World’s Oldest Qur’an – A Symbol of Modern Endeavour

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 26, 2015. Click here for the original version

The discovery of oldest Qur’an fragment in Birmingham is a moment of excitement and reflection for the modern Muslim world.

Oldest Quran revealed

The discovered fragment of Qur’an carries parts of three chapters

For the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, Qur’an provides a rich experience of devotion and knowledge that has transcended languages & cultures. Touted as the world’s most memorized book, the Qur’an decks the homes of faithful, often closely combined with its exegesis authored by scholars who spent a lifetime understanding the nuances of what is believed to be the divine speech. A refuge of sorts for the believer, a comprehensive understanding of the book allows for the book to pour in wisdom at every pit-stop of the journey called life.

[pullquote]The leaves of parchment have been carbon-dated back 1,500 years – a time period that makes the object of discovery contemporaneous with Prophet Muhammed (PBUH)[/pullquote]

Much of the West’s interaction with the Qur’an is marked more by its content than the book itself. Speaking on the 9/11 attack, Hamza Yusuf – described by the New Yorker Magazine as most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world – said, “Islam was hijacked on that plane as an innocent victim.” The spate of attacks undertaken in the guise of Islamic legitimacy has stirred up a wave of tirade against the role of the holy book.

The majority moderate Muslims’ close-knit relationship with the book has been a fertile ground for condemnable acts that riled up emotions.  Perhaps the most infamous of them being a failed attempt by Pastor Terry Jones to incinerate the revered book.

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A leaf from history

The pages of the world’s oldest Qur’an recently discovered in Birmingham is a gratifying victory at best, and at the least, a consolation from the grim challenges of integration and other dire events for Muslims in the West.

The leaves of parchment have been carbon-dated back 1,500 years – a time period that makes the object of discovery contemporaneous with Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) – the living medium through whom the divine revelation reached the scribes and tribes at large.

“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with.” – David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam at Birmingham University.

On the question of how the historic folios emerged from here, Dr. Yasir Qadhi, a prominent Islamic cleric in America and professor at the Religious Studies Department of Rhodes College, had the following to say on his Facebook page

A fundamental tenet of Islam is the belief in its flawless preservation, and to the effect means that the devotional dimension of this find would remain largely unmoved. What breathes soul into the discovery is its context – incidentally a Qur’anic reality that eludes those who use the very same verses for sinister gains.

A symbol of modern endeavour

Two news-grabbing events collided with the discovery – David Cameron’s controversial Anti-Extremism Bill and a shooting range declared as ‘Muslim-free zone’ by a Florida gun-shop owner. While the first is considered as knee-jerk measures that risk disenfranchising Muslims further away from the social fabric, the latter casts a shadow of suspicion due to the misgivings of an isolated incident. Both cases hold a mirror to the challenges faced by Muslims in the West, and their continous struggle to reconcile their religious identity with secular beliefs.

In the discovery is a lesson for those who have debated the relevance of Islam in today’s age. Just like the fragments stood the test of time, Muslims are expected to inspire resillience against weathering challenges like the ones mentioned above. While the scholars of tomorrow are trained in the confines of a seminary in the Arab World, opportunities for engagment arise out of a University in UK. Our obsession with that which is literal and neglect of wisdom has taken conversation away from the divine speech to prime-time debates.

Taha - 2

In light of current challenges, this verse from Surah-Taha, Chapter 20, scribed on the parchment deserves reflection

The Hijazi script inked in the parchment is a reminder of the magnificence and beauty ingrained in the literary representation of Islam. It begs a reflection on the current state of the Islamic world – divine wisdom written and preserved for posterity is short-changed and perverted by agents of violence.

Like the fragments in the observatory room which represent the complete book, the diverse Muslim communities should aim to confidently represent what the faith ultimately stands for and unites us with. Just as any text scripted from ill-conceived fringes of the faith cannot pass as divine word, intolerance developed outside the folds of peace should not pass as being Muslim.

A thousand years from now, pages from another chapter of the Qur’an may emerge at a centre of learning. Reaffirming the authenticity, the question will not revolve around the text, but rather the spirit of the book observed by Muslims.

And it isn’t the historic, but Muslims in modern times that will have to be prepared with a response.

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On Muqaddimah and Facebook

Source: Amazon.com

Source: Amazon.com

Facebook is often a slit in the canvas overlooking people we call friends. The intimate association that comes from personal experiences has been dwarfed by fleeting interactions through algorithm-driven posts. This semblance of a connection, however incomplete, gives us the gift of time and convenience. But it is also, in admirable fullness, a platform for sharing ideas.

Mark Zuckerberg recently endorsed the book Muqaddimah as a part of ‘A Year of Books’ – a project that aims at reading and discussing a new book every two weeks. Written by the 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah is a voluminous exposition on the philosophy of history, politics, sociology, economics, theology and other topics that shaped the social environment of its time. Though the subjects covered have today undergone transformations, Muqaddimah is a repository of traditional thought that covers a wide expanse of academic themes.

What’s striking is that despite being a commentary that could be considered a relic from the vantage point of modernity, the founder of a dynamic digital platform finds in it an opportunity for reflecting on our past. In many ways, spending time with Muqaddimah is an antithesis of one’s relationship with Facebook. The laborious efforts expended in reading a treatise are alien in the world of little nuggets of post updates. While each word may be measured to reflect the central idea of the book, our Facebook activities are not bound by the disciplines of vocabulary, often meandering into words and phrases that scream of our affinity with colloquial existence.

Muqaddimah is an exegesis on philosophies unknown to the human mind; the most engaging Facebook posts, on the other hand, are those that are relatable and induce an acknowledgment of familiarity. Muqaddimah decodes the nuances of society, recognizing the underlying forces of politics and culture that guide human disposition. Facebook is best enjoyed as a reflection of human interaction with culture and real-time news on politics. Muqaddimah is a sum total of civilization; Facebook is the little snapshots that drive social interactions over the internet.

Muqaddimah is the result of an author’s mind that has endured the intellectual journey in search for ideologies. Facebook is at times the knee-jerk reactions, and on other pleasant occasions tiny travelogues that banish barriers to information. Muqaddimah is a privilege of those who decipher the erudite narrative; Facebook is a song, the lyrics of which are popular with all. Muqaddimah is an ocean that stands still with the passage of time; Facebook is a stream that grows as strong as it tributaries wish for it be.

Amongst all that is different, there still remains some similarity between the both. Much of ideas that echo from Muqaddimah have been disproven and displaced over the span 700 years. Facebook too is just momentary truths that we wish to share with our immediate world. What we write as an absolute today is nothing more than a transitory moment that holds the promise of change. The people who complete our pictures either disappear completely or are reduced to mere subjects of a customary birthday wish.

Amidst the differences also lies the similarity of being messengers of transformative ideas. While Muqaddimah was confronted with contrarian views leading to new philosophies that live today, users of Facebook are but beings that convey true stories to challenge conventional wisdom.

As Facebook remains a slit that overlooks lives, Muqaddimah is the window with a wider view of our recorded history. What matters in the end is not which of the two provides a better sight, but that both show us things that exist only to change tomorrow.