The academics are enthused. “This is a very important discovery for the history of the Qur’an and early Islam,” says Eléonore Cellard. “It’s quite extraordinary,” bubbles Romain Pingannaud, and “very relevant.”
Relevant to what? Pingannaud apparently means that it’s relevant to the contact between Christian and Muslim communities today.
Very well. Let’s examine the implications of this discovery in light of its contemporary relevance. Qur’anic palimpsests, that is, manuscripts in which the Qur’anic text is written over another text that has been erased, are rare. Why? “We think this is because the Qur’an is such an important text and although vellum was very expensive, the Qur’an was always written on new material. It’s highly revered and so they would use brand new material,” says Pingannaud.
But not this time. This one is written over a passage of the Old Testament. The scholars seem to think that is wonderful. “We have here a witness of cultural interactions between different religious communities,” says Cellard. Pingannaud says that “it shows the contact between communities in the first centuries of Islam.”
What kind of “contact between communities” and “cultural interaction” does it show? It shows that contrary to the modern-day historical revisionism that holds that the Muslim conquerors treated the conquered people with respect, a respect they also accorded to their religious traditions, the Muslim overlords actually treated the conquered people and their religions with active contempt, as befitting the people whom the Qur’an designates “the most vile of created beings” (98:6). In Islamic theology, the Old Testament is not a divine revelation; it is a corrupted version of a divine revelation, and thus worthy of no respect; it can be erased and replaced by a Qur’an manuscript with no second thought. There are several Qur’anic passages from which this idea of the corruption of the Bible has been derived:
“So woe to those who write the scripture with their own hands, then say, ‘This is from Allah,’ in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn.” (Qur’an 2:79)
“And indeed, there is among them a party who alter the Scripture with their tongues so you may think it is from the Scripture, but it is not from the Scripture. And they say, ‘This is from Allah,’ but it is not from Allah . And they speak untruth about Allah while they know.” (Qur’an 3:78)
“Among the Jews are those who distort words from their usages and say, ‘We hear and disobey’ and ‘Hear but be not heard’ and ‘Ra’ina,’ twisting their tongues and defaming the religion. And if they had said, ‘We hear and obey’ and ‘Wait for us,’ it would have been better for them and more suitable. But Allah has cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, except for a few.” (Qur’an 4:46)
“So for their breaking of the covenant We cursed them and made their hearts hard. They distort words from their usages and have forgotten a portion of that of which they were reminded. And you will still observe deceit among them, except a few of them. But pardon them and overlook. Indeed, Allah loves the doers of good. And from those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ We took their covenant; but they forgot a portion of that of which they were reminded. So We caused among them animosity and hatred until the Day of Resurrection. And Allah is going to inform them about what they used to do. O People of the Book, there has come to you Our Messenger making clear to you much of what you used to conceal of the Scripture and overlooking much. There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear Book.” (Qur’an 5:13-15)
This hadith makes the idea that the Jews and Christians have corrupted their scriptures explicit:
“Narrated Ubaidullah: Ibn `Abbas said, ‘Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Qur’an) which has been revealed to Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, “It is from Allah,” to sell it for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about anything? No, by Allah, we have never seen any man from them asking you regarding what has been revealed to you!’” (Bukhari 9.92.461)
So why wouldn’t Muslims erase a Christian manuscript, or use one that had been erased, to write the Qur’an? They considered the Jewish and Christian scripture previously written on the palimpsest to be worthless.
Yes, this discovery does illuminate the interaction between the Muslims and their subject communities. It shows the supremacist assumptions of the Muslims, which were abundantly on display at the time this manuscript was written, as you can see in my forthcoming book The History of Jihad From Muhammad to ISIS (click here to preorder).
We’re not told what the specific Qur’an and Bible passages on the manuscript are. It would be interesting to see if the Bible passage is any of the Qur’an’s source material. As I show in my book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, the Qur’an was cobbled together from earlier Jewish, Christian, and other sources. This manuscript might illuminate that process, unless academia’s dogmatic determination to shield Islam from all critical inquiry prevents such examination of it.
“Passages from the Bible discovered behind Qur’an manuscript,” by Alison Flood, Guardian, April 25, 2018:
…French scholar Dr Eléonore Cellard was looking for images of a palimpsest page sold a decade earlier by Christie’s when she came across the auction house’s latest catalogue, which included fragments from a manuscript of the Qur’an which Christie’s had dated to the eighth century AD, or the second century of Islam. Scrutinising the image, she noticed that, appearing faintly behind the Arabic script, were Coptic letters. She contacted Christie’s, and they managed to identify the Coptic text as coming from the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy – part of the Torah and the Christian Old Testament.
“This is a very important discovery for the history of the Qur’an and early Islam. We have here a witness of cultural interactions between different religious communities,” said Cellard, who is attached to the College de France.
“It’s quite extraordinary,” said Christie’s specialist Romain Pingannaud. “…And what’s even more fascinating is it is on top of passages from the Old Testament … It shows the contact between communities in the first centuries of Islam; it’s very relevant.”
Christie’s…believes that the manuscript is likely to have been produced in Egypt, which was home to the Coptic community, at the time of the Arab conquest. It said that the fragments “resonate with the historical reality of religious communities in the Near East and as such are an invaluable survival from the earliest centuries of Islam”.
While the writing style of the Qur’an scribe dates it to around the eighth century or early ninth century, it is not possible to identify how much older the ghostly Coptic writing is…
Qur’anic palimpsests are “extremely rare”, according to Christie’s, with only a handful having been previously recorded, none of which were copied above a Christian text….
“We think this is because the Qur’an is such an important text and although vellum was very expensive, the Qur’an was always written on new material. It’s highly revered and so they would use brand new material,” said Pingannaud….
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on Jihad Watch.