Will we all be marching arm in arm in London chanting Je suis Rupert? Unlikely as it seems a Murdoch publication The Times Literary Supplement has recently published two articles about the re-discovered Birmingham Qur’an text which do have the potential to upset some Muslims even if not quite as much as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons did.
Readers may recall an announcement that a manuscript Qur’an had turned up in the Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern Manuscripts at the University of Birmingham. The initial announcement that the parchment dated from the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself, and was one of the earliest surviving copies of the text, was greeted by much enthusiasm by some scholars and lots of Muslims including claims that the manuscript author may even have heard the Prophet preach.
The TLS cast the first bit of doubt when it reported (31 July 2015) that the collector, an Iraqi Chaldean priest Alphonse Mingana occasionally let his enthusiasm “get the better of him” and was widely suspected of forging at least one manuscript. But this was a false alarm.
But in the TLS on August 7 Gabriel Said Reynolds, Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at Notre Dame University, raised some other more substantial doubts. The tradition, Reynolds points out, is that Muhammad received revelations from the angel Gabriel between 610 and 650 and these revelations were recorded on various scraps – “palm leaves, parchment and the shoulder blades of camels”. An official Qur’an text was then prepared by a committee appointed by the third caliph, Uthman, after the Prophet died. He then ordered all variant texts to be seized and burnt. The parallels with the committee writing the King James version of the Bible and the early medieval churches’ destruction of any documentation, other than their condemnations, of texts and groups regarded as heretical is obvious. The parallel is further highlighted by the fact that in the 1920s and 1930s an Egyptian committee set up by King Farouk produced a Qur’an text which is now the standard one.
The other problem is that the carbon dating of the manuscript suggests the text dates not only from before Uthman but also before Muhammad starting preaching, gathering young wives and running around converting people with a scimitar. Reynolds also refers to a find in Yemen of a rare Qur’anic palimpsest which carbon testing suggests may have dated from very much earlier too. Carbon dating of such parchments is problematic of course, but what is however conclusive is that the variants in manuscripts “do not match the variants reported in medieval literature for those codices kept by the companions of the Prophet”.
Reynolds says: “It may be time to rethink the story of the Qur’an’s origins, including the dates of Muhammad’s career. In other words, what some observers have celebrated as something like the evidence of the traditional story of Islam’s origins….may actually be, when considered carefully, evidence that the story of Islam’s origins is quite unlike what we have imagined.”
Well yes good atheists might say. And they might well also say that the need for re-imagination would, of course, not have been news to David Hume. In his famous work On Miracles Hume takes the obvious (but then revolutionary) view that you should evaluate miraculous claims on the basis of evidence. Now this is as unlikely amongst religious devotees as it is among much of the Australian business community when extolling the miraculous benefit of de-regulating the labour market. Thus the balance of evidence and probabilities – were the various scraps of parchment and palm leaves (let alone the camels’ shoulder blades) disparate texts created from disparate sources over many years or were they a divine revelation to an illiterate chap who liked waging war? – suggests the former. Similarly, the relatively good Australian unemployment figures, the findings of the Productivity Commission and the decline in real terms of wages are on the evidence, and the balance of probabilities, suggestive that the miracles the business body fundamentalists’ PR say they believe in are also wrong.
None of the Islamic origins stuff will be news to most scholars although it will be anathema to fundamentalists just as questioning Christian origins is to their fundamentalists. And, after all, they are the dangerous ones who decide that the best way to deal with dissent is murder. The blog doubts Rupert Murdoch or the TLS editor, Peter Stothard, need to lay awake at nights thinking about a crazed Muslim wielding a gun or a machete. But if the worst came to the worst would you march side by side with Andrew Bolt chanting je suis Rupert/Peter?