If the Command was Given to Burn the Manuscripts, Why Do So Many Survive?


Question:

If the command was given to burn unauthorized copies of the Qur’an, why do so many early manuscripts exist?

Answer:

This narration must firstly be taken into its historical context. There were generally two types of writing material being used at that time. Papyrus and Vellum (Parchment). Papyrus is a plant based material, which is very delicate. In other words, it can be difficult to preserve and it is damaged somewhat easily. However, it was cheap to produce and attain. This type of material could not be washed or rubbed so that the writing on it could be changed. To the contrary, parchment (vellum) which is animal skin is very robust and it can be washed over or rubbed to have the writing changed. It is also very expensive and at that time, some may say difficult to procure (acquire). In this context, the command to burn, would have meant to burn what could not be changed, which is why we find a number of manuscripts (made with animal skin) with changes, and why papyrus based manuscripts are extremely rare. Therefore, in terms of the historical context of the writing material of that time period, it would make sense that you burn the cheap, mass produced material which could not be changed and you do not burn the expensive, difficult to acquire writing material which could be changed.

Similarly, we have to take into consideration the fact that this narration presupposes that the command be carried out by those who knew how to read. If the command was absolute, then any person who possessed any type of writing in their household, handed down through family tradition or given in trade, would have to destroy all the writing they possessed. However, this would not make sense. Only a person who knew how to read, and in this case, could read the writing of the Qur’an, would know what to burn. Most people at that time would not be able to read, and so we cannot expect that the command meant that every person, whether literate or illiterate, burn their entire libraries when they did not understand what they were burning in the first place. In this way, many manuscripts would have survived. It is not simply a case of burning everything and anything. These narrations do exist within a historical period and we must understand these narrations in light of their historicity.

If we take for an example, the command of a general on a battlefield who says, “kill everyone!” Does he mean to say that his own soldiers should kill each other and himself? Or, if you’re at a restaurant and order something from the menu, that it means you have ordered for everyone? Statements have to be taken into context and we must be careful about taking them absolutely literally, especially when we do not understand the customs and practises of the time period in which they are said to have taken place within.

and Allah knows best.

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