In the 17th century, Protestants developed a form of study to wrestle Christianity from Catholics, this was called ‘Historical Criticism’, and attempted to seek out the true historical origins and original forms for sacred texts held by Catholicism. This was developed from 19th-20th centuries into critiquing even protestant Bibles, to such a degree, that it broke the back of Christian dominated thought in Western Europe – causing an increasing Secularisation of Western European societies. For when the Bible was shown to be a fallible work of human hands, how can it be an infallible basis for human society?
Many Western scholars seeking to cause a similarly decisive secularisation of the Muslim mind, attempted to implement the same model of criticism against Islam, hoping to find similar significant variations or alternative origins for the Quran, as they did for the Bible, and therefore ideologically weaken or demolish Islam’s central authority – the Quran itself.
However, the Quran proved to be very different from the Bible. Firstly the Quran makes greater claims for itself than the Bible – purporting to be the very word of God (whereas the New Testament Bible doesn’t actually call itself the word of God anywhere in its text. It was considered by Christians to be inerrant and divinely inspired, but not divinely revealed verbatim). Secondly, the Quran was revealed over the development of a new society and rising political power that dominated the Middle East and beyond, with hundreds of thousands of followers reciting it and implementing it as law before it was completely revealed towards the end of Muhammed (saaw)’s life. There was never any priesthood that hid it away, or had a monopoly over it. It was an oral culture, and hundreds of thousands of people had open and equal access to reading, preserving and transmitting the Quran. This is, unlike the New Testament Bible, which was formed of smaller books, written by different anonymous authors, at a time when Christians were being persecuted and there existing no central authority for the spread out Christian communities of the Greco-Roman era.
Much to the chagrin of some Western Biblical ‘critical historians’, the written down texts of the Quran exhibits a strong degree of regularity and consistency, with no significant variations between the thousands of uncovered oldest manuscripts despite its emergence from an oral culture of hundreds of thousands of memorisers going back to the time of the Prophet Muhammed (saaw).
However, this has not stopped some Western ‘critical historians’ from trying. While belief in the textual inerrancy of the New Testament Bible is fringe amongst Bible Scholars, belief in an alternative origin for the Quran other than the Islamic account, is considered fringe even amongst Western ‘Critical historians’. Despite this, a historian of Greco-Roman history, Tom Holland ardently contests that Islam and Muhammed (saaw) was ‘created’ after the dates cited in Islamic historical sources. Tom Holland produced a ‘documentary’ for Channel 4 (UK) called ‘Islam: The Untold Story’, in which he asserted that Islam was a later creation of the Arab Empire in order to justify its authority. He then argued that ‘Mecca’ was chosen by the Arab Caliphs as a desolate spot to be the site of a ‘founding myth’ which would presumably ensure ‘no one could contradict’. What was his main evidence? The apparent lack of mention of Muhammed (saaw) by Byzantine Roman sources!
Unsurprisingly, Western scholars of Islamic history haven’t taken the arguments of a Greco-roman scholar too seriously in this regard. Even Patricia Crone, who some argue Tom Holland borrowed his arguments from, has abandoned her old position and conceded the mainstream Islamic accounts.
However, this wasn’t the end to Tom Holland’s bold outsider (i.e. layman) comments against the mainstream of Western scholarship on Islamic history. Recently, very old manuscripts of the Quran from the mingana collection, were carbon-dated, producing results that place them within the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) himself! One of the manuscripts that was dated, showed that the parchment (animal skin) that formed one of the partial manuscripts of the Quran, was possibly written on parchment belonging to an animal that was killed before the Birth of Muhammed (saaw). Tom Holland’s ‘opinion’ (as a Greco-roman history scholar?!) was then sought by many UK media sources, for his comment on this – to which (reading from the same news sources available to everyone else) he used this apparent result to claim that the Quran pre-dated Muhammed (saaw)! His first documentary claimed that Islam came after Arab conquests, then he argues that ‘Islam’ came before Muhammed (saaw)! Apparently, he wants Islam to come anytime the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) wasn’t around!
His argument has been widely rejected by Western critical historians, as they simply cannot make such a assertion based on an alleged carbon dating result, which only proved that the parchment of one of the manuscripts came from an animal that may have lived before the Prophet Muhammed (saaw). In an era before paper, animal skin parchment was expensive, and as many in the ancient world used to do, they cleaned and reused it for decades – of which the early Islamic accounts cite Muslims finding any scraps of shoulder bones, animal skin or anything else they could find to write down the verses of the Quran.
What’s the simplest explanation here? That one of the parchments used was (possibly) from an old skin (that provably like in all ancient societies) reused it to form some of the pages to record part of the Quran – something attested by Islamic sources too? OR that Islam was somehow invented before Muhammed (saaw), of which he somehow borrowed without anyone noticing, wrote himself and his personal encounters with the Quraysh into the texts by NAME without changing the style of text – and then claimed it as original revelation without anyone contradicting him as to its originality (in form), despite that they accused him of disrupting their society by bringing in something NEW. And on top of all that, he challenging them to imitate the Quran if they doubted it! What’s more likely, really?
The discovery reaffirms the Islamic account – unless you’re willing to indulge flights of fantasy borne of an entrenched prejudice desperate to disprove Islam…
Below is an article written after an interview with a historian at Birmingham University who is at the centre of the work on the manuscripts, Professor David Thomas. He affirms the mainstream Islamic account as the most likely explanation given all the evidence produced from all the mingana manuscripts.
Article originally published in the Independent, 2nd August 2015 by Adam Withnall
Fragments of ‘world’s oldest known Koran’ unlikely to pre-date Prophet Mohamed, says expert
A manuscript of the Koran found buried away in a Birmingham library is more likely than not the oldest known direct record of the Prophet Mohamed’s teachings, according to an expert at the university where it was discovered.