The Discovery of the “Oldest Fragment of the Quran” and Questioning The White Mans Burden
Wasif Abu Yusuf
For years, the two parchment leaves covered in an elegant early form of Arabic script were misbound with leaves of a similar Quran manuscript dating from the late seventh century.
Now, with the help of radiocarbon analysis, the two fragments have been shown to be decades older – which puts them among the oldest known examples in the world, according to researchers at the UK’s University of Birmingham.
The testing, which is more than 95% accurate, has dated the parchment on which the text is written to between 568 and 645 CE, researchers said, putting them close to the time of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).
The finding, contrasted to the ongoing destruction of antiquity in the Middle East by ISIS has galvanised the case for the ‘universal museum’, where it is being argued that only institutions in the West can preserve the world’s cultural heritage. Proponents of this argument claim that the destruction and moral outrage is sufficient to further the case for intervention in Muslim lands.
However, a damning history of cultural indifference during Western Imperialism paints a different picture. Do Western states therefore, have the moral authority to police the world’s heritage or is it a pretext to justify further intervention in Muslim lands?
In February 1899, British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands.” In this poem, Kipling urged the U.S. to take up the “burden” of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. He describes how despite the sacrifices that the Empire will make in an attempt to “better” the lives of natives in other lands, the Empire will still be met with disdain.
The poem coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines all under American control.
Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become vice-president and then president, copied the poem and sent it to his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting that it was “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view.” Not everyone was as favourably impressed as Roosevelt. The racialized notion of the “White Man’s burden” became a euphemism for imperialism, and many anti-imperialists couched their opposition in reaction to the phrase. More than a century later, with ISIS marauding through towns in Iraq, astonishing pretexts for further Western imperialism and justifications of its colonial legacy are gaining ground in the media.
Between a sense of responsibility to protect minority groups and to repel the imposition of “Islamic” law, ISIS’s looting and destruction of relics and antiquity has garnered international outrage. Echoing Kipling’s poem, this has led to suggestions that the transfer of artefacts to the West’s ‘universal museums’ have proven to be justified and that military action must be taken to preserve the items that remain. And now, the discovery of old Qur’an fragments in Birmingham has led even some Muslims to believe that items of such global significance could only have remained safe under Western supervision.
Civilisation Under Attack
In the BBC’s documentary ‘Civilisation Under Attack’, presenter David Cruikshank argues his case: “It’s shocking to think what else might have been lost if European and American archaeologists hadn’t brought so much back to the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. For many of us, we only know these ancient civilisations from visiting the great museums of Europe. The British Museum in London is home to one of the finest collections of antiquities in the world…Had they remained in situ, many of them would have been destroyed last year.
It’s been argued that these collections are colonial plunder, even they should be returned to the care of the countries they were taken from. Now, with the actions of the Islamic State, that argument has been turned on its head.”
The political fallout that resulted directly from the Western invasion of Iraq doesn’t feature much as Cruikshank attempts to conflate the Islamic concept of a Caliphate with ‘cultural terrorism’. Considering Islam’s stern position against idolatry and its identity based on its creed rather than nationalism, the programme implies that the values and the political nature of Islam render such actions inevitable. This has been a constant theme in Western media outlets despite the fact that it was under the historical Caliphate that antiquity had survived for over a thousand years.
As the scene proceeds to the Berlin museum, where the perfectly preserved ornamental walls from Babylon are on display, Cruikshank adds:
“So the question is, instead of calling them villains should we be saying “Thank God for the actions of those archaeologists”?
However, the concerns are meaningless considering that the pillaging of Iraq is not a recent event, but commenced with the Western campaign more than a decade earlier. The widespread looting in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities, following the collapse of the Ba’athist regime of President Saddam Hussein, was not merely an incidental byproduct of the US military conquest of Iraq. It was deliberately encouraged and fostered by the Bush administration and the Pentagon for definite political and economic reasons.
As war planners may be quick to point out, the subsequent looting was done by Iraqis, not foreign troops. But no measures were undertaken by then US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, to prevent it from happening or to stop it once it had begun. These were failures that cannot be dismissed as mere oversights.
The US military stood by and permitted the ransacking of the museum, an incalculable blow to Iraqi and world culture, just as they allowed and even encouraged the looting of hospitals, universities, libraries and government social service buildings. In numerous reports, the US soldiers themselves joined in.
Iraq’s sovereign board of antiquities and heritage, Abbas al-Hussaini confirmed a report two years ago by John Curtis, of the British Museum, on America’s conversion of Nebuchadnezzar’s ancient city of Babylon into the ‘hanging gardens of Halliburton’. This meant a 150-hectare camp for 2,000 troops. In the process the 2,500-year-old brick pavement to the Ishtar Gate was smashed by tanks and the gate itself damaged. The archaeology-rich subsoil was bulldozed to fill sandbags, and large areas covered in compacted gravel for helipads and car parks. Babylon was rendered archaeologically barren. Meanwhile the courtyard of the 10th-century caravanserai of Khan al-Raba was used by the Americans for exploding captured insurgent weapons! One blast demolished the ancient roofs and felled many of the walls. The place is now a ruin.
Many Iraqis were, and still are, convinced that the memory lobotomy was international – part of Washington’s plan to excise a strong, rooted heritage and replace it with their own model. “They want to wipe our culture,” seventy year old Ahmed Abdullah told the Washington Post.
The most striking aspect of the outbreak of looting was the nonchalant attitude of US government officials in Washington. At a Pentagon press conference Friday, Donald Rumsfeld denounced the media for exaggerating the extent of chaos, and argued that the looting was a natural and perhaps even healthy expression of pent-up hostility to the old regime. “It’s untidy,” Rumsfeld said. “And freedom’s untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes.”
However, with a developing political agenda for the Middle East, there are sudden calls for a clean up. In a reproduction of colonialist narratives, former US soldier and Thieves of Baghdad author, Mathew Bogdanv remarks:
“Look at the destruction now in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Iraq – look at the destruction. Had those items been taken, by “civilised” countries, in the 19th and 20th centuries, even the 21st century, some would argue, then they would now be safe.”
“What are you going to do about it world? Are you prepared for that action (looting) to be a cause of war?…Are we prepared to use force, armed force, deadly physical force to protect the cultural heritage of all humanity?…they (ISIS) will not stop, you will not educate them, you will not prevent them from this destruction. The only way you will stop them from this destruction – and I say this with sadness and reluctance – is the use of force”.
Such contrasting attitudes and double standards do the West’s appeal to the moral argument no favours. In most part, the concern for Iraq’s legacy and history has been subject only to political expediency.
A History of Plunder
The Western indifference to other civilisations is not new. The treatment of American Indians by European colonisers and later the United States of America is well documented in historical literature. The cultural and religious arrogance that led settlers to deny anything of value in pre-Columbian America was destructive, even genocidal.
In his book, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann discusses the cultural arrogance that allowed the European settlers not only to exploit the Americas but to deny that before 1492, the Americas “had no real history,” being “empty of mankind and its works.” In this view, the people of the America’s “lived in an eternal, unhistorical state.”
Similarly, during the scramble for Africa by Europeans, the main way to prove that a land was qualified for colonization or take over was ‘Terra Nullius”, a Latin expression deriving from Roman law meaning “land belonging to no one”, which is used in international law to describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign has expressly or implicitly relinquished sovereignty.
As a result, tourists visiting sub-Saharan Africa often wonder “Why are there no historical buildings or monuments?”
The reason is simple. Europeans have destroyed most of them.
Today, If you want to see the glory of Africa, you have to go to Europe, where thousands and thousands of stolen arts objects, civilisation artefacts are in public museums and private collection. If you want to see the wealth of Africa, you have also to go to Europe where they are stored in private and public accounts. Centuries of plundering and destruction brought continent to its knees.
Subsequently, it should be of no surprise to find rare Qur’an fragments in Birmingham of all places! Despite this discovery, there are currently countless Islamic scriptures and scholarly texts that have remained classified under British authority. Their value to the Muslim community could prove incalculable.
Far from representing a preservation programme, most of what is seen in famous museums is little more than colonial trophyism, preceded by the wholesale extermination of foreign cultures and civilisations.
Heritage: What’s It Worth?
Westerners often attempt to comfort themselves with the belief that their valuation of indigenous culture means that it will be protected – when in fact this only means that Westerners do not believe that the heritage possesses intrinsic value. Thus, if indigenous peoples cannot show their value to the surrounding society, or if the surrounding society simply ignores or is unaware of this value, then their heritage risks being degraded or destroyed.
In a striking example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took control over what is perhaps the most controversial set of ancient remains in North America – simply because the bones were discovered on its property in 1996 by students wading in the Columbia River near the town of Kennewick.
The corps’ early decision to hand the bones over to local Native Indian tribes triggered a lawsuit from a team of scientists causing much distress, who argued that such a rare find should be preserved for study – despite DNA testing proving the remains of “Kennewick Man” was Native Indian.
“Scientists may not understand it,” Anthony Johnson, chairman of the Nez Perce tribe said, “but it’s very important for our way of life … that we put our ancestor back in the ground.”
Incidents such as this among many others prompted scholars such as Nigel Stobbs to state in the Indigenous Law Bulletin:
‘These (native) communities are worth protecting not as a means to some other end but as either ends in themselves or as entities which are self-valuing’.
In other instances, objects of fascination were put on display for publicity campaigns in Europe where cultures were incorporated by commercial enterprises. Here, the enslaved, indigenous people used to provide tangible artefacts and intangible heritage displays for the tourism market.
This economic relationship between heritage protection and commercialism also created problems of authenticity with foreign traditions becoming resources for heritage tourism. It became common for artists to modify cultural artwork and identities to appeal to patrons on local, regional and national levels. Efforts to protect foreign cultures appeared to be far less prominent than the emphasis to promote the Euro-American culture of consumerism, materialism and capitalism.
One particular feature in the BBC programme was the claim that the belief in a Khilafah, with its lack of permanent borders and resistance to nationalistic sentiments in a Khilafah motivates people to destroy anything meaningful to people of other faiths and backgrounds.
In fact, the opposite true. With nationalistic entities and Empires, the domination of a capital city, tribe or nation over others is key where its inhabitants, are inferior to, or subjugated by, the dominating nation – and therefore exploited for their resources.
The Islamic Khilafah, however, assimilates all territories as equals to itself. Thus Cordoba rivalled Baghdad, and Samarkand rivalled Cairo in terms of wealth, learning and technology. Furthermore, unlike an Empire, the capital cities can change location in a Khilafah – so Constantinople went from being a conquered city, to being the Capital of the Islamic Khilafah itself.
Unlike secular states, Islam has a very different approach to non-Muslim citizens. Non-Muslim citizens of the Khilafah are called Ahl-al Dhimma – people of the contract – which means they enjoy the full rights of citizenship. They are citizens whose life, honour, property and religion are all to be protected under the law of the Shariah, like any other citizen. They pay a tax called jizya but are exempt from paying zakat or from compulsory military service.
The Khilafah during its reign allowed non-Muslims to have their own courts and judges to settle family law disputes and other matters related to their personal lives and religion. This meant that the valued items and artefacts of other cultures were not siphoned off to far away lands into museums under the guise of ‘preservation’ or commercialism but left, instead, to its native caretakers. It is little wonder that the most ancient religions, customs and relics in history still exist wherever Islam was implemented.
History is a testament to the Muslim applying these commands under the Khilafah for over hundreds of years.
Sir Thomas Arnold in his book ‘The Preaching of Islam’ states: “But of any organised attempt to force the acceptance of Islam on the non-Muslim population, or of any systematic persecution intended to stamp out the Christian religion, we hear nothing. ‘ Had the Caliphs chosen to adopt either course of action, they might have swept away Christianity as easily as Ferdinand and Isabella drove Islam out of Spain, or Louis XIV made Protestantism penal in France, or the Jews were kept out of England for 350 years.”
Unlike Kipling, the Muslims did not view their role as a thankless chore but an honourable and sacred duty. The West’s scant regard for human life during Imperial campaigns has meant that protecting heritage has always been the least of their concerns. The case for intervention on this premise is redundant and is an attempt to bring a new dimension to an already multifarious attack on Muslim lands.
How such precious and important apparent fragments of the Qur’an reached Birmingham remains to be seen. But potentially being from the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), then inevitably it was already preserved in Muslim lands for centuries before reaching the West. Rest assured, it’s journey will be rooted not in altruism, but in surviving colonial legacy.