No, Atheists, the Oldest Koran isn’t Necessarily Older Than Muhammad

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Carbon dating suggests ‘world’s oldest’ Koran could be older than the Prophet Muhammad, states misleading headline crafted specifically to make atheists jizz their pants.

Let me start by saying that Muhammad definitely didn’t get any divine instructions to pass down any message ever, because there is no god. But some people believe that, anyway. Even though they’re wrong, this isn’t the evidence you’re looking for if you want to prove Muslims that their religion is baseless.

The University of Birmingham has a really old Koran, and some researchers there had it radiocarbon dated at a University of Oxford lab. Radiocarbon dating can be really fantastic for archaeologists and anthropologists to place certain organic materials within certain time periods within the past 50,000 years. It’s pretty accurate, but there are still error bars. In this case, the researchers found that the parchment probably dated between 568 and 645 A.D.

Muhammad supposedly got his revelation between 570 and 632 A.D. So right there, you have a lot of overlap that supports the current understanding that the various parts of the Koran were written down after Muhammad’s death. He died in 632, and this parchment could date to around 645. Done.

Even if that overlap wasn’t there, if the carbon dating showed the parchment must have been created, say, before 570 AD, it still wouldn’t prove the Koran was created before Muhammad. A parchment could have been created long before someone decided to write something on it.

And parchment basically means an animal skin. Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the amount of carbon left in something, which allows researchers to count backwards and see when that animal stopped consuming carbon, i.e., when they died, because the carbon isotope leaves the body at a reliable rate. So we know that the animal died between 568 and 645, but we don’t know when that animal was skinned, and when that skin was turned into parchment, which is a pretty interesting and painstaking process.

And then we don’t know how long that parchment was around before it was written on. Testing the ink may get us a little closer to pinpointing the date, but that’s really difficult, since ink only tends to have tiny amounts of carbon and it’s usually going to be co-mingled with carbon from the parchment.

It’s really fascinating how researchers use various techniques to pinpoint dates like this. That’s the story, here, and also the fact that this manuscript may be the oldest portion of the Koran we have. That’s really cool and it helps us form a better picture of how Islam began and grew.

But there is no sense in taking this interesting little finding and forming an atheist circlejerk around it. It misrepresents the scientific research and just makes atheists look like ignorant assholes, and we don’t need another reason for theists to think that about us.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I have been telling folk that but I think the thing is people believe what they want to, not what the facts tell them. The same people think that when I tell them Trump is going to be the GOP nominee its because I want him to, not because I think he represents the views of the Republican base most accurately.

    The result is interesting though because it does poke some holes in the received history that the Koran wasn’t written down in Mohamed’s lifetime. In practice of course it is utterly ludicrous to suppose that any religious leader isn’t going to have pseudographic material being attributed to him.

    If if people don’t accept Carrier’s claim that Mark is bunk, his claim that Mathew is a disgruntled member of an observant sect rewriting Mark to sockpuppet Christ looks a lot more credible than the Q hypothesis.

    Another point that is neatly illustrated by this event is that the argument from historical consensus takes a large hit. It is pretty easy to see why few folk are going to bother to perform texual analysis of the Koran when a bunch of loonies are threatening to murder people if they don’t come up with conclusions that they agree on. It is not so long ago that people in this state (MA) were being hung for that sort of thing. And it is only 25 years since the blasphemy laws were abolished in the UK.

  2. It’s fairly clear why the researchers think this is interesting. The “authoritative” version of the Koran dates to 650 AD, which is after Muhammad’s death. The carbon dating shows with 95% confidence that this particular Koran predates the authoritative version. Although it could just be that the parchment does, or perhaps it’s just the 5% chance of false positive.

    The fact that the error bars extend just a bit beyond Muhammad’s birth is completely uninteresting. All it shows is that the media doesn’t understand error bars.

  3. As noted, 645 would be too early for normal justification. But carbon dating seems to have a slop figure that would easily cover this copy, let alone the issue of the age of the materials versus the age of the text. How does the content of this Quran match the authoritative versions? Oh, right, there is no authoritative version as that would require scholarly inquiry.

    AND, the fringe salafist movements in Islam, the Wahhabis in particular, DO insist that the Quran is ‘eternal’ and predates the creation of the world, let alone the life of Mohammed. So they’ll be jizzing along for their own reasons.

  4. An idea that I have not seen anyone else suggest is that because that part of the world has a lot of fossil fuels, there may be seepage of low 14C carbon from those fossil fuel deposits (either CO2 or CH4) and that could easily skew the date of vegetation grown in that soil to have less 14C (and so it would appear older).

  5. Of course, there is uncertainty about when, and even if, Mohammad was born. Needless to say, according to the mythology, a miracle happened when he was born involving white elephants, so you just know we can be very certain of the date.

    The Sana’a manuscript has been carbon dated to the last quarter of the 7th century. It’s interesting because it’s a palimpsest where the older text is also Koranic but different than later version. I guess as with other sacred texts, it evolved, though so much for the divine revelation business.

  6. I’m a bit surprised that a seemingly obvious possibility is being overlooked by many. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume the date estimate is accurate.

    First, I’ll dispense with a problematic point or two, even if I agree with the post in general.

    “So we know that the animal died between 568 and 645, but we don’t know when that animal was skinned, and when that skin was turned into parchment[…]”

    Except that we can be pretty sure the animal was skinned and that skin turned in to parchment almost immediately after it was killed, relatively speaking. I doubt anyone took the skin off of an animal that head been dead for a few decades and created parchment from it. I doubt that is even possible.

    “And then we don’t know how long that parchment was around before it was written on. ”

    I also assign a low probability to the idea that the resultant leaves of parchment could have sat unused for years or decades before being used. Parchment was generally too precious to leave sitting around unused like that. It’s possible, but I don’t consider it likely.

    However, recycling existing parchment by scraping or bleaching previous writing from it was a relatively common practice precisely because parchment was so precious. I have yet to see any reports of an examination to determine if the leaves showed any evidence of previous use. It seems so obvious to anyone who has studied/researched ancient manuscripts (even on a pretty basic level) that I almost assume such an examination has already been done and it’s just not being mentioned, but I’m often wrong about what seem like obvious steps that I assume others have already thought of and done.

    It may or may not be practical to perform carbon dating on the ink, but it should be possible to perform chemical analysis on the ink, which can often produce useful date restrictions in ancient manuscripts.

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