Reflecting on the Mingana Qur’an…
Although several weeks old, the announcement this past July of the extraordinary find of a seventh century Qur’an in the library of my alma mater, the University of Birmingham, is worth reflecting on as we begin a new academic year at a Christian seminary.
On July 22, the University of Birmingham announced that a PhD student in the Department of Theology had found one of the oldest Qur’anic manuscripts to date. The manuscripts have been carbon-dated to between 586 and 645 CE. This would put the Qur’an within the second, or possibly first generation of Muslims. Muhammad died in 632, and the first copy of the Qur’an is long reported to have been compiled in 650 CE. A helpful and short introduction of the compilation of the Qur’an can be found here.
For those of us in the field of Islamic Studies, the find is extremely exciting, and has prompted renewed discussion on the text and its history. Imagine what it was like for New Testament scholars with the find of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 or for Hebrew Bible scholars with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946!
I remember with great nostalgia doing my own research in the Mingana reading room. Of course, I was doing research on 19th and 20th century Lebanon, nowhere near the 7th century. Nevertheless, I soaked up the atmosphere of the important Middle Eastern manuscripts collected by Alphonse Mingana (1878-1937), an Iraqi Chaldean priest from Mosul.
This find is not the only 7th century Qu’ran that has been found. Ongoing research of several manuscripts in European Universities, the announcement of several Uthmanic Qur’ans in Cairo and Istanbul, and the discovery of a cache of medieval texts in Sana’a, Yemen in the 2000’s, have all prompted an important excitement within Islamic Studies, specifically in Qur’anic Studies. However, what is extremely important about this find is the University’s commitment to getting the whole manuscript digitized to make public for research.
But what does this have to do with a Christian seminary?
There are some Christian or Muslim apologists who have always read each other’s texts to prove the validity of their own faith and attack the other’s scripture. This find is proving to be an opportunity to continue such apologetic arguments. I, however, am a strong proponent for seeing the others’ texts as opportunities for deepening religious perspectives and insights, and even my own faith. Given that this Qur’an is probably dated to the first or second generation of Muslim believers provides us an incredible opportunity to reflect on the history and dissemination of the New Testament. The Oxyrhyncus fragment of the Gospel of John (P52), which is only centimeters long, is the earliest fragment of the New Testament that we have to this point, being dated between 125 and 150 CE.
Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the very Words of God, spoken in Heaven, and then eventually recorded. The authors of the New Testament and their followers never claimed to have spoken directly with God in the same way, but had transmitted “what had been passed on to” them, or what had been taught them orally about or from Jesus. (In the cases of the Revelation of John, which records visions of Jesus, or of Saul who heard Jesus speaking, how do we understand such visions in comparison to the Islamic notion of revelation?) Nevertheless, the reality of the historical transmission of our Scripture – that is from human to human and community to community – might prompt us to delve into our own understandings of Word, Revelation, and Scripture. How does our own scripture, which has been written down through the generations and contains numerous important textual variants, reflect our understanding of the Word of God? The horizontal transmission of Scripture from person to person and community to community is of theological importance to how we think about God and the “inspiration” of the text. Are we really People of the Book?
The Mingana 1572 Quranic manuscript is a great historical find, a valuable tool for research in Islamic Studies, and a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Scripture, Revelation, and Word for me.