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THE BIBLE AND THE QUR'AN
AN HISTORICAL COMPARISON

[III] THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS

Note: The following article was taken from the Hyde Park Christian fellowship - an informal network of Christian researchers in the UK, whose primary interest is the academic study of all issues relevant to Islam and Christianity.

If we are to take the Qur'anic and Biblical records seriously, we will need to inquire further as to whether there are other sources which we can turn to for a corroboration of their accounts. Since we are dealing with scriptures which often speak of history, probably the best and easiest way to confirm that history is to go to the areas where the history took place because history never takes place in a vacuum. It always leaves behind its forgotten fingerprints, waiting dormant in the ground to be discovered, dug up and deciphered. It is therefore, important that we also get our digets dirty and take a look at the treasures which our archaeologist friends are discovering, to ascertain if they have been able to reward us with any clues as to the authenticity of both the Qur'anic and Biblical accounts. Let's see what archaeology tells us concerning the Qur'an.

[A] THE QUR'AN'S ARCHEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE:

As with the manuscript and documentary evidence, there is not much archaeological data to which we can turn for corroboration of the Qur'an. What we can do, however, is look at the claims the Qur'an makes and ascertain whether they can be backed up by archaeology. Let's start with the Qibla, or direction of prayer.

(1) The Qibla:
According to the Qur'an, the direction of prayer (the Qibla), was canonized (or finalized) towards Mecca for all Muslims in or around 624 A.D. (see Sura 2:144, 149-150).

Yet, the earliest evidence from outside Muslim tradition regarding the direction in which Muslims prayed, and by implication the location of their sanctuary, points to an area much further north than Mecca, in fact somewhere in north-west Arabia (Crone-Cook 1977:23). Consider the archaeological evidence which has been and is continuing to be uncovered from the first mosques built in the seventh century:

According to archaeological research carried out by Creswell and Fehervari on ancient mosques in the Middle East, two floor-plans from two Umayyad mosques in Iraq, one built at the beginning of the 8th century by the governor Hajjaj in Wasit (noted by Creswell as, "the oldest mosque in Islam of which remains have come down to us" - Creswell 1989:41), and the other attributed to roughly the same period near Baghdad, have Qiblas (the direction which these mosques are facing) which do not face Mecca, but are oriented too far north (Creswell 1969:137ff & 1989:40; Fehervari 1961:89; Crone-Cook 1977:23,173). The Wasit mosque is off by 33 degrees, and the Baghdad mosque is off by 30 degrees (Creswell 1969:137ff; Fehervari 1961:89).

This agrees with Baladhuri's testimony (called the Futuh) that the Qibla of the first mosque in Kufa, Iraq, supposedly constructed in 670 A.D. (Creswell 1989:41), also lay to the west, when it should have pointed almost directly south (al-Baladhuri's Futuh, ed. by de Goeje 1866:276; Crone 1980:12; Crone-Cook 1977:23,173).

The original ground-plan of the mosque of Amr b. al As, located in Fustat, the garrison town outside Cairo, Egypt shows that the Qibla again pointed too far north and had to be corrected later under the governorship of Qurra b. Sharik (Creswell 1969:37,150). Interestingly this agrees with the later Islamic tradition compiled by Ahmad b. al-Maqrizi that Amr prayed facing slightly south of east, and not towards the south (al-Maqrizi 1326:6; Crone-Cook 1977:24,173).

If you take a map you will find where it is that these mosques were pointing. All four of the above instances position the Qibla not towards Mecca, but much further north, in fact closer possibly to the vicinity of Jerusalem. If, as some Muslims now say, one should not take these findings too seriously as many mosques even today have misdirected Qiblas, then one must wonder why, if the Muslims back then were so incapable of ascertaining directions, they should all happen to be pointing to a singular location; to an area in northern Arabia, and possibly Jerusalem?

We find further corroboration for this direction of prayer by the Christian writer and traveller Jacob of Edessa, who, writing as late as 705 A.D. was a contemporary eye-witness in Egypt. He maintained that the Mahgraye' (Greek name for Arabs) in Egypt prayed facing east which was towards their Ka'ba (Crone-Cook 1977:24). His letter (which can be found in the British Museum) is indeed revealing. Therefore, as late as 705 A.D. the direction of prayer towards Mecca had not yet been canonized.

Note: The mention of a Ka'ba does not necessarily infer Mecca (as so many Muslims have been quick to point out), since there were other Ka'bas in existence during that time, usually in market-towns (Crone-Cook 1977:25,175). It was profitable to build a Ka'ba in these market towns so that the people coming to market could also do their pilgrimage or penitence to the idols contained within. The Ka'ba Jacob of Edessa was referring to was situated at "the patriarchal places of their races," which he also maintains was not in the south. Both the Jews and Arabs ( Mahgraye') maintained a common descent from Abraham who was known to have lived and died in Palestine, as has been corroborated by recent archaeological discoveries (see the earlier discussion on the Ebla, Mari and Nuzi tablets, as well as extra-Biblical 10th century references to Abraham in McDowell 1991:98-104). This common descent from Abraham is also corroborated by the Armenian Chronicler, Sebeos, as early as 660 A.D. (Sebeos 1904:94-96; Crone-Cook 1977:8; Cook 1983:75).

According to Dr. Hawting, who teaches on the sources of Islam at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, a part of the University of London), new archaeological discoveries of mosques in Egypt from the early 700s also show that up till that time the Muslims (or Haggarenes) were indeed praying, not towards Mecca, but towards the north, and possibly Jerusalem. In fact, Dr. Hawting maintains, no mosques have been found from this period (the seventh century) which face towards Mecca (noted from his class lectures in 1995). Hawting cautions, however, that not all of the Qiblas face towards Jerusalem. Some Jordanian mosques have been uncovered which face north, while there are certain North African mosques which face south, implying that there was some confusion as to where the early sanctuary was placed. Yet, the Qur'an tells us (in sura 2) that the direction of the Qibla was fixed towards Mecca by approximately two years after the Hijra, or around 624 A.D., and has remained in that direction until the present!

Thus, according to Crone and Cook and Hawting, the combination of the archaeological evidence from Iraq along with the literary evidence from Egypt points unambiguously to a sanctuary [and thus direction of prayer] not in the south, but somewhere in north-west Arabia (or even further north) at least till the end of the seventh century (Crone-Cook 1977:24).

What is happening here? Why are the Qiblas of these early mosques not facing towards Mecca? Why the discrepancy between the Qur'an and that which archaeology as well as documents reveal as late as 705 A.D.?

Some Muslims argue that perhaps the early Muslims did not know the direction of Mecca. Yet these were desert traders, caravaneers! Their livelihood was dependant on travelling the desert, which has few landmarks, and, because of the sandstorms, no roads. They, above all, knew how to follow the stars. Their lives depended on it. Certainly they knew the difference between the north and the south.

Furthermore, the mosques in Iraq and Egypt were built in civilized urban areas, amongst a sophisticated people who were well adept at finding directions. It is highly unlikely that they would miscalculate their qiblas by so many degrees. How else did they perform the obligatory Hajj, which we are told was also canonized at this time? And why are so many of the mosques facing in the direction of northern Arabia, or possibly Jerusalem? A possible answer may be found by looking at archaeology once again; this time in Jerusalem itself.

(2) The Dome of the Rock:
In the centre of Jerusalem sits an imposing structure (even today) called the Dome of the Rock, built by Abd al-Malik in 691 A.D. One will note, however, that the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque, as it has no Qibla (no direction for prayer). It is built as an octagon with eight pillars (Nevo 1994:113), suggesting it was used for circumambulation (to walk around). Thus, it seems to have been built as a sanctuary (Glasse 1991:102). Today it is considered to be the third most holy site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Muslims contend that it was built to commemorate the night when Muhammad went up to heaven to speak with Moses and Allah concerning the number of prayers required of the believers (known as the Mi'raj in Arabic) (Glasse 1991:102).

Yet, according to the research carried out on the inscriptions on the walls of the building by Van Berchem and Nevo, they say nothing of the Mi'raj, but state mere polemical quotations which are Qur'anic, though they are aimed primarily at Christians. The inscriptions attest the messianic status of Jesus, the acceptance of the prophets, Muhammad's receipt of revelation, and the use of the terms "islam" and "muslim" (Van Berchem 1927:nos.215,217; Nevo 1994:113). Why, if the Dome of the Rock were built to commemorate that momentous event, does it saying nothing about it? Perhaps this building was built for other purposes than that of commemorating the Mi'raj. The fact that such an imposing structure was built so early suggests that this and not Mecca became the sanctuary and the centre of a nascent Islam up until at least the late seventh century, (Van Bercham 1927:217)!

From what we read earlier of Muhammad's intention to fulfill his and the Hagarene's birthright, by taking back the land of Abraham, or Palestine, it makes sense that the caliph Abd al-Malik would build this structure as the centre-piece of that fulfilment. Is it no wonder then, that when Abd al-Malik built the dome in which he proclaimed the prophetic mission of Muhammad, he placed it over the temple rock itself (Van Berchem 1927:217).

According to Islamic tradition, the caliph Suleyman, who reigned as late as 715-717 A.D., went to Mecca to ask about the Hajj. He was not satisfied with the response he received there, and so chose to follow abd al-Malik (i.e. travelling to the Dome of the Rock) (note: not to be confused with the Imam, Malik b. Anas who, because he was born in 712 A.D. would have been only three years old at the time). This fact alone, according to Dr. Hawting at SOAS, points out that there was still some confusion as to where the sanctuary was to be located as late as the early eighth century. It seems that Mecca was only now (sixty years after the Muhammad's death) taking on the role as the religious centre of Islam. One can therefore understand why, according to tradition, Walid I, who reigned as Caliph between 705 and 715 A.D., wrote to all the regions ordering the demolition and enlargement of the mosques (refer to 'Kitab al-'uyun wa'l-hada'iq,' edited by M. de Goeje and P. de Jong 1869:4). Could it be that at this time the Qiblas were then aligned towards Mecca? If so it points to a glaring contradiction in the Qur'an which established Mecca as the sanctuary and thus direction for prayer during the lifetime of Muhammad some eighty to ninety years earlier (see Sura 2:144-150).

And that is not all, for we have other archaeological and inscripted evidence which point up differences with that which we read in the Qur'an. Let's look at the reliability of Muhammad's prophethood, using the data at our disposal.

(3) Nevo's Rock inscriptions:
In order to know who Muhammad was, and what he did, we must go back to the time when he lived, and look at the evidence which existed then, and still exists, to see what it can tell us about this very important figure. Dr. Wansbrough, who has done so much research on the early traditions and the Qur'an believes that, because the Islamic sources are all very late, from 150 years for the Sira-Maghazi documents, as well as the earliest Qur'an, it behoves us not to consider them authoritative (Wansbrough 1977:160-163; Rippin 1985:154-155). It is when we look at the non-Muslim sources that we find some rather interesting observances as to who this man Muhammad was.

The best non-Muslim sources on this period which we have are those provided by the Arabic rock inscriptions scattered all over the Syro-Jordanian deserts and the Peninsula, and especially the Negev desert (Nevo 1994:109). The man who has done the greatest research on these rock inscriptions is the late Yehuda Nevo, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is to his research, which is titled Towards a Prehistory of Islam, published in 1994, that I will refer.

Nevo has found in the Arab religious texts, dating from the first century and a half of Arab rule (seventh to eighth century A.D.), a monotheistic creed. However, he contends that this creed "is demonstrably not Islam, but [a creed] from which Islam could have developed." (Nevo 1994:109)

Nevo also found that "in all the Arab religious institutions during the Sufyani period [661-684 A.D.] there is a complete absence of any reference to Muhammad." (Nevo 1994:109) In fact neither the name Muhammad itself nor any Muhammadan formulae (that he is the prophet of God) appears in any inscription dated before the year 691 A.D.. This is true whether the main purpose of the inscription is religious, such as in supplications, or whether it was used as a commemorative inscription, though including a religious emphasis, such as the inscription at the dam near the town of Ta'if, built by the Caliph Mu'awiya in the 660s A.D. (Nevo 1994:109).

The fact that Muhammad's name is absent on all of the early inscriptions, especially the religious ones is significant. Many of the later traditions (i.e. the Sira and the Hadith, which are the earliest Muslim literature that we possess) are made up almost entirely of narratives on the prophet's life. He is the example which all Muslims are to follow. Why then do we not find this same emphasis in these much earlier Arabic inscriptions which are closer to the time he lived? Even more troubling, why is there no mention of him at all? His name is only found on the Arab inscriptions after 690 A.D. (Nevo 1994:109-110).

And what's more, the first dated occurrence of the phrase Muhammad rasul Allah (Muhammad is the prophet of God) is found on an Arab-Sassanian coin of Xalid b. Abdallah from the year 690 A.D., which was struck in Damascus (Nevo 1994:110).

Of greater significance, the first occurrence of what Nevo calls the "Triple Confession of Faith," including the Tawhid (that God is one), the phrase, Muhammad rasul Allah (that Muhammad is his prophet), and the human nature of Jesus (rasul Allah wa- abduhu), is found in Abd al-Malik's inscription in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, dated 691 A.D. (Nevo 1994:110)! Before this inscription the Muslim confession of faith cannot be attested at all.

As a rule, after 691 A.D. and on through the Marwanid dynasty (until 750 A.D.), Muhammad's name usually occurs whenever religious formulae are used, such as on coins, milestones, and papyrus "protocols" (Nevo 1994:110). One could probably argue that perhaps these late dates are due to the fact that any religious notions took time to penetrate the Arabic inscriptions. Yet, according to Nevo, the first Arabic papyrus, an Egyptian entaqion, which was a receipt for taxes paid, dated 642 A.D. and written in both Greek and Arabic is headed by the "Basmala," yet it is neither Christian nor Muslim in character (Nevo 1994:110).

The religious content within the rock inscriptions do not become pronounced until after 661 A.D. However, though they bear religious texts, they never mention the prophet or the Muhammadan formulae (Nevo 1994:110). "This means," Nevo says, "that the official Arab religious confession did not include Muhammad or Muhammadan formulae in its repertoire of set phrases at this time," a full 30-60 years and more after the death of Muhammad (Nevo 1994:110). What they did contain was a monotheistic form of belief, belonging to a certain body of sectarian literature with developed Judaeo-Christian conceptions in a particular literary style, but one which contained no features specific to any known monotheistic religion (Nevo 1994:110,112).

Of even greater significance, these inscriptions show that when the Muhammadan formulae is introduced, during the Marwanid period (after 684 A.D.), it is carried out "almost overnight" (Nevo 1994:110). Suddenly it became the state's only form of official religious declaration, and was used exclusively in formal documents and inscriptions, such as the papyrus "protocols" (Nevo 1994:110).

Yet even after the Muhammadan texts became official, they were not accepted by the public quite so promptly. For years after their appearance in state declarations, people continued to include non-Muhammadan legends in personal inscriptions, as well as routine chancery writings (Nevo 1994:114). Thus, for instance, Nevo has found a certain scribe who does not use the Muhammadan formulae in his Arabic and Greek correspondence, though he does on papyrus "protocols" bearing his name and title (Nevo 1994:114).

In fact, according to Nevo, Muhammadan formulae only began to be used in the popular rock inscriptions of the central Negev around 30 years (or one generation) after its introduction by Abd al-Malik, sometime during the reign of Caliph Hisham (between 724-743 A.D.). And even these, according to Nevo, though they are Muhammadan, are not Muslim. The Muslim texts, he believes, only begin to appear at the beginning of the ninth century (around 822 A.D.), coinciding with the first written Qur'ans, as well as the first written traditional Muslim accounts (Nevo 1994:115).

Thus, it seems from these inscriptions that it was during the later Marwanid period (after 684 A.D.), and not during the life of Muhammad that he was elevated to the position of a universal prophet, and that even then, the Muhammadan formula which was introduced was still not equivalent with that which we have today.

(4) The Qur'an:
We now come to the Qur'an itself. It seems evident that the Qur'an underwent a transformation during the 100 years following the prophet's death. We have now uncovered coins with supposed Qur'anic writings on them which date from 685 A.D., coined during the reign of Abd al-Malik (Nevo 1994:110). Furthermore, the Dome of the Rock sanctuary built by Abd al-Malik in Jerusalem in 691 A.D. "does attest to the existence, at the end of the seventh century, of materials immediately recognizable as Koranic." (Crone-Cook 1977:18) Yet, the quotations from the Qur'an on both the coins and the Dome of the Rock differ in details from that which we find in the Qur'an today (Cook 1983:74). Van Berchem and Grohmann, two etymologists who have done extensive research on the Dome of the Rock inscriptions, maintain that the inscriptions contain "variant verbal forms, extensive deviances, as well as omissions from the text which we have today." (Cook 1983:74; Crone-Cook 1977:167-168; see Van Berchem part two, vol.ii, nos.1927:215-217 and Grohmann's Arabic Papyri from Hirbet el-Mird, no.72 to delineate where these variances are).

If these inscriptions had been derived from the Qur'an, with the variants which they contain, then how could the Qur'an have been canonized prior to this time (late seventh century)? One can only conclude that there must have been an evolution in the transmission of the Qur'an through the years (if indeed they were originally taken from the Qur'an).

The sources also seem to suggest that the Qur'an was put together rather hurriedly. This is underlined by Dr. John Wansbrough who maintains that, "the book is strikingly lacking in overall structure, frequently obscure and inconsequential in both language and content, perfunctory in its linking of disparate materials, and given to the repetition of whole passages in variant versions. On this basis it can plausibly be argued that the book is the product of the belated and imperfect editing of materials from a plurality of traditions." (quoted in Hagarism, Crone-Cook 1977:18,167) Thus Crone and Cook believe that because of the imperfection of the editing, the emergence of the Qur'an must have been a sudden and late event (Crone-Cook 1977:18,167).

As to when that event took place we are not altogether sure, but we can make an educated guess. From the earlier discussion concerning the dating of the earliest manuscripts we can conclude that there was no Qur'anic documentation in existence in the mid-late seventh century. The earliest reference from outside Islamic literary traditions to the book called the "Qur'an" occurs in the mid-eighth century between an Arab and a monk of Bet Hale (Nau 1915:6f), but no-one knows whether it may have differed considerably in content from the Qur'an which we have today. Both Crone and Cook conclude that except for this small reference there is no indication of the existence of the Qur'an before the end of the seventh century (Crone-Cook 1977:18).

Crone and Cook in their research go on to maintain that it was under the governor Hajjaj of Iraq in 705 A.D. that we have a logical historical context in which the "Qur'an" (or a nascent body of literature which would later become the Qur'an) could have been compiled as Muhammad's scripture (Crone-Cook 1977:18). In an account attributed to Leo by Levond, the governor Hajjaj is shown to have collected all the old Hagarene writings and replaced them with others "according to his own taste, and disseminated them everywhere among [his] nation." (Jeffrey 1944:298) A reasonable conclusion is that it was during this period that the Qur'an began its evolution, possibly beginning to be written down, until it was finally canonized in the mid to late eighth century as the Qur'an which we now know.

From this brief survey we can conclude that the archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Qur'an proves to be the most damaging. Not only do the seventh and eighth century ruins and inscriptions from the area seem to contradict the notion that Muhammad canonized a direction of prayer during his lifetime, or that he had formulated a scripture known as the Qur'an, but the idea of his universal prophethood, that he was the final "seal" of all prophets is brought into question. This indeed is significant and troublesome.

The question we must now pose is whether there is any archaeological evidence to corroborate the authenticity for the Bible? Do the same problems exist with the Bible that we find with the Qur'an?

Next: Archeological Evidence - The Bible

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