How the ‘Oldest Qur’an’ Challenges Islam

In 2015, it was breathlessly announced by the media that the oldest copy yet of the Qur’an had been discovered in Birmingham, England. Media reports assured readers that the text could have belonged to one of the companions of the prophet himself as initial Carbon 14 dating indicated that it dates from 650’s CE. If that is all you heard about the so-called ‘Birmingham Folios’ you would assume that they provide powerful confirmation of the traditional Islamic account of Qur’anic origins. Things are, however, not nearly as simple as this.

Most readers will be familiar with the use of Carbon 14 dating (this is where the deterioration in a certain type of carbon molecule is measured in order ascertain the age of an object containing carbon). While this is sometimes used in textual dating, it can typically not be used to give a definitive reading on when a text was produced. The reason for this is certainly applicable to ancient Qur’anic manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts (and this includes the Birmingham Folios) were written on animal skins. This means that a manuscript may have been written on animal skin that belonged to an animal that was killed decades before ink was first applied to its leather. This was a widespread practice as skins were precious and often scraped and re-used multiple times. Unless a way can be found to reliably test the age of the ink (this is very hard to do as it has obviously seeped into the writing surface), there will always be questions about the Carbon 14 dates assigned to documents based on animal skin.

To make matters even more complex, some laboratories which ran follow-up tests on the folios really threw the cat among the pigeons by claiming that the text predates the time of Muhammad. This could, of course, be due to the ‘dating ink vs. dating the writing surface’ problem described above, but it does show the problems associated with relying solely on Carbon 14 dating in the case of ancient documents. Be that as it may, an early date (i.e. pre-Muhammad) would be fatal to the entire Islamic theological edifice as it will point to parts of the Qur’an being around before supposedly being ‘revealed’ to Muhammad.

As it turns out, this is exactly the area where the discovery of Birmingham Folios, received with such joy in the Muslim world, could be yet another nail in the coffin of the traditional Islamic understanding of how their holy book came into being. To see why this is the case, we must turn from the uncertain world of Carbon 14 dating to analyzing the text itself. As the name indicates the Birmingham Folios contain only a few pages (i.e. folios) from what is believed to be the Qur’an. They are, therefore, nowhere near to being a complete Qur’anic manuscript. The first thing to note is that the text on these pages do not align perfectly with the Qur’an currently in use by Muslims. It is orthographically different, especially in the fact that it leaves out the Arabic letter ‘alif’. Its verse divisions are also substantially different from the Cairo 1924 text in use today.

When one takes a closer look at the passages that appear on the folios, a rather startling fact emerges: the folios contain material that is quite obviously derived from earlier sources. The Birmingham Folios contain surahs 18:17-31 and 19:91-20:40. The verses from chapter 18 tell a story about some youths who fell asleep in a cave because they were being persecuted for their faith. They are preserved by God and wake up after many years to changed circumstances. This is a straight plagiarization of the Orthodox folk tale known as the ‘Seven Sleepers of Ephesus’. Chapter 19:98 is strongly related to the Proto-Evangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The section from Sura 20 is a retelling of the Biblical story of Moses. As Joseph Hoffman says: “These are some of the most obviously derivative sections of the entire Qur’an – stories which the Qur’an cannibalizes without attribution, increasing the likelihood that what we may have is not the Qur’an at all but fragments of stories that were eventually incorporated into the Qur’an at a later period.”

In other words, far from confirming the Muslim understanding of the early history of the Qur’an, the Birmingham Folios does the exact opposite. It instead confirms that whoever compiled the Qur’an made extensive use of pre-existing materials. Thus, forcefully challenging the pious idea that it was transmitted fully formed into the mind of Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel himself.  As Wesley Huff says: “…the Birmingham Qur’an remains problematic for many believing Muslims as it challenges the Qur’anic assertions of being perfect, preserved, and unchanged. Even if the dating proves to be completely wrong, the find would still highlight the reality of textual variants that, according to Islamic literature, simply should not be there. It would point very concretely to there never being one preserved or complete text of the Qur’an throughout its history.”

For a fuller (and fully referenced) discussion of some of the oldest Qur’an’s and the way in which they challenge Islam’s origin narratives, see my book ‘The Mecca Mystery – Probing the Black Hole at the Heart of Muslim History’ 

The ‘Get Islam Off the Hook Playbook’

The treatment of the aftermath of Islamic terror attacks are so entirely predictable by now that the only conclusion that we can reach is that the world’s media organizations are hell-bent on covering for the ‘Religion of Peace’.

I doubt whether a document like the one below actually exists, but it might as well, since most journalists are singing from exactly the same hymn-sheet and the key is denial of reality!

Memo to  all Mainstream Media Journalists

Whenever an atrocity is committed by someone claiming to be inspired by the teachings of the Qur’an the following steps should immediately be taken to avoid awkward questions about the ‘Religion of Peace’:

•    Interview friends of the perpetrator. Have them say how ‘totally shocked’ they are that such a nice guy could do such a thing (the implication being that he must have ‘snapped’)
•    Interview worshippers at his mosque. Have them say that he attended irregularly and ‘drifted away’ eventually (in other words ‘He could never have learned that stuff here’)
•    If the perpetrator had a troubled background (drugs, alcohol etc.) before turning to Islam make sure that it is emphasized.
•    Insist that the perpetrator is mentally deranged and/or a ‘lone wolf’
•    Insist that every interviewee or panellist talking about the attack repeat some version of ‘This has nothing to do with the peaceful teachings of Islam’ (It does not matter if they do not have the foggiest idea of what Islam actually teaches as long as the mantra is drilled into the minds of the public)
•    Do not broadcast any appeals to the Qur’an or the example of Muhammad made by the perpetrator to justify his/her actions. If this is unavoidable constantly point out that he/she ‘Misunderstands Islam’
•    Deflect attention from the incident (and assist the Muslim community in playing the victim card) by warning of a ‘backlash’. Feel free to do this even while the incident is playing out.
•    Start, or strongly support, a ‘feel good hashtag’ (e.g. #Illridewithyou or #JeSuisCharlie) so that people can engage in pointless social media activism instead of analyzing the root causes of the attack

Educate yourself to ask the questions that the media and political elites are trying to avoid at all costs by reading ‘Nothing to do with Islam – Investigating the West’s Most Dangerous Blind Spot’

Muhammad: Why Women are ‘Deficient in Religion’

Muslim apologists often proudly claim that Islam liberated women from the terrible conditions they lived in before the coming of Muhammad. Yet, it is probably fair to ask what exactly this ‘liberation’ means if Islam condemns women to hell simply for being women.

Allow me to explain. According to the most revered collection of ahadith (traditions) the ‘prophet’ Muhammad once passed by a group of women. He told them: “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Apostle?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man? “They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.” (Sahih Bukhari 1:6:301)

So here we see Muhammad not only cheerfully consigning the majority of women to hell but doing so based on a staggeringly misogynistic claim. You see, women have periods which in Islam means they cannot pray as often as men (as they are supposedly ritually unclean during menstruation). Fewer prayers means less merit in the eyes of Allah. Because of this their religion is ‘deficient’ and many are condemned to hell. Oh, and they are ‘deficient in intelligence’ as well!

Are we to understand that Allah (supposedly the ‘Compassionate and Merciful’) created women to have periods and bear children and then metes out terrible eternal punishment for being who they were created to be?

Equip yourself to ask the hard questions about the truth-claims of Islam that are all too often swept under the carpet in our society by reading ‘Questioning Islam – Tough Questions and Honest Answers About the Muslim Religion’

A Tale of Two Cities (In Which Goliath Bites the Dust)

There’s a small city just inside the Saudi Arabian border that most Westerners have probably never heard of. It is called Najran. Najran is the kind of backwater that gets its public swimming pool listed on Tripadvisor as one of the tourist attractions. Hicksville if ever there was one.

400 miles north of Najran is a city that just about everyone on the planet has heard of. A city visited by millions every year and that is the focus of every Muslim prayer prayed anywhere on the planet. I am, of course, talking about Mecca. To say that Mecca is on the other end of the scale from Najran in terms of name recognition is perhaps to be guilty of the understatement of the century.

It has ever been thus according to traditional Muslim historiography. Mecca is portrayed in Muslim sources (written down 200 years after the events they supposedly describe) as the most important religious and trade center in central Arabia since time immemorial.

Yet, there’s something that should be deeply troubling to any devout Muslim. When we investigate the primary sources (i.e. historical sources that can be definitively traced to the period they describe) a perplexing conundrum emerges. Najran is simply everywhere. Mecca nowhere.

Najran is referred to in the works of the three giants of Roman geographical writing (Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy). Najran is also referenced in a wide variety of pre-Islamic trade and other geographical descriptions of central Arabia. It is, furthermore, mentioned in several religious texts dealing with the coming of Judaism and Christianity to this part of the Arabian Peninsula.

Perhaps the most famous episode in the history of Najran was the martyrdom (in 524 CE) of the local Christian Bishop. Aretas, and much of his flock were martyred at the hands of the last king of the Himyarite Kingdom Yusuf As’ar Dhu Nuwas. Aretas is still recognized as a saint by both the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. Because of this the name of Najran was spoken as far away as northern Europe.

I’ve barely scratched the surface as far as historical references to the relatively unimportant and obscure city of Najran is concerned. Today, and in Muslim historiography, it pales in comparison with Mecca, its much more famous northern neighbor in terms of its importance.

Here’s the conundrum. If there is so much historical evidence available for the pre-Islamic existence of the Hicksville of Central Arabia we would logically expect that the historical evidence dealing with Mecca would be orders of magnitude more substantial. Except that it isn’t.

There is, in fact, not a single shred of uncontested primary source evidence for the pre-Islamic existence of Mecca. Nothing, zilch, zip, nada! This is a fact that, to put it mildly, has tremendous implications for the truth-claims of Islam.

I realize that this may seem like a tall tale, but don’t just take my word for it. Examine the evidence by reading my book ‘The Mecca Mystery – Probing the Black Hole at the Heart of Muslim History’