Quran manuscripts found! Divine message thrills mainstream media!

If you ever needed a reminder to use more than one news source, this week's announcement about two old pages of the Quran furnish ample reason. The news reports vary widely in scope and caution -- or lack of it.

The basics: The University of Birmingham in England announced that two pages from the Muslim scripture have been dated by radiocarbon to somewhere 568 and 645 A.D. Since the Prophet Muhammad -- who said he got the text as message from Allah -- is generally thought to have lived between 570 and 632 A.D., the parchment pages date back to the earliest years of Islam, the university says.

The release adds that the pages, from surahs (chapters) 18-20, read much like modern editions of the Quran. If so, it supports Muslims who insist the version they have is pretty much the one their forebears recited.

Pretty startling claims, and they deserve a good, hard look. But unless we get follow-up reports, we may not get a lot of that. Most mainstream media thus far are simply echoing what the university and its supporters said. No, worse than that. More like cheerleading.

They freely cite the release, including quotes by David Thomas, Susan Worrall and Alba Fedeli of the university -- plus an approving remark from a Persian scholar at the British Library. CNN even uses footage released by the university, including views of the quranic pages.

The reports also repeat and amplify the university's hype. BBC gives free rein to gushing reactions by Muslim scholars. It's "news to rejoice Muslim hearts," one says. "When I saw these pages I was very moved," says another. "There were tears of joy and emotion in my eyes."

And BBC isn't alone.

* "Stunning discovery," says the BigNewsNetwork.

* The announcement "thrilled Muslim scholars," the Associated Press says. It adds that Fedeli "said the development was just as wonderful as the rest of her work."

* "We are thrilled," NPR has Worrall saying.

* "Holy text" and "divine message," the New York Times calls the Quran. "The discovery also offered a joyful moment for a faith that has struggled with internal divisions and external pressures."

The Times article was the most irritating to David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic: "If a researcher discovered an ancient Christian Gospel, wd the NYT describe the contents as 'the divine message'?"

Part of the Times' problem, I think, is overly enthusiastic copying and pasting. Here is the offending paragraph in full:

During the time of Muhammad, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today, Professor Thomas said. Rather, the words believed to be from God as told to Muhammad were preserved in the “memories of men” and recited. Parts were written on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels, he said.

Now the university release:

According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam, between the years AD 610 and 632, the year of his death. At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Instead, the revelations were preserved in “the memories of men”. Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels. Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad, ordered the collection of all Qur’anic material in the form of a book. The final, authoritative written form was completed and fixed under the direction of the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in about AD 650.

At least it explains the one paragraph. Why the Times also called it a "holy text" is an open question.

Even Dubai-based al-Arabiya Network didn't give the quranic pages a hard sell. The most it did was to quote Birmingham's David Thomas that it was "quite possible that the person who had written them would have been alive at the time of the Prophet Muhammad."

But let's be fair. The Times wrote 1,200+ words, the longest of the eight reports I checked. It also sought the most outside reactions, including Omid Safi of Duke, the author of a book on Islamic origins, even two specialists in radiocarbon dating. One of the latter notes that the radiocarbon test dated the parchment, not the ink.

A Saudi scholar adds a valuable caveat for the Times story:

Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later, he said.

And this may be a touch cynical, but more than one news outlet notes that Birmingham has a large Muslim community -- 20 percent of the population -- which will likely take pride in having an old quranic text. "The planned display for the manuscript in October could prove a boon to the local economy, with adherents already expressing an interest in traveling to the city to see a piece of history," AP says.

But religious "ghosts" lurk in most of the news articles. The quranic portion is in the Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts. That would be Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born in Mosul; he collected the 3,000 manuscripts in the 1920s. CNN and the BBC have that fact; it's not in the other reports listed here.

Another ghost: The Mingana Collection is part of the university’s Cadbury Research Library. Cadbury who? Edward Cadbury, of the chocolate company, according to the Times, the BBC and BigNewsNetwork. No one mentions that he was also a Quaker philanthropist, as the university release does.

But if you're still left wondering -- as I was -- "How are we sure these guys are right?", have a read through BBC's 750-word backgrounder on  origins of the Quran.  Written by a religion professor at Stanford, the piece has some fascinating lore on the variety of manuscripts that competed for the honor of being "the" Quran -- and who broke the deadlock.

"Early Koranic manuscripts present one of the resources that can add new insights and nuance to our knowledge of the text's history," the author writes. Let's hope for more of that nuance in mainstream media reports.


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