Birmingham University has announced that it possesses what could be the world’s oldest fragments of the Muslim Holy Quran. We cannot be certain yet whether it is the oldest, as we have other sets of old Qur’anic manuscripts, such as those investigated by IRCICA in Turkey and the palimpsest ones found in the Great Mosque of Sana’a, Yemen, in 1972. But using radiocarbon dating, the Birmingham researchers suggest that this parchment fragment, written on sheep or goat skin, may date to sometime between 568 and 645. This could place this parchment within the first three decades of Islam, taking us back to the days of Muhammad or his immediate followers.
The traditional date of Muhammad’s death is 632 (although some still suggest he was alive well after this date and led the conquest of Palestine in 634). This means that the person who wrote on this parchment may have been contemporary to the Muslim Prophet, though we should remember that the date of the fragment is not necessarily the same as that of the written script itself.
For Muslims, the revelation of the Quran is unprecedented in any other world religion. They generally believe that Muhammad received “dictated” revelations from Allah through the archangel Gabriel over a 23-year period. These revelations were already in a celestial tablet found on the right side of the divine throne with Allah. Once revealed to Muhammad, these revelations, Muslims believe, were immediately written down on stones, wickers of palm trees, or bones of camels’ shoulders. The revealed texts were not kept in one place. They needed to be collected at some point in history together in one book. The history of how that happened is disputed, even among Muslims themselves.
Sunni Muslims believe that these revelations were never collected in a final book form until the third Muslim successor of Muhammad, Uthman (r. 644-656). This caliph, almost two decades after the Prophet’s death, gathered carefully all divine authentic texts, which were scattered in various places, examined them carefully, burnt what he considered inauthentic, and thus closed the corpus of the divine revealed canon. This, according to Muslims, is the exact copy of the celestial tablet and the exact copy we possess in our hands today.
Shiite Muslims, however, view these Sunni beliefs as fantasies. Shiites commonly believe that when Muhammad died, the Quran was already fixed. The Prophet himself gathered and oversaw the collection process in an orderly fashion. Shiites do not generally admire Muhammad’s first three successors, arguing that they stole power from the rightful successor. The Shiite belief is that Allah would have never entrusted impious leaders with his divine words, and thus, only Muhammad could have collected the divine text.
Now a question emerges: if Sunnis and Shiites disagree on the time and method and agent of collecting the Quranic texts, do they agree on the text itself? In general, yes. However, as many scholars observe, studying various Shiite writings highlights some variants. They attribute the variants to the work of the followers of Imam Ali, whom the Shiites view as the legitimate and rightful successor of Muhammad. Some of them think that the real Quran includes two additional chapters that affirm the succession of Ali to Muhammad, but were not included in the available corpus.
Discoveries such as the Birmingham University parchment are welcome advances in the vivid debate in Islamic and Quranic Studies. They stir quiet water, making waves, causing joy to some and disturbance or controversies among others. This discovery will make Muslims worldwide rejoice. Some Middle Eastern news channels quickly celebrated the discovery, announcing that it has blown away skeptic theories against the Quran. In truth, it is too soon to say exactly what the discovery means. If the text on the fragment is mostly the same as the passage of the Quran we have today, but not identical, this might undermine traditional Muslim beliefs. Moreover, if presumably the written script (the ink) is of the same time period of the parchment, this discovery would illustrate conclusively that at least some parts of Islam’s scripture could have been written as early as one or two decades after Muhammad’s death.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that it is merely a fragment, not a set of contained, completed corpus of texts. It does not give us much evidence of an early canonization of the Quran. This discovery, for instance, cannot easily dismiss compelling arguments set forth by various scholars claiming that Islam’s scripture is made up of unrelated pericopes, and that it was compiled at least a century after the Prophet’s death. Nor can it simply rebut a scholarly claim that the existence of various Quranic readings challenges the conventional traditional notion of a Quran that is the exact copy of a celestial tablet.
Still, this is a remarkable development that awaits a long process of scholarly examination and could prove to have powerful effects on Islam.
Ayman S. Ibrahim, PhD is Post-Doctoral Fellow of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University and Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and Senior Fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.