Tuesday 4 August 2015

The Oldest Qur'an

Today's post comes from Dan Porter, an MRes student in the School of History. He's studying Islamic ideas about Western Christians during the Crusades.

You might have noticed a news item in the last few weeks about a unique discovery in the archives of the University of Birmingham library. The incredible discovery of the oldest existing, written fragment of the Qur'an anywhere in the world, has potentially huge ramifications.  As an artefact it is both significant in academic and spiritual terms.  In this post I wanted to explore why it is so significant from both of these perspectives.

There is a quote by Bernard Lewis, Prof. of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, in which he describes the origins of Islam.
"... Islam was born in the full light of history. Its roots are at surface level, the life of its founder is as well known to us as those of the Reformers of the sixteenth century."
This position has been challenged consistently for the last 40 years, most famously by academics such as Patricia Crone (who tragically died less than two weeks before this announcement; she would have had a lot to say on this discovery!).  The main argument against Lewis' statement was that there was no documentary evidence of written Qur'ans for some 80 years after the death of Muhammad with the implication being that the version we have today may have been modified or changed in some way from that originally recited by Muhammad.  Tom Holland goes further in his book In the Shadow of the Sword to suggest that Islam as a religion was only codified after the Arab conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries and that it originates not in Mecca and Medina but somewhere near the Dead Sea.  What is clear is that the Qur'an extant today was codified by Uthman, the third Caliph, some twenty years after the death of the Prophet (632 CE/ 11 AH).  This event is recorded by the 9th century Islamic scholar Al-Bukhari in his seminal work on Islamic hadith, Sahih al-Bukhari;
'So Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, "Send us the manuscripts of the Quran so that we may compile the Quranic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you." Hafsa sent it to Uthman. Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit (Muhammad's personal scribe), Abdullah bin AzZubair, Said bin Al-As and AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies.' Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, [6:61:510].
What these fragments prove is that not only did the Qur'an exist in written form earlier than believed but also that it would appear to have been written down during, or in very close proximity too, the lifetime of Muhammad himself.  This opens up potential to prove that the Qur'an today is directly transmitted, without breaks, to its current form from the original.

The academic potential herein is of secondary concern to the majority of the Islamic community, however.  The direct transmission of the Qur'an from the Prophet to the present day is a matter of faith, not one of concrete evidence.  On a spiritual level we're looking at a physical item that was produced during the lifetime of the Prophet, Muhammad.  It is tempting to believe that the scribe met him in person or indeed may have had a personal relationship with the Prophet.  It certainly wouldn't have been unusual within the 'umma, or community, at the time.  The Qur'an, in Islamic terms, is the literal word of God; it is the last revelation to humanity from the divine and is the basis for the ordering of the world according to God's law.  As such, any Qur'an is holy.  These fragments however, because of their provenance, have a special significance, especially for Sunni Muslims for whom the traditions of Muhammad and the Qu'ran are the bedrock of their faith.  The term Sunni roughly means "people of the [Islamic] tradition".  This refers to their adherence to the traditions of the life of the Prophet.  Islam doesn't have the same reverence for relics that Catholicism had or indeed to some degree, still has, but these fragments of the Qur'an are still enormously important spiritual objects.  To put the significance of these fragments into a Christian spiritual context, it would be the equivalent of finding a copy of a gospel that could be dated to within the historical life of Christ.  I think there is likely to be an intense debate about where these fragments should finally reside.  The fact that the University of Birmingham was explicit about the fragments remaining in Birmingham from the initial press release indicates they are fully aware of these implications.

On a final note I'll leave you with this thought.  From what I can read, with the published photos and my limited Arabic, the fragment seems to come from the Surat Taha in which Allah tells the story of how he called upon Moses to challenge Pharaoh. The theme of this sura is the existence of God and the signs of such given to the faithful ...

The Mingana collection is viewable online in their virtual manuscript room.  You can access it here.