Category: Sacred Book of Islam


by Juan Cole

July 28, 2015

The discovery of a couple pages [apparently actually 18] of a very old Qur’an (the Muslim scripture), probably from the 640s CE [“AD”], in a library in Britain, has provoked a good deal of press reporting. Muslim tradition holds that the scripture was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad between roughly 610 CE and his death in 632, during the era when Heraclius was the emperor of Byzantium and the Tang Dynasty ruled China. While this find at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham is important, the press seems unaware that a copy of the Qur’an that dates from the 640s and has about half of the entire book was discovered by a German team in Sanaa, Yemen two decades ago.

The oldest nearly complete Qur’ans in the world are just sitting there in the middle of Sanaa, and Birmingham is not the really big story here.

And Sanaa is being daily bombed from the air by Saudi Arabia, which has hit civilian buildings and a refugee camp and part of historic downtown Sanaa. I am petrified that it has hit the Manuscript Library where this precious book was held. (I am also petrified every time I hear about a strike that it has killed people– don’t get me wrong. But hey, I’m a historian of Islam so I worry about cultural destruction too).

Islam grew up in Western Arabia at a time when the capital of the old Roman empire had been moved east to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and when that eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire ruled much of the Middle East (what is now Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Syria). The rest, Iraq and Iran, was ruled by the Zoroastrian, Persian Sasanid Empire. Islam grew up about six centuries after the beginning of Christianity, but only about 300 years after it had been officially recognized as one of the legitimate religions of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine.

The Great Mosque of Sanaa, Yemen, was founded by a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. In 1965 as a result of rain damage, an ancient storage room was discovered in its west wing that had had no door. It was full of old leaves of the Qur’an. Muslims were reluctant to throw copies of the Qur’an away when they aged, and the room was used as a geniza or storage for codex books that were falling apart.

Yemen brought in a German team to reassemble whole copies of the Qur’an from the jumbled leaves. I visited the facility, part of the Sanaa Manuscript Library called the Dar al-Qur’an, in 1988. I was shown several hundred drawers, each representing a different copy of the Muslim scripture, with different dimensions and script and media (lambskin, papyrus, etc.) Each page was being matched to the specifications of one of the drawers. I was told by the German staff that they were sure that some of these copies of the Qur’an went back to at least the late 600s, i.e. the first half of the Umayyad period (661-750), though there was at that time no absolute proof. It was just that the block Kufi script and the papyrus medium suggested ancientness.

This was an exciting idea to me, since at that time a lot of skepticism had been raised by John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, and Patricia Crone about whether the Qur’an as a book was really assembled 610-632, or whether it evolved over a couple of centuries. There was nothing wrong in principle with their theory– it was just an application of Descartes’ method, of radical doubt. And at that time the history of the Qur’anic manuscript text as a discipline barely existed (it is still very undeveloped compared to e.g. biblical studies). These authors turn out to have been wrong, but this is how science progresses, by people making bold hypotheses and then seeing if they can be knocked down.

Some of the manuscripts in the Dar al-Qur’an were very old and weren’t showing significant variants from modern Qur’ans, showing that the text had not in fact changed after the late 600s.

What the German team did not know then was that one of the copies of the Qur’an they had found was a palimpsest. That is a manuscript that has been written over and so replaced with a later text. But nowadays ultraviolet photography can reveal the original manuscript underneath.

The original manuscript was the Qur’an, but it wasn’t in the order prescribed by the Caliph Uthman (r. 644-656). That Caliph had issued an official version of the Qur’an in manuscript and had it copied out and spread around. It arranged the chapters (surahs) in order of length, with the longest first. This way of doing it meant that the book was more or less arranged backward from a chronological point of view, since the earliest chapters tended to be shorter than later ones. Westerners trying to read the Qur’an should thus begin at the back and read forward, and should read it along with a good biography of the Prophet Muhammad for context (I’ve always liked Montgomery Watts’ “Muhammad Prophet and Statesman”).

So the palimpsest Qur’an was likely older than 650 CE when `Uthman’s official version was promulgated. Later on, radiocarbon dating showed a high likelihood that this book was at least as old as the 640s and so certainly the oldest Qur’an known to exist, going back to within a decade of the Prophet Muhammad’s death. By the way, although the order of the chapters is different from the later standard, the text itself doesn’t show significant variants from today’s Qur’an. It shows that the religion of Islam has a firm grounding in history.

The earliest fragment of the New Testament in manuscript is from 125 CE and full manuscripts are later. So we now have (most of) a Qur’an that is within a decade or two of the death of the Muslim prophet, something that cannot be said for Christianity. I suspect we’ll eventually find very old New Testaments, too. I’m just underlining the historical importance of the Yemen find.

The discovery has been analyzed and published by Behnam Sadeghi of Stanford and Mohsen Goudarzi, though apparently a Yemen MA thesis found about 40 pages of which they were unaware.

I can’t understand why the palimpsest Qur’an isn’t more famous or the work of Sadeghi and Goudarzi not better known. Even in Middle East studies circles, whenever I have brought the Yemen finds up with colleagues, they often seem surprised and hadn’t known about them. And, the flurry of reporting about the Birmingham 2 pages also seems not to know about the Yemeni texts.

Let’s hope the fruitless war in Yemen (you can’t defeat a guerrilla movement with aerial bombardment) ends as soon as possible, and that civilians can stop being endangered, and Yemen’s vast cultural treasures can be safeguarded from further destruction. Since Bush went into Iraq in 2003, Middle Eastern history is disappearing, in what I call Cliocide, even as the security and lives of people are being lost. People need history and identity and it is a crime to rob them of it. The Saudis take pride in being the guardians of the two holy shrines, Mecca and Medina. They should be guardians of the Qur’an, too, and stop hitting Sanaa.

Source: Muslim Village.

Link: http://muslimvillage.com/2015/07/28/111820/oldest-qurans-actually-yemen-danger-bombing/.

July 22, 2015

LONDON (AP) — A British university disclosed Wednesday that scientific tests prove a Quran manuscript in its collection is one of the oldest known and may have been written close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

The announcement by the University of Birmingham thrilled Muslim scholars and the local community, which boasts one of the country’s largest Muslim populations. The find came after questions raised by a doctoral student prompted radiocarbon testing that dated the parchment to the time of the prophet, who is generally believed to have lived between 570 and 632.

“This manuscript could well have been written just after he died,” David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham said of the fragment written in ink on goat or sheepskin.

“Parts of the Quran that are contained in those fragments are very similar indeed to the Quran as we have it today. This tends to support the view that the Quran that we now have is more or less very close indeed to the Quran as it was brought together in the early years of Islam.”

Muslim tradition says the prophet received the revelations of the Quran between 610 and 632 — but it wasn’t written down immediately. The first leader of the community after Muhammad’s death, Caliph Abu Bakr, ordered the book to be written and it was completed by the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in 650.

Thomas said the tests conducted by Oxford University suggest the animal from which the parchment was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterward. The two parchment leaves contains parts of suras, or chapters, 18 to 20. The manuscript is written with ink in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi.

The manuscript has long been part of the university’s Cadbury Research Library. But it had been bound improperly and was attached to the leaves of a manuscript with a similar script that is not as old. The library houses approximately 200,000 pre-1850 books dating from 1471 and around 4 million manuscripts.

The carbon dating was undertaken after an Italian doctoral research student, Alba Fedeli of Milan, noticed the difference in the writing. She also found discrepancies in the documentation that made her question whether the works were the same.

She said the development was just as wonderful as the rest of her work, trying to downplay the attention that followed her discovery. “Every time I have a chance to see an original manuscript, I feel I have a beautiful opportunity,” Fedeli said. “I was very happy to add a further element.”

Birmingham is a center of Islam in Britain, with about 20 percent of the city describing themselves as adherents of the faith. The planned display for the manuscript in October could prove a boon to the local economy, with adherents already expressing an interest in traveling to the city to see a piece of history.

Muhammad Ali, the administrator at Birmingham Central Mosque, described his emotion at being among only a handful of people invited to view the manuscript three weeks ago after its importance was recognized.

“There were tears in my eyes,” he said, recalling his thrill at seeing something from the time of the prophet. “It is very much unique. This is something from his life.”

01 January 2015 Thursday

The United Islamic Assembly organised a Quran recital at the Cekrekci Muslihudin Mosque and great interest was shown by the Sarajevo Muslim community.

The mosque muezzin Bilal Efendic said that each year a Quran recital night was organised for the last night of the year and that the youth came together at the mosque in celebration of this. Efendic said that during the event 30 youths who are hafiz – those who have committed the entire Quran to memory – read from the Quran until late night. Many hymns were also sung as part of the event.

Organised each year, the program opened with a ceremony at the Bascarsi Mosque. Mevlud programs, where hymns and poetry are recited in honor of the Prophet Muhammad, book launches and Islamic song concerts are also part of the program, which will continue until the 23rd January.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/news/152050/bosnian-muslims-in-sarejevo-enter-2015-with-quran-recitals.

Friday 21 June 2013

Dubai has added a new item to its top ambitions such as building the world’s largest Ferris wheel and bidding for an Angry Birds theme park — a site honoring the Holy Qur’an.

The estimated $7.3 million project will include a garden with plants mentioned in the holy book and an air-conditioned tunnel depicting events from the Qur’an.

The park should be ready in September 2014, reports said. It will be in Al-Khawaneej and, according to Dubai Municipality, it has been specially designed in the Islamic perspective to introduce the miracles of Qur’an through a variety of surprises for the visitors.

The park will include all available plants mentioned in the Qur’an, along with facilities such as main entrance, administration building, Islamic garden, play areas, Umrah corner, outside theater, areas for miracles of the Qur’an, fountains, bathrooms, desert garden and palm oasis. It will also have a lake, running track, cycling track and sandy walking track.

Source: Arab News.

Link: http://www.arabnews.com/news/455714.