Oldest Fragments of Koran May Pre-Date Prophet Mohammed

Expert: Potential that history of Islam could be ‘completely revised’

Koran
Koran / Wikimedia Coomons

JERUSALEM—British scholars examining the oldest fragments of the Koran ever found believe it might be so old as to pre-date the prophet Mohammed, in defiance of Islamic belief.

According to tradition, the Koran contains the words of God as revealed to Mohammed while he was meditating in a mountain cave. The revelations are said to have continued over a 23-year period. Last month, portions of Koranic text written on parchment were identified in England among a collection of documents in the library of the University of Birmingham.

Scholars suggested immediately that they might be the oldest fragments of the Koran ever found. They were sent to experts at the University of Oxford for carbon dating, a method of radioactively dating ancient finds containing organic material, such as parchment made from animal skin.

The examiners estimated that the text was written between A.D. 568 and 645. By tradition, Mohammed lived A.D. 570 and 632. Although there is an overlap between parts of these two periods, the Koran was initially not a written document but memorized by believers and recited orally. It was not until A.D. 650 that a written form was completed, according to scholars.

"It destabilizes, to put it mildly, the idea that we can know anything with certainty about how the Koran emerged," said Tom Holland, a British historian, in an interview with the Times. "And that, in turn, has implications for the historicity of Mohammed and his followers."

A Koranic manuscript consultant at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Dr. Keith Small, told the Times that if the dating is confirmed, as he believed would happen, it could raise serious problems for Islam.

"This would radically alter the edifice of Islamic tradition," he said. "The history of the rise of Islam in late Near Eastern antiquity would have to be completely revised."

He noted that previous "peripheral" views among scholars suggested that Mohammed and his early followers may have based themselves on a text already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda.

This was a sharp deviation from tradition, which regards the Koran as a divine revelation to Mohammed. If the still-tentative thesis is substantiated, according to Small, Islamic scholarship would have to account for the existence of a book of scripture before Mohammed’s time and then explain how it was collated into what became the Koran.

Some academics said that the impact of the ancient text could be on a par with finding a copy of the Gospels that pre-dated Jesus Christ.

Muslim academics sharply challenged such contentions. Noting that the wording of the ancient copy is identical to the Koran as it is known today, Dr. Shady Hekmat Nasser of the University of Cambridge said that the text had been fixed very early in Islam and that Islamic scholars had long contended that the text had not changed over time. "These discoveries (the carbon datings) only attest to the accuracy of these sources," he said. Muslims believe that the Koran they read is the exact text revealed to Mohammed.

Prof. David Thomas of the University of Birmingham, an expert on Christianity and Islam, told the Times that although the Koran was not completed until 650, some written passages had existed beforehand.

The document trove in which the ancient Koran was found had been collected in the 1920s by a Chaldean priest and scholar, Alphonse Mingana, who traveled widely in the Middle East searching for ancient documents. His expeditions were sponsored by Edward Cadbury of the British chocolate dynasty. He was a Quaker who set up colleges in the Birmingham area. When these merged with the University of Birmingham in the 1990s, the Cadbury collection was included.

The ancient Koranic fragments—chapters 18-20—lay unnoticed within a later copy of the Koran until a Ph.D. researcher stumbled on it and asked to have it carbon dated.