Carbon dating accuracy debate


12-May-2015 12:54

Recent scholarly work on early manuscript fragments of the Quran such as those discovered in Sana‘a, Yemen in 1972 gave us portions of Quranic text carbon-dated to a few years after the Quran was officially standardised by one of Muhammad’s early successors, the caliph ‘Uthman, in around 650 CE.

But there has been little clinching evidence to settle the debate about the dating of the text from a scholarly rather than devotional perspective. Two Quran fragments unknowingly held since 1936 in the University of Birmingham’s manuscript collection have been definitively dated to the era of Muhammad’s life or a little later.

On the whole, palaeography (the study of handwriting) and carbon-dating have worked side-by-side to offer a clearer picture than ever of the date-range of various textual materials for ancient and medieval history.

But historians schooled in palaeography or philology (the study of historical language) can often find the evidence furnished by carbon-dating to be unfeasibly early.

No wonder that the University of Birmingham, and the city as a whole, has welcomed the news with excitement and pride.

There seems some poetic justice in the fact that a city that is home to one of the most multicultural communities in the world (described without irony on Fox News as a “no-go area” for non-Muslims) should now, as it surely will, become a veritable Mecca for both non-Muslims and Muslims eager to examine for themselves these almost 1,400-year-old pages, which are offered in a clear, legible, even beautiful hand.

For researchers in Islamic studies, historical evidence dating the Quran back to Islam’s foundational era has proved elusive.

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The writing of the two folios (with text corresponding to chapters 18-20 in the modern Quran) has been placed somewhere between 568 and 645 CE, which is very close to the conventional dating offered for the Prophet’s ministry, 610-632 CE.Given the more than 95% accuracy of the carbon-dating involved, carried out at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, this discovery indicates that these fragments are in all probability contemporary with the Prophet himself.



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