Collective Enthusiasm and the Cautious Scholar: The Birmingham Qur’ān

The Case of the Discovery of the “Birmingham Qur’ān”

In July 2015, the BBC released the news about the “‘Oldest’ Koran fragments found in Birmingham University.” Immediately, the headline was received in an unprecedented way – with 150 million views. The news regarded the recent results of the radiocarbon analysis of a tiny piece of an animal skin used to produce two parchment leaves on which a scribe wrote down a small portion of the Qur’ānic text, now held in Birmingham. The results of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit placed the death of the animal used for manufacturing this writing surface somewhere in a span of time between 568 and 645 CE with a 95.4% probability.

In reading and listening to the news about “‘Oldest’ Koran fragments found in Birmingham University,” two elements of this headline shaped the perception of the episode in viewers’ minds while they were grasping the meaning of the entire article and video. First, the use of the superlative ‘oldest’ placed in single quotes was taken as the key point of, and the reason for the exceptionality of, the announcement. The second element was indeed the choice of the word ‘found’ which gave room for the stereotype of the fascinating discovery of a hidden object that, according to the public imagination, remained hidden away on the dusty shelves of a library. These two points, intertwined, generated the unprecedented reactions to the discovery of the oldest Qur’ānic manuscript dating from a few years after the death of the prophet Muhammad and the origins of Islamic faith. It was a monumental event.

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Indeed, the Birmingham Qur’ānic manuscript is old – one of the oldest to our knowledge – representing a precious detail of a larger corpus of early Qur’ānic manuscripts. Nevertheless, it is incorrect to present any of the known Qur’ānic manuscripts as holding the record as the oldest. If the reader compares the message of the BBC headline with the actual content of the scholarly article itself, the contrast will be evident between the enthusiasm in the former and the cautiousness of the statements about the dating from various scholars mentioned in the latter. Scholars referred to the antiquity of the Birmingham fragment as one of the oldest Qur’ānic manuscripts, namely as “among the earliest in existence”; “one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the world”; “so old”; “one of the oldest fragments of the Koran in the whole world”; “among the very oldest surviving texts of the Koran”; “[the manuscript] becomes one of the oldest known fragments of the Koran”; “this makes it impossible to say that any is definitively the oldest”; and “among the very oldest”. Thus, one of the oldest Qur’ānic fragments as part of a corpus of early witnesses became the oldest (and most famous) Qur’ān manuscript, possibly part of the oldest complete copy of the sacred text.

As regards the Qur’ānic leaves, they were also represented as hidden in another book, whereas they were simply bound together with another seven leaves once belonging to a different manuscript. Scholars of the field knew the whole set of leaves – as a single artefact – since their catalogue entry that was realized in 1948-63 and more widely since their online presence in the Virtual Manuscript Room (VMR) launched in 2009. Gerd R. Puin listed the nine leaves in an article published online in 2009 and printed in 2011, referring to the manuscript from the Mingana Collection in Birmingham and available online. Thanks to the reference in Puin’s article and his generosity in giving me further details, I worked on the digital images of the manuscript and, later, on the original object in Birmingham. Thus, I retraced the different stories and further matched fragments of the two groups of leaves, namely the two leaves that later became famous because of the BBC and the less notorious seven leaves. Both groups of leaves came from the deposit of the Old Mosque south of Cairo and arrived in Birmingham through an antiquarian dealer from Leiden in the 1930s. In the archives of the University of Birmingham holding the Mingana correspondence, I found the original receipt for the purchase of the seven less famous leaves and it is likely that the two-leaf fragment came through the same antiquarian dealer. The two fragments were part of larger manuscripts now scattered in several institutions in Paris (for the two leaves) and Doha and St. Petersburg (for the seven leaves).

The story I was able to retrace is indeed fascinating, but how did it happen that two leaves available online since 2009 were discovered in 2015? If the reader takes a look at the University of Birmingham website’s page about the launch of the VMR and the later announcement about the results of the radiocarbon analyses, the same manuscript is presented in a very similar way. Thus, in the news posted on 8 July 2009, we read “The two Qur’ans, one of which may date from the 7th century A.D., are part of the priceless Mingana Collection, which is housed by the University of Birmingham” and “the Qur’ans are astonishing: one (number 1572) may date from within a century of the death of the prophet Mohammed.  This would make it one of the oldest copies of the Qur’an in existence”. The more recent news posted on the BBC website on 22 July 2015 says that “radiocarbon dating found the manuscript to be at least 1,370 years old, making it among the earliest in existence,” and the dating is placed in relation with the prophet Muhammad, i.e. “back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam”. But the BBC’s greater power to reach a worldwide audience, along with the more limited diffusion of the 2009 announcement, cannot explain the reasons for the frenzy and public enthusiasm for the discovery of the oldest Qur’ānic manuscript in 2015.

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In my experience with manuscripts, I would rather attribute the word discovery to different circumstances. Thus, for example, discoveries include the mass of manuscripts found in the false ceiling of the Great Mosque of Sana’a in the 1970s or behind the false wall in the same mosque in 2007, as well as manuscripts that have been lost, like the Cambridge palimpsest, or Qur’ānic manuscripts that were previously catalogued as unknown, like the Mingana palimpsest. Birmingham is a particular case of a rediscovery presented as a discovery, because the radiocarbon analysis gave a “new dating.” The new dating is in disagreement with that mentioned in the 1948-63 catalogue (i.e. from the 8th to 9th century according to mainstream studies at the beginning of the last century), whereas experts were aware of the fact that it was part of the corpus of early manuscripts from the 7th century (e.g. Gerd R. Puin in 2009). The newness of the results was transferred to the object itself, which became a ‘new manuscript, found in Birmingham.’ The discovery generated the need to fulfil the stereotyped requirements of a discoverer who had to be unaware of the importance of the discovered object and found it by chance. These stereotyped elements merged with the results of the opposite dynamics of collective enthusiasm for a monumental discovery and the scholarly cautiousness and modesty about the (re)discovery.

Thus, “Alba Fedeli, who had been studying the Mingana collection stumbled upon the two leaves,” and more interestingly, in the Huffington Post

A Ph.D. student who stumbled upon several ancient pieces of paper hidden in another book may have inadvertently discovered pages from the world’s oldest Quran, researchers at the University of Birmingham in England announced Wednesday.

The Guardian reports my interview on 2 October 2015, commenting

Fedeli is modestly dismissive of the scale of her discovery. It was obvious, she said, that the beautiful script was seventh century.

To remain cautious and aware – the common scientific approach to the study of these early manuscripts  – is presented as a lack of awareness concerning the import of a discovery that happened by chance. The interviews I gave, and my insistence that I was the scholar who merely studied and “rediscovered” the manuscript, had no effect on the collective enthusiasm for such a discovery, and the media perceived this scholarly intellectual honesty as cautiousness and in a few cases as modesty.

Scientific certitude as opposed to historical hypotheses has played a central role in this case. Scholars’ cautiousness in presenting their hypotheses about the possible dating of the Birmingham manuscript mainly based on paleographical features contrasts with the reliability that scientific analyses offer. Thus, paleography gives a hypothesis, while radiocarbon analyses produce results that the common public seem to accept with greater confidence. Irrefutable and incontrovertible scientific results meet the expectations of the collective enthusiasm much better than hypotheses by historians.

Moreover, the translation of the BBC announcement for the Arabic version of the BBC website exemplifies the two dynamics (i.e. the collective and scholarly approach) trending in opposite directions and generating later distortions in the reception both by scholars and by the public. In the initial announcement, David Thomas referred to the hypothetical historical vivid context of the production of the manuscript, saying that

the person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with.

These statements are clearly a hypothesis about the possible context, whereas on the Arabic version of the BBC, the same statements were presented as a certainty. According to the BBC Arabic, David Thomas said that “there is no doubt that he [the person who wrote the leaves] knew the Prophet”. All the people reading the announcement in Arabic received the possible historical placement as a certain chronology: the manuscript was written during the lifetime of Muhammad and “there is no doubt” replaced the more cautious – although quite strong – “could well have known”. The same certitude characterized the acceptance of the radiocarbon analyses results.

Nevertheless, the case of the Birmingham Qur’ān showed that the media were successful in disseminating knowledge about this specific fragment and more generally the existence of a larger corpus of Qur’ānic manuscripts written in ḥijāzī script. In fact, the term (referring to a particular script slanting to the right, and generally confined in usage to the sphere of very few experts) became a recurrent word in newspapers, blogs and media. The argument of the importance of the early ḥijāzī manuscripts became known to a wider public.

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The Birmingham case is not a story of a discovery, but the manuscript’s ‘rediscovery’ generated reactions and discussions about crucial matters such the state of the text as it was transmitted at the beginning of Islam and, consequently, the beginning itself, which means questioning or confirming the authenticity of the traditional accounts. The two leaves have challenged the understanding of the origins of the Islamic faith, although sometimes the results of their radiocarbon analysis have been used not to challenge our understanding, but to confirm our (previous) understanding. Thus, both revisionists and traditionalists (scholars) have incorrectly picked out the first or the last year in the span of time given by the laboratory, i.e. 568 or 645 C.E. The traditional account described the Qur’ānic text as a revelation to Muhammad from around 610 to his death in 632, written down some years after the death of Muhammad and established as a stable text under ‘Uthmān around 650 CE. Therefore, the year 568 has been used – in a very sensationalist way – to confirm in outlets like the Huffington Post and in the Times Literary Supplement that the Qur’ānic text was not produced by Muslims at all, but rather was early product of late ancient Christianity, before even the Prophet received the revelation. The other end of the time span, i.e. the year 645, has been used to disprove the theories of those revisionists who placed the Qur’ānic text as a later product of the 8th or 9th century, thus confirming and claiming the correctness and reliability of traditional accounts. Similarly to manuscripts that were written and then cancelled for writing a new text, this is the palimpsest of history, written and then recycled to tell another story, as mentioned by Aaron W. Hughes in a previous article for Marginalia. The palimpsestic reading is evident in the Huffington Post, with its dramatic headlines for two articles written by the same journalist:

Birmingham University Quran Could Be The World’s Oldest – Dates From Time Of The Prophet Muhammad” on July 22, 2015 and “Fragments Of Ancient Quran Could Be Older Than Muhammad” on September 2, 2015.

Despite the sensationalism and confusion created, the ‘Birmingham Qur’ān’ challenges our knowledge where it is considered as a part of the larger group of early Qur’ānic manuscripts, contrary to the media frenzy that presented it as an isolated object without connections with similar and contemporary artefacts. However, the two leaves cannot hold – alone – all the answers to the questions about the state of the text at the beginning of Islam. Thus, the features of the script and page layout as well as the execution of the copying reveal the great mastery of the scribe who wrote down the text and possibly copied it from a written exemplar. This invites us to explore all of the early Qur’ānic manuscripts to detect those signs that can tell the story of their production. Scholars know very little about these fragments, their place of production, time, travels, use and reuse, corrections. Two numbers, i.e. 568-645, don’t tell us a lot. Only the analysis of all of the manuscripts of the corpus – of which the ‘Birmingham Qur’ān’ forms a tiny piece – and of their connections will tell us part of the story. The use of phylogenetic software in understanding the connections between manuscripts, i.e. phylomemetics, makes the research even more fascinating. This is the challenge for cautious scholars and the preliminary results of my research applying phylogenetic analysis support further developments in this direction.

Dr. Alba Fedeli is a Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham.

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