The BBC this week reported that what are believed to be amongst the earliest ever fragments of the Qur’an have been found at Birmingham University. The fragments have been carbon dated with a 95% probability to the period 568 to 645 CE ie. to a period that very closely corresponds to the time (610 – 632 CE) when the traditional Muslim narrative maintains that the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an. This means, as Professor David Thomas of Birmingham University has observed:
“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with.”
So, for Muslims, this finding will be received with immense joy as it confirms their belief in the historicity of the Qur’an and the manner of its compilation and preservation. But, what does this finding mean for Western scholarship about the Qur’an?
Back in the late 1970’s, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (who both went on to occupy prestigious roles at Princeton University) published a book called Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, which called for a radical revision of the traditional Muslim narrative and insisted that the Qur’an took shape in the 8th century to fulfil a need of the growing Arab empire. The authors claimed at the time that “…There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century…”
Well, as it happens, Crone (who passed away earlier this month) later changed her mind about this as evidence began to accrue that supported the Muslim narrative, but the revisionists’ influence continues to be felt.
Three years ago, the British writer and historian, Tom Holland, published In The Shadow of the Sword which I reviewed here on this blog at the time. Holland argued that much of the Muslim narrative about the history of Islam was unreliable and that Islam as we now know it was largely shaped by the Arab Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. Holland added that the true location of the Prophet’s initial preaching was not the Makka that we know today, but much further north on the border with Palestine.
Accompanying the publication of his book, Tom Holland also presented a Channel Four documentary called “Islam the Untold Story” in which he outlined his case. But let’s return to his book for the moment. Holland’s book started off by posing some big questions.
“…how can we know for sure that the Qur’an dates from the time of Muhammad? How can we know who compiled it, from what sources, for what motives? Can we even be sure that its origins lay in Arabia? In short, do we really know anything at all about the birth of Islam?” (p43)
“Does the Qur’an really date from the Prophet’s lifetime? Where, if not in Mecca, might he have lived? Why are the references to him in the early Caliphate so sparse, so enigmatic, and so late?” (p55)
As I said at the time, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Holland had uncovered something shocking about the Qur’an. It was only over 300 pages into his book that you found out Holland’s actual conclusion about the Qur’an:
“The text of the Qur’an itself does seem to derive authentically from the Prophet’s lifetime…it is true, the Qur’an records a very specific moment in history: a moment that internal evidence, as well as tradition, identifies with the early decades of the seventh Christian century.” (p310-315)
So, after that intriguing build up, we were told that the Muslim narrative about the history of the Qur’an was accurate.
Interestingly, Tom Holland did not mention this rather vital fact in his C4 documentary. Why not? This was surely important and relevant in a documentary seeking to look at the historical foundations of Islam? In a Twitter exchange I had with Tom earlier this week, he said it was not necessary to explicitly mention that modern evidence supports the traditional Muslim narrative about the historicity of the Qur’an because his documentary simply assumed the Muslim dating of the Qur’an was correct.
Personally, I can’t help but feel that the more likely reason Holland did not mention this was because it would have severely undermined his entire thesis for the C4 documentary.
Still, let us let bygones be bygones. Looking forward, British Muslims have cause to be grateful that these latest Qur’an fragments have been found in the UK. They will be placed on public display initially at the Barber Institute in Birmingham in just over two months time. I can’t wait to go and see them.