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Episode 75: The Birmingham Qurn

Posted on November 4, 2015 by Christopher Rose
Host: Samantha Rose Rubino, Doctoral Student, Department of History
Guest: Christopher Rose, Assistant Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
In the summer of 2015, an obscure Qurn manuscript hidden in the far reaches of
the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham grabbed attention
worldwide when carbon dating revealed that the book was one of the oldest
Qurns known to exist. In fact, it might have been written during the lifetime of the
Prophet Muammad or might it even have been written before Muammads
Guest Christopher Rose (yes, our regular co-host) has been following the headlines
and puts the discovery of the Birmingham Qurn within the larger field of Islamic
and Qurnic Studies, and explains how the text might raise as many questions as it


Download Podcast (mp3right click to save)


Today we are going to be talking about a hot news topic, the Birmingham Qurn. Can you tell us a little
more about what it is?
The Birmingham Qurn, which is named because the formal title for that manuscript in question is manuscript Mingana
1572a in the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham in Englandwhich is why it has become
known as the Birmingham Qurn, its a little sexier title. Over the summer, it made headlines because it was carbon
dated to between 568 and 645 of the Christian era, which basically means it is among the oldest Qurn manuscripts
known to exist. Those dates roughly mirror the lifespan of the Prophet Muammad himself. So, this is really an
important find for a number of reasons.
Some people may also be familiar with the fact that there were a number of sensational headlines stating that the
Qurn maybe predated Muammad. I think thats a rather unlikely outcome and well talk about that a little later on.
But it definitely makes this one of the oldest Qurn manuscripts known to exist.
So, can you talk a little bit about what the traditional narrative of how the Qurn was compiled? What went
into that, and what makes this dierent?
The traditional narrative is that the Qurn was revealed by God to Muammad during the period of his ministry, 610 to
632 of the Christian Era (CE). According to tradition, the Qurn was not written down during Muammads lifetime. Or
rather the entire book was not written downsome of the suras, which are the equivalent of books of the Bible, were
written down, but there are discrepancies even about the number of people who memorized the book in its entirety

while he was still alive. Theres one source that says six people memorized it, but then only names four of them. There
is a second source says that no one person memorized it in its entiretyvarious people have memorized segments of
it, but the uniformity in this accounting is that the book was not written down while he was still alive.
This was a very oral culture, pre-Islamic Arabia had a tradition of epic poetry, and, as well see in a bit the Arabic
alphabet itself had only been in use for about a century at this time, and had not developed to the point where certain
letters could be distinguished from one another. It really sort of took the form of sheet music, writing was supposed to
provide a guide for oral recitation.
The story goes that after a serious battle, the battle of Yamma in 633, Umr ibn al-Khattb, who became the second
caliph, encouraged Abu Bakr, who was the first caliph, or leader of the Islamic community after Muammad died, to
have the Qurn compiled because so many of the people who knew it had been killed in the battle. The generations
who knew the Qurn were getting older, both of these men were at an advanced age, in fact, Abu Bakr would die the
following year. So there was a real concern about what would happen as this generation began to die off. Abu Bakr had
it written down on various leaves of, were told that it was things like palm leaves and camel bone, and the collection
wound up in the possession of Umars daughter afsa, who was also one of Muammads widows.
It wasnt actually compiled into a book that was widely distributed until 650and again this is according to the
traditional narrativeunder the reign of the third caliph Uthmn. Because there were concerns about variant readings
taking place, that some of the text was being a little bit embellished. At this point, the Islamic state had spread out of
Arabia; people couldnt make it back to Medina for daily prayers or weekend services. There was less control over what
was going on out in the provinces. It was decided that there needed to be a definitive version of the text. It was
compiled into what became known as the Uthmnic codex. And all other versions of it were burnt. According to
tradition, seven copies were made and they were distributed to key centers throughout the growing empire. However
even among the seven copies, there were variant readings. As I mentioned, the problem at the time was that anyone
who seen Arabic written knows that some of the letters have dots that are used to distinguish one letter from another.
Those werent actually added until after this.
So, at the time, like I said, that the the closest analogy is sheet music; you are already supposed to know the text and
you could recite it based on this written prompt. But, even within this theres room to accidentally mess up some of the
consonants in addition to the fact that short vowels are not written in Arabic at all. Similar to what happened in Hebrew
with the Jewish scriptures, they developed a system over the next 150 years to demarcate short vowels, but even then
there were still seven accepted readings of the Qurn. And even the existence of variant consonantal readings was
accepted and commented on throughout Islamic history. It actually wasnt until 1923 that a group of Egyptian scholars
compiled what they thought was the definitive version of the Qurn, and they destroyed all other copies that they had
access to. Today, if you go out and purchase a Qurn, nearly every one youre likely to find is this version that was
authorized in Cairo in 1923.* [eds note it was actually 1924].
So, that leads me to another question, in speaking about that compilation of traditional narrative about the
Qurn. What about the scholarly narrative? How is that compiled? How is that envisioned? How have
people struggled between the dierent meanings of it?
Thats a really interesting thats a really interesting question, and its kind of complicated. And, unfortunately, since 2001

its really become political. To be a non-Muslim scholar who upholds the traditional narrative is to be an apologist for
Islam. To be an non-Muslim scholar who criticizes the traditional narrative is to be a revisionist who is attacking Islam
and trying to say that its false. So, theres a political dimension that really underlines a lot of whats going on today.
In fact, even with some of the headlines that came out about the Birmingham Qurn itself, I remember one of the
articles that was in a British tabloid newspaper I wont name it, but it rhymes with fail but every scholar in it arguing
that the Qurn predated Muammad had a British, white Anglo name, and everyone who argued that this could not
possibly be was clearly Muslim. They really set up this dichotomy.
Up until the 1960s and 1970s though, most western scholars really accepted that traditional narrative of Muammads
life, and also of how the Qurn came to be. And whats really problematic about this, and we talked about this when I
did the episode with Fred Donner last year, is that theres not a lot of historical evidence that is contemporary to the
time. You find texts that claim to be biographies of the prophet, most of which claim to be copies of things that were
written earlier, but all we have are the copies, most of which date from the 9th or 10th century. So, in terms of
documents that Muammad wouldve written, that he might have signed his name to, or that any of the first four
caliphs signed their names to, we dont have those. We have a lot of reports, and from them a sacred narrative is
Probably the first, I dont want to say it was the first challenge, but the real first attention grabbing challenge to that
narrative was a book called Hagarism, which was written in the 1970s by a Danish scholar, Patricia Crone, and a British
scholar, Michael Cook. I actually had a discussion with some scholars on Twitter about whether or not Hagarism was
really a serious attempt at scholarship, or it was an intellectual exercise in looking at all of the documentation that is
clearly contemporary, and saying that this is how far you can push the story. And it is quite a story that they spin.
Hagarism presents Islam as a movement of messianic Judaism, that Muammad is a renegade messianic Jew. They
refer to early Islam as Hagarenes, the early Islamic community, after Abrahams concubine Hagar. It really challenges the
traditional narrative.
Well, the book was universally panned when it came out, mostly by traditional scholars or people who upheld the
traditional narrative, saying this is not possible. My sense really is that the two of them were saying, Look, if you want
to stick to this traditional narrative, prove that its true, dont just take it on face value. I would say that the modern field
of critical studies, modern critical Qurnic studies really begins here. There were people working on it before, but this
was the spark that really caught fire.
Working around the same time its a British scholar John Wansbrough who, in reading the Qurn, his hypothesis is that
the Qurn cannot have existed prior to the 9th century of the Christian era, which is about a hundred and fifty years
later than the traditional dating, which has a version in place by the mid seventh century.
The flip side of this is a German scholar, Christoph Luxenbergthis is a pseudonymwho wrote a book stating that
the Qurn is actually a compilation of texts that were originally written in Syriac. Syriac is a modern version of a late
dialect of Aramaic, which was the lingua franca in the Middle East before Arabic. Syriac was an important liturgical
language for Christians in the region. His hypothesis is that the Qurn predates Muammad as a collection of other
texts that were morphed from Syriac into Arabic. In fact, part of his argument suggests that some of the terms that
scholars dont understand in Qurn are better read in Syriac. This made headlines about 15 years ago when the book

came out because he suggested that I think that one of the most famous passages even to people who havent
read the Qurn is that people who die a martyrs death go to heaven and are awarded 72 virgins. He says this is
actually better read as 72 small white grapes, because he says that that is what the word means in Syriac. This has
also been widely discredited, mainly for two reasons. One is thatIm not a linguist but apparently his grasp of Syriac
grammar is loose and flexible, to put it kindly. The other is that the Qurn has almost been universally identified as
having an origin in western Arabia, and Syriac was not a major language in western Arabia in the seventh century. So,
theres a bit of a time gap going on there as well.
The broader issue with revisionist Qurnic scholarship is that the term is very broad and covers everything from
Crone and Cook tothere have been some authors who suggest that Muammad never lived, that hes just sort of a
phantom that was made up; that the drama of early Islam didnt actually take place in Mecca, or at least not the Mecca
that we know, that mustve taken place in place closer to Gaza.
So similar discussions to what have taken place regarding early Christianity?
Exactly, exactly. I think at some point there have been questions about whether every prophet has existed. Abrahams
existence is questioned, as is Mosess existence, the Buddhas existence, Jesuss existence as well. By and large, most
serious scholars its almost the same argument for Muammad that it is for Jesus, which is that theres ample trace
evidence that somebody did something that people took a fancy too. It would involve a combination of mass amnesia,
and mass conspiracy for these to have happened. The problem is that the documentation or archaeological proof
usually turns up at some point. So, there are other questions about Muammads life that well get to in a moment. But
revisionism has gotten kind an ugly name because it covers everything from these very wild theories to merely things
like, questioning whether dates that are not set in stone are in fact the dates that things happened, or whether they can
be pushed a couple of years in one direction or the other. So, it can go both ways. This is very much an ongoing
conversation, and the Birmingham Qurn really comes at the right time to fit into it.
This is perfect segue into what the Birmingham Qurn does. Does it prove, or disprove, any of the
scholarship that youve discussed here? What are the connections? And what really made this the big story
that it was?
Well, the dating was definitely the big story. We only have a few other manuscripts that date from this era. A few years
ago, there was an archaeological team renovating the Grand Mosque of ana, in Yemen. They discovered a group of
palimpsests, which are pieces of parchment been written on, cleaned off, and rewritten on, because parchment is very
expensive. And those have been dated prior to 671. They do reveal some consonantal variations. Now, depending on
who you talk to, theyre either major or minor. The order of the suras is different from the order that appears in the
Uthmnic Codex.
We dont, by the way, have a copy of the Uthmnic codex, or at least one thats reliably dated to him. There is one that
is known as the Samarkand Kufic Qurn. Its actually now in a shrine in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. I saw it a few years
ago, I actually had the opportunity to travel to Uzbekistan, and it is a coffee table sized book. It is probably about a
meter and a half wide when its open. The type is large and it is smeared with a rust colored substance which is,
according to legend, the blood of Uthman himself. This is said to be the copy that he was reading when he was
assassinated. Thats probably not true, the writing suggests its probably from the late eighth and early ninth century

AD. The Topkap manuscript, which is the other reputed copy housed in Topkap Palace in Istanbul, is also probably
Its really its down to this manuscript from Birmingham, there are other leaves from the same manuscript in France, and
then the ones from ana that are the earliest. These are much more fully formed then we might have expected for a
text that was still being put together. The divisions between the suras are there, By divisions, I mean they have names;
there are decorations that separate them. These are things that we didnt expect to find until later. So, it appears to be
a relatively fully formed text, not the one that still being experimentally put together, within the timeframe that it was
claimed to be written. Assuming that it isnt a palimpsestand that is definitely a questionit would put to rest the idea
that the Qurn was authored after the middle of the seventh century. So, definitely not the 9th, definitely not the 8th.
There had been two likely contenders to have written or compiled the text; one of which was an Umyyad caliph who
lived at the end of the century, around 700, the other an Abbsid caliphworking with the idea that it didnt come
together until the Abbsid Empire in Baghdad in the ninth century. But it would appear that the Qurn was in its full
form prior to that. So, thats something we can definitely get out of the scholarship, that the order hasnt changed very
Even when we talk about consonantal variations between the ana manuscript and the standard Qurn, were
talking about things like shifting from third person to first person, or shifting singular to plural, or occasionally changing a
pronoun. But by and large the structure is surprisingly intact. It depends on how much you want to focus on things like
those minor consonantal variations, and decide whether theyre major or minor. But most people dont think theyre
that spectacular, really.
So you pointed to a little earlier in our conversation and that it raised a lot of additional questions, right?
Can you tell us more about some of this question that it raised, give us more details?
One of the things that the Birmingham Qurns dating suggests is an early compilation date for the text, and in fact its
a little too early. If the carbon dating is accurateand I do have to pause here and say thats a big if. Carbon dating is
not an exact science. It gives you a range of dates and probability that, for example, theres a 5-10% probability that its
dated is before 568 and 5-10% probability that it dates after 645, but that the bell curve should appear between those
two dates. But things as varied as the conditions it was stored under, and, again whether or not its a palimpsest,
whether it was parchment that was cleaned off. What this also tells us, and I just have to point this out, is that this does
not date the book. It dates when the animal whose skin became the parchment was killed. Now parchment was
expensive, and it is reasonable to assume that wouldve been used right away, but we dont know that for certain. So,
like I said, if the Carbon dating is accurate it does suggest that the Qurn might date to earlier then those original
Uthmanic dates. Certainly, 650 is right at the tail end of the period its likely to have been written. This does give some
credence to the possibility that it might have been compiled under Abu Bakr, or it might have been compiled under
Muammad himself.
Now, one of the things that this also raises into question is whether we need to rethink the dates of Muammads
ministry. Traditionally, he received his first revelation in the year 610, but theres a question mark there. It looks like that
date might have been retrofitted back in at a later date. It looks like the event might have been not recorded at the time
that it happened. Like, this was a local event that took place in his family, and nobody really recorded the date at the

time it happened. And what makes it a question is the fact that he was 40 years old. Forty, if youre familiar with the
Abrahamic tradition, is a number of significance. Its the number of days that Noah was in the Ark, its the number of
years the Israelites wandered in the desert. Its a number that indicates that you are mature, that you have been purified
in the eyes of God. And its entirely possible that this date was decided on later because the actual date had been lost,
and was calculated based on the knowledge that his wife Khadijah was still alive, and by the time of the migration to
Medinathe hijrahwhich is dated to 622, she had passed away. But, again its not set in stone. And so this is one of
the question marks.
The idea that the Qurn predates Muammad is within the realm of possibility if one accepts the traditional dating of
his life, but its also one of the more unlikely scenarios, if we want to accept that the Qurn was a fully composed text.
Now, it is possible that parts of it may predate Muammad and that is something that is up for debate, and people do
debate that. But, the idea that it was a fully formed bookespecially one not in Arabicthat we dont have a copy of
from prior to Muammads life, and that suddenly after him there is a fully formed book in Arabic with no transition of
language in evidence, I find that unlikely.
Now, the other thing that this raises questions about is that there are facets of this text that were unknown even by
early scholars. There are groups of what are called Mysterious letters. A number of chapters of the Qurn begin with
letters that stand on their own: alif lam mim, ra ha, and their significance isnt known. Suras that begin with these letters
tend to be grouped together. Overall the Qurn is arranged with Surt al-Ftiha, which is kind of a confessional prayer,
and then the chapters are arranged from longest to shortest. Its not chronological. However there are exceptions, and
those exceptions tend to be where suras starting with these mysterious letters are grouped together, but nobody
knows what their significance is.
Theres also the question of who the Sabin are. The Sabin are this group of people who are said in the Qurn to be
People of the Book who can be saved on Judgment Day along with Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, but nobody
knows who they are. Even in the 7th century or the 8th century, when scholars were reading the text, nobody knew
who they were. So, theres this question of whether the reason that nobody knows who they are is because the book
was written earlier. And by the time it started to be studied in earnest, people had forgotten, there had been a
There does seem to be, interestingly enough, the possibility of a gap about 70 years long between the mid 7th century
and about the year 700 during which the Qurn does not seem to have been the core text for Muslims. It does not
seem to have been the primary focus of prayer. Portions of it were, but not the book as a whole, it doesnt seem like
memorization by everybody was deemed important.
So, what would have been in place of it?
Thats the question that we need to answer! This will probably be the focus of a lot of scholarly attention. My off-the-cuff
hypothesis, which has absolutely no basis in scholarship whatsoever, is that this is a period where the Islamic state was
rapidly expanding. People were far and wide, and if they didnt have someone in their army, or in their base camp who
knew the text in its entirety they have to make do with what they knew. And one of the Umayyad caliphs really did make
an attempt to get the text out to everybodythis is one of the ones who was believed to have possibly compiled or
authored the text because his name is all over these manuscripts.

Now that we can see it was compiled earlier, perhaps one of the reasons why he made this efforts to get the text out
far and wide was because he had realized that it had lost its primacy and that people were going in different directions
in terms of the way they were practicing what was in the process of transforming from proto-Islam into Islam as we
understand it today. And thats a big question mark. Im probably going to get a lot of nasty messages from scholars
who work on early Islam saying, Oh my gosh, that is the stupidest idea Ive ever heard, but thats my contribution to
the scholarship.
But I do just want to wrap up with something that Patricia Crone, who passed away earlier this summer, wroteshe
was writing in 2008which is that in her opinion, Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qurn is a
collection of utterances that he [Muammad] made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. I think
thats the most fair beginning point for any study of the text.

Sources and Further Reading:

Brown, Jonathan. How Should Rationalists Deal with Dogmatism? The Case of the Birmingham Quran Pages.
Dr Jonathan Brown (drjohnathanbrown.com), 1 September 2015, accessed 4 November 2015.
Crone, Patricia, and Michael Allan Cook. Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. CUP Archive, 1977.
Crone, Patricia. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Crone, Patricia. What do actually we know about Mohammed? openDemocracy.net, 10 June 2008. Accessed
4 November 2015.
Donner, Fred McGraw. Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing. Studies in Late
Antiquity and Early Islam 14. Princeton, N.J: Darwin Press, 1998.
Donner, Fred McGraw. Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
Hoyland, Robert G. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian
Writings on Early Islam. Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 13. Princeton, N.J: Darwin Press, 1997.
Hoyland, Robert G. In Gods Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire. Ancient Warfare
and Civilization. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Luxenberg, Christoph. The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language
of the Koran. Verlag Hans Schiller, 2007.
McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. The Cambridge Companion to the Qurn. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Reynolds, Gabriel Said, ed. The Qurn in Its Historical Context. Routledge Studies in the Qurn. London:
Routledge, 2008.
Reynolds, Gabriel Said. Variant readings: The Birmingham Quran in the context of debate on Islamic origins.
The Times Literary Supplement. 5 August 2015.
Sinai, Nicholas. When did the consonantal skeleton of the Quran reach closure?, Bulletin of the School of
Oriental and African Studies 77 (2014): 273292, 509521.
Wansbrough, John E. Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Prometheus Books,



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This entry was posted in 600 AD - 1450 AD, North Africa / SW Asia, Podcast, World History by Region, World
History by Time Period and tagged abbasid, Abu Bakr (Abdullah ibn Abi Qhuhafah), arabia, Birmingham,
Christoph Luxenberg, controversy, Hafsa bint Umar, islam, John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, Muhammad
(prophet), Patricia Crone, quran, Sana'a (Yemen), Umar ibn al-Khattab, Umayyad Empire, Uthman ibn Aan
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