So they recently dated an extremely early Quran manuscript, which actually followed the standard Uthman recension instead of any of the many variant versions that Uthman tried to stamp out (and which might be the original wording of the Quran, for all anybody knows). This made a lot of Islamic people happy.
(UPDATE: The original link used in this post no longer works, as that site gives free access to articles only during the current month of issue. I apologize for the inconvenience. The current link should stay up.)
Of course, carbon dating is notoriously difficult to get exactly right, and it could even be a post-Uthman copy (deliberately faked or just thrifty) that was written on something older. Alternatively, it could be an extremely early example of Uthman’s edition, and the carbon dating was just a little off. But usually one assumes the middle date is the most likely.
Meanwhile, the paleographical analysis has always said that it’s from the very late 600s or the very early 700s.
So let’s put this together:
AD 570: Traditional date of Muhammad’s birth
610: Traditional date of Muhammad starting to get messages from Gabriel and God
632: Traditional date of Muhammad’s death
post-632: Quran traditionally put together from scraps of dictation recorded on spare palm bark and animal bones.
650: Third Caliph, Uthman, codifies his official version of the Quran and destroys all other copies that he can find.
AD 568-645: Carbon dating of Birmingham Quran manuscript. Middle date is 606.
AD 680-720: Paleographic dating of Birmingham Quran manuscript. Middle date is 700.
For even more fun, this isn’t the first manuscript that is too early. The Sana’a manuscript fragments have been dated to AD 543–643 and to AD 433–599.
The article points out that a Quran that is a couple hundred years older, or more, than tradition holds would explain why Islamic scholars have never been able to explain certain features of the text. This does go towards the thesis that some parts of the Quran are actually quoted from an early Christian manuscript written in Syriac, and thus misunderstood by Arabic speakers. Since Muhammad’s relatives and early associates included a lot of Christians, Gnostics, etc., this has always been plausible.
So what parts of the Quran are covered by the Birmingham ms?
First off, the Birmingham ms consists only 2 leaves; but they are recognized to be from the same manuscript as 16 leaves in the National Library over in Paris. The Birmingham leaves cover material from Surah 18 (about “the People of the Cave,” aka the Muslim version of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus), the end of Surah 19 (the Muslim version of the story of the Virgin Mary), and the beginning of Surah 20 (God addressing an unnamed prophet, traditionally identified as Muhammad by Islamic readers).
All this is stuff that could easily have been written by a non-Islamic author writing in Syriac. One of the most important points of Jewish prophecy was God’s promise to send another prophet who would be like Moses, but who would know God face to face. Even the New Testament Samaritans were looking for “the Prophet” in this sense; that’s what the Samaritan woman was talking about in the story. Today’s Samaritans and Jews are still looking. Christianity believes that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy among many others, just as the Samaritan woman testified. There were other ancient groups who had their own candidates.
Islam’s claim is that Muhammad was the guy; so Muhammad taking over a manuscript, or small library of manuscripts, telling what God said to “the Prophet” would be plausible.
We also have a lot of ancient mystical texts which are associated with the recording of mystical visions and messages. We know that many more used to exist but were lost at some point.
Shrug. It’s interesting. The most conservative thesis would be that there’s something messing with the carbon dating, but the carbon dating of Roman era Egyptian ms from desert areas seems to be quite consistent, as far as I know. Why would an ms from Turkey or somewhere be any different?