Dating the Qur’an and Bible

“The Christian scriptures were only completed centuries after Jesus, unlike the Qur’ān which was written at the time of Muhammad”

Actually, the transmission of the Bible and the Qur’ān have rather similar histories, as we shall see. Neither simply dropped from the sky in book form as some people seem to believe, but both scriptures have a history progressing from an oral stage through now-lost original written documents, through fragmentary manuscript evidence, to existing complete written collections a hundred years after revelation ceased.

1. Oral Stage:

Muhammad (pbuh) did not leave his disciples a written Qur’ān when he died, though many of his disciples had memorize the suras he gave them. There is some evidence that some suras were written on bones and leaves during Muhammad’s lifetime. Jesus did not come to deliver a written “Word of God”, for he was uniquely himself the “Word” of God, so the scriptures of Jesus are primarily testimonies of this “Word”, not the other way around. The three years prior to Jesus’ death he devoted to teaching them his gospel message, so they could be witness of him. This gospel message was the oral stage of the New Testament.

2. Now-Lost Original Written Documents:

The first written collection of the Qur’ān was during the reign of Abu Bakr. During the battle of Yamama, four hundred and fifty reciters were killed and Abu Bakr feared that much of the Qur’ān would be lost, so he began to collect it from leaves, stones, and memorizers. Here is the description in Bukhari:

Narrated Zaid bin Thabit: Abu Bakr As-Siddiq sent for me when the people! of Yamama had been killed (i.e., a number of the Prophet’s Companions who fought against Musailama). (I went to him) and found ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab sitting with him. Abu Bakr then said (to me), “Umar has come to me and said: “Casualties were heavy among the Qurra’ of the! Qur’ān (i.e. those who knew the Qur’ān by heart) on the day of the Battle of Yalmama, and I am afraid that more heavy casualties may take place among the Qurra’ on other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur’ān may be lost. Therefore I suggest, you (Abu Bakr) order that the Qur’ān be collected.” I said to ‘Umar, “How can you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do?” ‘Umar said, “By Allah, that is a good project. “Umar kept on urging me to accept his proposal till Allah opened my chest for it and I began to realize the good in the idea which ‘Umar had realized.” Then Abu Bakr said (to me). ‘You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Apostle. So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’ān and collect it in one book).” By Allah If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur’ān. Then I said to Abu Bakr, “How will you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do?” Abu Bakr replied, “By Allah, it is a good project.” Abu Bakr kept on urging me to accept his idea until Allah opened my chest for what He had opened the chests of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. So I started looking for the Qur’ān and collecting it from (what was written on) palmed stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last Verse of Surat At-Tauba (Repentance) with Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him.1

This was not an official copy, for it was kept in personal houses and ended up under the bed of Umar’s daughter Hafsah rather than in the treasury ( Baithulmal ). Some modern scholars have questioned the historicity of this collection.2 About twenty years later, Uthmān made the first official collection due to disagreements of the text. He appointed Zaid Bin Thabith and three other Makkans for this task.

‘Uthmān sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’ānic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. Said bin Thabit added, “A Verse from Surat Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur’ān and I used to hear Allah’s Apostle reciting it. So we searched for it and found it with Khuzaima bin Thabit Al-Ansari.3

This official version was disputed by some of the best Qur’ānic reciters such as Ibn Masood and Ubayy.4 The copies of Uthmān’s official version have all been lost. In popular legend, both the Topkapi manuscript in Istanbul and the Samarqand manuscript in Uzbekistan are Uthmānic originals, but scholars disagree with this based on both carbon dating and paleographic or calligraphic dating, for the Kufic style used dates from after Uthmān’s recension. One Islamic website summarizes as follows:

Is this [Topkapi] the Qur’ān that belong to the third caliph Uthmān? The answer is no. There are good number of other Qur’āns (such as the ones at St. Petersburg and Samarqand) having at times turned up in different parts of the Islamic world, almost all purporting to show the traces of the blood of the third caliph Uthmān upon certain pages, and thus the genuine Uthmānic Qur’ān , the imām, which he was reading at the time of his death. Moreover, the manuscript clearly shows the script, illumination and marking of vowels that are from the Umayyad times (i.e., late 1st century / early 2nd century of hijra). Furthermore, this manuscript was also briefly discussed by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjid who did not consider it to be from the time of caliph Uthmān.5

The Samarqand and Topkapi manuscripts are early, but not Uthmānic copies.

The New Testament originals were written by the apostles and their immediate companions during the period A.D. 51-96, from 20 years after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. These original letters and gospels were quickly copied and shared throughout the churches of the Mediterranean. Like the first Qur’ānic manuscripts of Abu Bakr and Uthmān, these original copies have been lost.

3. Fragmentary Manuscript Evidence

The Sana’a manuscript fragments, found in Yemen in 1972, represent the oldest existent version of the Qur’ān. The Yemeni Antiquities Authority assigned restoration oversight to Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography specialist Gerd R. Puin of Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin has extensively examined the parchment fragments found in this collection. The texts revealed unconventional verse orderings and minor textual variations. In 1999, the Atlantic Monthly reported on Puin’s discoveries:

“Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam’s first two centuries — they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What’s more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.”6

The earliest fragment of the New Testament is a section of John 18 known as “p52”, dating from A.D. 135, or about 40 years after the original manuscript of John. From A.D. 200 there exist papyrus copies of Luke, John and ten Pauline letters.

4. Complete Written Manuscripts

The earliest complete text of the Qur’ān is from around 150AH, stored in the British Museum in London. The earliest complete books of the New Testament date from A.D. 200, but the earliest single text containing the entire New Testament is the Codex Sinaiticus from the late 300’s, currently on display in the British Museum. From this point on, for both the Qur’ān and the New Testament there is abundant manuscript evidence.

These four stages can be summarized in a timeline as follows:

History of the Qur'ān and Bible Manuscripts

  1. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, Bk. 61, No. 509.
  2. Adams, C.J., The Text and its History, ‘Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade (Ed.) [New York: Macmillan, 1987], pp.157-76.
  3. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, Bk. 61. No. 510.
  4. See Copyist Errors
  5. The “Qur’ān Of Uthmān” At The Topkapi Museum , Islamic Awareness,. Retrieved on June 16, 2009.
  6. Lester, Toby (January 1999). “What Is The Koran”. The Atlantic Monthly..

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