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How should rationalists deal with dogmatism? – The Case of the Birmingham Quran Pages

One of the reasons I do not to write about early Islamic history is that I find it very difficult to manage the constant clash of faith claims and appeals to empirical evidence.  When it comes to religion in general, Islam in particular, and the origins of Islam even more particularly, scholars find it difficult to recognize how their non-rational commitments direct their reasoning.  Being able to set aside those commitments is even harder.

Of course, I’m talking about the dogmatic belief found amongst revisionist historians of early Islam.  This school of thought is committed at the level of first principles to the belief that religious traditions pass through a process of fundamental change in their early years, transforming from the original teachings of a prophet or some other revered figures into an orthodox, sacred tradition, which then turns back to cover up and repaint those early years in the colors of orthodoxy.  This means that revisionists believe that, whatever else is true or untrue in the world, a religion’s autobiography must be false.  Its founding scriptures must not be historical intact.  All must have been been altered or evolved.

Of course, this is not to say that religions do not evolve or go through processes of revision, even of editing their own histories.  Of course they do.  But they do not all do so in the same way.  Just because the Christian scriptural tradition went through a certain process does not mean that every other scriptural tradition must have gone through that same process or even a remotely similar process.  We know that a great deal of revision occurred in the Islamic tradition; it’s obvious from all the forgery of Hadiths and historical reports, as even the briefest glimpse at Sunni-Shiite debates makes immediately clear, and as Muslim scholars have always admitted.  But this does not seem to have been the case with the Quran.  The book does not bear traces of any significant alternation over time, and the latest studies by Western scholars have made it clear that, barring some new, astounding discovery, the Muslim version of how and when the Quran was written should be accepted.[1]

The Muslim version should be accepted not because Islam is God’s true religion and therefore Muslims’ claims must be true.  It should be accepted because it requires fewer leaps of faith than alternatives.  It holds that a man named Muhammad, claiming to be a prophet, uttered a series of revelations between 610 and 632 CE and that, around the year 650 Ce, these statements were collected into the Quran.  Aside from divergences in vowelling and a few word replacements here and there (variations preserved for later historians by fastidious medieval Muslim scholars), that text does not bear any traces of alternation since.  Whether or not someone chooses to believe that the Quran is revelation irrelevant; the text comes from around the mid 600’s CE.

Revisionist historians of early Islam, however, cannot accept this.  It simply cannot be, in their eyes, that a scriptural text can actually come from the time and place that it claims.  Whatever must be believed, however absurd, we must conclude that its history has involved alteration, fraud and covering up.

The most recent display of this dogmatism has come in comments made about the pages of an early copy of the Quran found in the library of the University of Birmingham.  Radio carbon dating has shown that the pages very likely date from between 568 and 645 CE.  The text on these pages corresponds to the canonical versions of the Quran and even include a decorative division between chapters (which was drawn along with the writing, since the lines are spaced especially to fit the divider) and even markers between verses (also written at the same time as the text, since the spacing between words at the end/beginning of verses is greater than that between other words in order to fit the verse dividers).

Birmingham Quran manuscript.jpgAn image of the a page from the Birmingham Quran.

The Muslim narrative of the origins of the Quran holds that the revelation was written down by scribes as it came down to the Prophet between roughly 610 CE, when his prophethood began, and 632, when he died.  A semiofficial copy of the holy book was compiled within two years of the Prophet’s death by the first caliph, Abu Bakr, and that version was then later used as part of an official compilation and promulgation of the Quran by the third caliph, Uthman, in around 650 CE.[1]

A number of scholars who have interests in early Islamic history, particularly the popular author Tom Holland, have stated that the carbon dating of the Birmingham Quran pages suggests that the Quran actually predates the life of Muhammad.  In fact, he argues, it suggests that the Quran dates from “a good deal before” Muhammad’s career.  By this he means that, as opposed to being a sacred text that was edited and composed after the founding figure of the religion (the previous revisionist claim), it was actually written before Islam’s founding and – presumably – adopted by Muhammad to express his teachings.

Holland’s argument rests on several assumptions:

1)    That the parchment used for these Quran pages was produced at the same time as it was used for writing the text down (the equivalent of someone producing a piece of paper and then using that piece of paper, let’s say, in the same year to write something)

2)    That the pages in question were written at the earlier end of the window give by the carbon dating and not the latter part, which would put them right in the career of Muhammad

3)    That the Quran not only predates Muhammad’s life as a general text, but that it, in fact, word-for-word predates his life, along with divisions between chapters in the Quran and even markers between verses.


These are highly unreasonable assumptions.  Let’s look at each one in turn:

  1. Parchment was very expensive to produce and was frequently re-used after the ink was washed off.  Let’s take a more recent example free from the controversy of religion.  The Swiss Federal Charter of 1291, a founding document of Switzerland, includes the date of 1291 as its date of composition, but carbon dating has dated the parchment as having been produced between 1252 and 1312.  Scholars have come to agreement that the text was actually written in the 1300’s sometime.  So, even according to this document’s own claim, the parchment could have been produced almost forty years before the writing occurred.  If we go by scholarly consensus, it could have been produced a century earlier!  When he was challenged on the possibility that the parchment of the Birmingham Quran pages predated the writing, Holland simply replied that back then parchment was “generally” used “almost immediately.” (I wonder what evidence he has for this claim).
  2. Holland wants us to assume that, within the 77 year window given by the carbon dating, these Quran pages were written in the first 42 years.  The 35 years after that would put the writing of these pages, shockingly, right during the career of the man who was supposedly composing them (i.e., between 610-632) or, even more shockingly!, in the 13 years after Muhammad’s death, exactly when the current theories of the Quran’s origins says that semi-official copies of the Quran were being produced.
  3. Many Muslim traditions hold that it was not the Prophet who put the chapters of the Quran in their canonical order, and even that it was not the Prophet who put the many verses of the Quran together in order to form the chapters.  Rather, this was done after his death by the committees that compiled the official versions of the Quran around 650.  The majority of Muslim scholars have disagreed with this and hold that the verses and chapters were ordered by the Prophet (NB: a study of an early Quran copy from Sana’a has shown that ordering the verses and chapters predates the official Quran compiled by Uthman).[2]  If the Birmingham Quran pages predate Muhammad’s career by decades, what this means is that not only did the themes and ideas in the Quran predate Islam, but that the very text of the Quran, word for word, predates Islam.  Not only that, even the Quran’s chapter and verse divisions predate the Prophet’s life!  This would be astounding, since Muslim tradition holds that not even the official copies of the Quran disseminated by Uthman had chapter and verse dividers.[3]


So, Holland makes a proposition:  we should accept that, sometime within, and only within, the period between 568 and 610 CE pieces of parchment were produced from animal skin and then immediately used to write the text of the Quran, word for word as it would be adopted by Muslims decades later, along with verse and chapters divisions, which Muslims would then forget about when they issued their own official versions of the Quran (no doubt to cover of their reliance on earlier material).  This would result in a startling, revolutionary scholarly discovery: the Quran actually predates the career of Muhammad!

I have another proposition, one that I think requires fewer leaps of faith: that pieces of parchment were produced from animal skin sometime between 568 and 645 CE, probably later rather than earlier, and that sometime in the decades after the Prophet’s death in around 632, after the chapter and verse divisions of the Quran had been to be formalized and written down in copies of the holy book, someone used these pieces of parchment to write down a copy of the Quran.  This would involve absolutely no interesting scholarly development.  It would mean that the Quran, which Western scholars have long generally held dates from around the time of the Prophet and certainly before 692 CE, dates from around the time of the Prophet and certainly before 692 CE.

I think this is a much more reasonable proposition.  Unless… the Quran comes from the future…




[1] For the best summary of the state of the field, see Nicolai Sinai, “When did the consonantal skeleton of the Quran reach closure? Parts I and II” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (2014).

[2] See M.M. Al-Azami, The History of the Quranic Text, 2nd ed. (2008).

[3] Behnam Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi. ‘Ṣanʿā’ 1 and the Origins of the Qur’ān.’ Der Islam 87, no. 1 (2012): 22-23.

[4] Al-Azami, The History of the Quranic Text, 172.


Tom Holland, the Five Daily Prayers and they Hypocrisy of Revisionism


On a radio show on BBC 4 a couple of weeks ago, Tom Holland raised his claim (made originally in his book In the Shadow of the Sword on the origins of Islam) that the famous five daily prayers in Islam were not originally part of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. They were actually imported into the religion from Zoroastrianism well after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and after the Muslims had conquered the greater Middle East. Holland sets his story in the environs of the city of Kufa in southern Iraq in the mid eighth century. The Muslim practice of praying five times a day, he argues, resulted from Islam, in effect, imitating Zoroastrian practice. More specifically, Zoroastrian converts to Islam in Kufa brought with them practices such as the five daily prayers from their own religion (Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword, 405).

Holland’s evidence for this is an observation supposedly made by Rav Yehudai Gaon, who was the senior Jewish scholar of the Suru rabbinic academy near Kufa from 757 CE until his death in 761. Rav Yehudai is quoted as remarking that Zoroastrian converts to Islam retained some aspect of their previous religion. Holland writes, quoting Rav Yehudai, “The hearts of those mowbeds [Zoroastrian priests] who had ‘converted to the religion of the Ishmaelites,’ so he reported, were still not entirely clear the trace of their former beliefs, even down to the third generation: ‘for part of their religion still remains within them.’”

Holland belongs to a school of historical thought known as revisionism, which criticizes mainstream Western scholarship on early Islamic history for relying too much on historical sources that 1) are written by Muslims, and therefore biased towards Islamic orthodoxy, and 2) postdate the events they describe by many decades or centuries, during which time the ‘true’ description of events must have been adjusted by the faithful to fit with the orthodox sacred Islamic history that had gelled during the intervening period. So we should not believe that the Muslim scholar Ibn Ishaq’s (died 767) famous biography of the Prophet is a historically reliable source for the events of the historical Muhammad’s life because 1) Ibn Ishaq was a Muslim writing a sacred history of a figure who had become a fixture in his religious tradition and was not being approached objectively, and 2) Ibn Ishaq was compiling his biography some 140 years after the death of the Prophet. To take Ibn Ishaq as reliable would be like historians a century from now writing the history of the American Civil War based on documents written in 2015 by Americans who all celebrate the victory of the North over the South.

To solve this problem of historical sources, revisionists have proposed relying on non-Muslim sources for the early Islamic period, some of which do date from early on (for example, the writings of the Armenian bishop Sebeos come from the 660’s CE) and are not colored by pro-Islam bias.

I could go into a long critique of the revisionist approach here, but that is totally unnecessary. Holland’s argument on the point of Muslim prayer is so feeble that one need only hold it to the standards of the revisionist school itself for it to collapse entirely.

1) Why is Holland putting words in Rav’s Mouth?:

The first problem with Holland’s argument is that Rav Yehudai does not actually mention the daily prayer as an example of Zoroastrian religious influence on Islam. Instead, Holland reaches this conclusion by open speculation. He asks, “What evidence might the rabbi have had for making such a claim?” Well, Zoroastrianism included a five-times-a-day prayer, he notes, so that was probably what Rav Yehudai meant. But speculation is unnecessary, since Rav Yehudai actually said exactly what he meant in the passage Holland cites. His comments about Zoroastrian converts to Islam involves how they tend not to give up drinking wine immediately, sometimes continuing to imbibe into the third generation.

2) How on Earth does Holland think this is a reliable historical source?

Let’s just pretend that Rav Yehudai was actually talking about the daily prayer practices of Zoroastrians/Muslims (which, of course, he never mentions at all). And let’s just assume that Rav Yehudai was making an accurate, fair observation about the practices around him in southern Iraq in the 750’s CE. The writings of Rav Yehudai must be more historically reliable than Muslim ones like Ibn Ishaq, right? What book of Rav Yehudai is Holland citing? Actually, he doesn’t cite any work by Rav Yehudai. His endnote cites the Sefer Ha-Eshkol, a work attributed to Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac, a rabbi living in southern France in the twelfth century. Nor does the Sefer Ha-Eshkol cite Rav Yehudai directly. Instead, Rav Yehudai’s report about Muslim converts comes via a senior rabbi of the Pumbedita rabbinic academy in Babylon who lived some three hundred years after Rav Yehudai, Rav Hayya Gaon (died 1038 CE).

So, Holland is saying that, in order to overcome the problem of Muslim sources like the biography of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq, which was compiled in Baghdad a century and a half after Muhammad’s career, we should turn to a source written in France five centuries after Muhammad’s career? But, Holland might reply, Abraham ben Isaac was drawing on earlier reports and historical works, which we should trust. But this is exactly what Muslim historians like Ibn Ishaq claimed to be doing in their works, and the central criticism made by revisionists like Holland is that we can’t just trust that historians are reliably passing on earlier material.

But let us be charitable. Let’s assume that during the five centuries between the lives of Rav Yehudai Gaon and Abraham ben Isaac, five centuries of religious polemics and warfare between Christians, Jews and Muslims across the Mediterranean, that Rav Yehudai’s observation remained intact to be preserved for us in the Sefer Ha-Eshkol.

The problem is that the Sefer Ha-Eshkol itself is unreliable. As has been discussed for over a century by rabbinic scholars and scholars of Judaic studies, the 1868 Halberstadt edition of the Sefer that Holland relies on was a forgery produced by the famous nineteenth-century Rabbi and literary scholar Zvi Benjamin Auerbach (died 1878). This has led some leading scholars of rabbinic literature to conclude that the book “should not be used for historical purposes.”*

3) So what sources should we rely on for the origins of the five daily prayers?

Let’s indulge revisionist skepticism about historical sources written by Muslims. Let’s forget that the story of how and when the Prophet Muhammad instituted the five daily prayers, which Muslim scholars concluded either happened in 617 CE or soon before the Prophet’s emigration to Medina 622 CE, was recorded in major Muslim historical collections from the late 700’s and early 800’s. The earliest attested book in which this story appears in the Muwatta’ of Malik bin Anas (died. 796), which was compiled in Medina in the mid to late 700’s. Malik includes a report transmitted via a chain of narrators from the Prophet, who said, “Five prayers God has ordained for His servants, and whoever does them without treating them lightly, God has given that person a promise to grant them entrance into the Garden….” (Muwatta’: kitab salat al-layl, bab al-amr bi’l-witr). If we indulge in revisionist skepticism and assume that Malik was making up the whole transmission that he claims came from the Prophet, we would still know that, at least during Malik’s own lifetime in Medina, there was the clear idea that a core part of Islam was five daily prayers.

And then we could indulge more revisionism and insist on relying on non-Muslim sources. Since Rav Yehudai never mentions the Muslim prayer, why not look at a non-Muslim source that does? We could look at the T’ung tien, a Chinese Tang court work of history and geography that was published in 801 CE. It contains a description of Kufa by a Chinese soldier who was taken prisoner at the Battle of Talas in 751, spent years amongst the Muslims in Iraq and Iran, and returned to China in 762. One of the few observations that this Chinese soldier recalls of Kufa, which was the Abbasid capital at the time (Baghdad not being built until the 760’s), was that the Muslims there would pray five times a day.

So between the Muwatta of Malik and the T’ung tien, we know that Muslim communal practice in Medina and Kufa in the mid 700’s included the five daily prayers. This despite the fact that the two regions of Medina and Kufa had dramatically different traditions of Islamic law. So both regions must have inherited the prayer practice from a common, earlier practice, and there thus must have been some common origin for the five prayers. This would push the historical attestation for the practice back at least one generation to at least the early 700’s, only seventy or so years after the death of the Prophet.

4) When arrogant historians tell us that bring critical means ignoring the obvious

So we have a choice. We can believe Holland’s claim, based on an unreliable nineteenth-century forgery of a supposedly twelfth-century work from France quoting an eleventh-century rabbi in Baghdad quoting an eighth century rabbi from near Kufa, that, because Zoroastrian converts to Islam still liked to drink wine, that therefore the Muslim practice of praying five times a day, which, like wine drinking, Zoroastrians also did, must also have been imported into Islam from Zoroastrianism by Zoroastrian converts.

That, or, we can believe, based on historically attested Muslim and non-Muslim sources, which paint a reliable overall picture of Muslim practice in Kufa and Medina decades before Rav Yehudai supposedly made his observation, that the five daily prayers were widely accepted as a core practice of Islam by at least the early 700’s, only seventy or so years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Actually, Holland’s claim makes even less sense when we remember that the tradition of Islamic law in Kufa, where Holland has all these Zoroastrian practices and five-times-a-day-praying Zoroastrian sleeper converts supposedly influencing Muslims, actually argued for there being SIX required daily prayers (the sixth, the witr prayer, is still considered required in the Hanafi school that originated in Kufa). The Muwatta of Malik, on the other hand, written in Medina where Holland would have us assume that there were many fewer Zoroastrian converts wandering around, rejects the sixth prayer and insists on the supposedly Zoroastrian-based five times.

5) This is all unnecessary if you want to explain Islam’s roots

Holland and others make the arguments they do because they believe, quite reasonably, that nothing comes out of nowhere. People, ideas and customs have genealogies. So, could practices and beliefs promulgated in the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings be taken from elsewhere? Yes, of course. The Quran announces that some aspects of Islam are repeats from earlier prophetic messages: ‘O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you as it was for those who came before you’ (2:185). And there are well known reports that the Prophet Muhammad would follow the customs of the People of Book (basically, Jews) unless commanded by God to do otherwise (see Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Shama’il of al-Tirmidhi). So the origins of the five daily prayers, as taught by Muhammad in his new religion, may well lie in preexisting practices such as those of Zoroastrianism. But saying that Islam as a religion practiced and taught by Muhammad incorporated elements of earlier traditions is very different from saying that what Muslims believe to be a core teaching of their Prophet was actually adopted into Islam long after his death, and this adoption then covered up.


* Haym Soloveitchik, “Review of Olam ke-Minhago Noheg, by Yishaq Zimmer,” Association of Jewish Studies Review 23.2 (1998): 227-228.

Break the Fear Barrier – Write to a Prisoner

Dozens of Muslims in the US have been imprisoned on trumped up charges or as the result of entrapment by the authorities.  They are often abandoned by their friends and communities, sometimes even by their families.  One of the few things that give them hope is a letter from the outside.  Don’t let society intimidate you into forgetting that even those convicted of crimes are still human beings with rights…

To find out how to do this very easy good deed, click here.

NPR: Egypt’s Islamic Salafi Party Walks Political Tightrope

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Human Sin, Divine Forgiveness and Human Reconciliation

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Note: this lecture begins with Georgetown University’s President Jack DeGioia speaking and then Dr. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen giving an excellent talk on the Christian tradition.

The thirteenth Building Bridges Seminar, chaired by Professor Daniel A. Madigan, S.J., was held April 27-30, 2014 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and the Airlie Center in Warrenton, Virginia. This year’s theme was “Sin, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: Christian and Muslim Perspectives.” On the first afternoon, public lectures by Jonathan Brown and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen provided an overview. On the second and third days of the seminar, seminar participants heard pairs of lectures that set the stage for detailed discussion in private sessions, focusing on relevant scriptural texts. Thus lectures on “sin” were given by Christoph Schwöbel and Ayman Shabana; on “forgiveness” by Susan Eastman (read in her absence by Joel Marcus) and Mohammad Khalil; and on “reconciliation” by Philip Sheldrake and Asma Afsaruddin. The proceedings of the seminar will be published in due course.


The Rules of Matn Criticism: There are No Rules

In an effort to avoid the subjectivity of individual reason, Sunni Islam elaborated a
method of ḥadīth criticism that subordinated evaluating the meaning of a report to
an examination of its chain of transmission. With the fourth/tenth-century epistemological
compromise of Ashʿarism, however, Sunni ḥadīth scholars adopted rationalist
criteria of content criticism that included explicit rules for rejecting ḥadīths because
of their meaning. is resulted in a strong internal tension within Sunni ḥadīth
criticism from the fifth/eleventh century onwards, with one and the same scholar
upholding rigid rules of content criticism but not employing them or even rejecting
them in application. e inherent subjectivity of content criticism resulted in different
Muslim scholars either rejecting or affirming the same ḥadīths. Some scholars were
much more inclined to reject a ḥadīth out of hand because of its meaning, while
others were willing to extend a ḥadīth more interpretive charity. e tension created
by the subjectivity of content criticism emerged in unprecedented relief in the modern
period, when ‘science’ and modern social norms presented an unmatched challenge
to the interpretive awe in which pre-modern (and Traditionalist scholars today) held
attributions to the Prophet.

The Rules of Matn Criticism – There are No Rules – Islamic Law and Society

Faithful Dissenters: Sunni Skepticism about the Miracles of Saints

Faithful Dissenters – Sunni Skepticism about the Miracles of Saints

Belief in the miracles of saints (karāmāt al-awliyāʾ) is a requirement in Sunni Islam. Challenges
to this position are generally seen as limited to Islamic modernists effected by Western historical
criticism. This article demonstrates that there have actually been leading Sunni Muslim scholars
from the fourth/tenth century until the modern period who held positions regarding the miracles
of saints that were much more skeptical than the mainstream Sunni stance. These ‘faithful dissenters’
were motivated by both theological and social concerns, and the methodologies they
presented for sifting true from false miracle claims were based entirely on indigenous Islamic
epistemological and textual criticism.


Misquoting Muhammad

The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy


misquoting Misquoting 2

Named as one of the top books on religion of 2014 by The Independent…!  Misquoting Muhammad takes the reader back in time through Islamic civilization and traces how and why such controversies developed, offering an inside view into how key and controversial aspects of Islam took shape. From the protests of the Arab Spring to Istanbul at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and from the ochre red walls of Delhi’s great mosques to the trade routes of Islam’s Indian Ocean world, Misquoting Muhammad lays out how Muslim intellectuals have sought to balance reason and revelation, weigh science and religion, and negotiate the eternal truths of scripture amid shifting values.


See the review by The Independent,  the Times of London, The Economist and the Washington Post.
Order here