Radiocarbon dating of a Koran manuscript found last month at the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library suggests that it could predate the Prophet Muhammad.
Scholars say the discovery could shake the historical foundations of Islam and force rewriting of the early history of Islam, according to The Times of London.
Radiocarbon analysis carried out by experts at the University of Oxford dated the parchment on which the Koran text was written to the period between 568 A.D. and 645 A.D. with an estimated accuracy of 95.4 percent, according to a release by the University of Birmingham.
This means that the “Birmingham Koran” fragment, part of the Cadbury Research Library’s Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, could be the oldest Koran manuscript known.
The two parchment leaves consist of parts of Suras (Chapters) 18 to 20 of the Koran written with ink in Hijazi, an early form of Arabic script. The two parchment leaves, made from animal skin, were discovered bound with leaves of a Koran manuscript from the seventh century.
Researchers believe that a scribe put the separate scripts together because the Hijazi script on the parchment was similar to the script on the more recent copy.
According to scholars, the dating of the parchment to the period between 568 A.D. and 645 A.D., implies that the script could have been written before 610 A.D., the date that Prophet Muhammad, who lived between 570 A.D. and 632 A.D., received his first revelation, according to the official version of Islamic history.
It also means that the fragment could predate the Prophet Muhammed.
The radical suggestion from English scholars that the “Birmingham Koran” could be older than Propeht Muhammad contradicts the Islamic belief that Muhammad originated the Koran through revelations from Angel Gabriel and that in the early years of Islam Muhammad’s followers did not produce written portions of the Koran but memorized them and passed them down orally.
However, some scholars had speculated that the early followers might have written scattered sections of the Koran on parchment and palm leaves but none was known to have survived.
According to Keith Small, with the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the discovery could force scholars to give more attention to outlier theories that Muhammad appropriated texts already in existence and claimed that he received them as revelations from Angel Gabriel.
“This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence… rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven.”
“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,” Small said.
Historian Tom Holland said that the discovery “destabilizes, 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.”
The Koran fragment was obtained by a Chaldean priest called Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s, during an expedition sponsored by Quaker philantrophist and chocolate king Edward Cadbury. They were kept at the library of the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham which merged with the University of Birmingham in the 1990s. The collection of documents at the library of the Selly Oak Colleges thus passed to the University of Birmingham under the care of the Cadbury Research Library, according to the Daily Mail.
The fragments came to the attention of scholars recently and were sent for radiocarbon dating at the University of Oxford.
But the claim by English scholars that the age of the parchment could challenge the official version of the early history of Islam is being disputed by Muslim scholars who say that the only fact proved by the text is that the Koran has been preserved faithfully over the centuries.
According to Mustafa Sha from the School of Oriental and African Studies, “If anything, the manuscript has consolidated traditional accounts of the Koran’s origins.”
And he could be right because the carbon-dating range of 568 A.D. to 645 A.D. does not necessarily contradict the claim that the first revelation of the Koran to Muhammad occurred in 610 A.D., because the manuscript could in fact have been produced after 610 A.D.
However, it is believed that the first Muslim community was founded in 622 A.D. and that Caliph Abu Bakr ordered the first compilation of the Suras into a formal authoritative text only after Muhammad died.
The text was completed in 650-653 A.D under Caliph Uthman. Thus, if the Birmingham Koran was produced on or before 645 A.D. it confirms that written portions of the Suras had existed earlier than official Islamic history acknowledges.
But more confounding is the radical claim by scholars that this particular manuscript could have existed during the prophet’s childhood or even before he was born.
The suggestion that parts of the Koran or even the entire Koran existed before the first revelation to Muhammad in 610 A.D. is new and startlingly radical.