In what could prove something of a pot hole for current readings of Islamic history, a carbon test carried out on a Koranic manuscript recently discovered in England reveals the book is likely older than Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith.
The test used a piece of the ancient parchment, discovered in Birmingham University Library in July, with scientists dating the tome from between 568 and 645AD.
Islamic scholars believe Muhammad lived between 570 and 632AD and that he founded Islam after 610AD. The first Muslim community was founded in Medina in 622AD. This means the text was likely compiled either before the Prophet’s birth or during his childhood.
"It destabilises, to put it mildly, the idea that we can know anything with certainty about how the Koran emerged -- and that in turn has implications for the history of Muhammad and the Companions," historian Tom Holland told The Times.
Speaking to the newspaper, professors David Thomas and Nadir Dinshaw, of the University of Birmingham, said that Muslim tradition states that Muhammad “received the revelations that form the Koran… between the years AD 610 and 632, the year of his death.”
“At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today,” said Thomas. “Instead, the revelations were preserved in ‘the memories of men.’ Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels,” he added.
“Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad, ordered the collection of all Qur’anic material in the form of a book. The final, authoritative written form was completed and fixed under the direction of the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in about AD 650.”
However, Keith Small, a researcher at the Bodleian in Oxford, urged caution as the carbon testing only used parchment rather than the ink from the book. He said: “If the dates apply to the parchment and the ink, and the dates across the entire range apply, then the Koran -- or at least portions of it -- predates Mohammed, and moves back the years that an Arabic literary culture is in place well into the 500s.”
Small added: “This would radically alter the edifice of Islamic tradition and the history of the rise of Islam in late Near Eastern antiquity would have to be completely revised, somehow accounting for another book of scripture coming into existence 50 to 100 years before, and then also explaining how this was co-opted into what became the entity of Islam by around AD700.”