Revisiting the Birmingham Qur’an Debacle


“In December 2015 Professor François Déroche of the Collège de France confirmed the identification of the two Birmingham leaves with those of the Paris Qur’an BnF Arabe 328(c), as had been proposed by Dr Alba Fedeli. Prof. Deroche, however, expressed reservations about the reliability of the radiocarbon dates proposed for the Birmingham leaves, noting instances elsewhere in which radiocarbon dating had proved inaccurate in testing Qur’ans with an explicit endowment date; and also that none of the counterpart Paris leaves had yet been carbon-dated.”



The case for the antiquity of the Birmingham Qur’an fragments grows weaker by the day.

As with all orchestrated media splashes,  the original story having done its work, not many people will pay attention to the unraveling of the growing mythology surrounding the discovery.

1.  It has been suggested that the two-leaf parchment fragment uncovered in Birmingham “belongs with another sixteen in Paris (BnF Arabe 328(c); as indeed they sit neatly in a lacuna in that text.”  However the need to situate these leaves in a larger work (I do not spot the lacuna myself)–which would make the larger work the real story rather the detached bits–seems to come from another piece of lore: It is this

2.  “…there can be no doubt that the full manuscript was not an ‘aide memoire’ (in the speculation of the Guardian reporter) but a lectern Qur’an for a major mosque.  Moreover, as we know that the Paris Qur’an was obtained from a Cairo mosque founded in 642 CE; we have a very plausible context for the production of this particular manuscript.”

The Cairo mosque mentioned can only have been the tent mosque of the conqueror Amir ibn al as who created a makeshift masjid beginning, according to a very weak tradition,  in 642. It was razed in 691, rebuilt on a different site in 698 AD (79 AH).  The mosque was then demolished and expanded by Abdul-Aziz Ibn Marwan, Egypt’s ruler; once again in 711 AD (93 AH), the mosque was demolished by Prince Qurrah Ibn Shuraik al-Absi Upon the orders of Caliph al-Waleed Ibn Abdul-Malek, the mosque area was enlarged, a niche, a wooden pulpit (minbar) and a compartment and copings of four cloumns facing the niche were added.

There is no evidence of a “lectern” being installed prior to the eighth century; thus tying these scraps to a non-existent pulpit based on an incredible dating for a mosque that did not exist is far more fanciful a provenance than the suggestion that we may (a) be looking as fragments from a later date, or (b) looking at an aide memoire of uncertain provenance; or, perhaps less appealing to Muslim faithful (c) we may have evidence of sources earlier than the Prophet’s time that were later imcorporated into the Quran, as the  subject matter of the material is (as already stated) part of the most derivative sections of the book.

It should also be said that if the Paris MS cannot be certainly associated with a Cairo mosque as early as 642, it is irrelevant to argue for the association of the  Birmingham parchment and BnF Arabe 328(c); in fact it would contribute nothing to the discussion.  As it stands, given what we know about the history of the Amr Ibn al’As mosque, we would have to say that any association between it and both the Paris and Birmingham parchments is highly unlikley if not impossible.

2.  All attempts to date the writing have fallen on deaf ears. This despite paleographers who have exmained the leaves and have noticed peculiarities that argue against an early 7th century date: Almost uniquely, the New York Times reported that Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written, as manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later. In such cases, the dating of ink and the paleography rather than tests done on the parchment itself will be dispositive.

3.  If however this text is earlier that the Uthmanic recension in 653, it is possible that it became isolated because in its other parts it did not correspond to the authorized text.   However, if that is true, then this text, despite its more or less fauthful wording to later recensions that are being used as standard, would hardly make it useful as proof for the unalterabilty of the Quranic text.

What is needed in the interest of honest scholarship is for the scholars involved to dial back their claims  look more constructively at the problems of evidence and provenance, and to construct a more balanced appraisal of the significance of this material.

4 thoughts on “Revisiting the Birmingham Qur’an Debacle

  1. Phew! I see the missing spell check was done after the email version for subscribers to the blog. Had me a tad worried, there, sir.

    Good info in the piece. I am incredibly interested in hearing what those with knowledge in religious studies have to say. Undoubtedly more information will become available in future, and this reader begs for continued discussion.

    Sure is nice to have a go-to blog site for issues such as these. Thanks.

  2. No. Christianity and Judaism are breakaways from the original straight path from God. Islam sent down (again) through Muhammad PBUH guides us back to that true straight path. Try thinking out of your box of prejudice and hatred….

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