A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, November 24, 2014

What May Be the Oldest-Known (Recently C-14 Dated) Portion of the Qur'an is Now Online

The opening page
Both the Early Islamic History field and elements in the Muslim world have recently been abuzz over the dating of what may be the earliest known fragment of the Qur'an. If the dating holds up it will be of enormous importance, and could undermine those Western revisionist historians who question much of the traditional narrative of the Islamic tradition and the dating of the Qur'an.  As the official press release from the University of Tübingen puts it:
A Koran fragment from the University of Tübingen Library has been dated to the 7th century - the earliest phase of Islam - making it at least a century older than previously thought. Expert analysis of three samples of the manuscript parchment concluded that it was more than 95 percent likely to have originated in the period 649-675 AD - 20 to 40 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Such scientific dating of early Koran manuscripts is rare.
The Tübingen fragment was tested by the Coranica project, a collaboration between the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Paris and the Berlin-Brandenburgischen Academy of the Sciences and Humanities, sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and France’s Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR). The project investigates the Koran in the context of its historical background using documents such as manuscripts and information derived from archaeological excavations.
A radiocarbon date of 649-675 AD would put the fragment in the Rashidun or early Umayyad period.  The report is justly getting press (here for example), and at least one (presumably Shi‘ite-leaning) website has sought to suggest it might be linked personally to Imam ‘Ali.

Previously the oldest surviving texts of the Qur'an were considered to be the so-called Sana‘a' texts dated to 645-690 AD, and a Samarkand manuscript attributed to the reign of ‘Uthman (Caliph AD 644-656) but not carbon dated. the calligraphy in both cases suggests a later date.

This suggests one caution not raised in the initial reports of this case. I'm not trying to dampen the enthusiasm here as I do consider this an extraordinary discovery (the text has long been known: the news is the radiocarbon date), but popular accounts citing radiocarbon dates are often misleading (the same is true of DNA evidence, but that's a rant for another time), since most reporters in the history/archaeology field have only a superficial understanding of the science.

Carbon-14, the basis of radiocarbon dating, stops accumulating when the organic material in which it is found dies. Wood from an ancient house will not tell you when the house was actually built; it will tell you when the trees from which the wood came were chopped down. Similarly, the parchment on which this Qur'an was written will not date to the moment of writing, but to the death of the sheep or other animal whose skin was made into parchment. It's not unreasonable to assume that a venerated work like the Qur'an would be written on relatively fresh parchment, but it's still only an assumption.

Neither the Tübingen press release nor the secondary accounts comment on whether the calligraphy is consistent with such an early date, though I suspect that the shortage of other early, carbon-dated manuscripts makes that hard to verify. The script is early Kufic, without vowel points and in many cases with letters unconnected; I'm not trained in such early calligraphy or epigraphy but it's very early. Despite my words of caution  above, this is an exciting carbon date. (Not a new discovery, as the MS has been known but just undated.)

The Tübingen Coranica Project has a website here.

The surviving portions contain text from Suras 17:37 to 3657. Because the MS has been part of the collection but not previously dated, a digital version is online. You can find the index page here;  each link takes you to the first page off several; if you don't read German,  click on "Vollansicht" (full view) to see the section.

I've actually had to try to read unpointed Kufic MSS. many years ago, but unless you do this everyday I'd recommend having a modern Qur'an with vowel points in hand.

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