Quick notes on the “pre-Muhammadan Qur’an”

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Quick notes on the “pre-Muhammadan Qur’an”

Category : Media

By Sohaib Saeed

How did a story that apparently confirmed the antiquity of the Qur’an as we know it, and the broad accuracy of Muslim traditional accounts, turn into weird headlines claiming that the Qur’an might “predate Muhammad” and that the new discoveries may necessitate a complete rethinking of Islamic history?

Nothing new actually happened since the University of Birmingham’s announcement of the early date arising from their radiocarbon testing of the parchments. There were news stories circulating then (with some jubilation from Muslims), and then there were later articles in which revisionist academics presented an alternative sceptical theory which could make use of this radiocarbon date range – rather than being made utterly untenable thereby.

The best response I have seen so far to these revised revisionist theories is by Dr. Jonathan Brown: How Should Rationalists Deal with Dogmatism? Dr. Brown is by now a renowned scholar in the field of Hadith studies, and has done a great service to the public by clarifying this issue.

The following are some additional factors to bear in mind, which may serve as an introduction or postscript to that article.

1. The nature of academia, in which alternative theories are hypothesised, examined and debated. Yes, there are agendas and biases, but we ought not to be too dramatic about this.

2. The danger of uninformed opinions and pseudo-expertise, whether that is coming from the historians who speak to the media in matters outside their speciality; or Muslim scholars who are learned in some things but don’t follow these fields and contemporary debates on palaeography or radiocarbon science, etc.; or from the hordes of people on social media who simply must express an opinion, and right away!

3. The role of the media in distorting things, even the views of some of the academics quoted. They have their own agenda, and sensationalism is the air they breathe. We must learn to read and think critically, and to identify the real story as well as the gaps which have been filled irresponsibly.

4. Muslims should avoid hasty judgements. The reality of this particular folio in Birmingham is something which we simply don’t know yet, and can’t be sure we will ever know. Science provides fantastic opportunities to find out, but science is built upon certain assumptions and does not provide the certainty that time travel might! Our human techniques are a work in progress. By traditional Islamic accounts and methods of analysis, this copy from the Qur’an appears to be of a slightly later date than the radiocarbon dating suggests. One or the other set of theories may need to be revised. These are all questions that are raised in the context of scholarship, and are not troubling to those who can distinguish the core issues from peripheral ones.

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