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Historical critics and the Qur’an

04 September 2015

Historical criticism hits the headlines: the story about the Qur’an, in The Times on Monday

Historical criticism hits the headlines: the story about the Qur’an, in The Times on Monday

THIS is quite fun. There are two properly important religious stories bubbling along under the headlines this week, which have the potential to change the way things will be in ten or 20 years’ time. The less obvious one is the re-evaluation of the Birmingham Qur’an fragment.

It cannot too often be said that the greatest threat to organised religion is not science, but history. Gibbon did more to discredit Christianity than Darwin, and the Higher Criticism did more than Hume. Now the process is starting with early Qur’anic manuscripts in a way that the newspapers can notice. When, in late July, a really early manuscript of part of the Qur’an was dated in Birmingham to within the Prophet’s lifetime, the original spin of secular reports was that this tended to authenticate the received narrative of a text dictated by the companions of the Prophet from their memories of what he had said. I clipped at the time a warning published by a Muslim scholar that the faithful should not be deceived by historical evidence:


“The Qur’an has been handed down through generations by means of tawātur (mass-narration) which technically means that the number of narrators is so huge that it is impossible to think that they have produced a lie. The number of narrators eliminates the possibility of fabrication or a mistake. . . An individual manuscript, even if its origin is known, remains a solitary narration which carries a possibility of error and, therefore, its content is judged by its compliance with the mutawātir Qur’an, not the other way round.”


This is both ridiculous and profound: since historical evidence must at least weaken and will almost certainly destroy the faith, the text is divinely inspired; so it has to be downgraded to confirmation of what is already known by other means.

But the backlash soon started. A report in the TLS three weeks ago pointed out that a really early date would suggest that parts of the Qur’an had been written down during Muhammad’s infancy, long before his preaching started; and on Monday The Times itself picked up the story:


“Keith Small, Koranic manuscript consultant at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library . . . believes that the dates are probably right and may raise broad questions about the origins of Islam. ‘If the [radio carbon] dates apply to the parchment and the ink, and the dates across the entire range apply, then the Koran — or at least portions of it — predates Muhammad, and moves back the years that an Arabic literary culture is in place well into the 500s,’ he said.

“This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran’s genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven.”


The paper balanced this with the standard Muslim view: “Shady Hekmat Nasser, from the University of Cambridge, said: ‘We already know from our sources that the Koran was a closed text very early on in Islam, and these discoveries only attest to the accuracy of these sources.’”; none the less, this story will eventually burst into the public consciousness, with incalculable effects.

On assisted dying, we had Canon Giles Fraser in The Guardian waxing apocalyptic: “As a rapidly expanding elderly population makes increasing demands on healthcare, so the pressure to ration ‘expensive’ treatments will grow — with what counts as expensive being continually recalculated downwards. And here the wider pressure — cultural, social, economic — will inevitably press towards a greater take-up of the suicide option. . . In modern day Greece, austerity has led to a 35% increase in the suicide rate over the last two years. Was this a ‘personal choice’? If we structure society in such a way that many people have desperate, miserable lives, what sort of choice is it when people choose to kill themselves?”

Against this, Sir Keir Starmer, who drew up the present guidelines on assisted suicide when he was Director of Public Prosecutions, has come out in favour of the Marris Bill now that he is an MP. He told The Times: “‘The law needs to be changed. . . The important thing is to have safeguards.

“Crown Prosecution Service guidelines ‘simply don’t deal with the problem of people wanting to end their lives in this country, medically assisted, rather than traipse off to Switzerland’”, he said. “‘The present guidelines have in-built limitations, which mean that there can be injustice in a number of cases.’”

It is this last that makes me start. Any grown-up discussion has to start from the recognition that there will be injustices, however the law is written. If assisted suicide is easy, some people will be unjustly killed. If it is impossible, some people will be unjustly kept alive. We are going to learn in the next few years which option modern liberal society considers more terrible.

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