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The Quríanís Manuscript Evidence

(Part 1)


Often, when we find ourselves in conversation with Muslims the authority for that which we are discussing comes up and we are forced to answer the question: "Which is the true Word of God, the Bible or the Qur'an?" As a Christian, I immediately affirm my own scriptures, maintaining that the Bible is the intrinsic Word of God. Obviously, for any Muslims, or others who may not have a religious position, this answer is not credible, as it involves a subjective statement of faith, one which cannot be proved or disproved, as there is no possibility of enquiry or verification. I am certain that when the same question is posed to a Muslim he likewise answers that the Qur'an qualifies as the final Word of God, and any further discussion ends. Both Christianity and Islam derive their set of beliefs from their revelations, the Bible and the Qur'an, yet we find that they disagree on a number of areas. One need only compare how each scripture deals with Jesus, sin, atonement, and salvation to understand that there are contradictory assertions held by both. Thus it is important to delineate which scripture can best make the claim to be the final and perfect Word of God.

When two documents which claim to be true are in contradiction, one must ascertain whether the contradictions can be explained adequately using criteria which a non-believer, or a third party, can accept; in other words, using criteria which go beyond the adherents' personal faith commitment to their revelation. Essentially one must ask whether the Qur'an or the Bible can stand up to verification, or whether they can withstand an external critical analysis for their authenticity. This is an immensely complex and difficult subject. Since both Islam and Christianity claim to receive their beliefs from the revealed truth which they find in their respective scriptures, to suspect the source for revealed truth, the scriptures for each faith, is to put the integrity of both Christianity and Islam on trial.

Obviously this is not a task that one should undertake lightly, and I don't intend to do so here. For that reason, and because of the lack of time and space, I have decided not to make a comparison between the claims the two revelations make for themselves, but simply ask the question whether the two scriptures can be corroborated by history; in other words whether there is any historical data or evidence which we can find that can help us verify that which they claim is true.

I start with the presupposition that God has intersected time and space and has revealed His truth to His creation. We should expect to see, therefore, evidence of those revelations in history, and be able to corroborate the historical claims the revelations make by an historical analysis. Both the Bible and the Qur'an claim to have been revealed at a certain place, and over a period of time. They speak of people, places, and events. If they are true, then we should be able to find evidence for their claims, and especially corroboration for what they say in the period in which they themselves profess they were revealed; the Bible between 1,447 B.C. and 70 A.D., and the Qur'an between 610 A.D. and 632 A.D. My intent in this study is to look at the historical data which exists in these periods, and ascertain whether it supports or denies the claims for the historicity of both the Bible and the Qur'an. This I will attempt to do by looking at three areas of evidence; that provided by manuscripts, documents and archaeological data from the periods mentioned above. If the manuscript, documentary and archaeological evidence supports the claims for the Bible or the Qur'an, then we can assume their reliability. However, if the evidence denies their historicity, then we have to question their authenticity.

I will admit that this study is nothing more than a mere 'overview,' with the desire that it will stimulate others to continue investigating this very important area in their own time. The hope is that, like Peter before us, we too can "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have" (1 Peter 3:15).

Let's then begin by looking at the area of manuscript evidence. What manuscripts do we have in Islam which can corroborate the authenticity of the Qur'an that we have in our hands today, and likewise, what Christian manuscripts are available to validate the Bible?

The Quríanís Manuscript Evidence:

A manuscript analysis of the Qur'an does present us with unique problems not encountered with the Bible. While we can find multiple manuscripts for the Bible written 700-900 years earlier, at a time when durable paper was not even used, the manuscripts for the Qur'an within the century in which it was purported to have been compiled, the seventh century, simply do not exist. Prior to 750 A.D. (thus for 100 years after Muhammad's death) we have no verifiable Muslim documents which can give us a window into this formative period of Islam (Wansbrough 1978:58-59). In fact the primary sources which we possess are from 150-300 years after the events which they describe, and therefore are quite distant from those events (Nevo 1994:108; Wansbrough 1978:119; Crone 1987:204). For that reason they are, for all practical purposes, secondary sources, as they rely on other material, much of which no longer exists. We simply do not have any "account from the Islamic' community during the [initial] 150 years or so, between the first Arab conquests [the early 7th century] and the appearance, with the sira-maghazi narratives, of the earliest Islamic literature" [the late 8th century] (Wansbrough 1978:119).

We should expect to find, in those intervening 150 years, at least remnants of evidence for the development of the old Arab religion towards Islam (i.e. Muslim traditions); yet we find nothing (Nevo 1994:108; Crone 1980:5-8). The documentary evidence at our disposal, prior to 750 A.D. "consists almost entirely of rather dubious citations in later compilations" (Humphreys 1991:80). Consequently, we have no reliable proof that the later Muslim traditions speak truly of the life of Muhammad, or even of the Qur'an (Schacht 1949:143-154). In fact we have absolutely no evidence for the original Qur'anic text (Schimmel 1984:4). Nor do we have any of the alleged four copies which were made of this recension and sent to Mecca, Medina, Basra and Damascus (see Gilchrist's arguments in his book Jam' al-Qur'an, 1989, pp. 140-154, as well as Ling's & Safadi's The Qur'an 1976, pp. 11-17).

Even if these copies had somehow disintegrated with age (as some Muslims now allege), there would surely be some fragments of the documents which we could refer to. By the end of the seventh century Islam had expanded from Spain in the west to India in the east. The Qur'an (according to tradition) was the centrepiece of their faith. Certainly within that enormous sphere of influence there would be some Qur'anic documents or manuscripts which still exist till this day. Yet, there is nothing anywhere from that period at all.

With the enormous number of manuscripts available for the Christian scriptures, all compiled long before the time Muhammad was born, it is incredible that Islam cannot provide a single corroborated manuscript of their most holy book from even within a century of their founder's birth.

(1) Sammarkand and Topkapi MSS; Kufic and Ma'il Scripts:

In response, Muslims contend that they do have a number of these "Uthmanic recensions," these original copies from the seventh century, still in their possession. There are two documents which do hold some credibility, and to which many Muslims refer. These are the Samarkand Manuscript, which is located in the Tashkent library, Uzbekistan (in the southern part of the former Soviet Union), and the Topkapi Manuscript, which can be found in the Topkapi Museum, in Istanbul, Turkey.

These two documents are indeed old, and there has been ample etymological analysis done on them by scriptologists, as well as experts in Arabic calligraphy to warrant their discussion. What most Muslims do not realize is that these two manuscripts are written in the Kufic Script, a script which according to modern Qur'anic manuscript experts, such as Martin Lings and Yasin Hamid Safadi, did not appear until late into the eighth century, and was not in use at all in Mecca and Medina in the seventh century (Lings & Safadi 1976:12-13,17; Gilchrist 1989:145-146; 152-153).

The reasons for this are quite simple. Consider: The Kufic script, properly known as al-Khatt al-Kufi, derives its name from the city of Kufa in Iraq (Lings & Safadi 1976:17). It would be rather odd for this script to have been adopted as the official script for the "mother of all books" as it is a script which had its origins in a city that had only been conquered by the Arabs a mere 10-14 years earlier.

It is important to note that the city of Kufa, which is in present day Iraq, was a city which would have been Sassanid or Persian before that time (637-8 A.D.). Thus, while Arabic would have been known there, it would not have been the predominant language, let alone the predominant script until much later.

We know in fact, that the Kufic script reached its perfection during the late eighth century (up to one hundred and fifty years after Muhammad's death) and thereafter it became widely used throughout the Muslim world (Lings & Safadi 1976:12,17; Gilchrist 1989:145-146). This makes sense, since after 750 A.D. the Abbasids controlled Islam, and due to their Persian background were headquartered in the Kufa and Baghdad areas. They would thus have wanted their script to dominate. Having been themselves dominated by the Umayyads (who were based in Damascus) for around 100 years, it would now be quite understandable that an Arabic script which originated in their area of influence, such as the Kufic script would evolve into that which we find in these two documents mentioned here.

Therefore, it stands to reason that both the Topkapi and Samarkand Manuscripts, because they are written in the Kufic script, could not have been written earlier than 150 years after the Uthmanic Recension was supposedly compiled; at the earliest the late 700s or early 800s (Gilchrist 1989:144-147).

We do know that there were two earlier Arabic scripts which most modern Muslims are not familiar with. These are the al-Ma'il Script, developed in the Hijaz, particularly in Mecca and Medina, and the Mashq Script, also developed in Medina (Lings & Safadi 1976:11; Gilchrist 1989:144-145). The al-Ma'il Script came into use in the seventh century and is easily identified, as it was written at a slight angle (see the example on page 16 of Gilchrist's Jam' al-Qur'an, 1989). In fact the word al-Ma'il means "slanting." This script survived for about two centuries before falling into disuse.

The Mashq Script also began in the seventh century, but continued to be used for many centuries. It is more horizontal in form and can be distinguished by its somewhat cursive and leisurely style (Gilchrist 1989:144). There are those who believe that the Mashq script was a forerunner to the later Kufic script, as there are similarities between the two.

If the Qur'an had been compiled at this time in the seventh century, then one would expect it to have been written in either the Ma'il or Mashq script.

Interestingly, we do have a Qur'an written in the Ma'il script, and considered to be the earliest Qur'an in our possession today. Yet it is not found in either Istanbul or Tashkent, but, ironically, it resides in the British Museum in London (Lings & Safadi 1976:17,20; Gilchrist 1989:16,144). It has been dated towards the end of the eighth century (790 A.D.) by Martin Lings, the former curator for the manuscripts of the British Museum, who is himself, a practising Muslim.

Therefore, with the help of script analysis, we are quite certain that there is no known manuscript of the Qur'an which we possess today which can be dated from the seventh century (Gilchrist 1989:147-148,153).

Furthermore, virtually all the earliest Qur'anic manuscript fragments which we do possess cannot be dated earlier than 100 years after the time of Muhammad. In her book Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, Annemarie Schimmel underlines this point when she states that apart from the recently discovered [Korans] in Sanaa, "the earliest datable fragments go back to the first quarter of the eighth century." (Schimmels 1984:4)

From the evidence we possess, therefore, it would seem improbable that any portions of the Qur'an supposedly copied out at Uthman's direction have survived. What we are left with is the intervening 150 years for which we cannot account.

(2) Talmudic Sources in the Qur'an:

Another problem with manuscript evidence for the Qur'an is that of the heretical Talmudic accounts found within its passages. Possibly the greatest puzzlement for Christians who pick up the Qur'an and read it are the numerous seemingly Biblical stories which bear little similarity to the Biblical accounts. The Qur'anic stories include many distortions, amendments, and some bizarre additions to the familiar stories we have known and learned. So, we ask, where did these stories come from, if not from the previous scriptures?

Fortunately, we do have much Jewish and Christian apocryphal literature (some of it from the Talmud), dating from the second century A.D. with which we can compare many of these stories. It is when we do so, that we find remarkable similarities between these fables or folk tales of the later Jewish and Christian communities, and the stories which are recounted in the Qur'an (note:Talmudic material taken from Feinburg 1993:1162-1163).

The Jewish Talmudic writings were compiled in the second century A.D., from oral laws (Mishnah) and traditions of those laws (Gemara). These laws and traditions were created to adapt the law of Moses (the Torah) to the changing times. They also included interpretations and discussions of the laws (the Halakhah and Haggadah etc.). Most Jews do not consider the Talmudic writings authoritative, but they read them nonetheless with interest for the light they cast on the times in which they were written.

Each generation embellished the accounts, or at times incorporated local folklore, so that it was difficult to know what the original stories contained. There were even those among the Jews who believed that these Talmudic writings had been added to the "preserved tablets" (i.e. the Ten Commandments, and the Torah which were kept in the Ark of the Covenant), and were believed to be replicas of the heavenly book (Feinburg 1993:1163).

Some orientalist scholars believe that when later Islamic compilers came onto the scene, in the eighth to ninth centuries A.D., they merely added this body of literature to the nascent Qur'anic material. It is therefore, not surprising that a number of these traditions from Judaism were inadvertently accepted by later redactors, and incorporated into the holy writings' of Islam.

There are quite a few stories which have their root in second century (A.D.) Jewish apocryphal literature; stories such as the murder of Abel by Cain in sura 5:31-32, borrowed from the Targum of Jonathan-ben-Uzziah and the Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; or the story of Abraham, the idols and the fiery furnace in sura 21:51-71, taken from the Midrash Rabbah; or the amusing story found in sura 27:17-44, of Solomon, his talking Hoopoo bird, and the queen of Sheba who lifts her skirt when mistaking a mirrored floor for water, taken from the 2nd Targum of Esther.

There are other instances where we find both apocryphal Jewish and Christian literatures within the Qur'anic text. The account of Mt. Sinai being lifted up and held over the heads of the Jews as a threat for rejecting the law (sura 7:171) comes from the second century Jewish apocryphal book, The Abodah Sarah. The odd accounts of the early childhood of Jesus in the Qur'an can be traced to a number of Christian apocryphal writings: the Palm tree which provides for the anguish of Mary after Jesus's birth (sura 19:22-26) comes from The Lost Books of the Bible; while the account of the infant Jesus creating birds from clay (sura 3:49) comes from Thomas' Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ. The story of the baby Jesus talking (sura 19:29-33) can be traced to Arabic apocryphal fable from Egypt named The first Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ.

In sura 17:1 we have the report of Muhammad's journey by night from the sacred mosque to the farthest mosque.' From later traditions we find this aya refers to Muhammad ascending up to the seventh heaven, after a miraculous night journey (the Mi'raj) from Mecca to Jerusalem, on a "winged-horse" called Buraq. More detail is furnished us in the Mishkat al Masabih. We can trace the story back to a fictitious book called The Testament of Abraham, written around 200 B.C., in Egypt, and then translated into Greek and Arabic. Another analogous account is that of The Secrets of Enoch ( chapter 1:4-10 and 2:1), which predates the Qur'an by four centuries. Yet a further similar account is largely modelled on the story contained in the old Persian book entitled Arta-i Viraf Namak, telling how a pious young Zoroastrian ascended to the skies, and, on his return, related what he had seen, or professed to have seen (Pfander 1835:295-296).

The Qur'anic description of Hell resembles the descriptions of hell in the Homilies of Ephraim, a Nestorian preacher of the sixth century (Glubb 1971:36).

The author of the Qur'an in suras 42:17 and 101:6-9 possibly utilized The Testament of Abraham to teach that a scale or balance will be used on the day of judgment to weigh good and bad deeds in order to determine whether one goes to heaven or to hell.

It is important to remember that the Talmudic accounts were not considered by the orthodox Jews of that period as authentic for one very good reason: they were not in existence at the council of Jamnia in 80 A.D. when the Old Testament was canonized. Neither were the Christian apocryphal material considered canonical, as they were not attested as authoritative both prior to and after the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Thus these accounts have always been considered as heretical by both the Jewish and Christian orthodox believers, and the literate ever since. It is for this reason that we find it deeply suspicious that the apocryphal accounts should have made their way into a book claiming to be the final revelation from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Let's now look at the manuscript evidence for the Bible and ascertain whether the scripture which we read today is historically accurate?

Permission kindly granted to Faith & Reason Forum by Abrahamic Faith (www.abrahamic-faith.com).