Quran fragments could predate Muhammad, UK researchers say

Historians say carbon dating on recently discovered text could ‘destabilize’ views on who compiled the Islamic holy book, and when

Illustrative image of the Koran (Issam Rimawi / Flash90.)
Illustrative image of the Koran (Issam Rimawi / Flash90.)

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 CE and 645 CE. Muhammad is believed to have lived between 570 CE and 632 CE. 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.”

Islamic scholars have sharply disputed such statements. Dr. Mustafa Shah of the University of London said “the manuscript has consolidated traditional accounts of the Quran’s origins.”

Others have noted that carbon dating is at any rate not always reliable and so should not be treated as undisputed fact.

The Quran fragments sat unrecognized in Birmingham University’s library for a century along with other Middle Eastern books and manuscripts, until a PhD researcher stumbled upon the text and decided to carbon date it.

The university’s expert on Christianity and Islam, David Thomas, said in July that the document could very well have been written while Muhammad was still alive.

“They could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam,” Thomas said.

“According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Quran, the scripture of Islam, between the years 610 and 632, the year of his death,” he said.

“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,” he added.

The Quran in its entirety, Thomas noted, was compiled by the year 650, but some passages and portions existed beforehand. The fragments were penned in Hijazi script, an early form of written Arabic.

“These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Quran read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed,” he said.

Avi Lewis contributed to this report.

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