CRUCIBLE: Qur’an – Revelation Continuum (1)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 23 August) — The University of Birmingham has been quite upbeat these past weeks with the discovery by a PhD student in the University’s library collection of what is considered as one of the oldest fragments of the Holy Qur’an. An official of the University was excited to announce that their collection of Qur’anic fragments will be made available for public viewing two months from now. Likewise, the Muslim community in Birmingham shares with the University’s excitement.

Breath of fresh air

We thought this news is a breath of fresh air amid a rising tide of Islamophobia in the UK and other parts of Europe. It shows that some bad news about Islam these days could actually be broken even momentarily.

Using Radio Carbon Dating test, the fragment is found out to date back to 1,370 years old “making it the earliest in existence.” Dr. Muhammad Isa Waley, the British Library expert on the Qur’an said: “it is an exciting discovery that would make Muslims rejoice.” Susan Worrall, the University’s director of special collection remarked that it is “fantastically exciting.”

Accordingly, 95% of the parchment was from 568-645AD. It is estimated that the fragments must have been written 13 years after the passing away of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

It is quite rare that we could witness such an excitement not only from Muslim community but also for University known for its secular values.

We have more or less an idea where those sources of excitement are coming from. For the Muslim community, it is essentially their belief on the Holy Qur’an especially that they would be able to see an old manuscript, the writer of which according to Prof. David Thomas, Birmingham University’s specialist on Islam and Christianity, might have seen the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) himself.

Certainly, many universities in Europe and America and elsewhere housed other relatively old manuscripts about the Qur’an and other related manuscripts in Islamic Studies and the like. They are available in many universities under various rubrics of institutes, religious centers, Oriental studies, and so on.

For a progressive University like Birmingham University, there is always a place of such manuscript especially since it housed the Mingana Collection consisting of “more than 3,000 Middle Eastern documents” which were gathered by Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born in Mosul, Iraq. Accordingly, Mingana is an Arabic expert who also wrote “An Important Manuscript of the Traditions of Bukhari.”

With many countries in the Middle East in crisis today, and with universities in Iraq and Syria with their museums, libraries, mosques, churches, and synagogues burned and looted, it is not far-fetched that historical manuscripts and important art pieces could exchange hands and end in universities, Oriental studies and institutes in Europe and the United States.

Gnostic Gospels

We raise this point to highlight a major phenomenon of our time where access to sacred texts is becoming an interest amongst peoples and institutions including secular universities.

Actually, there were many of these discoveries before. Perhaps the difference is that many Islamic manuscripts particularly the Mushaf of the Qur’an and fragments thereof have long been deposited in universities, museums, libraries, and so on.

Apart from the Mangana collection of the Qur’an, it is worthy to note that there is also the Sana’a manuscript that was discovered from an old mosque in Yemen some years ago. The latter has been the subject of studies by Orientalists and Muslim scholars alike.

This is unlike other scriptures that are not discovered in universities but were dug from caves like the Dead Sea Scrolls which was found in Wadi Qumran in the West Bank in 1946 and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945. They both contained enormous materials about past scriptures.

Arab Bedouin discovered both scriptures of antiquity (Dead Sea Scroll and Nag Hammadi manuscripts). Muhammad Ed Dhib and his cousins found the first; and Muhammad Ali Al-Sammam found the second.

These discoveries have been subjected to extensive research and studies. These are considered great find. For instance, scriptural works found in Nag Hammadi contained the so-called Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philips, Gospel of Truth, Gospel to the Egyptians, Secret Books of Jesus, Apocalypse of Paul, Letter of Peter to Philips, Apocalypse of Peter, and a few more.

Accordingly, these Gospels so-called antedated even what is generally known today as the New Testament. There is a catch though, as these Gospels are considered to be heretical as they are not in accord with the canon and Orthodox teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. They contain generally gnostic teachings of Jesus (AS).

In “The Gnostic Gospels,” Elain Pagels writes:

“But those who wrote and circulated these texts did not regard themselves as heretics. Most of the writings used Christian terminology, unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Many claim to other traditions about Jesus that are secret, hidden from ‘the many’ who constitute what, in the second century, came to be called the ‘catholic church.’ These Christians are now called gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, usually translated as ‘knowledge’… to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis (p. 18).” 

There is a long story as to why these Gospels were hidden in caves. Accordingly, the Roman Church considered them “Apocrypha” after series of councils such as those in Nicea in AD 325 and Constantinople in AD 381 that promulgated what became the Roman Catholic doctrines. Hence, gnostic followers of Jesus in those times as they were severely persecuted by the Romanized Church hid those scriptures like those found in Nag Hammadi. This is relatively similar to the Dead Sea Scroll as partly the teachings therein speak many things different from conventional understanding of early Judaism and early Christianity.

We raise this intersection of Islam’s and Christianity’s history including that of Judaism’s as far as revelation (wahy) is concerned because not only they are important, but from Islamic perspective, past revelations are revered in the Holy Qur’an. And the same manner, prophets and messengers that received those revelations are also highly revered in Islam. In other words, the attitude of Muslims towards past revelations is that of acceptance and reverence. Previous prophets and their revelations are considered to be instruments of hidayah or guidance.

Hidayah and Apocrypha

The story goes that after the slip of Adam (AS) and his wife from Paradise, they were banished but subsequently promised guidance after they asked for forgiveness. The Qur’an says:

“We said get you down from here and if as is sure there comes to you guidance from Me. Whoever follows guidance from Me shall be no fear nor shall they grieve (Baqarah: 38).”

This is the guarantee of Allah (SWT) to Adam (AS) and his wife and, by implications, to their descendants: that they are not condemned and abandoned in this world. They have been given hidayah that comes in the form of kitab or revelation and nubuwwah or prophets.

Thomas Ballantine Erving also know as Al-Hajj Ta’lim Ali Abu Nasr, an American scholar of the Qur’an writes:

“Revelation in Islamic perspective consists of Divine will so that man knows and learn what is expected of him and tries to realize it in actuality. This will is embodied in the message communicated by God through His prophets who convey it to mankind and who also try to translate it into practice setting a model before them all. The two instruments of Divine guidance (hidayah) are God’s Books and Prophets both initiating and enabling man to harmonize his will with the Divine will and as such to live in peace with God, with himself and with his fellow being. This is what Islam (literally submission and peace) signifies: peace though harmonization of the human will and the Divine will (p. 23)”

Traditionally, it has been accepted that around 124,000 prophets and messengers have been sent and many of them are mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. A number of them, too, received their respective revelations, namely: Nabi Allah Daud or David received the Kitab Zabur or the Psalm; Nabi Allah Musa with his Taurah or Old Testament; Nabi Isa or Jesus with his Injeel or New Testament; and Nabi Muhammad (SAW) the Qur’anu l-kareem.

The reverence of Muslims to previous prophets and their revelations ought to be the same. The Qur’an reads:

“Say ye: We believe in God and the revelation given to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribe and that given to Moses and Jesus and that given to all prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between one and another of them and we bow to God (in Islam) (Baqarah: 136).”

By the way, the key word here is the Qur’anic statement: “laa nufarriku bayna ahadin” (“We make no difference between one and another of them). This statement is mentioned three times in Holy Qur’an. It means Muslims should not discriminate one prophet over another; and by implication, their respective revelations.

This is why we have to be equally informed not only of the Holy Qur’an, the Sunnah (Prophet’s tradition), and other teachings in the Shari’ah (Islamic law) and Fiqh (Jurisprudence). We have to be informed too about the teachings of previous prophets including the issues surrounding other scriptures, which unfortunately have been subjected to many questions eliciting controversies that are already far from their original revelatory intent.

We are saddened with the state into which previous revelations have become. That’s why with the discoveries of manuscripts mentioned, those are supposed important sources of revelations which show the continuity of revelations and the unity of teachings of prophets and messengers in varying periods of time.

The Qur’an, in other words, should not be viewed simply as a distinct scripture different from the rest of revelations. It should be understood as the finality in the continuum of revelations.

Given with what happened to previous revelations notwithstanding the continuing controversy and alteration that proceeded thereafter, Muslims do not worry unlike others whether their faith has been based on right teachings or not because past teachings of past prophets in other religions are already corrected in the Holy Qur’an being the final revelation.

Those so-called gospels that are considered Apocrypha are, in fact, significant in serving as sources in providing clearer picture of stories about previous prophets and their teachings. Many apocryphal works reflect with what the Qur’an has been saying like those stories about Jesus, Mary, and so on and so forth.

Apocryphal materials like those found in Wadi Qumran and Nag Hammadi are therefore valuable sources in understanding the totality of revelations, the experiences of previous prophets and their stories, and many others. They are, in a sense, as valuable like the old fragments of the Qur’an found in the University of Birmingham. [MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (first part, with revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies, on 07 August 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].