View Printable Version :: Email to a Friend
Appendix C: View of the Orientalists on the History of the Qur’ānic Text
Dr. Shehzad Saleem

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 Burton47 and a few others, the ‘Geschichte’ presents the dominant view of the Orientalists on this subject.

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 findings:

(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 reading.

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 identified:

1. The period of the early codices.

2. The period of the ‘Uthmānic codices sent to various territories.

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.48

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 decree.

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.49


47. John Burton, Collection of the Qur’ān, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977.

48.(Arthur Jeffery, Preface to Ibn Abī Dāwūd’s Kitābu’l Masāhif, 1st ed., [Egypt: Al-Matba‘ah al-Rahmaniyyah, 1936], pp. 5-9)

49. John Gilchrist, Jam‘u’l-Qur’ān -- The Codification of the Qur’ān Text, Internet Version:

For Questions on Islam, please use our