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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When I Thought The Imam Erred

Imam leading the congregation of worshipers

Imam leading a congregation of worshipers

I wonder what to explain of the last 10 nights of Ramadan, whether as a countdown to commencement of Eid, or to the end of Ramadan. It depends on whether your heart will be stricken with a gentle grief of bidding adieu to the most blessed month of the year, or welcome celebrations of feast and joy as your gift for giving up earthly desires.

A similar choice of perspective occurred in my mind on the last night of Ramadan for several years.

As a background – Muslims are encouraged to begin and complete the recitation of the Holy Qur’an in the month, apart from the daily recitations that are prescribed.  Imams (the one who leads the player in the mosque) begin their recitation from memory in prayers and continue it in extended prayers in the evenings. In the last 10 Ramadans the prayers are also performed in the depths of night.

Memorizing the entire book in its Arabic language is undoubtedly a feat, and there’s little surprise that the ones who perfect this to memory with practice adding their touch of mesmerizing reading techniques get the sobriquet of leading hundreds and thousands of worshipers behind them. Just for the numbers – there are about 6236 verses that span a total of 114 chapters in the book to memorize.

However great a merit that is to the Imams, I was convinced for a long time the Imam of the mosque I visited for night prayers in Ramadan had got his calculations wrong. Instead of ending the last night with the last chapter of the book, he always overshot the number of chapters recited, unable to match it with the number of rounds (Rakat) of prayers at night. Such that when it was the last round of prayer on the last night of Ramadan, he failed to end perfectly on the 114th chapter, and instead began the first chapter of the Qur’an – in a way starting the Qur’an again. It’s obviously no big deal, but for someone who would like the Imam’s calculation to be as spellbinding as his recitation, I concluded that the Imam had made an error.

It’s not before I seriously gave this seeming error a thought. How would a man who has committed a voluminous book to memory repeat the same mistake over so many Ramadans? Truly, there was wisdom to be derived which I hope, in all my humility, I did.

The Imam’s deliberate attempt to mismatch the number of verses with the round of prayers was his way of welcoming the next Ramadan. By starting the first verses of the book, he tries to spill the blessings of that night into the one that we would have to wait for another year. It is a reminder from the learned leader of the congregation that there’s very little to be content from this year of Ramadan and that we should always hope we get to welcome the next one with as much dedication, if not more. It also seems to be like passing the baton to us of sorts, that the Imam has completed the Qur’an that he was entrusted with, and now it’s our responsibility to continue reading the book throughout the remainder of the year . The Imam has helped us start the first few verses, so we may respect it and continue it from there the very next day and continue till the next holy month where we are reminded of what the Imam left us with, again.

If there is a kernel of doubt in our minds about Ramadan being more than just giving up food, water and other desires, then banish them. For surely, there are things beyond what the stomach can digest that leaves us in deep thoughts and introspection, much like these moments when I thought the Imam erred.