Arthur Jeffery in his preface to the Kitābu’l-Masāhif of
Ibn Abī Dāwūd has summarized the views of the German oriental scholar Theodore
Noldeke (d:1930) and his successors on the history of the collection of the
Qur’ānic text. The profound research initiated by Noldeke on this topic was
subsequently completed and supplemented by his successors Scwally, Bergstrasser
and Pretzl, and later printed in German in three volumes as ‘Geschichte des
Qorans’. Except for Burton and a
few others, the ‘Geschichte’ presents the dominant view of the Orientalists on
In the opinion of this writer, if the testimony of the
Qur’ān on its collection and that of established history on its transmission is
not taken into account, it is very difficult to refute the findings of these
German Orientalists. As a humble tribute to the tremendous research carried out
by them, I, for the benefit of the English reader, have translated from Arabic
the portion of the preface written by Arthur Jeffery that summarizes these
(i) The Prophet (sws) did not leave any book to his Ummah
when he died: It is said that the Prophet (sws) directed his companions to write
every verse revealed to him and he yearly used to present before Gabriel the
portion of the Qur’ān written down in that year, and the year he died he twice
presented the Qur’ān before Gabriel; in this way, the whole of the Qur’ān was
collected in the lifetime of the Prophet (sws) on leaves and sheets; its sūrahs
and verses were arranged in the very manner we have them today except for the
fact that it was in form of Suhuf (sheets) and not in Mushaf (codex) form. [We]
the Orientalists do not accept this view since it is against certain other
Ahādīth which say that at the death of the Prophet (sws), the Qur’ān was not
collected on anything. This is more in accordance with the apprehension
expressed by Abū Bakr and ‘Umar when there were a lot of casualties in the
battle of Yamāmah (as has been narrated). These two had expressed their grave
concern on these casualties and had feared that there could be more casualties
on other war fronts and consequently a large part of the Qur’ān might be lost.
It is evident from this that the cause of fear was the mass killing of the
reciters of the Qur’ān who had learnt the Qur’ān by heart. Had the Qur’ān been
collected and written, there would have been no cause of fear expressed by the
two. Moreover the scholars of the West do not agree with the fact that the
arrangement of the text of the Qur’ān we have today was made by the Prophet (sws).
(ii) Differences in the Codices of Companions: It has been
narrated that several companions had collected the Qur’ān in a codex. Among them
were ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib, Ubayyi Ibn Ka‘ab, Sālim, Abdullāh Ibn Mas‘ud, Abū Mūsā
Ash‘ari, ‘Abdullāh Ibn Zubayr, Abū Zayd, Mu‘ādh Ibn Jabal and others. Some
scholars are of the opinion that the word Jam‘ in such Ahādīth means learning by
heart. However, [we Orientalists] do not agree with this view because of the
following reasons: ‘Alī had loaded his camel with what he had collected and
brought it to the other companions; people had named what Abū Mūsā had collected
as Lubābu’l-Qulūb (the essence of hearts); ‘Uthmān had burnt what Ubayyi had
collected; Abdullāh Ibn Mas‘ūd had refused to present ‘Uthmān’s governor of Iraq
what he had collected. This clearly entails that whatever they had collected was
written in their codices. Each of these codices was specific to its compiler;
each compiler had collected in his codex the verses and sūrahs that came to his
knowledge. Consequently, in the opinion of the Orientalists, the codex compiled
by Zayd Ibn Thābit for Abū Bakr was specifically meant for him and it was not an
official codex as some people say. All these codices differed with one another
because each consisted of what its compiler had collected in it, which was
different from those of the others.
(iii) Gaining of currency of some companions’ codices in
the Islamic territories: When Islamic territories sprung forth after the
conquest of Syria and Iraq, each group of people wanted a copy of the Qur’ān
which is the basis of their religion, its directives and the collective affairs.
The people of Kūfah agreed upon the codex of ‘Abdullāh Ibn Mas‘ūd, the people of
Basrah upon that of Abū Mūsā Ash‘arī, the people of Damascus upon that of Miqdād
Ibn Aswad, the people of Syria upon that of Ubayyi Ibn Ka‘ab. All these codices
differed from one another. When the people of Iraq and Syria united to fight in
the lands of Azarbaijan, they had serious difference in reading the Qur’ān to
the extent that one started to censure the other about that which was not
contained in his own codex claiming that it was not the Qur’ān. From this,
sprung forth disputes and controversies. All this was the result of each one
adhering to the codex of his own area.
(iv) Unification by ‘Uthmān on one Harf: It has been
narrated that Hudhayfah Ibn Yamān was among the armies who had conquered
Azarbaijan. When he heard the disputes and controversies that had arisen between
the people in reading the Qur’ān, he came over to ‘Uthmān and said: ‘O chief of
the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book [the Qur’ān],
as Jews and the Christians did before’. So ‘Uthmān stood before the people and
said: “Anyone who has any part of the Book of Allah should bring it.” So people
came up with what they had of it on scapula bones, sheets and stalks of date
trees and on other things. He then called forth Zayd Ibn Thābit and assembled
for him a group from the people of Quraysh and directed them to collect the
Qur’ān in one codex. So they collected the Qur’ān from written tablets and from
the hearts of people. They would not accept anything unless two persons
testified to it. It is also said that ‘Uthmān asked Hafsah to send to him the
Suhuf compiled by Zayd at the behest of Abū Bakr. These Suhuf became the basis
of the new compilation of the codex done by ‘Uthmān. After ‘Uthmān collected and
compiled this codex, he named it the official codex and he sent its copies to
the various territories of his empire. He ordered that all other codices and
Suhuf be burnt. Some scholars contend that ‘Uthmān obtained from Hafsah the
official text compiled by Zayd for Abū Bakr and copied this official text
version in the dialect of the Quraysh because the Arabs used to recite the
Qur’ān in various dialects. Others are of the opinion that ‘Uthmān completed
what ‘Umar had begun. We are doubtful about these views because the Ahādīth
which narrate the collection of the Qur’ān lead us to the conclusion that it was
the difference in codices of the various territories which led ‘Uthmān to direct
Zayd to prepare and compile the codex read in Madīnah so that this official
codex should become the codex for all the Muslim territories. In other words,
this codex was not meant for Madīnah alone like the codex of Ibn Mas‘ūd which
was meant for Kūfah alone and like that of Abū Mūsā Asha‘rī which was meant for
Basrah only. It was meant for the whole of the Islamic kingdom.
(v) The codex of ‘Uthmān was without
diacritical marks or vowel sounds: The readers found differences in some letters
in the codices sent to the various territories. In the codex of Kūfah, it was
written <عملت>, while in the
others it was written <عملته>.
Similarly, in the codex of Syria it was written <وبالزبر>,
while in the others it was written <والزبر>.
Likewise, in the codex of Madīnah and Syria the words were <فلا>,
while in the others they were <ولا>.
All these codices were without diacritical marks and vowel sounds. It was left
to choice of a reader to give diacritical marks and vowel sounds on the text
according to the meanings of the verses. <نعلمه>
is an example of this. One would read it as <يُعَلِّمُهُ>,
the other as <نُعَلِّمُهُ>
and another as <تُعْلِمُهُ>
or as <بِعِلْمِهِ> in
accordance with his interpretation of the verse. At that time, it was his choice
to select the word that fitted according to his understanding of the verse as
well as to select the vowel sounds. Moreover, the choice in reading of certain
readers also existed which was based on the codices actually prohibited by
‘Uthmān. This is evident from the various books of Qirā’aāt. After that,
gradually arose the reading that became famous in a particular area of a
territory and the people of that area followed it and rejected those of the
other ones. The reading of the people of Kūfah, that of the people of Basrah,
that of the people of Syria, that of the people of Hams, that of the people of
Makkah and that of the people of Madīnah came into existence. These were in
accordance with the choice of the famous readers of these areas.
(vi) The dominance of choice of certain readers: It was
agreed and accepted after sometime that the authority of certain readers in
these territories has prevailed over the others. What these readers had selected
in reading, became the reading of the people of their territory. These readers
enunciated three principles for the basis of selecting various readings: (a) The
reading should be in harmony with the ‘Uthmānic codex, (b) It should originate
from the companions and (c) It should be grammatically correct.
In 322 AH, Abū Bakr Ibn Mujāhid, the greatest scholar of
the Science of Readings (Qirā’āt) of his times, selected between these readings
and gave priority to the readings of seven readers. They were Nāfi‘ from Madīnah,
Ibn Kathīr from Makkah, Ibn ‘Āmir from Syria, Abū ‘Amr from Basrah and ‘Āsim,
Hamzah and Kisā’ī from Kūfah. He based this selection on the famous Hadīth: The
Qur’ān has been revealed on seven readings; read any of those which you find
easy from among these seven. However, most scholars did not accept this
selection done by Ibn Mujāhid. Someone of them approved the reading of Abū
Ja‘far of Madīnah, some took favour to the reading of Ya‘qūb of Basrah and
others to that of Khalaf of Kūfah. Today most of the scholars accept the
readings of the ten readers and regard the readings of these ten to be Mutawātir.
(vii) Reading of Hafs attains dominance and wide acclaim:
The readings of each of these ten readers were transmitted by several narrators.
After some time, people selected two narrators from among these for each of
these ten. They favoured and chose those readings of Nāfi‘ which were narrated
by Warsh and by Qālūn; of Ibn Kathīr those which were narrated by Qunbul and by
Bizzī; of Ibn Amir those which were narrated by Ibn Dhakwān and by Hishām; of
Abu ‘Amr those which were narrated by Dūrī and by Sūsī; of ‘Āsim those which
were narrated by Hafs and by Abū Bakr; of Hamzah those which were narrated by
Khalaf and by Khallād; of Kisā’ī those which were narrated by Dūrī and by Hārith.
Similarly, they chose and favoured those readings of Abū Ja‘far which were
narrated by Ibn Jammāz and by Ibn Wardān; of Ya‘qūb those which were narrated by
Rawh and by Ru’ays. Then later on only the versions narrated by each of the
above two narrators of the ten readers were totally relied upon. These versions
persisted in every age with people reading them until three of them received
more acclaim than the others; they were: the reading of Abū ‘Amr of Basrah as
narrated by Dūrī, the reading of Nāfi‘ of Madīnah as narrated by Warsh and the
reading of ‘Āsim of Kūfah as narrated by Hafs. The version of Hafs subsequently
prevailed over the other two except in the Maghrib where the reading of Warsh
prevailed. Today, in most Muslim countries, the reading of ‘Āsim through Hafs
has survived as the most dominant and widely adopted of all the readings.
This in the opinion of the Orientalists is the history of
evolution of the Qirā’āt (Readings) of the Qur’ān. It begins from the various
codices individually compiled by the companions until ‘Uthmān promulgated an
official codex in his times. Then there remained a time of choice in the
selection of various readings until the scholars started relying on one formal
It is thus proved that the results of the research carried
out by the Orientalists are more in conformity with the various Ahādith and the
various contradictory accounts reported on this topic. These results are also
more in harmony with the circumstances and incidents of that period.
Basing our results on this analysis, six distinct periods
of the history of the evolution of the Qirā’āt (Reading) of the Qur’ān can be
1. The period of the early codices.
2. The period of the ‘Uthmānic codices sent to various
3. The period of choice in reading.
4. The period of dominance of the seven or ten readings.
5. The period of choice in the readings of the ten.
6. The period of the general acceptance of the reading of
Hafs, which is the period when these codices entered the phase of printing.
In more recent times, John Gilchrist has written on the
history of the Qur’ānic text. His findings are no different from those of the
scholars of the German tradition. As against the more technical presentation of
Arthur Jeffery, his presentation is perhaps more easier for the common man to
grasp. Below, his findings are summarized in his own words:
The Qur’ān was compiled piecemeal, was not compiled in a
single book during Muhammad’s lifetime, was recited by many companions and was
read at the time by Muslims with varying Arabic dialects. The course of the text
thereafter down to the present day is largely what one would have expected and
is generally consistent with itself, most certainly in its broad outline.
After Muhammad’s death passages of the Qur’ān were lost
irretrievably when a number of reciters died at the Battle of Yamāmah. This
incident together with the Qur’ān’s automatic completion as a book, once its
mediator had passed away inspired a number of companions to compile their own
codices of the text. These were basically consistent with each other in their
general content but a large number of variant readings, many seriously affecting
the text, existed in all the manuscripts and no two codices were entirely the
same. In addition, the text was being recited in varying dialects in the
different provinces of the Muslim world.
During the reign of ‘Uthmān, a deliberate attempt was made
to standardise the Qur’ān and impose a single text upon the whole community. The
codex of Zayd was chosen for this purpose because it was close at hand and,
having been kept in virtual seclusion for many years, had not attracted
publicity as one of the varying texts as those of ‘Abdullāh Ibn Mas‘ūd and
Ubayyi Ibn Ka‘ab had done. The other codices were summarily destroyed and Zayd’s
text became the textus receptus for the whole Islamic world as a result.
Numerous records were retained, however, showing that key
passages were missing from this text. It also had to be reviewed and amended to
meet the caliph’s standard for a single approved text. After ‘Uthman’s death,
however, Hajjāj, the governor at Kūfah, made eleven distinct amendments and
corrections to the text.
As the early codices were only written in consonantal
form, however, the varying dialects survived largely unaffected by ‘Uthman’s
action and it was only three centuries later that a scholar, Ibn Mujāhid,
managed to limit these to seven distinctly defined readings in accordance with a
tradition which stated that the Qur’ān originally came in seven different
readings although the tradition itself made no attempt to define these readings.
Over the succeeding centuries, the Qur’ān continued to be
read in seven different forms until five of them largely fell into disuse.
Eventually only those of Hafs and Warsh survived and, with the introduction of a
printed Qur’ān the text of Hafs began to take almost universal prominence.
The Qur’ān text as it is read and printed throughout the
Muslim world today is only Zayd’s version of it, duly corrected where necessary,
later amended by Hajjāj, and read according to one of seven approved different
readings. This is the reality - a far cry from the popular sentiment which
argues for a single text right from the time of Muhammad himself. The reality,
however, based on all the evidences available, shows that the single text as it
stands today was only arrived at through an extended process of amendments,
recensions, eliminations and an imposed standardisation of a preferred text at
the initiative of a subsequent caliph and not by prophetic direction or divine
The Qur’ān is an authentic text to the extent that it
largely retains the material initially delivered by Muhammad. No evidence of any
addition to the text exists and, in respect of the vast number of variant
readings and missing passages that have been recorded, there does not appear to
be anything actually affecting or contradicting the basic content of the book.
In this respect, one can freely assume a relative authenticity of the text in
the sense that it adequately retains the gist and content of what was originally
there. On the contrary, there is no basis in history, facts or the evidences for
the development of the text to support the cherished hypothesis that the Qur’ān
has been preserved absolutely intact to the last dot and letter.