Fresh back from a holiday in Orkney, where watery sunshine more or less staved off the cold. The extraordinary remains of the islands’ neolithic cultures mesmerised us, as did the ghosts of the German Imperial Fleet, scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919, just below our windows. Three short notes today, rather than an essay.
The TLS published on August 7th a fascinating article by Gabriel Said Reynolds (Variant Readings: The Birmingham Qur’an in the context of debate on Islamic origins) about the recently identified pages of an early Qur’an that may have been brought to Birmingham from Fustat in the nineteenth century. What is fascinating about the two leaves is their date – carbon dating places them between 548 and 645, earlier than any other known copy of the Qur’an with perhaps one exception – while the text is virtually identical with the standard text traditionally believed to have been assembled for the Caliph ‘Othman (644-656). Carbon dating, in fact, almost certainly places this apparently ‘Othmanic text well before Othman’s caliphate, upsetting the accepted history of the revealed text. If the dating is good (and it is said to have 95% accuracy) then this Quran was written when the revelations had hitherto been assumed to have been preserved in conflicting versions only on palm-leaves and the shoulder-bones of camels. It raises a whole lot of questions about textual history and textual variation (Reynolds reminds us that the text of the Quran as it now exists, the King Farouk Qur’an, was finalised and published in 1924 and revised in 1936), suggesting that the story of ‘Othman’s scholars agreeing a single text, and consigning bones and palm-leaves to the flames, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. “The dates,” as Reynolds puts it, “are not simply early. They are too early. Instead of rejoicing, the news about this manuscript should lead to head-scratching.” It poses some very fundamental questions. “The upshot of all these early dates is that the Qur’an may well date earlier than Uthman, possibly much earlier. It may be time to rethink the story of the Qur’an’s origins, including the traditional dates of Muhammad’s career.”
As sad coincidence would have it, one of the last generation’s most glittering and controversial Qur’anic head-scratchers, Patricia Crone, died in July. There have been many obituaries, that from the New York Times here. Its author quotes Fred Donner of Chicago as saying that she had “made it clear that historians of early Islam had failed to really behave as historians — that is, had failed to challenge the validity of their sources, but rather had accepted complacently what I call the ‘traditional origins narrative’ created by the Islamic tradition itself.” Her books caused much argument and not a little bitterness, and particularly Hagarism which questioned radically the origins and nature of early Islam: she wrote, as she said, as “an infidel for infidels,” meaning that she was not hobbled by sacred orthodoxies and had the privilege of an objective approach to the texts. I remember very well attending, as a postgrad in 1982, her undergraduate history class in Oxford, which she opened with a virtuoso performance, a scintillating hour on pre-industrial societies which formed the germ of her remarkable book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (1989). I’d have loved to hear her on the Birmingham dating conundrum.
On the island of Hoy, off Orkney, there is an interesting trace of the Middle East in the form of a line of Persian cut into the granite of a neolithic rock-tomb. The tomb is 5000 years old, a chamber-tomb carved into a glacial erratic: it is unique in Britain, and known as the Dwarfie Stane, having gathered a trail of stories about its being the home, or the tomb, of dwarves or trolls. Among the other laboriously cut, and often well-lettered, Victorian graffiti, is the line of Persian which translates as I sat here for two nights and have found patience. It was cut by ‘Major’ William Mounsey, whose name is also carved, backwards, in Latin script, apparently in 1850. Some say that his patience was learned of the midges.
Mounsey was an intriguing and eccentric character, born near Carlisle in 1808, and returning there after a military career abroad. For a start, he almost certainly wasn’t a major, army lists giving him the rank of captain right up to the end of his career. He is said to have been an intelligence agent – a spy – for the British army in Persia and Afghanistan, though I can find no easy corroboration of this. He seems to have been easily competent in Hebrew, Persian, Greek, Latin and Welsh, and was an amateur antiquarian as well as a soldier and a solicitor. He wandered widely, cutting curious inscriptions into ancient monuments and hillsides, often in Welsh and frequently backwards. He may have been responsible for a series of five faces, various stars of David and a fish carved in rocks in the Eden valley. Later in life he wore a large beard and dressed, in a priestly costume he designed himself, based on his studies of Jewish history and culture, and was known as ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ One venture was a walk (in full sacerdotal fig) along the river Eden from sea to source, cutting his name as he went. He commemorated the walk with a monument called ‘the Jew Stone,’ at Black Fell Moss which was destroyed by malignant navvies and survives in a facsimile standing at Outhgill. It reads, predictably in Greek, Hebrew and Latin: William Mounsey, a lone traveller, commenced his journey at the mouth and finished at the source, fulfilled his vow to the genius and nymphs of the Eden, on 15th March 1850.
One of the infinitely many personal tragedies of Syria took place last week, in the death of Khaled al-Asaad. He was the archaeologist in charge of the site at Palmyra: he had been there more than half a century, and knew its every nook and cranny, writing about it with incomparable authority. The Daesh were convinced, probably correctly, that he knew where Palmyra’s moveable treasures were concealed. They wanted them for loot and resale, and threatened al-Asaad with death if he did not reveal them. Al-Asaad refused to do so, and was killed, his decapitated body strung up from a pillar in the centre of Palmyra.
A personal tragedy certainly, but also a vignette of real nobility. This was a man who understood very well the way in which human and material culture are inextricably entwined, and how the destruction of cultural heritage is part-and-parcel of atrocity and genocide. Christopher de Bellaigue reports asking a Zoroastrian priest “what happens if the flame [in the Zoroastrian temple] at Yazd goes out?” The priest replies: “Nothing. Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to naught.” And that’s exactly it – the destruction of material culture is both everything and nothing, and those who sneer at concern with stones ‘when human beings are dying,’ fail to understand the intimate ties of past and future, of stone and flesh. Across Syria and Iraq ancient peoples whose bloodlines go back thousands upon thousands of years into prehistory are being slaughtered, enslaved and exiled by incoming Chechens, Arabs, Punjabis, Maghrebis and Europeans. Destroying and looting the warp and weft of their history and identity is part of the process of removing them as though they had never been.
In a particularly good article last week in the Evening Standard, Robert Bevan, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, discusses this whole issue very wisely, writing that “until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and the fate of their culture are interlinked, there can be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.” He discusses the insights of Raphael Lemkin, the Byelorussian Jew who drafted and promoted the 1948 Genocide Convention (having coined the word). Lemkin linked the two voices of annihilation – against people and against their culture – in his drafting of the Convention, but the UN removed reference to the destruction of culture, with disastrous results. Not that Lemkin confused the two. Bevan quotes him as saying, luminously, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” That early warning function is long past in Syria, but we ignore at our peril the systematic campaign by barbarians to extirpate any culture that is not their own poor, two-dimensional figment of one. And not just in Syria.
Finally a note that the recently published number 15 of the excellent Critical Muslim is focussed on Educational Reform, and is full of good things. I have an article in it on education reform in North Africa, called The Sheepskin Effect, and there is much more, all of it worth reading, intelligent, though-provoking and often important.