Recently I was translating a medieval Syriac poem lamenting a deacon who converted to Islam, and I got stuck on a single word. Different manuscripts, as is often the case, contained different readings of that word, but the options were either nonsensical or not in the dictionaries. The only other scholar to work with the text proposed an emendation which was semantically sensible but poetically impossible. What’s a translator to do? I found a way through, turning a philological detail into a methodological point about late medieval Syriac texts. Continue reading
It is six weeks since the news first broke of a fragmentary Qur’an manuscript whose radiocarbon dating (95% accuracy) is between 568 and 645. Early reports declared how much the discovery supported traditional Muslim accounts of the origins of the Qur’an, but this week the news media went abuzz with claims that the Qur’an may in fact predate Muhammad and debunk Islam’s account of its own origins. (N. B.: The article was first published in the Times of London, but linking to paywalls is unhelpful.) Some scholars (such as Georgetown Prof. Jonathan Brown) have now published critiques of the counter-claims, and the buzz continues apace.
Before we get too carried away, it’s important to remember that this is a single manuscript. Statisticians derisively refer to the conclusions which can be reached when the number of data points N = 1. Such a datum is not “statistically significant.” While statistical significance is not the only measure of historical evidence (and indeed, most ancient and early medieval history does not achieve statistical significance), it does suggest that we might usefully remember the limits of what we are looking at here. Continue reading