Archaeology and the Qur’an – A brief introduction

The field of archaeology exists to understand human development and history through our material remains. At times the archaeologist resembles the role of a detective, piecing together the story, the motive, the purpose behind why a particular piece of pottery or stone or bone or whatever it may be was found where it was, when it was, how it was etc. I recall once participating in an excavation in the remote island of Islay in western Scotland, ploughing my way through layer after layer of thick, sludgy, slimy silt in freezing temperatures with my knee deep in mud, increasingly torrential rainfall and rapidly losing the will to live, only to seemingly find nothing. It turned out the post-excavation process of flotation, sieving and sorting had unearthed a microscopic charred seed remain which, when radiocarbon dated, brought back the date of this particular site to over 1000 years than had previously been estimated, consequently causing a re-evaluation of the entire site. The clues are  often subtle, but nonetheless they remain evident.

The Qur’an, as with many other religious scriptures, lays claim to several events pertaining to human history. These are more often than not events or episodes in which the insurmountable power of God has been manifest upon a particular civilisation as a sign of punishment for their wrong doings. Some of these episodes are explicitly mentioned, others are subtly mentioned but nonetheless evident. The archaeological ‘detective’ is therefore required to decipher and decode the wonderful treasures which rest within. Archaeology – particularly over the past century where the subject has evolved into a profession in its own right – has supported in substantiating the frequent historical episodes which are mentioned in the Qur’an. No doubt it will continue to do so, as the remit of an archaeologist is to explore the entirety of the human past.

One such example which finds itself repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an is the destruction of ‘Ad and Thamud’. It is written, [41:14] ‘But if they turn away, then say: ‘I warn you of a destructive punishment like the punishment which overtook ‘Ad and Thamud.’ The city of Ad as mentioned in the Qur’an [89:8] is referred to as Iram  dhat al-‘Imad (Iram of the columns) “the like of whom have not been created in these parts”. The city was a powerful one, excelling over their contemporary nations in material means and resources. Whilst some schools of thought regard Iram as a city either identified with Damascus or Alexandria, the prevailing assumption had settled on its geographic location to be in the southern Arabian Peninsula, within Yemen. Nonetheless, in 1992, NASA agreed to undertake satellite imagery of the region to unveil a remarkable series of photographs which uncovered the remains of an entire city like plan, complete with extensive trading routes, all of which were almost entirely invisible to the naked eye and had very little by way of material remains. What had before been dismissed by western scholars as ‘Bedouin legend’, had now thrust itself very much to the forefront of archaeological debate. The Qur’an had made the entire account abundantly clear, it required the investigation and persistence of the archaeologist to finally unveil the inevitable.

This is but one example. There remains a limitless supply of investigation which the Qur’an has left for us to explore. The evidence is there, it is simply a matter of time. However, a thorough examination and backing from the field of archaeology is necessary to accelerate the speed of discovery. Muslim archaeologists remain in worryingly short supply. Dramatic improvements have been made over the past 50 or so years with dedicated archaeological courses being taught in universities in the Middle East (universities in Jordan and Egypt provide excellent facilities and courses). Nonetheless, the shortfall is evident. Personally, I have yet to meet a single Muslim archaeology student within the UK, despite taking part in numerous excavations with UK universities around the world. The Qur’an has laid out the clues; it is time for Muslim archaeologists to follow them up.

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