The BBC-Birmingham “Qur’an” Facts Fiasco

It is one of the cardinal tenets of Islam that the Qur’an was essentially “complete” in the Prophet’s lifetime and written down very soon after in the time of  Uthman before the end of the seventh century  It is a further tenet that the exact wording of the text has remained unchanged from the time of its revelation until today. A standard web-based information site offers the following standard orthodox appraisal:

“The Qur’an is a record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. It was memorized by Muhammad and then dictated to his Companions, and written down by scribes, who cross-checked it during his lifetime. Not one word of its 114 chapters, Suras, has been changed over the centuries, so that the Qur’an is in every detail the unique and miraculous text which was revealed to Muhammad fourteen centuries ago.” (www.islamicity.com, search for ‘What is the Qur`an?’)

To this surgically clean declaration of authenticity, one might want to compare the tortured history of the New Testament:  academic study has shown that nothing was written by Jesus; nothing was written in Aramaic, the language he spoke, and the written record shows a long history of textual transmission and change going back to a fluid period of “orality” in which specific sayings and deeds were recorded (and others chopped or forgotten).   Modern biblical criticism, though it did not begin as this, has been for the last two centuries a systematic exploration of redactions, alterations, variations and theological finessing of texts:  There are no original manuscripts and there is today no possibility of finding one that could  indubitably be called “original.”    None existed in the time of Jesus or his followers, as far as we know, and it is really not until the end of the first century that written gospels begin to appear—and not until the second that we begin to see hard—papyrological–as opposed to narrative allusions to their existence.

The belief that the Qur’an had an entirely different history from the biblical text was called into question by a palimpsest (a manuscript from which an existing text has been scraped or washed to make room for another one, to avoid the expense of additional writing material) known as ‘DAM 0 1-27.1.’1, discovered by Muslims in 1972 at the ancient Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen.

Aided by ultraviolet photography, this palimpsest was shown to contain many differences compared with today’s Arabic Qur’an. They range from different and missing words and dissimilar spellings to a changed order of Surahs and words within verses. The find is part of a bundle of parchments thought—until a few days ago– to be the oldest surviving copies of the Qur’an.  According to Gerd Puin, a western expert in the early text of the Qur’an, the palimpsest known as ‘DAM 0 1-27.1’ contains at least 38 Qur’an leaves.  It is undoubtedly extracted from a “book” rather than notes used by imams for the purpose of recalling stories learned  by rote. They were each written on parchment with an approximate size of 36.5 x 28.5 cm. Since on the majority of the leaves a primary text is visible and both texts contain parts of over 70 % of today’s Qur’an, the palimpsest must be a remnant of two, previously complete, yet different Qur’ans. ‘Folio 16r’2 contains Surah 9:70-80 in the less visible primary writing and Surah 30:26-40 in the better visible secondary writing. The Yemeni Qur’an provides almost conclusive evidence that the text of the Qur’an was not settled in the seventh century and underwent the same kind of editorial emendation that parchment-manuscripts routinely went through in the process of copying and transcription.

The Yemen Qur’an’s story is repeated in the work of the Coranica Project.  Scholars at the University of Tübingen, examined a  Quranic  manuscript written in Kufic script, one of the oldest forms of Arabic writing.  Using carbon-14 dating on three samples of the manuscript parchment, the researchers concluded that it was more than 95 percent likely to have originated in the period 649-675 AD.  The Tubingen Qur’an also showed clear signs of alteration, increasing the probability that the Qur’anic  text was altered over time.

The Birmingham “Qur’an”

The discovery in Birmingham University touted by the BBC and happily embraced by Muslim scholars and others as “the oldest” copy of the Qur’an yet discovered is riddled as Robert Spencer argues with journalistic error.  The BBC story, trumpeted by news agencies all over the world, is one of those examples of media reporting about religion based on wishful thinking and an ill-disguised hankering for stories about miracles that occasionally remind us that journalism is not science, nor history, or even responsible analysis.  Eventually, experts will chime in with questions, the most poignant of which will be these:

  1. Islamic tradition itself asserts that the Qur’an was finalized during the reign of the caliph Uthman in 653 who ordered “other versions” burned. What were these “other versions” if not variant texts that differed from the text of the one he authorized to be used in his region?  Inscriptions at The Dome of the Rock (ca. 691) do not respect the Qur’anic ordering of the surahs as they have come to exist in modern editions of the Qur’an; it would be anomalous indeed if a text (arguably) dating from so close to the Prophet’s lifetime followed the ordering of surahs (chapters) used in later versions of the text.
  2. The earliest literary reference to the Qur’an as a complete book is from the early eighth century, in the context of a debate between a Christian monk from the monastery of Beth Hale (Iraq?) and an Arab nobleman. The dialogue suggests that Muhammad taught a portion of what Muslims believed in the Qur’an and a portion in free floating “surat albaqrah and in gygy and in twrh.”  The surah the monk mentions is now fully incorporated in the Qur’an, but in his time was not, since he knows it as a stand- alone book, سورة البقرة‎, al-Baqara. It is the second and longest surah in the Qur’an as we possess it today.
  3. The Birmingham University professor, David Thomas, who has made extravagant claims for this discovery does not seem to be aware that he is arguing against his own position: Since (as for a gospel) there is no standard prototype of the Qur’an which could possibly show whether the “original” text has been altered or modified, how can we possibly be sure that the thin series of verses available correspond to an original word order?   The Yemen and Tubingen Qur’anic extracts showed just the opposite:  under ultraviolet examination they revealed editorial modification or “bleeding” beneath the superscribed text.  As Robert Spencer correctly asks, if the only reliable date we have is for the organic material (sheep or goatskin) we still need to date  the ink, as Hijazi script, while early, is common in parchment found from this part of the Arabian peninsula.
  4. The nature of the leaves themselves is puzzling: bits of Suras 18 and 20, “containing a story about Moses  (18), along with material about Dhul Qarnayn, who is usually assumed to be Alexander the Great, and the Christian story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, and sura 19, with an extended retelling of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ.”   These are some of the most obviously derivative sections of the entire Qur’an– stories which the Qur’an cannibalizes without attribution, increasing the likelihood that what we may have is not the Qur’an at all but fragments of stories that were eventually incorporated into the Qur’an at a later period.

Compositionally this may be an exciting archaeological find—since it would tell us something about the real process under which the book was compiled using fragments of other books. Instead, using the traditional religious view of compositional integrity, a theological doctrine rather than a scientific conclusion, the Birmingham experts and the media rush to conclude that we have a kind of proof for the immutability of the text. The Birmingham team as much as admit this since we are told that  “the verses are incomplete, and believed to have been an aide memoire for an imam who already knew the Qur’an by heart, but the text is very close to the accepted authorized version.”

  1. Even if we would allow that the parchment, the ink and the verses coincide to give us the oldest example of Qur’anic material yet discovered, which is not only not conclusive but highly improbable, the question remains why such an early “edition” of the Qur’an should have been circulating among the illiterate Arab populations of the Middle East at such an early date. No one can have read it. It was not used for distribution to masses of believers or potential converts.  The only plausible explanation is that what has been found in Birmingham is an aide memoire of a few verses that may correspond to late stories incorporated in the Qur’anic  corpus.  It is not from that corpus and probably, given the selection of material, was used to preach to Christians and Arabic speaking Jews who were interested in hearing how their own traditions could be reconciled with the teaching of Muhammad.  In other words, what has been discovered is proof of the fluidity rather than the rigidity of the Qur’anic compositional process in the late seventh or more likely eighth century.
  2. Faith before reason: A disturbing feature of this story is in the backlight.  The problem is clear enough from this part of the BBC report:

‘The British Library’s expert on such manuscripts, Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, said this “exciting discovery” would make Muslims “rejoice”.  The manuscript had been kept with a collection of other Middle Eastern books and documents, without being identified as one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the world.When a PhD researcher, Alba Fedeli, looked more closely at these pages it was decided to carry out a radiocarbon dating test and the results were “startling”.  The university’s director of special collections, Susan Worrall, said researchers had not expected “in our wildest dreams” that it would be so old. “Finding out we had one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the whole world has been fantastically exciting.”  The fragments of the Koran are still legible.’

It is disheartening enough to think that an archivist thinks that archaeology has the reinforcement of religious belief as one of its byproducts, but it is clear from the way the story has been told and disseminated that enthusiasm for an outcome has outdistanced any sober examination of claims.  The find is already being touted throughout the Islamic world as a vindication of Islamic belief.

So to repeat:  What we have at Birmingham is the discovery of leaves of parchment, probably recycled and scraped and used by a religious teacher to record bits of memorized narrative from sources that finally make their way into the Qur’an.  That there should be some overlap in these extracts and later editions of the Qur’an as copied and printed is not at all surprising.  But as there is no prototype, it can hardly be said to be evidence of an unalterable textual tradition.   There is no compelling reason to think that this slim discovery proves the inviolability of the Islamic holy book, or vindicates any doctrine.  In fact, if treated intelligently and using the methods of western textual criticism, this could shed light on how books like the Qur’an evolved over time to become compendiums of the words of men regarded as the prophets and teachers of their tradition.  So far however, we see little evidence that the find will be treated in that way.  As Gerd Puin has said, “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad. Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants…”  What we have at Birmingham perfectly illustrates that point.

22 thoughts on “The BBC-Birmingham “Qur’an” Facts Fiasco

  1. Thanks for that careful and sobering analysis. It is interesting that emotions can so clearly shape interpretation of the facts. Your paragraph 6 makes the point clearly.

    The British Library’s expert on such manuscripts, Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, said this “exciting discovery” would make Muslims “rejoice”

    We have confirmation bias in spades and that immediately casts doubt on the facts.

    • Confirmation bias certainly lies at the heart of this article, but I’m not sure its limited to Isa Waley.

  2. The Koran, like the NT Bible, has had its editing …
    But if we assume “Unchanged” then the new texts MUST conform to the old — if they don’t, the new must be discarded as false.
    The reality exists that, this work is historically relevant — but would not be cheered by modern followers of Islam. Their cheering of it is as unlikely as modern Christians actually reading and following the Letters of Paul which describe the rules comprising the Gospel To The gentiles, which define what non-Jews need to do to comply with the teachings of Jesus and be his followers … as opposed to those Jesus is cited as saying … “would come in his name but he would neither know, nor defend, in the era of Judgement — an era which the Book of Revelation states has already started (is timed for 21st century) and which the calculations by Sir Isaac Newton placed as focused around 2033, and, using the Hebrew calendar system, the book “Biblical Prophecy: Are we in the Revelation Era” states began with Hitler in 1929. The latter being revisited in the book “Death Over Life: Secret of Revelation: A Prophecy of America’s Destruction” where the current period, 2015/16, defines a critical historic period.
    In terms of the Koran: the Jihad it predicts was taken from Revelation — the Army in White which ISA / Jesus leads when he destroys all the evil Christians and other’s who falsely claim to follow the Hebrew GOD, but violate the established laws and rules of conduct. But that gets into the book, “SAINT PAUL’S JOKE”.

  3. What is ‘funny’ is, that while the Western media were giving the politically correct cheering version of the story, the cautioning note had to come from Saudi Arabia:
    “Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters – features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later, he said. ” — source:

  4. It’s cheering to read someone picking apart the actual document and pointing out the epistemological issues. Have you considered setting the word ‘fiasco’ aside and submitting this essay to the BBC or other outlets, for publication? I wouldn’t assume their reaction

  5. I do agree. I always felt that the obvious Jewish/Christian ‘stories’ in the Qu’ran were added to give a new religion some ‘rootedness’, so that it would be more readily accepted by those who were familar with those stores. The same as making Abraham the root, with the son of his slave girl, the ‘father’ of Islam. Like Catholicism, it is imaginatively created towards financial and powerful ends. On another level, it felt to me that the ‘discovery’ by Birmingham University was more about approval seeking from the Muslim community. As a counsellor and archaeologist, I look at the behaviour of people in authority and I perceive that the English Gov. is keeping itself safe by pandering to Muslim opinion. I have lived in Egypt for the past 5 years and so see things first hand, and for me, Islam is still struggling with the same issues that Christians in Europe struggled with 500 years ago. It still has a long way to go.

  6. “The BBC story… is one of those examples of media reporting about religion based on wishful thinking and an ill-disguised hankering for stories about miracles that occasionally remind us that journalism is not science, nor history, or even responsible analysis.”
    AND
    “It is disheartening enough to think that an archivist thinks that archaeology has the reinforcement of religious belief as one of its byproducts,”

    It seems to me that the “so-called” news venues love to try to find “proofs” of the legends of the J-C-I religions. It does irritate me quite a bit and not because I might be an agnostic or an atheist. In fact, theologically, I am polytheistic. However, I do not seek “proof” of the holy stories. That is a completely ridiculous endeavour as I know they are inspired. I do like to know their history, how they came together. As Thales could see the divine as being as innumerable and as distinct as the grains of sand, so do I. I actually feel sorry for people who are so insecure that they need these sops. Of course, these writings have gone though amalgamation, editing, etc. To think otherwise is naive. People decided what they wanted in their book. Other societies let all the stories into circulation (ie. Greece, Rome, etc.). Yes, from the beginning the J-C-I’s were thought-policed, that is what orthodoxy is.

    • So you still believe in the story of a monkey giving birth to Adam and she-monkey giving birth to Ave. because you my friend believe in miracles. But I cannot find such miracles happening in which a monkey gave birth to a shit like u.

  7. Jospeh; it would help your arguement if – rather than react to the second-hand accounts of the BBC, and The Guardian – you read the considered opinions expressed in the Birmingham University announcement; and in Dr Fideli’s previous articles and postings on these two leaves in particular. Had you done so,you would have noted that these two leaves belong with another sixteen in Paris, BnF Arabe 328(c); as indeed they sit neatly in a lacuna in that text. So there can be no doubt that the full manuscript was not an ‘aide memoire’ (in the speculation of the Guardian reporter) but a lectern Qur’an for a major mosque. Moreover, as we know that the Paris Qur’an was obtained from a Cairo mosque founded in 642 CE; we have a very plausible context for the production of this particular manuscript within the range of radio-carbon dates.

    Moreover, there is no need to rely on other’s judgements – images of the sixteen Paris leaves are all on-line at the Corpus Coranicum site; and those of the two Birmingham leaves are on-line at the Mingana Collection site. If the text were a palimsest, you should be able to demonstrate it from these images. I can see no such sign, maybe you would more success. Both sets of images are accompanied by transcriptions, with all differences from the modern standard (Cairo 1924) text helpfully highlighted. You can easily check all this. Don’t throw allegations of academic incompetence around if you are not willing to to the legwork yourself.

    As Keyne’s said; “when the facts change, so do my opinons”. We now have a new brute fact that a monumentasl lectern Qur’an, whose text in the passages witnessed is ‘very close’ to that of the standard current text, was in existence within two decades of the death of Muhammad. That does not remove the associated brute facts of the existence of rather less standard’ texts in the Tubingen and Sana’a Qur’an’s. But the dating evidence is unequivocal, that the Birmingham/Paris text is the earlier. Maybe the Qur’an started with a ‘standard’ text, and the variations were acquired later? The facts indeed have changed; which of your opinions do you change?

    • that these two leaves belong with another sixteen in Paris, BnF Arabe 328(c); as indeed they sit neatly in a lacuna in that text. So there can be no doubt that the full manuscript was not an ‘aide memoire’ (in the speculation of the Guardian reporter) but a lectern Qur’an for a major mosque. Moreover, as we know that the Paris Qur’an was obtained from a Cairo mosque founded in 642 CE;

      A lectern Quran from a mosque founded in 641? I assume you are referring to the only mosque we have any report of, and there is tradition it was “founded” but not completed in 642. That mosque, which was a thatched shed, was totally destroyed and a new one built in 671. Nothing of either structure remains with ongoing renovation and expansion continuing until the 1980’s. If you do not mean the Amr ibn al-As mosque, what mosque might it have been since that is the absolute earliest and the date for its inception rules out there being any other venue which could be dated to the time you’re wanting to establish. There was no other mosque in Cairo in that period. The possibility that a Quran with these characteristics would have been chained to a non-existent lectern in a proto-mosque and survived successive demolitions is indeed an interesting theory, but I suggest your facts deserve a better explanation than this one. “as we know that the Paris Qur’an was obtained from a Cairo mosque founded in 642 CE”-Is that what he antiquities broker told the buyer in Paris?

  8. Is that what he antiquities broker told the buyer in Paris

    Yup, one can buy anything in those Cairo souks. With a bit of care one could even find Jesus’ wedding certificate. Regretfull not the birth certificate, since that was eaten by donkeys in the manger. Donkeys have a keen appreciation for genealogy.

  9. STANDARD MUSLIM ACCOUNT
    The standard Muslim account is that, during the second year after the Prophet’s death (633 ce) and following the Battle of Yamama, in which a number of those who knew the Quran by heart died, it was feared that with the gradual passing away of such men there was a danger of some Quranic material being lost. Therefore the first caliph and successor to the Prophet, Abu Bakr, ordered that a written copy of the whole body of Quranic material as arranged by the Prophet and memorized by the Muslims should be made and safely stored with him. About twelve years later, with the expansion of the Islamic state, the third caliph, Uthman, ordered that a number of copies should be made from this to be distributed to different parts of the Muslim world as the official copy of the Quran, which became known as the Uthmanic Codex. This codex has been recognized throughout the Muslim world for the last fourteen centuries as the authentic document of the Quran as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

    As for as Saud al-Sarhan’s (director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies) doubt about the Birmingham manuscript is concerned, it must be noted that traditional Muslim scholars never took such discoveries seriously. They hold that the Quran is largely preserved through oral tradition rather than written.

  10. Pingback: Oldest Koran?

  11. Oxonian, While scrolling down your page – I could just laugh and laugh louder. You are not only ‘Intellectually Impatient’ but also immature and ignorant as well.
    The Noble Quran was revealed in one language and that is Arabic. It has only one original Arabic copy. Arabic 1400 years ago had 7 dialects. There exists today one original copy of the Noble in Saudi Arabia today 9It would be appreciated if this copy is radiocarbon). A copy of this original copy also exists in Turkey today as well.

    When the Noble Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, it was revealed in Arabic, and in the Quraishi dialect. The Quraishi dialect is the most proper Arabic dialect that properly uses the Arabic words without altering their sound.

    The Quraishi dialect was the most popular dialect in the Middle East at that time, and is today the dialect used among Arabs who speak Proper Arabic. The dialect that books teach at schools is also a Quraishi dialect today.

    Back in the Middle East 1400 years ago, the Quraishi dialect was not the only one used among Arabs. There existed 6 other dialects along with it, but as I said, it was the most popular.

    It is very important in the Islamic faith that when we recite the Noble Quran, we recite it in the Quraishi dialect or what we call today in the proper Arabic. We can’t pronounce for instance “th” as “sa” or “za”. We can’t pronounce “la” as “laman”. We can’t pronounce “ja” and “ga”, etc…

    There are no variances or missing parts in the Noble Quran. These are all false and baseless assumptions by some anti-Islamics. The Arabic dialects had problems with each others, and that’s why standardizing the Noble Quran with its original Quraishi dialect was essential to keeping it as a perfect Holy Book: For instance, take the letter “j”. Did you know that some Arabs don’t pronounce the “j”? They always pronounce it as “g” or “ga”.

    Take “the” as another example. Some Arabs also don’t pronounce “the”. They pronounce it as “za”.

    Another example, and this is an important one in my opinion, is that some Arabs used to have a dialect which originated from Yemen, where they would add “an” at the end of a noun. Take for instance the popular word of today “Taliban”, as in the Taliban in Afghanistan. “Taliban” is the same as the Arabic word “Talib” which means “Student”.

    The Afghans today used the old Arabic dialect from Yemen which dates even older than 1400 years ago when the Noble Quran was revealed. Back then in Yemen, as I said, they used to add the word “an” for nouns. So if they for instance wanted to refer to a stone “sakhr (in Arabic)”, then they would refer to it as “sakhran”, even though it would be written in Arabic as “sakhr”.

    In Islam, properly reciting the Words of Allah Almighty is the way it must be practiced. Otherwise, it would be considered a sin and disrespect toward Allah Almighty and the individual would be disobeying Allah Almighty and would gain bad deeds that will count against him in the Day of Judgment if he did it intentionally.

  12. Pingback: More Hard Issues on the Qur’an Fragments – Christianity in Antiquity (CIA): The Bart Ehrman Blog

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  14. Hello,
    This blog post cites a palimpsest manuscript that has been rigorously studied, yet the author of the blog is not aware of the conclusions reached by other researchers. The article to read is by B. Sadeghi and U. Bergmann in Arabica 57 (2010) 343-436, entitled “The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the
    Qurʾān of the Prophet”. These two authors examine the lower script of the palimpsest mentioned, and conclude, on the basis of a stemmatic analysis that “In any case, textual criticism suggests that the standard version is the most
    faithful representation, among the known codices, of the Qurʾān as recited by the Prophet.”
    Indeed, there has been a process of editing of manuscripts of the Quran, just as there has been a process of correcting of mistakes in memorization and oral recitation. Unlike the case of the New Testament, however, there is so far no good evidence that any theologically motivated corruptions have been retained in the canonical text.

  15. Please know I agree with factual information here but some things are made up like saying Muslims rejoice there is another Quran. Omar.

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