Interesting old Koran


It turns out that carbon dating methods used on fragments of an old copy of the Koran puts its date as possibly before the time of prophet Mohammed.

Carbon dating of a fragment from a Koran stored at a Birmingham library suggests that the book was produced between 568 and 645 A.D., said scientists at the University of Oxford, but Islamic scholars generally believe Muhammad lived between 570 and 632 A.D.

If the carbon dating is accurate, the Koran was made before the first formal text was assembled on orders from the caliph Uthman in 653 — and it could date from Muhammad’s childhood or even before his birth, reported The Times of London.

That’s comparable to the discovery of gospel sayings dating from Jesus Christ’s infancy, academics say.

The devout believe that Mohammed received the Koran directly from his god by divine revelation between the years 610 and 632 AD, and thus that the book is a direct transcription of god’s words.

Keith Small, of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, cautioned that carbon dating was done only on the Koran’s parchment and not its ink, but he said the dates were probably accurate.

“If the dates apply to the parchment and the ink, and the dates across the entire range apply, then the Koran — or at least portions of it — predates Mohammed, and moves back the years that an Arabic literary culture is in place well into the 500s,” he said.

Small said that would lend credibility to the historical view that Muhammad and his followers collected text that was already in circulation to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than receiving revelations from heaven.

This result has a good news/bad news quality for believers. If the actual date is close to the earlier boundary of 568 AD and thus before Mohammed’s birth, then it means that the Koran, like all these ancient holy books, have murky histories and are based on bits and pieces of folklore originating at various times that were later collected into a text, and could not have been a direct revelation by god to Mohammed.

If it is close to the later date of 645AD, then believers can imagine that the writer may have got it from Mohammed himself. Islamic religious scholars are naturally dismissing the former since it contradicts their foundational beliefs.

Comments

  1. says

    That lines up fairly neatly with Tom Holland’s thesis that islam is assembled from pieces, not from a single source – like all the other religions. Textual criticism of the koran is dangerous, so few scholars engage in it, but if I recall correctly it contains huge pieces lifted from jewish and other prechristian sources, overlapping with the bible a fair bit.

    Holland’s book is worth a read; it oughtn’t be as controversial as it is and he’s gotten the obligatory death threats from one direction and dismissals from the other.

    Like jesus and buddha, mohammed managed to leave surprisingly little mark on actual history considering his godlike feats. It’s almost as if he was a sock puppet or something. 🙂 I find it amusing as hell that people can look at mormonism and recognize Smith as a charlatan but can’t recognize the promoters of these other god sock puppets as being the same, only with the advantage of their warts having been obscured by time and distance.

  2. tbrandt says

    I’m confused. The age range (2 sigma?) given comfortably overlaps Muhammad’s life. If we hypothesize that Muhammad came up with Islam, then there is no problem with a book existing towards the end of his life (comfortably within the stated range). It does seem to be bad news for the story about the caliph Uthman, but still, 653 isn’t very far from the favored range of dates. This is very interesting but I’d like to see stronger evidence against the standard story.

    Another way to put this. Suppose that a large printing of Korans took place in 670. By chance, you would expect a few dates to skew old and a few to skew young. Nobody would pay attention to the young dates, so you have a newsworthiness bias towards the apparently oldest book.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    Meh.
    If I scour the internet and assemble a collection of quotes that “disprove” climate change, or if I claim on my own that a snowball in D.C. in February “disproves” climate change, what’s the difference? I’d still be a bullshitter in either case.

  4. doublereed says

    “If carbon dating is accurate”? Really? Really?

    Couldn’t they just be wrong about Muhammad’s age? I guess I don’t know how good the evidence is there.

  5. Mobius says

    One blog I read on this points out that Islamic tradition says that the first written Koran was not penned until 650, which comes after the dates given for the text.

  6. machintelligence says

    tbrandt @ 7
    Sadly that date is centuries before the invention of the printing press. Doubtless there were quite a few handwritten copies being made, but the production rate must have been small, given the small population and exceedingly low literacy rate.
    I wonder if there have been any studies comparing the earliest versions of the Koran looking for transcription errors.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    What would it take to test the ink? Would the lab require enough of it to significantly damage the manuscript?

    Reportedly, a trove of old Quran documents was located a decade or two ago which would shed a lot of light on early Islamic history – but the government and imams of that jurisdiction agreed to stash them away to avoid controversy. Now scholars can do nothing but wait and pray that these priceless papers don’t get incinerated by local fanatics or US-made weaponry, as the find was made, and retained, in sunny Yemen.

  8. StevoR says

    @ ^ Pierce R. Butler : Sunny, war torn, famine stricken, hellish Yemen?

    http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2015/s4297921.htm

    UN: Famine looms in Yemen, people running out of food, fuel, and living in sewers by Mandie Sami on Friday, August 21, 2015.

    Yeah, that’s a worry especially given how much of their past history – even really uncontroversial ancient history – Islamist extremists are destroying eg Palmyra.

    Thing about Mohammad is that his (?) own holy book and its associated hadiths make him seem a monster at least to objective non-Muslims.

    NB. I do appreciate that Muslims are often good, nice people and they axiomatically have the right to live their lives in peace and follow their beliefs as they choose but some of the things in their religion generally and their horrific prophet in particular … *shudder* .. and that’s without any new discoveries just what their own koran and statements say about him.

    @ 1. Marcus Ranum : I’m surprised to read you think that. I thought you were more of a fan of Mohammad’s from past comments?

  9. StevoR says

    Incidentally, and far from a really significant or major point I know, but it galls me as someone interested in astronomy that we’re denied the chance to examine and analyse a potentially really interesting meteorite sample because it happens to be the holy black rock inside the Kaabah at Mecca. I wonder if it’s actually a piece of the asteroid Kalliope as I gather Carl Sagan once suggested?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/22_Kalliope

    ‘Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science’ Carl Sagan 1979. (I think?)

  10. says

    I’m surprised to read you think that. I thought you were more of a fan of Mohammad’s from past comments?

    I’m amazed you’d think that. But perhaps you’re stupid.

    I encourage you to repudiate, adjust, or justify your beliefs.

  11. says

    t it galls me as someone interested in astronomy that we’re denied the chance to examine and analyse a potentially really interesting meteorite sample because it happens to be the holy black rock inside the Kaabah at Mecca

    File it under “so what?”
    If it’s a metorite, so what?
    If it’s not then it’s just some other rock, “who what?”

    The only thing that would be interesting would be if there was any indication that it was famous for anything other than being famous. It is the kardashian of rocks.

  12. Steve Morrison says

    I saw an interesting comment on this story at Soylent News by someone who had contacted one of the researchers, David Thomas. He said, among other things, that there were no signs of underwriting, so this is not a palimpsest; however, they do not intend to date the ink, since that would involve an unacceptable amount of destruction to the manuscript. The whole comment is worth reading.

  13. Nick Gotts says

    Holland’s book is worth a read; it oughtn’t be as controversial as it is and he’s gotten the obligatory death threats from one direction and dismissals from the other. – Marcus Ranum@1

    I agree – although it’s sometimes misrepresented as arguing that Mohammad didn’t exist, which it doesn’t: rather, that he probably came from the “Fertile Crescent”, not from Mecca, and that Islam did not solidify as a distinct religion until decades after his death. As for the Birmingham Koran, it isn’t one: it’s a fragment of one. In fact 2 leaves that belong with a larger fragment of 16 leaves kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. Since Uthman is supposed to have produced a “definitive” version of the Koran, not the first version, and given that the parchment may predate the writing and that the dates reported are the 95% confidence interval, it doesn’t really conflict with the Muslim tradition – at least, there are plenty of “outs” for believers in the tradition.

    it galls me as someone interested in astronomy that we’re denied the chance to examine and analyse a potentially really interesting meteorite sample because it happens to be the holy black rock inside the Kaabah at Mecca – StevoR@10

    Yeah, yeah. Somehow, I think it would gall you a lot less if the black stone was a Buddhist holy relic that was not allowed to be examined.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    The stone in Kaba may be impactite, a porous agglomerate of molten sand and molten material from the meteorite. When it was stolen by fanatics some centuries ago, it was reported that fragments of it floated in water, which supports the impactite hypothesis.
    — — —
    There were lots of holy writings floating around in syriac, greek, aramaic and arabic languages during the period. It would have been interesting if the Yazidians with their peacock had come out on top of the heap 🙂

  15. StevoR says

    @ ^ birgerjohansson : Interesting – could well be. Wish we could find out.

    @12. Marcus Ranum :

    File it under “so what?”
    If it’s a metorite, so what?
    If it’s not then it’s just some other rock, “who what?”
    The only thing that would be interesting would be if there was any indication that it was famous for anything other than being famous. It is the kardashian of rocks.

    Nice to see your sense of scientific curiosity and wonder here – oh wait!

    So what? So we could learn some actual facts and add to the world’s understanding of meteoritics. Who knows what we could learn from it given the chance, that’s the whole point really, we won’t know if we don’t get to look. Serendipity perhaps means something to you? Or, then again, perhaps not. We’ll most likely not find out in our lifetimes or many more years; perhaps never. Needlessly because we are privileging religious superstition over seeking scientific knowledge. Hell, they could let scientists look at it do a few basic non or minimally destructive tests then hand it back pretty much good as new. Win : win. But that no doubt won’t happen.

    @Nick Gotts : ” Somehow, I think it would gall you a lot less if the black stone was a Buddhist holy relic that was not allowed to be examined.”

    Bzzt! Wrong again, unsuprisingly Nick Gotts.

    Incidentally, Buddhism has a rather rare respect for science (& evidence) as far as religions generally go :

    “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

    Source : The Dalai Lama XIV, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/27043-if-scientific-analysis-were-conclusively-to-demonstrate-certain-claims-in

    Buddhism is also alot more of a philosophy than a supernatural religuion at leats in several prominent variants of Buddhism and, Rohingas rule-proving exception aside, is famously pacifistic and non-violent. These things make me kinda like Buddhism a lot more than the Abrahamic religions speaking personally.

  16. says

    Nice to see your sense of scientific curiosity and wonder here – oh wait!

    Bizzare. Oh, wait, let me guess – that was the only thing you could think of to say about my comment so you reached down and attempted to snark about it?

    Your stupidity aside, I think my “so what?” suggestion was perfectly reasonable. There are lots and lots and lots of metorites of all varieties available for examination. Knowing that it was a metorite might tell scientists, uh, what, that Earth has meteorites hit it? That ignorant people get excited about things they don’t understand? So it wasn’t that I lack scientific curiosity – it’s simply that I see no reason to antagonize someone over something that’s culturally important to them, just for shits and giggles as you apparently do.

  17. says

    Buddhism is also alot more of a philosophy

    It’s not a philosophy at all; it’s a bunch of dictums asserted based on authority, leavened with a few observations of the human condition, most of which are obvious. That’s not “philosophy” except in the loosest sense of “confuses stupid people by sounding profound.” The core of buddhism is supernaturalist (it’s a reinterpretation of dharma and samsara, that’s all) and like the ancient Indian religions it was evolved from, it’s just another religion.

    That you like it more or less than the abrahamic religions doesn’t make it any more or less bullshit.

  18. StevoR says

    @ ^ Marcus Ranum : So for you Islam is “culturally important” but Buddhism is “bullshit” eh? Huh. Odd and inconsistent there don’t you think? Why the hots for Islam and the hate for Buddhists from you here?

    There are lots and lots and lots of metorites of all varieties available for examination. Knowing that it was a metorite might tell scientists, uh, what, that Earth has meteorites hit it?

    Or that this particular meteorite is special and different in some way or enable it to date an impact crater or relate to apparent asteroidal body teaching us about solar system history or maybe it has possible clearer actual microfossils like those thought to be present in the Allan Hills martian meteorite ALH 84001 (see eponymous wikipage) or .. ? Well, heaps of other things that we’ll only know for sure if we, y’know, get the chance to examine it and see!

    Even if the Kaabah rock isn’t special it holds information which adds to our collective statistical understandings of meteoritics which helps expand our knowledge. It is a possible data point and these add up to an ever richer, fuller broader understanding if we can gather them.

    As someone on an atheist blog I’;d have imagined you’d already know and appreciate this and have a sense of more curiosity and wonder and less respect for superstition and religious doctrine.

    That ignorant people get excited about things they don’t understand?

    Whilst intelligent educated people get excited by things they do understand and appreciate and accept every chance to learn and understand more that they get. Does humanity as a whole gain more from Muslims walking around and revering a rock or geologists and astrochemists and meteoriticists studying that rock and adding to scientific understanding of it and the types of object it represents?

    Wouldn’t Muslims still be able to enjoy their rituals even if their Kaabah stone was studied, analysed then returned to its Islamic shrine with little if any damage to it done?

    Doesn’t the whole Mecca worship thing seem rather silly from an objective logical perspective to you anyhow just as Christian or Hindu etc .. beliefs for instance are?

    So it wasn’t that I lack scientific curiosity …

    Huh, ya coulda fooled me there! 😉

    … it’s simply that I see no reason to antagonize someone over something that’s culturally important to them, just for shits and giggles as you apparently do.

    Not just for “shits and giggles” as noted. For scientific understanding which is worth a lot more than just pranking Muslims. Not that it would hurt more Muslims to learn to take a few good jokes at their expense – a practice some Muslim comedians are already doing and which more Muslims would benefit from seeing as a reasonable thing. Maybe then we’d all have more laughter, more tolerance and more living cartoonists and comics.

    (Funny how you seem to be aligning with those who see mocking and blaspheming against powerful intolerant religions and religious extremist fanatics as a bad thing, Marcus Ranum.)

    Also :

    Buddhist schools vary on the exact nature of the path to liberation, the importance and canonicity of various teachings and scriptures, and especially their respective practices.[9][10] One consistent belief held by all Buddhist schools is the lack of a creator deity. The foundations of Buddhist tradition and practice are the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community)

    Source : Buddhism, wikipedia page. Emphasis added.

    But I guess you missed the whole point of the quote from the Dalai Lama in #17 so emphasis probably isn’t enough for you – maybe if you read my comments aloud three or five times you might eventually grok it?

    @ 18. Nick Gotts : Accurate though! Even if “worthless” in your prejudiced against me opinion. The lurkers and others here may differ in your assessment of their worth.

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