CHARLOTTE, N.C., Sept. 1, 2015 – Every so often a global event is so monumental it changes the course of history forever: the Battle of Hastings, the invention of the printing press, the Renaissance, D-Day, the Industrial Revolution, personal computers, 9/11/2001, or the Hijrah of 622, which was the beginning of Islam.
Now a graduate student at the University of Birmingham in England, Alba Fedeli has discovered the ancient pages of an early Quran, which are believed to be the oldest parchment texts of that manuscript in history. If the fragments of Fedeli’s discovery prove to be accurately dated, some historians say the writings could pre-date the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, and that could then alter many of the traditional accounts of his life.
Muhammad is believed to have lived between 570 AD and 632 AD with the Hijrah, or migration from Mecca to Medina, taking place in 622. The Hijrah is the date marking the beginning of Islam.
Carbon dating of the fragments of parchment from Birmingham shows the text to have been written between 568 and 645.
Among the questions arising from the tests is whether the ink used in the writing is as old as the parchment itself. The surface upon which the text was written could be older than the ink, which in turn might change the findings again.
One expert, David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, believes that, even though the ink has yet to provide results, “Our supposition is that the parchment would have been prepared expressly for this particular project of writing the Quran.”
According to Thomas in an interview with National Geographic, “If the dating is correct, then we are taken back to maybe 20 years from the period in which the foundational events of Islam were taking place.”
The question could then become, What exactly was Muhammad’s role in the founding of the religion? Muslims believe the Quran to be “the revealed word of Allah (God) through Muhammad,” who is regarded as the last prophet.
According to current historical accounts, the Prophet Muhammad was illiterate, so the texts of the Quran had to have been written by someone else.
Unlike the Bible, the Quran represents the accounts of only one man, Muhammad, with the chapters divided between his time in Mecca and in Medina. The so-called “peaceful” surahs (chapters) are said to have originated in Mecca, while the “warlike” verses came from Medina. Many experts claim the militaristic chapters abrogated the peaceful chapters through revelations by Muhammad. Those are the verses Islamists use as a justification for jihad.
Thus, a manuscript that disrupts the timeline of Muhammad’s influence could also change the course of Islamic history. Islamic fundamentalists rely on the tenets of the Quran and the Hadith as a basis for their beliefs.
Thomas terms the manuscript as “stirring” because, as he says, “The person who wrote this may have known the Prophet (or) he may have known somebody who knew the prophet. So we are given a link almost to the Prophet Muhammad himself.”
Another expert, Dr. Keith Small, believes the calligraphy in the recent discovery is characteristic of a later style of writing.
Other historians, however, like Tom Holland, opine that traditional accounts of Islam’s beginnings are wrong. “It destabalizes, to put it mildly, the idea that we can know anything about how the Quran emerged – and that in turn has implications for the historicity of Muhammad and the Companions (his followers).”
Not only does the recent discovery raise historical questions, it may also have an effect on the beliefs of Islamists, though the writings of the Quran remain in their present context regardless of the finding.
Small states, “This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Quran’s genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven.”
Elsewhere, Shady Hekmat Nasser from the University of Cambridge thinks, “We already know from our sources that the Quran was a closed text very early on in Islam, and these discoveries only attest to the accuracy of these sources.”
For now the most relevant thing that can be said about Alba Fedeli’s surprise discovery is that they are fascinating.
While expert opinions run the gamut of their significance, only time will tell what the true meanings will be.
Certainly followers of ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram and others will not be influenced in the least, but the historical value of understanding Muhammad’s actual contribution to Islam as we know it could be monumental.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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