The Birmingham Koran: Extravagant Claims, Inconvenient Truths and Common Sense

24/12/2015 12:04 GMT | Updated 24/12/2016 10:12 GMT

The Birmingham Koran fragments are again in the news. The BBC yesterday published 'Birmingham's Ancient Koran History Revealed'. Is this new information about its origin or problems that have been solved concerning the early radiocarbon dates? No. Instead, we have a new and spectacular hypothesis about the Qur'an's origin based on a selective reading of the old evidence, and some new information about the manuscript's later life.

The new information in the article is that the pages in Birmingham are related to a fragmentary manuscript kept in Paris. This is news that has been made known to scholars and the public by Dr. Alba Fedeli at three conferences earlier this last year. Also, that the manuscript spent much of its life in Fustat and tracing how it probably came to reside in Europe by François Déroche is a new piece in the puzzle of its interesting later life.

The spectacular hypothesis is the assertion that these fragments are from the Qur'an of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam, the Caliph who immediately followed Muhammad. The claim is based on taking the later part of the date range (568-645) as the right part, and the level of quality of the production of the manuscript pointing towards a wealthy and important patron on the level of a Caliph. Let us take these claims in turn.

Concerning zeroing in on the later part of the date range for the manuscript's composition- this unfortunately ignores that the 95.4% reliability figure applies to the entire date range; all the way back to 568, two years before Muhammad's birth. Even if there is a statistical advantage for the latter half of the date range, it would only be a very slight one and not something decisive upon which one could make definitive or confident assertions. Referring to this part of the date range as the probable time of composition, without referring to the equal or extremely close probability of the earlier part of the range is irresponsible. The most one can assert is the possibility, not the probability, of the manuscript being composed during any particular part of this date range. To do otherwise is to cherry-pick evidence to support your favoured view, as Joseph Lumbard aptly puts it in the BBC article.

The level of quality of production is very good for what is preserved for these early kinds of Qur'an manuscripts. This however, is not an automatic argument for it being such a notable Qur'an. Any Qur'an on parchment would have been a costly commission ordered by a wealthy patron or organization, and all of the surviving Hijazi script Qur'an manuscripts, like this one, are on parchment. Some of them have an equally high level of quality in their execution. This one does not stand out as such an exceptional example to merit being a Caliph's special commission. It is possible, but not probable.

Also, with so many Qur'ans in the Muslim world attributed to having been owned or written by important early figures (like the Caliphs Uthman or 'Ali, or early Shi'ite Imams), it seems that one of such significance would have been preserved with more care. The Islamic traditions, however, say that Uthman had all Qur'ans prior to his version (c. 650 CE) ordered destroyed after he finished his task of producing a standard edition of the Qur'an. Tradition also states that a version passed from the Caliph Umar to his daughter Hafsa, which many have thought was originally from Abu Bakr, did escape Uthman's order only to be destroyed by the later Caliph Muʻawiya (reigned 661-680).

The level of quality argument can also act as a two-edged sword. It takes time for scribal conventions to develop to a degree that there are formal script styles and established ways of laying out pages so that a scribal culture can be traced in its development from simple to more complex. This Qur'an has clear signs it was copied from a written exemplar- an already established type of Qur'an with an established script style, pattern of verses, system of spelling, and a system of laying out a page for transcription. These scribal conventions take time to develop- even decades. The traditions about Abu Bakr's collection of the Qur'an, of the Caliph Umar's efforts to collect it, and of the Caliph Uthman's efforts to standardize it, do not present a setting with an established Arabic scribal culture for the early 600s. Also, there are numerous inconsistencies between the Qur'an collection stories concerning these three caliphs that have led many scholars to question their veracity. Also, the Caliphs were not the only available wealthy patrons who could have been commissioning Qur'ans. Many of Muhammad's companions were enriched during the conquests of Islam's first century.

Also, very few of the available early Hijazi manuscripts have been carbon dated, so there is still the real possibility that earlier manuscripts are out there. There is already one Qur'an manuscript that has returned earlier dates than the Birmingham one, one of the pages of the Sanaa palimpsest, one of its pages coming back with a date span completely before 600 CE. This brings us to the point François Déroche made in the BBC article that there might be a problem with the carbon dating that is as yet unidentified. He pointed out that there are Qur'ans with known dates of composition that have returned mismatched radiocarbon dates. No one knows yet why this is so, but it keeps in the picture a point for legitimate questioning concerning the extremely early dates.

So, is it possible that these pages were Abu Bakr's? A very slight possibility. Is it probable that they are not? Almost certainly. We can't let well-meaning pious sentiment outrun common sense.

The BBC article is quite right in concluding, 'But don't expect any end to the arguments about this ancient document'.