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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