Sep 15

Unpacking History

One story at a time.

I previously mentioned this a precursor to this story here about what is supposed to be the "world's oldest Quran." In that post I talked about the origins and difficulty of choosing and authenticating scriptures. Let's now take a look at the difficulty of dating texts.

This article reports that the text in Birmingham (UK)dates between 568 and 645 CE(AD)while Mohammad himself lived about the same time. This leads to the statement: "Islamic scholars believe Muhammad lived between 570 and 632AD, meaning the text was compiled either before the Prophet’s birth or during his childhood."


Here are my problems with the claim that this text predates the Quran and that it means something radical for Islam.

1. Carbon dating is not particularly reliable as a sole means of dating. Only the parchment itself was tested, not the ink. However, lots of things can contaminate a carbon sample such as oils from handling even if that handling took place centuries ago, dust from storage, ancient book marks, and easily made errors.

2. Even Islamic tradition mentioned in the article states that the Quran was finalized in 650 from previously circulated materials. If the text does date from the life time of Mohammad, there is no reason to assume that it was written in the first half of the given time frame. The statement that it had to predate Mohammad or have been written in his early childhood only follows if the text was not written in the second half of the window. It could easily be an early version that was written by the followers of Mohammad during his life time.

3. Even if it was written before Mohammad was old enough to have shaped it, that is not surprising. Many of the stories of the Quran have versions in a well known book called the Torah, or the Books of Moses, of the first five books of the Old Testament. The preexistence of these traditions is not in question by even the most conservative Islamic scholars.

4. The idea that Mohammad may have built on a frame work of tradition that already existed, but was not very old during his life time, is fascinating; but is by no means proven by a single text.

We need far more information to make even the beginnings of a hypothesis. We need things like:
-carbon testing on the ink, verified in double blind studies from at least 3 labs.
-linguistic and textual analysis to compare the writings to others within 100 years of the time frame given either direction. Does it use words not in use in Mohammad's time? Does it use scripts that would be odd in his era? Is the wording for particular things similar to the descriptions of those things in other documents we can date?
- release of the full scanned text to be peer reviewed and the person making these claims needs to back away from the discussion until further study can be done.

Remember, anything to do with Religion gets attention, especially hints that the official story might be wrong. Attention, in the academic world among others, means money.
Always, always, be suspect of religious claims.

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