In fact, it might have been written during the lifetime of the Prophet Muḥammad … or might it even have been written before Muḥammad’s lifetime?

Guest Christopher Rose (yes, our regular co-host) has been following the headlines and puts the discovery of the Birmingham Qur’ān within the larger field of Islamic and Qur’ānic Studies, and explains how the text might raise as many questions as it answers.

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Birmingham Qur'an Manuscript

Today we are going to be talking about a hot news topic, the Birmingham Qur’ān. Can you tell us a little more about what it is?

The Birmingham Qur’ān, which is named because the formal title for that manuscript in question is manuscript Mingana 1572a in the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham in England—which is why it has become known as the Birmingham Qur’ān, it’s a little sexier title. Over the summer, it made headlines because it was carbon dated to between 568 and 645 of the Christian era, which basically means it is among the oldest Qur’ān manuscripts known to exist. Those dates roughly mirror the lifespan of the Prophet Muḥammad himself. So, this is really an important find for a number of reasons.

Some people may also be familiar with the fact that there were a number of sensational headlines stating that the Qur’ān maybe predated Muḥammad. I think that’s a rather unlikely outcome and we’ll talk about that a little later on. But it definitely makes this one of the oldest Qur’ān manuscripts known to exist.

So, can you talk a little bit about what the traditional narrative of how the Qur’ān was compiled? What went into that, and what makes this different?

The traditional narrative is that the Qur’ān was revealed by God to Muḥammad during the period of his ministry, 610 to 632 of the Christian Era (CE). According to tradition, the Qur’ān was not written down during Muḥammad’s lifetime. Or rather the entire book was not written down—some of the suras, which are the equivalent of books of the Bible, were written down, but there are discrepancies even about the number of people who memorized the book in its entirety while he was still alive. There’s one source that says six people memorized it, but then only names four of them. There is a second source says that no one person memorized it in its entirety—various people have memorized segments of it, but the uniformity in this accounting is that the book was not written down while he was still alive.

This was a very oral culture, pre-Islamic Arabia had a tradition of epic poetry, and, as we’ll see in a bit the Arabic alphabet itself had only been in use for about a century at this time, and had not developed to the point where certain letters could be distinguished from one another. It really sort of took the form of sheet music, writing was supposed to provide a guide for oral recitation.

The story goes that after a serious battle, the battle of Yamāma in 633, ‘Umār ibn al-Khattāb, who became the second caliph, encouraged Abu Bakr, who was the first caliph, or leader of the Islamic community after Muḥammad died, to have the Qur’ān compiled because so many of the people who knew it had been killed in the battle. The generations who knew the Qur’ān were getting older, both of these men were at an advanced age, in fact, Abu Bakr would die the following year. So there was a real concern about what would happen as this generation began to die off. Abu Bakr had it written down on various leaves of, we’re told that it was things like palm leaves and camel bone, and the collection wound up in the possession of Umar’s daughter Ḥafsa, who was also one of Muḥammad’s widows.

It wasn’t actually compiled into a book that was widely distributed until 650—and again this is according to the traditional narrative—under the reign of the third caliph ‘Uthmān. Because there were concerns about variant readings taking place, that some of the text was being a little bit embellished. At this point, the Islamic state had spread out of Arabia; people couldn’t make it back to Medina for daily prayers or weekend services. There was less control over what was going on out in the provinces. It was decided that there needed to be a definitive version of the text. It was compiled into what became known as the ‘Uthmānic codex. And all other versions of it were burnt. According to tradition, seven copies were made and they were distributed to key centers throughout the growing empire. However even among the seven copies, there were variant readings. As I mentioned, the problem at the time was that… anyone who seen Arabic written knows that some of the letters have dots that are used to distinguish one letter from another. Those weren’t actually added until after this.

So, at the time, like I said, that the the closest analogy is sheet music; you are already supposed to know the text and you could recite it based on this written prompt. But, even within this there’s room to accidentally mess up some of the consonants in addition to the fact that short vowels are not written in Arabic at all. Similar to what happened in Hebrew with the Jewish scriptures, they developed a system over the next 150 years to demarcate short vowels, but even then there were still seven accepted readings of the Qur’ān. And even the existence of variant consonantal readings was accepted and commented on throughout Islamic history. It actually wasn’t until 1923 that a group of Egyptian scholars compiled what they thought was the definitive version of the Qur’ān, and they destroyed all other copies that they had access to. Today, if you go out and purchase a Qur’ān, nearly every one you’re likely to find is this version that was authorized in Cairo in 1923.* [ed’s note – it was actually 1924].

So, that leads me to another question, in speaking about that compilation of traditional narrative about the Qur’ān. What about the scholarly narrative? How is that compiled? How is that envisioned? How have people struggled between the different meanings of it?

That’s a really interesting that’s a really interesting question, and it’s kind of complicated. And, unfortunately, since 2001 it’s really become political. To be a non-Muslim scholar who upholds the traditional narrative is to be an apologist for Islam. To be an non-Muslim scholar who criticizes the traditional narrative is to be a revisionist who is attacking Islam and trying to say that it’s false. So, there’s a political dimension that really underlines a lot of what’s going on today.

In fact, even with some of the headlines that came out about the Birmingham Qur’ān itself, I remember one of the articles that was in a British tabloid newspaper… I won’t name it, but it rhymes with fail… but every scholar in it arguing that the Qur’ān predated Muḥammad had a British, white Anglo name, and everyone who argued that this could not possibly be was clearly Muslim. They really set up this dichotomy.

Up until the 1960s and 1970s though, most western scholars really accepted that traditional narrative of Muḥammad’s life, and also of how the Qur’ān came to be. And what’s really problematic about this, and we talked about this when I did the episode with Fred Donner last year, is that there’s not a lot of historical evidence that is contemporary to the time. You find texts that claim to be biographies of the prophet, most of which claim to be copies of things that were written earlier, but all we have are the copies, most of which date from the 9th or 10th century. So, in terms of documents that Muḥammad would’ve written, that he might have signed his name to, or that any of the first four caliphs signed their names to, we don’t have those. We have a lot of reports, and from them a sacred narrative is constructed.

Probably the first, I don’t want to say it was the first challenge, but the real first attention grabbing challenge to that narrative was a book called Hagarism, which was written in the 1970s by a Danish scholar, Patricia Crone, and a British scholar, Michael Cook. I actually had a discussion with some scholars on Twitter about whether or not Hagarism was really a serious attempt at scholarship, or it was an intellectual exercise in looking at all of the documentation that is clearly contemporary, and saying that this is how far you can push the story. And it is quite a story that they spin. Hagarism presents Islam as a movement of messianic Judaism, that Muḥammad is a renegade messianic Jew. They refer to early Islam as Hagarenes, the early Islamic community, after Abraham’s concubine Hagar. It really challenges the traditional narrative.

Well, the book was universally panned when it came out, mostly by traditional scholars or people who upheld the traditional narrative, saying this is not possible. My sense really is that the two of them were saying, “Look, if you want to stick to this traditional narrative, prove that it’s true, don’t just take it on face value.” I would say that the modern field of critical studies, modern critical Qur’ānic studies really begins here. There were people working on it before, but this was the spark that really caught fire.

Working around the same time it’s a British scholar John Wansbrough who, in reading the Qur’ān, his hypothesis is that the Qur’ān cannot have existed prior to the 9th century of the Christian era, which is about a hundred and fifty years later than the traditional dating, which has a version in place by the mid seventh century.

The flip side of this is a German scholar, Christoph Luxenberg—this is a pseudonym—who wrote a book stating that the Qur’ān is actually a compilation of texts that were originally written in Syriac. Syriac is a modern version of a late dialect of Aramaic, which was the lingua franca in the Middle East before Arabic. Syriac was an important liturgical language for Christians in the region. His hypothesis is that the Qur’ān predates Muḥammad as a collection of other texts that were morphed from Syriac into Arabic. In fact, part of his argument suggests that some of the terms that scholars don’t understand in Qur’ān are better read in Syriac. This made headlines about 15 years ago when the book came out because he suggested that … I think that one of the most famous passages even to people who haven’t read the Qur’ān is that people who die a martyr’s death go to heaven and are awarded 72 virgins. He says this is actually better read as 72 small white grapes, because he says that that is what the word means in Syriac. This has also been widely discredited, mainly for two reasons. One is that—I’m not a linguist but apparently his grasp of Syriac grammar is loose and flexible, to put it kindly. The other is that the Qur’ān has almost been universally identified as having an origin in western Arabia, and Syriac was not a major language in western Arabia in the seventh century. So, there’s a bit of a time gap going on there as well.

The broader issue with “revisionist Qur’ānic scholarship” is that the term is very broad and covers everything from Crone and Cook to—there have been some authors who suggest that Muḥammad never lived, that he’s just sort of a phantom that was made up; that the drama of early Islam didn’t actually take place in Mecca, or at least not the Mecca that we know, that must’ve taken place in place closer to Gaza.

So similar discussions to what have taken place regarding early Christianity?

Exactly, exactly. I think at some point there have been questions about whether every prophet has existed. Abraham’s existence is questioned, as is Moses’s existence, the Buddha’s existence, Jesus’s existence as well. By and large, most serious scholars… it’s almost the same argument for Muḥammad that it is for Jesus, which is that there’s ample trace evidence that somebody did something that people took a fancy too. It would involve a combination of mass amnesia, and mass conspiracy for these to have happened. The problem is that the documentation or archaeological proof usually turns up at some point. So, there are other questions about Muḥammad’s life that we’ll get to in a moment. But revisionism has gotten kind an ugly name because it covers everything from these very wild theories to merely things like, questioning whether dates that are not set in stone are in fact the dates that things happened, or whether they can be pushed a couple of years in one direction or the other. So, it can go both ways. This is very much an ongoing conversation, and the Birmingham Qur’ān really comes at the right time to fit into it.

The Grand Mosque of Sana'a, Yemen. (Wikimedia Commons, User: Yarinya).

The Grand Mosque of Sana’a, Yemen. (Wikimedia Commons, User: Yarinya).

This is perfect segue into what the Birmingham Qur’ān does. Does it prove, or disprove, any of the scholarship that you’ve discussed here? What are the connections? And what really made this the big story that it was?

Well, the dating was definitely the big story. We only have a few other manuscripts that date from this era. A few years ago, there was an archaeological team renovating the Grand Mosque of Ṣanā’a, in Yemen. They discovered a group of palimpsests, which are pieces of parchment been written on, cleaned off, and rewritten on, because parchment is very expensive. And those have been dated prior to 671. They do reveal some consonantal variations. Now, depending on who you talk to, they’re either major or minor. The order of the suras is different from the order that appears in the ‘Uthmānic Codex.

We don’t, by the way, have a copy of the ‘Uthmānic codex, or at least one that’s reliably dated to him. There is one that is known as the Samarkand Kufic Qur’ān. It’s actually now in a shrine in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. I saw it a few years ago, I actually had the opportunity to travel to Uzbekistan, and it is a coffee table sized book. It is probably about a meter and a half wide when it’s open. The type is large and it is smeared with a rust colored substance which is, according to legend, the blood of Uthman himself. This is said to be the copy that he was reading when he was assassinated. That’s probably not true, the writing suggests it’s probably from the late eighth and early ninth century AD. The Topkapı manuscript, which is the other reputed copy housed in Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, is also probably later.

It’s really it’s down to this manuscript from Birmingham, there are other leaves from the same manuscript in France, and then the ones from Ṣanā’a that are the earliest.  These are much more fully formed then we might have expected for a text that was still being put together. The divisions between the suras are there, By divisions, I mean they have names; there are decorations that separate them. These are things that we didn’t expect to find until later. So, it appears to be a relatively fully formed text, not the one that still being experimentally put together, within the timeframe that it was claimed to be written. Assuming that it isn’t a palimpsest—and that is definitely a question—it would put to rest the idea that the Qur’ān was authored after the middle of the seventh century. So, definitely not the 9th, definitely not the 8th.

There had been two likely contenders to have written or compiled the text; one of which was an ‘Umāyyad caliph who lived at the end of the century, around 700, the other an ‘Abbāsid caliph—working with the idea that it didn’t come together until the ‘Abbāsid Empire in Baghdad in the ninth century. But it would appear that the Qur’ān was in its full form prior to that.  So, that’s something we can definitely get out of the scholarship, that the order hasn’t changed very much.

Even when we talk about consonantal variations between the Ṣanā’a manuscript and the standard Qur’ān, we’re talking about things like shifting from third person to first person, or shifting singular to plural, or occasionally changing a pronoun. But by and large the structure is surprisingly intact. It depends on how much you want to focus on things like those minor consonantal variations, and decide whether they’re major or minor. But most people don’t think they’re that spectacular, really.

So you pointed to a little earlier in our conversation and that it raised a lot of additional questions, right? Can you tell us more about some of this question that it raised, give us more details?

One of the things that the Birmingham Qur’ān’s dating suggests is an early compilation date for the text, and in fact it’s a little too early. If the carbon dating is accurate—and I do have to pause here and say that’s a big if. Carbon dating is not an exact science. It gives you a range of dates and probability that, for example, there’s a 5-10% probability that it’s dated is before 568 and 5-10% probability that it dates after 645, but that the bell curve should appear between those two dates. But things as varied as the conditions it was stored under, and, again whether or not it’s a palimpsest, whether it was parchment that was cleaned off. What this also tells us, and I just have to point this out, is that this does not date the book. It dates when the animal whose skin became the parchment was killed. Now parchment was expensive, and it is reasonable to assume that would’ve been used right away, but we don’t know that for certain. So, like I said, if the Carbon dating is accurate it does suggest that the Qur’ān might date to earlier then those original Uthmanic dates. Certainly, 650 is right at the tail end of the period it’s likely to have been written. This does give some credence to the possibility that it might have been compiled under Abu Bakr, or it might have been compiled under Muḥammad himself.

Now, one of the things that this also raises into question is whether we need to rethink the dates of Muḥammad’s ministry. Traditionally, he received his first revelation in the year 610, but there’s a question mark there. It looks like that date might have been retrofitted back in at a later date. It looks like the event might have been not recorded at the time that it happened. Like, this was a local event that took place in his family, and nobody really recorded the date at the time it happened. And what makes it a question is the fact that he was 40 years old. Forty, if you’re familiar with the Abrahamic tradition, is a number of significance. It’s the number of days that Noah was in the Ark, it’s the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert. It’s a number that indicates that you are mature, that you have been purified in the eyes of God. And it’s entirely possible that this date was decided on later because the actual date had been lost, and was calculated based on the knowledge that his wife Khadijah was still alive, and by the time of the migration to Medina—the hijrah—which is dated to 622, she had passed away. But, again it’s not set in stone. And so this is one of the question marks.

The idea that the Qur’ān predates Muḥammad is within the realm of possibility if one accepts the traditional dating of his life, but it’s also one of the more unlikely scenarios, if we want to accept that the Qur’ān was a fully composed text. Now, it is possible that parts of it may predate Muḥammad and that is something that is up for debate, and people do debate that. But, the idea that it was a fully formed book—especially one not in Arabic—that we don’t have a copy of from prior to Muḥammad’s life, and that suddenly after him there is a fully formed book in Arabic with no transition of language in evidence, I find that unlikely.

Now, the other thing that this raises questions about is that there are facets of this text that were unknown even by early scholars. There are groups of what are called “Mysterious letters.” A number of chapters of the Qur’ān begin with letters that stand on their own: alif lam mim, ra ha, and their significance isn’t known. Suras that begin with these letters tend to be grouped together. Overall the Qur’ān is arranged with Surāt al-Fātiha, which is kind of a confessional prayer, and then the chapters are arranged from longest to shortest. It’s not chronological. However there are exceptions, and those exceptions tend to be where suras starting with these mysterious letters are grouped together, but nobody knows what their significance is.

There’s also the question of who the Sabi’ūn are. The Sabi’ūn are this group of people who are said in the Qur’ān to be People of the Book who can be saved on Judgment Day along with Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, but nobody knows who they are. Even in the 7th century or the 8th century, when scholars were reading the text, nobody knew who they were. So, there’s this question of whether the reason that nobody knows who they are is because the book was written earlier. And by the time it started to be studied in earnest, people had forgotten, there had been a changeover.

There does seem to be, interestingly enough, the possibility of a gap about 70 years long between the mid 7th century and about the year 700 during which the Qur’ān does not seem to have been the core text for Muslims. It does not seem to have been the primary focus of prayer. Portions of it were, but not the book as a whole, it doesn’t seem like memorization by everybody was deemed important.

So, what would have been in place of it?

That’s the question that we need to answer! This will probably be the focus of a lot of scholarly attention. My off-the-cuff hypothesis, which has absolutely no basis in scholarship whatsoever, is that this is a period where the Islamic state was rapidly expanding. People were far and wide, and if they didn’t have someone in their army, or in their base camp who knew the text in its entirety they have to make do with what they knew. And one of the Umayyad caliphs really did make an attempt to get the text out to everybody—this is one of the ones who was believed to have possibly compiled or authored the text because his name is all over these manuscripts.

Now that we can see it was compiled earlier, perhaps one of the reasons why he made this efforts to get the text out far and wide was because he had realized that it had lost its primacy and that people were going in different directions in terms of the way they were practicing what was in the process of transforming from proto-Islam into Islam as we understand it today. And that’s a big question mark. I’m probably going to get a lot of nasty messages from scholars who work on early Islam saying, “Oh my gosh, that is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” but that’s my contribution to the scholarship.

But I do just want to wrap up with something that Patricia Crone, who passed away earlier this summer, wrote—she was writing in 2008—which is that in her opinion, “Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’ān is a collection of utterances that he [Muḥammad] made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God.” I think that’s the most fair beginning point for any study of the text.

Sources and Further Reading:

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