The discovery of a couple pages [apparently actually 18] of a very old Quran (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 Mohammad (PBUH) 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 Quran 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 Qurans 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.
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, 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 Mohammad (PBUH). 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 Quran. Muslims were reluctant to throw copies of the Quran away when they aged, and the room was used as a geniza or storage for codex books that were falling apart. The story of this discovery is given here.
Yemen brought in a German team to reassemble whole copies of the Quran from the jumbled leaves. The facility is part of the Sanaa Manuscript Library called the Dar al-Quran, in 1988. There are several hundred drawers, each representing a different copy of the Muslim scripture, with different dimensions and script and media (lambskin, papyrus, etc.) Each page is matched to the specifications of one of the drawers. The German staff told that they were sure that some of these copies of the Quran 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.
At that time a lot of skepticism had been raised by John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, and Patricia Crone about whether the Quran 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 Quranic 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-Quran were very old and weren’t showing significant variants from modern Qurans, 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 Quran 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 Quran, but it wasn’t in the order prescribed by the Caliph Uthman (r. 644-656). That Caliph had issued an official version of the Quran 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 Quran should thus begin at the back and read forward, and should read it along with a good biography of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) for context.
So the palimpsest Quran 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 Quran known to exist, going back to within a decade of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)’s demise. 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 Quran. 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 Quran that is within a decade or two of the death of the Muslim prophet.
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.
Let’s hope the fruitless Saudi war in Yemen 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 can be called a 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. They should be guardians of the Quran, and stop hitting and killing innocent people in Yemen.