Why The Birmingham Manuscript is Significant
The discovery of an old artefact is always a welcome addition to our knowledge since it boosts, or modifies, our understanding of history. From this perspective alone, the discovery of the Birmingham manuscript is significant, but there is more to it.
I first learned about the news when the subject came up as I was visiting some friends after the Eid festival. Most in the room praised Allah for sending regular signals to prove to mankind that Islam is the true religion. I had to leave soon, and as I was leaving, I overheard somebody expressing his disappointment at the news because he assumed all along that we already have the original full Quran of Uthman.
The above remark accounts for the second reason why the manuscript is significant – because it highlights a common Islamic misconception. I only wish to meet again those Muslims, who debated me over the years, and insisted that our modern Quran is an exact copy of that of Caliph Uthman’s original Quran, which they believed still exists somewhere in the Muslim world. I wish to meet those Muslims to congratulate them on the new discovery and ask them: If we already have the full Quran, why is the discovery of a few verses dating back to the same period should cause any thrill?
The third reason why the manuscript is significant is related to the way it was reported, which highlights a serious crack in the once solid academic field in the West. Birmingham University released the news timed with Eid Alfitr celebrations to look like a nice Eid gift for the Islamic community in the UK’s second largest city. The BBC report presented a university official expressing her delight that the Muslims have something to smile about. It was obvious that the thrilled university staff couldn’t wait until the study is completed and invited a group of Imams to inspect their carefully displayed gift (the manuscript). For sometime, I had my doubts about the honesty of what used to be a gold standard academic research in the West. In this politically correct environment, the times of the objective Western research seems to have gone, together with the times of the objective free press.
But does the discovery of a fragment of the Quran that dates back to about 650 AD prove that the Quran is divine? The answer is a big NO. Not even the discovery of the entire book of the Quran can provide such a proof. The claim that a book is authored by a god is an exceptionally extraordinary claim that requires an exceptionally extraordinary proof. A disorganized old book littered with all kinds of errors and contradictions can be anything but divine. Even if the Quran is free from errors and all the Muslims’ claims about it were true (but none of them is), that doesn’t prove the book was authored by a god.
Many experts, some of them Muslims, rejected the Birmingham claims that their manuscript is the oldest in existence. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we find older manuscripts that date back to Uthman’s time or even to the pre-Islamic era.
I personally tend to hold the view that the different parchments of the Quran were written by multiple authors (Allah not one of them) over a long period of time. It is possible that some parchments were written by Christian priests before the rise of Islam and the process continued for centuries afterwards. It is also possible that the early parchments were written in the Syriac language while the later ones in Arabic. I expressed this view in more detail in this article only a few weeks ago.
Another significance of the Birmingham findings is that it should act as a reminder for Muslims to start asking the big question: Where is the original Quran? The Muslim historians tell us that Caliph Uthman ordered the writing of five copies of the Quran, four of which were sent to the rulers of the newly conquered territories outside Arabia. Those five books of the Quran (called mus-haf) were the most important documents in Muslims’ possessions, where are they? Within a few years of writing Uthman’s mus-haf, the Islamic State became the superpower of its time, and certainly had the power and the resources not only to look after the books, but to issue more of them. With the power and wealth available to them, the logical thing for Muslim rulers was to order the writing of more copies of their most valuable book to make sure it was available in every city in every province, but they didn’t. We have to wonder why?
It is either that
1. The book simply didn’t exist at that early stage ( not in a complete form ) OR ..
2. The people of the time didn’t really revere the Quran, so they were not bothered.
Or a combination of 1& 2