Islamic Perspectives

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Chapter 1


By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(March 2005)

We discuss in this chapter the question of the preservation of the teachings and practice of the Prophet Muhammad for each of the two sources – The Qur'an and the Hadith.


Preservation of the Qur’an

The question here is whether the Qur`anic text as we have it today is the same as the one handed down by the Holy Prophet himself. Before considering this question, it is necessary to clear one technicality. In Arabic, as in Hebrew and some other languages, the vowels were not written. They were used for teaching purposes or for the benefit of non-Arabs. Even now the writings penned by Arabs and meant for Arabs omit vowels, except when used for teaching purposes.

 The construction of the sentence very often determines what vowels are to be used, but sometimes uncertainty can arise. In the case of the Qur'an, which was from the beginning constantly memorized and recited by the Muslims such uncertainties are relatively few.

In addition to the vowels, dots used to distinguish some letters -- such as “b” from “t” or “th”; “r” from “z”; “b” from “n”, which without the dots can have the same linear form -- were also sometimes omitted. There were also somewhat different ways of putting dots that distinguish some letters such as "f" from some others such as "q". Some say that the whole system of dots was developed later. A further source of confusion is that dots were at times used for vowels. In any case, it should be evident that for the question of the authenticity of the Qur`anic text variations arising from the absence of vowels or somewhat different ways of putting vowels or different ways of differentiating letters with identical shapes must be set aside. They reflect the peculiarities of the system of writing rather than any alterations in the received text. In any language one often finds that a word can have more than one meaning, making the meaning of the text uncertain. In a document written in Arabic script, a word to which vowels or dots can be supplied in more than one way is like a word that can have more than one meaning.

The Arabic script also lacked punctuation marks, for which comments similar to those made for dots and vowel marks apply.

One other fact that should be kept in mind while examining the transmission of the Qur`an is that the Arab culture of the time had no tradition of producing books of the size of the Qur`an and then making copies for wide distribution. The Qur`an in fact is the earliest “book” in Arabic language that has come down to us, very probably pre-dating translation of the Bible into Arabic. It is certainly the earliest book to be copied and distributed far and wide. Pre-Qur`anic Arabic documents that have survived are short inscriptions. If this is not kept in mind then modern readers of the Muslim traditions about the collection of the Qur`an cannot properly evaluate them.

Now from the emphasis that the Qur`an puts on the pen and on writing business contracts -- clearly far less important than the revelation -- from its description of itself as a book like the Torah and the Gospel, and from the uniform testimony of all traditions it is established that the Qur`an was written during the time of the Prophet. Also, there is no direct textual evidence of any alterations in the text of the Qur'an, whether in its contents or their order, ignoring the vowel marks, the dots, and some extremely minor scribal errors that can be identified with a straightforward way (see Chapter 4, Section II, The original can be completely recovered). Finally, it is agreed by all reports that the present text was in use when a large number of the companions of the Prophet were alive. Given these facts even discussing the question of the authenticity of the Qur`anic text seems unnecessary. If today the question of the authenticity of the Qur`anic text is alive in some discussions it is primarily because of three reasons:

First, polemic between Muslims and Christians creates a strong need among some Christians to counter the Muslim allegation of tahrif in the Bible by a similar allegation of tahrif in the Qur`an.

Second, the need on the part of some scholars, usually incompetent or mediocre or mischievous, to come up with some sensational or dramatic theses for attracting attention or serving a particular agenda. Such is probably the case, for example, with Wansbrough who has suggested that the Qur`an was compiled even later than the traditions, and was used to authenticate later beliefs and laws embodied in the traditions. In other words, during the early Arab expansion beyond Arabia the conquerors were not Muslims. They gradually developed beliefs and laws, embodied them in traditions, and later produced the Qur`an, almost 200 years after Muhammad, to put a stamp of authority on those traditions. Similar is the case with the theory put forward by P. Crone and M. Cook in their book Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World.

Third, some Muslim traditions allege that the Qur`an contained this or that statement or that this or that verse was read in this or that way at some, usually, unspecified time.

There is no way to satisfy doubts raised by needs of polemic except perhaps to ask Christians the following question: Suppose that today we had only one gospel that according to all reports was used by the eyewitness disciples of Jesus and by all subsequent generations of Christians down to the present day. Suppose further that all extant manuscripts of this gospel were in complete agreement as to its text except for extremely unimportant scribal errors. Will Christians entertain any doubts about the authenticity of the text of such a gospel? Almost certainly not! Yet in polemic against Islam and Muslims they raise doubts about the authenticity of the Qur`anic text in the face of exactly the same type of evidence.

There is also not much one can do to cure the attention seekers from coming up with sensational but highly suspect theories. Modern Christian scholarship is full of such theories: e.g., the theory that Jesus did not exist or the theory that Jesus was originally the name of the mushroom used in drug cults and was later turned into a human being born and active in Galilee, or that he was a militant zealot engaged in armed struggle for the liberation of Palestine from the Roman yoke. All such theories can be discredited easily by noting that they focus on a very selected part of the evidence and make no attempt to provide a coherent and reasonable explanation of the evidence as a whole. For the specific theory of Wansbrough, he himself has to describe it as "conjectural", "provisional" and "tentative" in order to appear to be adhering to some semblance of academic standards. That the theory does not deserve even these descriptions is shown by the fact that at least four manuscripts of the Qur`an, including some recently discovered fragments have been dated to the first and early second Islamic century (see Chapter 3, Section II).

As for the doubts raised by Muslim traditions we can examine them critically in order to see whether they really call the authenticity of the Qur`anic text into question. Such an examination has been done by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who have concluded in favor of the authenticity of the Qur`anic text.

Muslim traditions raise two types of doubts:

a)                  After the departure of the Prophet from this world the material in the text was changed;

b)                  The order of the material was changed or it was established for the first time after the Prophet’s departure from this world.

This second type of traditions say that the Prophet left the Qur`an scattered in pieces and it was put as a complete book after his life.

Examples of traditions of the first type, those that raise doubts about the integrity of the material in the Qur`anic text, are:

1) Some Shi‘ah traditions, documented no earlier than the fourth century of the Islamic calendar, say that in some verses of the Qur’an ‘Ali was appointed as the successor of the Prophet but these verses were changed or removed. Likewise there are reports that the Qur`an once had material disparaging to the rule of the Umayyads, ‘Ali’s rival, and that it was removed from the Qur`an by Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the governor of Iraq under the Umayyad rule.

2) Some Sunni traditions, documented in the second century, say that there was a verse in the Qur'an that prescribed stoning for adultery.

3) We also encounter allegations to the effect that codex of such and such a companion of the Prophet read such and such a verse of the Qur'an in this or that way.

For some people the very existence of such traditions is enough to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Qur`anic text. This is because they guide themselves with the saying, "where there is smoke, there must be fire." This is clearly irresponsible. For, it is evident that there are lots of traditions or ideas that have no basis at all in fact. There may not be smoke without fire (although even that can be arranged!) but there are certainly traditions without truth.

The need for responsible historical research before drawing conclusions from reports can be illustrated by some examples. In Christianity we find in the second to fifth century C.E. the following traditions or views:

·        Pilate was a Christian saint.

·        A Roman soldier Pantera was an ancestor of Jesus. This Pantera is the same man who according to the Jewish tradition was an illegitimate father of Jesus.

·        Cerinthus, a gnostic heretic, wrote the Gospel of John.

·        Before he started his ministry, Jesus went to Tibet and other lands in the east spending 17 years there and learning the ways of various yogis and mahatamas.

It would be irresponsible to accept these or any of the other innumerable traditions or views found in the past or present Christian and other writings simply because they are, or claimed to be, found in some documents.

Consequently, responsible historical research must first assess the above-mentioned traditions about the text of the Qur'an as to their veracity. This was attempted long time ago by Muslim muhaddithun (Hadith scholars) who developed some objective criteria to distinguish sound (sahih) traditions from unsound ones. We can either accept their conclusions or carry their critical and scientific work further. Many Muslims have accepted their conclusions and explained the various traditions about variants in the Qur`an as follows: Almost all traditions considered sound by the Hadith scholars are historical. Therefore all variants in the Qur`an stipulated in them are actual. However, they do not represent later changes. Rather, they came from the Prophet himself and are therefore part of revelation. Some of these variants were abrogated by revelation, others were included in seven different revealed modes of reading the Qur`an. Still others were meant to continue in practice but not part of the recited Qur`an. This view has an internal consistency and coherence within a set of assumptions, but is very unsatisfactory. The alternative to this view is a complete revision of the work of the classical Hadith scholars. One cannot simply pick and choose traditions to affirm the faithful transmission of the Qur`an, or, as the Christian missionaries do, build an edifice of accusations against the early transmitters of the Qur`an. We need to develop further objective and rational methods to reconstruct history behind the various traditions. If we do that, the case for the faithful preservation of the Qur`anic revelation can be made even more convincingly than if we simply depend on the work of the classical muhaddithun, as I attempt to show now.


A general but conclusive argument against allegations of alteration


To begin with we have the solid fact before us that despite considerable diversity and divisions among Muslims we find the same text of the Qur`an from country to country and century to century, with some very minor exceptions mentioned earlier. Those who insinuate alterations must explain when and how did this text come into existence. If we ignore certain very late traditions about Hajjaj bin Yusuf discussed further below, the most cynical statement that can be made on the basis of the existing evidence is that the text was finalized by ‘Uthman, the third Muslim leader succeeding the Holy Prophet, and that some changes were made by ‘Uthman or people before him. But a little reflection shows this to be next to impossible. Let us recall some established historical facts: The Prophet had dozens of followers who were with him for about 20 years, hundreds of followers who were with him for about 10 years, thousands who were with him for about one year, and tens of thousands who saw and heard him at least once. After him four of those who were with him for about twenty years successively became leaders of the Muslim world, which during their leadership, lasting for about thirty lunar years, expanded to include at least Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The most important basis for governing this vast region was the Qur'an and the Sunnah (normative practice of the Prophet). The companions of the Prophet taught people the Qur'an, if only for the daily prayers; some of these people then taught others and so on. Finally it is uncontested that written texts of the Qur'an existed before ‘Uthman during the time of the Prophet and the first two of his successors and that there existed people, as they still do, who memorized the Qur'an in part or in whole.

Now suppose that there were at any time any variations in the Qur'an other than those caused by scribal errors or failure of memory or due to some minor differences in script. That is, suppose that some individuals or groups deliberately held onto a text of the Qur’an that they knew was different from the one followed by others and that was closer to the original text than the one we possess. How could it then happen that from century to century and from country to country we find the same text of the Qur'an? It is said that `Uthman ordered people to burn all the texts of the Qur’an which were different from the text that he compiled. But is it conceivable that people will submit to this order even if they thought `Uthman's text was not the authentic text? Westerners may have the tendency to think that Muslim rulers must have always been tyrant dictators who could force the people to do anything. This is certainly not true of the early leaders of Muslims. But even if we assume that people lived in terror of their leaders, it was logistically impossible for `Uthman to control every home. People could easily hide their various copies of the Qur’an and secretly pass them on to their descendants and through them on to us. It is self-evident and is also required by the teachings of the Qur'an that every Muslim should do his utmost to prevent the alteration or suppression of the word of God. For, in passages where no variations are alleged, the Qur'an had condemned earlier nations for altering or fabricating the "divine" scripture. Thus in one such passage we read:

And woe unto those who write the scripture with their own hands and then say, "This is from God," that they may in this way obtain a small gain. Woe unto them for what their hands have written and woe unto them for what they gain thereby! (2:79).

The following passage condemns even hiding any part of the revelation, much less altering it:

[God says:] Those who hide what We have revealed of the clear matters and of the guidance, after We have made it clear for the people, are accursed of God and accursed of those who (are entitled to) curse - except such of them as repent and amend and make manifest the truth. These it is to whom I turn in forgiveness. And I am the forgiving, the merciful (2:159-160).

Many early Muslims are expected to live up to the obligation implied in these verses even if it meant loosing their lives. For, there has never been a shortage of Muslims who have been willing to give their lives for the sake of Islam. Hence any attempt by `Uthman or anyone else would have been met with the stiffest resistance on the part of many Muslims, resulting in their putting forward an alternative text of the Qur`an. But we have no direct evidence of the existence of such an alternative text. Only later insinuations of the type we have mentioned earlier.

And what about the text that `Uthman promulgated? How did he arrive at that text? On the basis of what text did the first two leaders, Abu Bakr and `Umar governed the Muslim lands before him? What text people had been using in their daily prayers in Madinah, the city of the Prophet, which consisted almost entirely of Muslims, most having seen and heard the Prophet? What text was used throughout the land during sermons before the Friday congregational prayers? How could `Uthman change the text that had been used for twelve years before him in the presence of hundreds of companions of the Prophet who could easily detect any change to the original text and were obligated by religious principles to prevent alterations in the word of God? And why at all would he want to change it, considering that the extant text says nothing in his favor? It is also important to keep in mind that the vast Muslim world was not homogeneous. There was as much diversity of opinion as one expects from any group of people. There were even conflicts, some of them armed. `Uthman himself had opposition from some groups, one of which actually martyred him. Had the text he promulgated been less than 100% reliable his opponents would have made it an issue and accused him of changing the word of God. But the fact is that these opponents accused him of many things but we do not have any early reliable tradition, in which they accuse him of changing the word of God. There is also no evidence that anyone resisted ‘Uthman and was executed for doing so or otherwise persecuted. In fact, several traditions suggest an atmosphere of complete freedom within which promulgation of the so-called ‘Uthmanic text took place (see further below).

The above arguments counter the traditions alleging some alterations in the Qur`anic material but they also show that there were no alterations in its order in so far as the Prophet himself indicated that order. For if for any set of verses the Prophet had indicated the order he wanted the verses to be recited, any departure from that order will have resulted in divisions among Muslims leading to different Qur`ans today. If for some parts of the Qur`an the Prophet did not specify any order, then of course some subsequent Muslim leader could have used his own judgment to establish an order between those parts and the community could have accepted it. In this case, however, we cannot describe the new order as an alteration. What the authenticity of the Qur`an means is that the existing text of the Qur`an contains exactly what the Prophet intended it to contain and in exactly the order he intended, there being a possibility that in the present text some parts are found in an order that was left open by the Prophet himself.

The following considerations suggest that the existing order of the material in the Qur`an within surahs was fixed by the Prophet and probably also the order between surahs:

n      The Qur`an shows that the Prophet was moved, like the Biblical prophets, by a sense of tremendous urgency and seriousness of the message he was conveying through the Qur`an. It is nothing short of a message to all humanity on which their very salvation depends. More than other prophets, however, the Prophet also taught that he was the last or the seal of the prophets, that is, his message was not only for the whole humanity but also for all future generations of men till the judgment day. Under such a perspective, the Prophet is expected to take steps to ensure the integrity of the Qur`an and this includes attention to the order of the material.

n      The Qur`an and the traditions refer to surahs or chapters of the Qur`an. This means that the book was divided into chapters called surahs in the time of the Prophet. It seems difficult to imagine that no attention was paid during the time of the Prophet to the order within surahs. The order within a chapter of a book is an important part of the interpretation of the book. It is extremely unlikely that the Prophet would have the surahs written down and then leaves them as scattered pieces without any clear order in the verses.

n      Since the revelation of the Qur`an continued throughout the Prophet’s ministry it is clear that the Qur`an was incomplete for most of that period. But it is clear from the uniform testimony of the Qur`an and the traditions that the Qur`an was recited during prayers in the Prophet’s time. This must have created a need from the very beginning to establish an order in the various pieces, at least within surahs.

n      At the most we can admit the possibility that the revelation that came down towards the very end of the Prophet’s life when he fell sick might not have been put in its place by him in a deliberate way. In fact the verse: “This day I have completed my religion for you …” (5:3) which from its very contents seems to be chronologically the last verse or one of the last verses is found in the middle of the regulations about food. This can be explained as follows: originally 5:3 was on two sheets. It started on one sheet and continued on the second. Then the verse about the completion of revelation was written down on a separate sheet and this sheet put between the two sheets containing 5:3, where it has stayed to this day. This is a strong argument that the existing Qur`an is a copy of a single master copy prepared in the time of the Prophet and that the order of the Qur`an, at least within surahs, was established in the lifetime of the Prophet and no changes were made in it subsequently. For, otherwise, the verse about the completion of revelation would not be found in its present place. The companions, if they established the order of the Qur`an after the Prophet, are expected to find a more “suitable” place for this verse. They could have, for example, put the verse at the end of surah 5 or any other surah, rather than in the middle of a verse.

Once we see that the order within surahs was established during the lifetime of the Prophet, we must conclude that the Qur`an was being collected in his lifetime with his full knowledge. Now there are two possibilities: 1) Surahs were collected in separate “folders” with no particular order between them; 2) they were put together as a single collection of written material. In this second case, they must have some order in the manuscript(s) being collected, it being possible that different manuscripts being prepared by different companions had different order between surahs. In the first case, too, the question of order between surahs is expected to have arisen. The Prophet could have answered this question either by instructing a definite order or by suggesting an order without insisting on it or by leaving the order entirely to the people. All these possibilities arise because the order between surahs is not important for the interpretation of the Qur`an, since neither its verses nor its surahs are in any chronological or thematic order. The situation corresponds well to the following hadith:

Yazid al-Farisi said: I heard Ibn Abbas say: I asked ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan: What moved you to put the (surah) al-Bara'ah which belongs to the m`in (surahs containing (more than) one hundred verses) and the (surah) al-Anfal which belongs to the mathani (surahs) in the category of al-sab‘ al-tiwal (the first seven long surahs of the Qur'an), and you did not write "In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful" between them? ‘Uthman replied: When the verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet, he called someone to write them down for him and said to him: Put this verse in the surah in which such and such has been mentioned; and when one or two verses were revealed, he used to say similarly (regarding them). (Surah) al-Anfal is the first surah that was revealed at Madinah, and (Surah) al-Bara'ah was revealed last in the Qur'an, and its contents were similar to those of al-Anfal. I, therefore, thought that it was a part of al-Anfal. Hence I put them in the category of al-sab‘ al-tiwal, and I did not write "In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful" between them. (Abu Da`ud)

In this tradition, it is clearly assumed that the order within surahs was fixed by the Prophet while the order between the surahs appears to be somewhat open. This tradition, however, is not historical as far as the part where ‘Uthman is given the liberty to fix the order of the surahs is concerned. Such order, if not already fixed by the Prophet himself must have been fixed soon after his death. For considerations of plausibility and a number of reports show that complete copies of the Qur`an must have been available more than a decade before ‘Uthman and these complete copies must have had some order between surahs. ‘Uthman would have no reason to change that order.


 “Collection” after the death of the Prophet


Some traditions suggest that the Qur`an was “collected” after the departure of the Holy Prophet from this world. This is well within the realm of possibilities if the term “collected” is understood to mean that the different surahs of the Qur`an, instead of being written as separate units were put together in a single manuscript in the form of a book, although even then the suggestion is very unlikely since the Qur`an is generally described as a book rather than as a collection of several separate units like the collection of poems by a poet. But in some traditions “collection” brings to mind a Qur`an whose pieces are scattered all over the places and are being collected from place and place. These traditions are certainly the result of some gross misunderstanding as we now show in some detail.

The most creditable of these traditions is the following:

Zayd bin Thabit said: Abu Bakr al-Siddiq sent for me when the people (involved in the battle) of Yamamah had been killed. 'Umar bin al-Khattab was with him. Abu Bakr then said:

“‘Umar has come to me and said: ‘Casualties were heavy among the qurra' (readers) of the Qur'an on the day of the battle of Yamamah, and I am afraid that more heavy casualties may take place among the qurra' on other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur'an may be lost. Therefore I suggest, you order that the Qur'an be collected.’ I said to 'Umar, ‘How can you do something which God's Messenger did not do?’ 'Umar said, ‘By God! That is a good project.’ ‘Umar kept on urging me to accept his proposal till God opened my heart to it and I saw in it what 'Umar saw."

Then Abu Bakr said (to me), “You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the revelation for God’s Messenger. So you should trace the Qur'an and collect it." By God, if they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than his ordering me to collect the Qur'an. Then I said to Abu Bakr, "How will you do something which God's Messenger did not do?" Abu Bakr replied, "By God, it is a good project." Abu Bakr kept on urging me to accept his idea until God opened my heart to what he had opened the hearts of Abu Bakr and 'Umar. So I started looking for the Qur'an and collecting it from (what was written on) palmed stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last verse of Surah al-Tawbah with Abu Khuzaymah al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him. The verse is: 'Verily there has come unto you a Messenger from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty (till the end of Bara`ah (9.128-129). Then the complete manuscripts (suhuf) of the Qur'an remained with Abu Bakr till he died, then with 'Umar till the end of his life, and then with Hafsah, the daughter of 'Umar (Bukhari).

If this tradition is taken as it is, then it can be used to argue that whatever Zayd bin Thabit did under orders from Abu Bakr was completely faithful to what the Prophet passed on to his followers. Notice how both companions are unwilling to depart from the practice of the Prophet. With this attitude it is almost certain that they would have compiled the Qur`an as faithfully as they could, in terms of both the contents and the order. And they could certainly be 100% faithful if they wanted to, as they evidently did, since the Qur`an was both in written form and in people’s memory.

But there are strong indications that this tradition is not historical. One immediate point to be noted is that in the story the motivation of the collection of the Qur`anic fragments was provided by the death of many qurra` in a battle. This means that prior to the battle of Yamamah the preservation of the Qur`an was primarily done orally by the qurra`. This raises the question, did the qurra` know only parts of the Qur`an or whole of it? If they knew only parts of it, then they were no guarantee to the preservation of the Qur`an, so why the attention to the collection of the Qur`an was given only after the death of the qurra` in the battle of Yamamah, which according to some reports took place about a year after the death of the Prophet? If the qurra` knew by heart the whole Qur`an, then the Qur`an must have been already collected. One may say that this collection was in memory but not in the form of a written book. But then why Zayd makes such a big issue of collecting the written pieces of the Qur`an, saying that he would have found it easier to shift one of the mountains than to put the fragments of the Qur`an together? It was not such a revolutionary departure from the practice of the Prophet if one simply collected together as a single book the chapters of the Qur`an that the Prophet had dictated and that many Muslims had memorized in their entirety. The hesitation on the part of Abu Bakr and Zayd to “collect” the Qur`an might make some sense if we assume that in the time of the Prophet the surahs were left as separate units without any fixed order between them while what ‘Umar was proposing was to put them together in a single manuscript which necessarily required ordering them. But this is not the picture that the above tradition is assuming. The last part of the tradition which talks about two verses being not found with any one but Khuzaymah al-Ansari pictures the Qur`an as scattered all over the places.

Moreover, if the collection of the Qur`an in the sense of picking up its pieces from different places was done by Zayd under Abu Bakr, then we should find some mention of this important event in early books of history. Ibn Ishaq mentions the selection of Abu Bakr as the leader of the Muslims after the Prophet’s death and refers to traditions as late as the last year of ‘Umar’s caliphate. He therefore could also have mentioned how the Qur’an was collected in the days of Abu Bakr. But he does not. He does however assume that almost immediately after the death of the Prophet there was a book that was the source of guidance for Muslims: The Prophet had not yet been buried, when ‘Umar got up in a gathering that had just selected Abu Bakr and declared: “God has left his book with you, that by which he guided his messenger, and if you hold fast to that God will guide you as he guided him.” Ibn Ishaq also mentions the tradition according to which Abu Bakr referred to a verse in the Qur`an (3:138) to make the Muslims accept the Prophet’s death. Is it believable that this book that was to guide the Muslims was left in such a sorry state that about a year after the death of the founder of Islam Zayd had to search for its verses from place to place?

If omission from Ibn Ishaq of any mention of the tradition of collection under Abu Bakr can be explained by the fact that Ibn Ishaq is primarily a biography of the Prophet, the same cannot be said of its omission from Tabaqat’ of Ibn Sa‘d (d: 230 H). Ibn Sa‘d devotes considerable space to the time of Abu Bakr but does not mention the collection of the Qur`an under him. He also has a section on Khuzaymah bin Thabit but collection of the Qur`an by Zayd and his finding a verse with Khuzaymah is nowhere mentioned. The tradition of collection under Abu Bakr is also absent from Muwatta and Muslim. 

It is also strange that the task of collecting the Qur`an was entrusted only to one companion: Zayd, who was in his mid twenties in the time of Abu Bakr. There is some logic in involving a young person in the project that needed good memory, but it is inexplicable why the senior companions were completely excluded. Moreover, Zayd did not belong to the Quraysh in whose tongue, according to other traditions, the Qur’an was revealed and written. 

But what really discredits the story is that we have other stories contradicting almost every detail in it. Notice that in the above tradition we are told that Zayd when asked to collect the fragmentary Qur`an says to ‘Umar, "How will you do something which God's Messenger did not do?" ‘Umar replies, "By God, it is a good project."  This clearly implies that the collection of the Qur`an was not done in the time of the Prophet. Yet in another tradition we are told:

It is related from Anas: The Qur`an was collected in the lifetime of the Prophet by four (men), all of whom were from the Ansar: Ubayy, Mu‘adh bin Jabal, Abu Zayd and Zayd bin Thabit." I asked Anas, "Who is Abu Zayd?" He said, "One of my uncles" (Bukhari).

According to another tradition:

It is related from Anas that when the Prophet died, none had collected the Qur'an but four persons: Abu al-Darda`, Mu'adh bin Jabal, Zayd bin Thabit and Abu Zayd. We were the inheritors (of Abu Zayd) as he had no offspring (Bukhari).

Notice that Zayd bin Thabit is among those who collected the Qur`an during the lifetime of the Prophet, the same Zayd who is said in the other tradition to be searching for the pieces of the Qur`an after the battle of Yamamah at the instruction of Abu Bakr.

The tradition about collection during the time of the Prophet is actually more reliable than the tradition of collection under Abu Bakr. This is because of the following reasons:

1) The tradition about collection in the time of Abu Bakr is found neither in Muwatta nor Muslim. But the two traditions about collection during the time of the Prophet are found in Muslim, though not in Muwatta.

2) The traditions about collection during the time of the Prophet can be taken back to a companion by the principle of two witnesses whereas the tradition about collection in the time of Abu Bakr cannot be taken back by the same criterion earlier than a successor.

Bukhari repeats the tradition about collection in the time of Abu Bakr at least five times with the following chains of transmission (isnads):

Zayd bin Thabit al-Ansari

                         ‘Ubayd bin al-Sabbaq,

Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri

                        Shu‘ayb -- Abu al-Yaman

Ibrahim ibn Sa‘d -- Musa bin Isma`il

Yunus -- al-Layth

Ibrahim ibn Sa‘d -- Musa bin Isma`il

 ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Khalid --  al-Layth

A look at the above isnad tree (which shows the earlier authority on the left) shows that we can confidently take the tradition back to Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (died 125), since several transmitters cite him. But we cannot take the tradition past al-Zuhri. He is the only one who cites al-Sabbaq and al-Sabbaq is the only one who relates from Zayd and Zayd is the only one telling the story. In contrast, the tradition of collection during the lifetime of the Prophet is quoted from the original narrator by several transmitters. It has the following isnads:

Anas bin Malik



Yahya -- Muhammad bin Bashshar

Thabit al-Bunani

             ‘Abd Allah bin al-Muthanna -- Mu‘alla bin Asad


 ‘Abd Allah bin al-Muthanna -- Mu‘alla bin Asad


There are thus four successors who relate the tradition from the original narrator, Anas who, being a companion, could well have known whether the Qur`an was collected during the time of the Prophet. Clearly then the tradition of collection during the time of the Prophet is more reliable than the tradition of collection during the time of Abu Bakr.

It may also be noted that the collection of the Qur`an during the time of the Prophet himself is supported by other traditions. Thus in his last sermon the Prophet told the Muslims: “I have left you something, which if you hold steadfast to, you will never fall into error: the Book of God. (Muslim; Muwatta and Ibn Ishaq also contain a similar tradition). Here it is likely that “book” does not refer to written fragments of the Qur`an scattered all over the places. In another tradition we read “Yazid bin ‘Abd Allah said that ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr asked the Prophet: In how many days should I complete the recitation of the whole Qur'an, O Messenger of God? He replied: In one month. He said: I am capable of completing it in a shorter period. He kept on repeating these words and lessening the period until he said: Complete its recitation in seven days. He again said: I am capable of completing it in a period less than this. The Prophet said: He who finishes the recitation of the Qur'an in less than three days does not understand it. (Abu Da`ud). This hadith, versions of which are found also in Bukhari and Muslim, suggests that the complete Qur`an was recited during the time of the Prophet, which implies that somewhere the whole Qur`an was being collected as it was being revealed.

There are still more difficulties concerning the tradition of collection during the time of Abu Bakr. In that tradition we are told that there was a Qur`anic passage that Zayd could not find anywhere except with Khuzaymah al-Ansari. The passage is identified as 9:128-129. But look at the following tradition.

Zayd bin Thabit narrated: When we collected the fragmentary manuscripts of the Qur'an into copies, I missed one of the verses of Surah al-Ahzab which I used to hear God's Messenger reading. Finally I did not find it with anybody except Khuzaymah al-Ansari, whose witness was considered by God’s Messenger equal to the witness of two men. (And that verse was:)  'Among the believers are men who have been true to their covenant with God.'

Here the missing passage is not 9:128-129 but 33:23!!!

The above difficulties are raised when we limit ourselves to the relatively early and reliable source – Bukhari. If we also consider traditions from other sources such as those used in Kitab al-Masahif written by Abu Bakr ‘Abd Allah ibn abi Da`ud (230-316 H) the confusion multiplies. Thus some traditions tell not that Zayd bin Thabit collected the Qur`an at the order of Abu Bakr but rather that Abu Bakr himself did the collection while Zayd bin Thabit only had a second look over it:

It is related from Kharijah that Abu Bakr al-Siddiq had collected the Qur`an on papers himself and had requested Zayd bin Thabit to have a second reading on it. Zayd refused but he agreed on the insistence of ‘Umar. The scriptures thus compiled remained with Abu Bakr al-Siddiq till his death, the possession passing to ‘Umar till he died, and again to Hafsah (wife of the Prophet and daughter of ‘Umar). ‘Uthman, when he became khalifah, sent for the scriptures but Hafsah first refused to part with them but later agreed on the promise that they shall be returned to her. Thus ‘Uthman returned the scriptures after he got them copied. These remained with Hafsah until Marwan, in his time, got them burnt.

The following tradition gives us yet another account of the way the Qur`an was collected under the leadership of Abu Bakr:

‘Urwa ibn Zubayr related that when a large number of qurra` were murdered, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq feared the loss of the Qur`an. He thus asked ‘Umar and Zayd bin Thabit to sit at the door of the mosque and collect the Qur`anic verses from anybody who could produce two witnesses each in support of their being genuine Qur`anic verses.

Still other traditions say that the collection was not even done by Abu Bakr but by ‘Umar and completed by ‘Uthman:

It is related from Yahya bin ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Hatab that ‘Umar determined to collect the Qur`an, ordered all those who kept with them the Qur`anic verses which were earlier collected by them from the Messenger, to produce such verses before him based on evidence of two witnesses each. Thus he gathered all those pieces of papers, stones, wooden plates and date-palm leaves on which the Qur`an was written. ‘Umar left the task of compilation of the Qur`an incomplete when he died and it was thus taken over by ‘Uthman who followed the routine of his predecessor. During this period Khuzaymah bin Thabit challenged ‘Uthman that he had missed two verses and these were ultimately taken over.

In addition to the difference in the khalifah under whom the collection of the Qur`an was done and in the whole procedure of that collection, another noteworthy difference is that while in other versions the missing Qur`anic passage is remembered by Zayd bin Thabit and then found at his initiative with Khuzaymah in the above version it is Khuzaymah himself who challenges ‘Uthman.

We conclude from the above evidence that the tradition that the Qur`an was collected for the first time under Abu Bakr is highly doubtful. One striking feature of this and other traditions considered above is that they stress the role of the Ansar. In one tradition all the Quraysh are excluded and the task of collecting the Qur`an is given to a young Ansari in his mid twenties. Parts of the Qur`an are found only with Khuzaymah al-Ansari. Four people who collected the Qur`an in the time of the Prophet are pointedly identified as belonging to the Ansar. It thus seems that one impulse behind the development of these traditions is to praise the Ansar. Another circumstance that explains the development of traditions about the collection of the Qur`an after the Prophet’s departure from this world is that during that period for most people the Qur`an was indeed a book whose pieces were found scattered and they had to collect them. During the last part of the Prophet’s life and the subsequent period there were an ever increasing number of tribes, villages, cities and countries entering the fold of Islam. Most people did not have easy access to complete manuscripts of the Qur`an or to people who knew the whole Qur`an by heart. They learned whatever the available teachers could teach them. Both the teachers and their students probably wrote, when they could write, the parts of the Qur`an that they memorized to safeguard it. To learn more they had to look for other resource people. This process was the “collection” of the Qur`an. We have an incident of this in Bukhari:

Yusuf bin Mahk related: While I was with ‘Aishah, the mother of the believers, a person from Iraq came and asked, "What type of burial shroud is the best?" 'Aishah said, "May God be merciful to you! What does it matter?" He said, "O mother of the believers! Show me your mushaf (copy of the Qur'an)," She said, "Why?" He said, "In order to compile the Qur'an according to it, for people recite it without any (fixed) order." …Then 'Aishah took out the copy of the Qur'an for the man and dictated to him the verses of the surahs (Bukhari).

According to this tradition a man is traveling from Iraq to find out the proper order in the surahs or their verses. Even if the tradition is unauthentic, the situation it presumes is highly plausible: people did not often find in their neighborhood complete copies of the Qur`an or complete copies with the surahs arranged in the correct order. Consequently, when some people started to tell stories about the collection of the Qur`an they found it easy to assume that the Qur`an was at one point scattered all over the places.


Copies made under ‘Uthman

Another tradition about the early history of the text of the Qur`an is as follows:

Musa narrated: Ibrahim (bin Sa‘d) narrated to us: Ibn Shihab (al-Zuhri) narrated that Anas ibn Malik narrated to him: Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman came to ‘Uthman at the time when the people of Sham were fighting for Arminyah and Adhrabijan along with the people of Iraq. Hudhayfah was afraid of their differences in the recitation of the Qur'an, so he said to 'Uthman, "O chief of the believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book as the Jews and the Christians did." So 'Uthman sent a message to Hafsah saying, "Send us the written sheets (suhuf) of the Qur'an so that we make copies of them (nansakhu ha fi al-masahif) and then return them to you." Hafsah sent them to 'Uthman. 'Uthman then ordered Zayd bin Thabit, 'Abd Allah bin al-Zubayr, Sa‘id bin al-‘As and 'Abd al-Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham and they made copies of them.

'Uthman said to the three Qurayshi men, "In case you and Zayd bin Thabit disagree on any point in the Qur'an, then write it in the dialect of the Quraysh; for it was revealed in their tongue." They did so, and when they had copied suhuf in masahif 'Uthman returned the suhuf to Hafsah. 'Uthman sent to every region one of the copies they had made, and ordered that every other written piece (sahifah) or a whole manuscript (mushaf) of the Qur`an be burnt. Ibn Shihab said: Kharijah bin Zayd bin Thabit informed me: He said, "A verse from surah al-Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur'an and I used to hear God’s Messenger recite it. So we searched for it and found it with Khuzaymah bin Thabit al-Ansari. (That verse was): 'Among the believers are men who have been true in their covenant with God.' (33.23).

Like the tradition about collection under Abu Bakr this tradition also does not reach to a companion by the testimony of two independent witnesses. Only Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri relates it from Anas bin Malik and then only Anas narrates it on his own authority. Furthermore, no mention of any events reported in this tradition is found in the Tabaqat’ of Ibn Sa‘d. Tarikh of Tabari, gives detailed account of the battle for Armenia and Azerbaijan but does not mention the above incident. Muwatta and Muslim also contain no mention of this report. From these facts it is clear that whatever else ‘Uthman might or might not have done he did not change the Qur`an. For that would have meant at the very least destruction of a great many earlier written fragments of the Qur`an. Such massive destruction of material must have been known to tens of thousands, if not resisted by them. We expect it to be reported widely. Yet most early books are silent about it, the very same books who are not at all reluctant to report allegations that the Qur`an was once different in some ways from its extant text.

Again, like the tradition about collection under Abu Bakr, we have also other completely different version of the above tradition:

It is related from Mas‘ab ibn Sa‘d that ‘Uthman felt concerned about the people expressing doubts on the Qur`anic text only 13 years after the death of the Messenger. He thus ordered them to bring to him all that they possessed regarding the Qur`an. They brought pieces of papers and hides on which the Qur`an was written. After the lot was collected, ‘Uthman sat inside inviting men individually, each stating on oath that the material produced by him was the one collected by him from the Messenger directly. After the completion of this task, he inquired as to who the best scribe amongst them was and who was the person who knew the Arabic language best? They named Zayd bin Thabit and Sa‘id bin al-‘As respectively. ‘Uthman, thus, ordered Sa‘id to dictate and Zayd to write it down. This completed version of the Qur`an was circulated amongst the people (Ibn Abi Da`ud, Kitab al-Masahif).

It is characteristic of the traditions about `Uthman that they do not seem to show awareness of the traditions about collection under Abu Bakr even though Zayd bin Thabit is often a common character in both types of traditions. Thus in the tradition from Ibn abi Da`ud the Qur`an is still pictured as scattered in pieces. Even in the earlier more reliable tradition from Bukhari, this picture creeps up in the part where we are told that some Qur`anic passage was missing from the Qur`an and was found with Khuzaymah. This implies that the Qur`an was still incomplete even though Zayd bin Thabit had already collected the Qur`an more than a decade earlier and it was this very Qur`an that was in the custody of Hafsah and that ‘Uthman had borrowed. Also note that ‘Uthman tells the four men what to do in case of disagreement between Zayd and others. Here, again, there is no awareness that Zayd is the one who collected the first manuscript in the time of Abu Bakr.

It should be clear from the above considerations that the tradition about ‘Uthman cannot be accepted as it is? So what history, if any, lies behind it?

Note first that we can disregard the part stating that Zayd had to find a passage with Khuzaymah. There are two reasons for this:

1)   The part about the missing verses is given as a separate tradition quoted separately by Ibn Shihab, not on the authority of Anas but on that of Kharijah the son of Zayd.

 2)  Bukhari gives two other versions of the tradition and these versions do not talk of any missing verses:

It is related from al-Zuhri that Anas bin Malik narrated: 'Uthman ordered Zayd bin Thabit, Sa‘id bin al-‘As, 'Abd Allah bin al-Zubayr and 'Abd al-Rahman bin al-Harith bin Hisham to make copies of the (Qur`an) (yansakhu ha fi al-masahif) and said to them. "In case you and Zayd bin Thabit disagree regarding any dialectic Arabic utterance of the Qur`an, then write it in the dialect of Quraysh, for the Qur`an was revealed in this dialect." So they did it.

It is related from Ibn Shihab (al-Zuhri) who relates it from Anas bin Malik: ‘Uthman called Zayd bin Thabit, ‘Abd Allah bin al-Zubayr, Sa‘id bin al-‘As and 'Abd al-Rahman bin al-Harith bin Hisham, and then they made copies of (the Qur'an). 'Uthman said to the three Qurayshi men. "If you and Zayd differ on any point of the Qur`an, then write it in the language of Quraysh, as the Qur`an was revealed in their language." So they did so.

Once the part about the missing verses is disregarded, the tradition is no longer about the collection of the Qur`an. It is about writing it in the particular dialect of the Quraysh and making copies of it. Even if we accept this part of the tradition as historical, we do not learn from this tradition what exactly writing the Qur`an in the dialect of the Quraysh involved. But as noted earlier, whatever else it might have been it did not amount to changing the Qur`an.

If we accept the tradition as historical, a reasonable explanation consistent with the conclusion demanded by other considerations can be easily found. Keep in mind that in different parts of Arabia people pronounced and wrote synonymous words somewhat differently. Also, the Qur`an was probably the first book ever written and widely promulgated in the Arabic language, so that at the time of the Prophet and immediately after him the Arab society was not equipped to produce and promulgate documents of the size of the Qur`an. Finally, keep in mind that the Arabic script at the time was very primitive, having considerable ambiguity. In view of this, it is highly likely that there probably was some confusion in the mind of those who had not spent enough time with the Prophet or had not otherwise carefully leant the Qur`an. So it would be natural for the leader of the Muslim world to try to remove and prevent this confusion by making the written text correspond to the received recitation more unambiguously. Notice that when Hudhayfah makes his suggestion to ‘Uthman, he talks about the differences in recitation but when ‘Uthman gives his instructions to the four scribes he talks about writing the Qur`an in the dialect of the Quraysh and seems not to admit any differences in recitation among the scribes who had all learnt the Qur`an in the time of the Prophet. The question seems to be how best to rewrite the Qur`an so that it corresponds more unambiguously to the received recitation than the suhuf in the possession of Hafsah. Regarding this best way of rewriting the Qur`an differences could arise among the scribes. ‘Uthman’s instruction was that the scribes were to first look for consensus about how to spell the words more clearly and, if that was not possible, the judgment of the three Qurayshi men were to prevail since the Qur`an was revealed in their language. This instruction clearly implies that ‘Uthman’s main concern was to be faithful to the original revelation. In short, what was produced under ‘Uthman was simply a text more helpful to people in reciting the Qur`an correctly, a process that continued after ‘Uthman through the introduction of various diacritical symbols.

But the historical truth may be even simpler than that: ‘Uthman had several bound copies of the Qur`an made from the manuscript prepared by the Prophet and left by him with his wife Hafsah. These copies were sent to various parts of the Muslim world to fulfill the ever present need for complete copies of the Qur`an to which we have already drawn attention. It is doubtful that there was any extensive destruction of Qur`anic manuscripts at the command of ‘Uthman, for the story is absent from early books of history and the command to burn is absent from two of the three versions in Bukhari (see above for quotation). People in different Muslim lands probably did not have to be told to destroy any defective copies. Most copies already agreed with the copies sent by ‘Uthman. Others gradually fell out of use or were destroyed voluntarily. Only very few and very unimportant scribal errors either committed prior to ‘Uthman’s action or afterwards remained unresolved (see Chapter 4).

That any destruction of the Qur`anic manuscripts under ‘Uthman was voluntary is shown by the fact that there are no traditions suggesting that anyone was executed or otherwise punished for not accepting the text distributed by ‘Uthman. We are told of some companions complaining about ‘Uthman’s alleged order to destroy copies that did not conform to the one he promulgated but none is shown as really resisting, much less being punished for doing so. We have to either assume that the whole Muslim world voluntarily accepted the text or imagine that it consisted entirely of people who never resisted their rulers even for defending the word of God. Nothing in the history of Islam justifies our admitting this latter possibility.

Complaints about “‘Uthman’s text”

One of the traditions said to voice complaint about “‘Uthman’s text” is the following from Bukhari:

Sa‘id bin Jubayr from Ibn ‘Abbas: ‘Umar said, “Our best reciter (of the Qur`an) is Ubayy and our best judge is 'Ali. Yet we disregard some views of Ubayy because Ubayy says: 'I do not leave anything that I have heard from God's Messenger’ while God says: Whatever of the revelation do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten We bring a better one or similar to it." (2.106).”

But this tradition does not connect Ubayy’s comment with Uthman’s action. It concerns the question of whether an abrogated part of the Qur`an should be recited or followed as part of the Qur`an or not. Ubayy is of the opinion that it should be recited or followed while ‘Umar is supposedly of the opposite view. There is evidence that the view attributed here to Ubayy was shared by Uthman and hence Ubayy would have no reason to object to “‘Uthman’s text”, at least not on the grounds suggested in the above tradition. For Ibn al-Zubayr, who was reportedly one of the four men who prepared copies of the Qur`an under ‘Uthman, asked ‘Uthman (during the project of making copies) why not leave verses that have been abrogated. ‘Uthman disagreed and said that everything that was in the Qur`an whether abrogated or not should be left in its place. Here is the exact quotation from Bukhari:

Habib narrates from Ibn abi Mulaykah who said: Ibn al-Zubayr narrated: I said to 'Uthman bin 'Affan regarding the verse, "Those of you who die and leave wives ..." (2.240) "This verse was abrogated by an other verse. So why should you write it (in the Qur`an)? (Or, he said: why should you leave it (in the Qur'an))?" 'Uthman said. "O son of my brother! I will not shift anything of it from its place."

This tradition shows that whatever else may be the reason behind Ubayy’s comment, it was not an objection to “‘Uthman’s text”. Incidentally, if some traditions insinuate that ‘Uthman made some changes in the Qur`an, the above tradition shows that he was completely faithful to the original text.

Strangely, one of the companions who complains about ‘Uthman’s text is ‘Uthman himself!!! Thus we read in one tradition from a relatively late collection:

When `Uthman received the completed mushaf, he noticed certain linguistic irregularities. He remarked: 'Had he who dictated it been of (the tribe of) Hudhayl and had the scribe been of (the tribe of) Thaqif, this would never had happened.' (Ibn abi Da`ud, Kitab al-Masahif )

Here the petty tribalism that Islam cured to a large degree is raising its head again. ‘Uthman himself is made to say that `Abd Allah bin Mas‘ud who was from Hudhayl (see his genealogy in Tabaqat of Ibn Sa ‘d) would have done a better job in compiling the Qur`an. This tradition assumes that the compilation under ‘Uthman was done by one man (Sa‘id bin al-‘As) dictating and another (Zayd) writing. However, in earlier traditions four persons are collectively given the responsibility of copying the Qur`an who were to participate in all decisions.

Another tradition where a companion is supposed to complain about “‘Uthman’s text” is the following where ‘Abd Allah bin Mas‘ud is made to say:

'Am I to be prevented from copying the masahif and the job is to be given to a man who was hidden (or an infidel) in his father's reins when I first became a Muslim?' (Ibn Abi Da'ud, Kitab a-Masahif)

Here the man who got the job of copying the masahif is Zayd as we learn from other similar words attributed to Ibn Mas‘ud:

'The Prophet taught me to recite seventy surahs which I had mastered before Zayd had even become a Muslim.'

'I recited from the very mouth of the Prophet some seventy surahs while Zayd still had his ringlets and was playing with his companions.'

'Lay up your Qur'an's! How can you order me to recite the reading of Zayd, when I recited from the very mouth of the Prophet some seventy surahs?" 'Am I to abandon what I acquired from the very lips of the Prophet?'

Petty rivalry and jealousy is again apparent. The description of “‘Uthman’s text” as the reading of Zayd is against all traditions about the compilation or copying of that text. In some traditions, Zayd is simply a scribe while in other traditions he is to be overruled by other three men in case of a difference.

In one of the interesting traditions quoted above Ibn Mas‘ud advises people to lay up their copies of the Qur`an. The question is why did they not listen to Ibn Mas‘ud and preserved their Qur`ans for the future generations? ‘Uthman could not have searched every home and confiscated the copies that people might have hidden.

Not only there is no tradition which suggests that people conformed to ‘Uthman’s text” because of fear but also there are traditions showing that ‘Uthman even allowed people to have variant readings and even himself used readings different from “his own” text:

`Uthman sent for `Ali for information on the grievances of the rebels. Among these was resentment at his having 'expunged the masahif'. `Uthman replied, 'The Qur'an came from God. I prohibited the variant readings since I feared dissension. But now, read it as you please.' (Ibn abi Da'ud, Kitab al-Masahif)

After ‘Uthman permitted the variant readings why did people not produce copies of the Qur`an reflecting their particular variants and then passed those to future generations?

Here is another tradition that shatters the hypothesis of fear:

I went to Abu Musa's house and saw there ‘Abd Allah and Hudhayfah. I sat with them. They had a mushaf that `Uthman had sent ordering them to make their Qur'an conform with it. Abu Musa declared that anything in his mushaf and lacking in `Uthman's was not to be omitted. Anything in `Uthman's and lacking in his own was to be added. Hudhayfah asked, 'What is the point of all our work? Nobody in this region will give up the reading of this shaykh, meaning `Abd Allah bin Mas‘ud, and nobody of Yemeni origin will give up the reading of Abu Musa.' (Ibn abi Da`ud, Kitab al-Masahif)

You would recall that according to the tradition in Bukhari Hudhayfah is the man who advised ‘Uthman to save the Muslim nation by preparing an authentic text of the Qur`an. Now this same Hudhayfah is saying that the whole effort was futile. People did not and would not give up the readings of the shaykhs they were following. So where is that fear that is supposed to have made people burn the Qur`an copies that did not conform to “‘Uthman’s text”? And if people were free to use the allegedly different readings why did they not preserve their copies, as Ibn Mas‘ud is supposed to have advised them? Thus it seems that ‘Uthman’s text had won under complete freedom because of its total faithfulness to the Qur`an as left by the Holy Prophet.

Does the personal rivalry manifest in some of the above traditions go back to Ibn Mas‘ud himself? It may be that Ibn Mas‘ud or his close friends felt that he should have been among the people given the job of copying the Qur`an. The job was given to men in their thirties and early forties. This is the age when mental faculties are still sharp and yet a person is old enough to have learned enough. Ibn Mas‘ud who died at the age of 70 or more in 32 H was already well above sixty when ‘Uthman did his reported compilation. But whatever the reason that Ibn Mas‘ud was not involved in the project reportedly undertaken by ‘Uthman and whatever Ibn Mas‘ud felt about it, it is unlikely that this translated into the sort of attacks against Zayd that we read in the above traditions. This is because:

1)                  Ibn Sa‘d, a source much earlier than Ibn abi Da`ud records the words of Ibn Mas`ud only to the extent that he learnt seventy surahs from the lips of the Prophet. A comparison with Zayd is not mentioned in the section on Ibn Mas‘ud.

2)                  According to the earlier tradition about the copying of the Qur`an under ‘Uthman one of the four members of the team entrusted with the job was ‘Abd Allah bin al-Zubayr. Now according to traditions recorded by Ibn Sa‘d there were very good relationship between Ibn Mas‘ud and Ibn al-Zubayr till the very end. Thus when Ibn Mas‘ud fell sick he wrote: “This is the will of Ibn Mas‘ud. If he dies during his sickness then Zubayr bin al-‘Awwam and his son ‘Abd Allah bin al-Zubayr are authorized to manage his affairs and they need not feel any constraint in their decisions. The marriage of his daughters will not take place without their information…” With a man enjoying such trust of Ibn Mas‘ud in the team that copied the Qur`an it is unlikely that he would have any mistrust of what came out of the project.

3)                  The character of Ibn Mas‘ud in earlier traditions in Ibn Sa‘d is that of a very mild, moderate, and pious person. We do not expect from him such unreasonable attack on Zayd. The attack is unreasonable because Zayd was not the only one who prepared the “Uthman’s text”. Ibn Mas‘ud’s own trusted ‘Abd Allah bin al-Zubayr was as much or more responsible. Also, Zayd is said to be a scribe appointed by the Prophet, so we do not expect Ibn Mas‘ud to question his competence.

4)                  Muslim records the following tradition:

‘Abd Allah (bin Mas‘ud) said: He who conceals anything he shall have to bring that which he had concealed on the judgment day, and then said: After whose mode of recitation you command me to recite? I in fact recited before God's Messenger more than seventy chapters of the Qur'an and the companions of God's Messenger know it that I have better understanding of the Book of God (than they do), and if I were to know that someone had better understanding than I, I would have gone to him. Shaqiq said: I sat in the company of the companions of Muhammad but I did not hear anyone having rejected that (i.e., his recitation) or finding fault with it.”

Although this tradition is often understood in the light of the tradition in Tabari according to which ‘Abd Allah told people to hide their Qur`an, this is not stated here. Ibn Mas‘ud’s words -- “he who conceals anything he shall have to bring that which he had concealed on the judgment day” -- could even be viewed as a criticism of hiding, especially because hiding what God revealed is against the Qur`an (2:159-160) and therefore Ibn Mas‘ud, being so knowledgeable about the Qur`an is not expected to recommend it. Notice also that in this tradition there is no attack on Zayd or anyone else. The words, “If I were to know that someone had better understanding than I, I would have gone to him” show that Ibn Mas‘ud had no personal grudge with any other companion.

5)                  In view of all the talk of Ibn Mas‘ud being critical of some other text or recitation and not being willing to destroy his copy etc, one would think that he really had some weighty differences with the rest of the companions who approved “ ‘Uthman’s text”. But when we investigate the nature of his alleged differences with other companions, we find nothing substantial that can be convincingly attributed to him (see Chapter 6).

From the traditions we have reviewed so far, one gets the strong impression that the history of the text of the Qur`an and the history of the traditions about that text are two parallel and unrelated streams. The text shows a remarkable stability and uniformity from place to place and from century to century. The traditions about the text are full of all sorts of weaknesses and contradictions. They seem to disregard the solid fact of a constant text across time. This is because they are not at all concerned about history. Rather, many of them, especially those in late books, have the character of gossip meant to provide release to baser human tendencies of petty personal or tribal rivalries, political differences, and sectarian conflicts. This, however, should not lead one to conclude that the Muslim world was gripped by such baser motives. The constructive work that Islam achieved through the centuries is testimony to the existence of a parallel spirit, probably exhibited in early centuries by a majority of Muslims. The traditions discussed above seem to be the work of a small but very vocal minority. The constructive and positive spirit showed by the relatively silent majority is also reflected in some traditions, e.g. the set of traditions about the seven ahruf (see Chapter 5). Their authenticity is not above doubt, but their message is clearly positive and constructive: People should rise above, and show tolerance to, whatever minor variants remain unresolved. Apparently, this spirit won, since long time ago the variants in the Qur`an ceased to be an issue for Muslims, so much so that a vast majority of them is not even aware of them today.


Alleged verses about ‘Ali or the Umayyads


The traditions alleging that some lost parts of the Qur’an or some present verses in their earlier form appointed `Ali as the immediate successor of the Prophet are obviously sectarian and come under immediate suspicion of fabrication. This suspicion becomes a firm conclusion if we remember that `Ali did become the leader of the Muslims after the martyrdom of `Uthman. So why did he not promulgate the correct text during his leadership if the text promulgated by `Uthman was not the original? As noted earlier it is the obligation of every Muslim to prevent alteration or suppression of the word of God and to correct them if they occur. `Ali, in the view of both Shi‘as and Sunnis was not the sort of Muslim who would fail in this obligation either during the leadership of his predecessor or during his own leadership.

We may also dismiss reports that Hajjaj omitted many verses from the Qur'an, which dealt disparagingly with the rule of the Umayyads, or added to it some, which were not there originally, or changed about a dozen of them. He is said to have prepared a new codex for distribution in Egypt, Syria, Makkah, Madinah, Basrah and Kufah. An implication of these reports is that the present Qur'an is the one prepared by al-Hajjaj, who was able to destroy everyone of the previous copies. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could accomplish such a feat, especially someone like Hajjaj who was only a governor in one of the provinces in the Muslim world.

These reports about Hajjaj also found their way in Christian writings in the East. Thus in a letter purported to be written by Leo III to ‘Umar bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz we read: “we know that it was 'Umar, Abu Turab and Salman the Persian, who composed [Qur`an}, even though the rumor has got around among you that God sent it down from the heavens… As for your (book), you have already given us examples of such falsifications, and one knows, among others, of a certain Hajjaj, named by you as the governor of Persia, who had men gather up your ancient books, which he replaced by others composed by himself, according to his taste, and which he propagated everywhere in your nation, because it was easier by far to undertake such a task among the people speaking a single language. From this destruction, nevertheless, there escaped a few works of Abu Turab, for Hajjaj could not make them disappear completely.”

Given the whole Christian history of forging material in various ways including interpolating documents (such as The Ascension of Isaiah, Josephus` Jewish Wars, and many others) and of attributing late documents to earlier writers (such as the attribution of many late gospels to the disciples of Jesus) the authenticity of the letter of Leo III can hardly be taken for granted. In any case the views stated here are only a confused version of some Muslim traditions and these Muslim traditions are discredited by their sectarian tone and by the impossibility that a provincial governor could replace an older version of the Qur`an throughout the Muslim world by his own, without leaving any trace of that older version.

A modern example

We can illustrate by a modern example how fictitious claims of the existence of some Qur`anic passages could be fabricated and then perpetuated.

In the later part of the 19th century Nicolas Notovitch, a Russian Jew who converted to the Greek Orthodoxy created a furor by the publication of his book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. He claimed that he saw in the Tibetan lamasery (i.e., monastery) of Hemis a two-volume manuscript on the life of Jesus. He arranged to have the manuscript read aloud and translated for him. In this way he learnt that Jesus had been in Tibet and lived with the monks there for years. Subsequent search for the manuscript by responsible scholars such as Max Muller, the editor of Sacred Books of the East, and J. Archibald Douglas and others (see Edgar J. Goodspeed, Famous “Biblical” Hoaxes) produced neither the manuscript nor any evidence for the story that Notovitch told of his visit to the lamasery of Hemis. At that point Notovitch began to revise his story. But neither the findings of the researchers nor the revision of the story by Notovitch himself put an end to the story that he started. More than hundred years have passed since he first wrote his book, and yet claims are still made that Jesus visited Tibet and other lands in the East where he spent years. Books such as Elizabeth Claire Prophet, The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus’ 17-Year Journey to the East, Holger Kersten, Jesus Lived in India, 1986 are still being written, read, and believed.

Most Shi‘ah affirm the integrity of the Qur`anic text

The missing parts of the Qur`an claimed by the Shi‘ah are no more real than the manuscript about Jesus in the Tibetan lamasery. It should, however, be noted that even among the Shi‘ah it is only a small minority that believes in these missing surahs or passages. The majority view among the Shi‘ah is expressed in the following traditions:

Shaykh Abu Ja‘far says: Our belief is that the Qur'an, which God revealed to his Prophet Muhammad is (the same as) the one between the two binders. And it is that which is in the hands of the people, and is not larger than that.

And he who asserts that it is greater in extent than this (the present text) is a liar.

Shi‘ah scholars throughout the centuries have affirmed this position. Thus Imam Khu`i, (probably a marja‘ taqlid for more Shi‘ah Muslims than any other scholar) states the majority view among Shi‘ah authorities as follows: 

It is a known fact among the Muslims that the Qur’an has not been tampered with in any way and that all of the Qur’an we have with us today is the same that was revealed to the Prophet. This has been specified by many authorities. Among them is the bona fide, Muhammad ibn Babwih, the chief of all the muhaddithin. He maintains that the view that the Qur’an has not been tampered with is among the beliefs of the Imamiyyah. The great Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Tusi also holds this view. He has explicitly mentioned it in the beginning of his exegesis al-Tibyan. He has also quoted the exactly similar opinion of his learned teacher and profound scholar Sayyid Murtada. His arguments on it are the best of all. Similarly, the celebrated exegete of the Qur’an Tabrasi has also expressed this same view in the preface of his exegesis Majmu‘ah al-Bayan. Another person who has asserted this view is the leading jurist Shaykh Ja‘far in his book Kashf al-Ghita; he has also claimed a consensus on it. Allamah Shahshahani in his book al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqah is an exponent of this view also. He has attributed it to many mujtahidin as well. Among them is the famous muhaddith Muhsin Qasani (who has mentioned this view in his two books al-Wafi and ‘Ilm al-Yaqin) and the learned Muhammad Jawad al-Balaghi who has referred to this view in the preface of his exegesis Ala’ al-Rahman. (Khu`i, al-Bayan).


The alleged verse about stoning for adultery


The allegation that a verse prescribing stoning as the punishment of adultery by a married man or woman is also without sound foundation. This will be shown in greater detail in a forthcoming book on Hadith. Here we provide a brief demonstration by examining briefly Bukhari's two relevant traditions. The shorter version reads, on the authority of Ibn Abbas:

`Umar said: I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, "We do not find rajam (stoning) mentioned in the book of God," and consequently they may go astray by neglecting an obligation that God has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of rajam is applicable to him who commits adultery and he is already married and the crime is established by witnesses, pregnancy or confession (Bukhari, Book: "The punishment of those who..." Chapter: "To confess committing adultery").

The second version is also related on the authority of the same Ibn ‘Abbas but with different chain of transmitters. In the following quotation I have highlighted the parts that are not found in the first version.

God sent Muhammad with the truth and revealed the holy book to him, and a part of what God revealed was the verse of rajam and we did recite it, understood it, and memorized it. God's messenger stoned (for adultery) and so did we after him. I am afraid that after a long time has passed, somebody will say, "By God we do not find the verse of rajam in the book of God," and thus they will go astray by neglecting an obligation that God has revealed. The penalty of rajam is applicable in the book of God to whoever commits adultery, male or female, and is already married and the crime is established by witnesses, pregnancy or confession (Bukhari, Book: "The punishment of those who..." Chapter: "The rajm of a married lady whose adultery is established by pregnancy").

There is no reasonable explanation in sight as to why the verse whose existence is alleged in this second version is not there in our copies of the Qur’an if it was once part of the Qur’an. By whom or why or how it was removed from the original Qur’an and why it was not rewritten if companions like `Umar knew of its presence in the Qur’an and if they approved the law that it prescribed. But we can easily provide a reasonable explanation of how the tradition alleging the existence of the verse came to be formed.

Notice that both versions talk about people who will object to the penalty of stoning on the grounds that the Qur’an does not mention it. This suggests that we are dealing here with a controversy between the supporters and opponents of the penalty. The opponents reject the penalty because it is nowhere found in the Qur’an. The fact that both versions say that the objection of the opponents will be raised after a long time suggests that we are not dealing here with the time of `Umar. Rather the traditions in question arose out of much later legal controversies about the penalty for adultery. The objective of these traditions is to counter a strong objection against the stoning penalty. Apparently, this objection was met with increasing force as the time passed, as we can see by comparing the two versions.

In the first version there is no mention of the verse about stoning. We are only told in vague terms that the penalty was "revealed" (anzala) by God. This was obviously not enough to support the stoning penalty as long as the verse was not found in the Qur’an. Hence in the second version it is asserted that "a part of what God revealed was the verse of stoning and we did recite it, understood it, and memorized it". These words are not found in the first version. Also, in the first version the opponents of stoning penalty say only:

"We do not find stoning mentioned in the book of God."

In the second version this becomes:

"We do not find the verse of stoning in the book of God."

Note also that in the first version it is said only that:

"The penalty of stoning is applicable to...”

In the second version it becomes:

"The penalty of stoning is applicable in the book of God to…."

Clearly as we move from the first version to the second a Qur`anic verse about stoning is created as a fact. If we trace the history of the tradition still further we find that some people did not find even this enough. They actually produced a verse commanding the stoning penalty. The next step would have been to add this verse to the text of the Qur’an. But this nobody could do, for the received text was so well established that none of the supporters of the stoning penalty had the necessary authority to change it. Moreover, while many Muslims were willing to tolerate mere allegations of the existence of such a verse, they would not have accepted an actual addition to the Qur’an.

Nevertheless the supporters of the stoning penalty won the day. The reason is not hard to find: To oppose the penalty would be generally regarded as being soft on adultery, and not many wanted to appear in that light. At the same time many trusting Muslims were misled by the traditions which used the authority of `Umar and then the Prophet and the Book of God to support the stoning penalty. In this way the penalty and the traditions about it supported each other and helped to establish both. At one point in time it became difficult to deny the traditions about the stoning verse and they became part of the canonical collections. Then some scholars came up with the concepts of mansukh al-tilawah (abrogated in respect to recitation) and mansukh al-`amal, (abrogated in respect to practice). It was said that the verse about stoning was mansukh al-tilawah not mansukh al-`amal. That is, one could no longer recite the verse as part of the Qur’an but one was nevertheless obligated to act upon it, a rather absurd position.


Other allegations


There are also other traditions which allege that such and such a verse was once part of the Qur`an or that such and such a verse or phrase was read in this or that way (examples in Chapter 4). To the extent such variants only consist of punctuating, pronouncing or supplying with vowels or dots differently, they can be given some credibility. But when they imply change in the consonantal text without manuscript evidence, they have no credibility. This is despite the fact that traditional Muslim opinion is somewhat ambiguous on this matter.

On the one hand, almost all Muslim scholars agree that a reading is acceptable only if it fulfills the following conditions: 1) correctness according to the rules of Arabic language; 2) agreement with the written text of 'Uthman; and 3) existence of an unbroken and reliable chain of transmission going back to the Holy Prophet. Abu al-Khayr bin al-Jazari (d.833 H) stated these conditions with some nuances as follows: “Every reading in accordance with Arabic (language) even if in some (reasonable) way, and in accordance with one of the masahif of 'Uthman, even if with some (reasonable) probability, and with sound chain of transmission, is a sahih (sound) reading, which must not be rejected, and may not be denied, but it belongs to the seven ahruf according to which the Qur'an was revealed, and the people are obliged to accept it, no matter whether it is from the seven imams (of qira`ah), or the ten or from other accepted imams, but when one of these three conditions is not fulfilled, it must be rejected as da‘if (weak) or shadh (exceptional) or batil (void), no matter whether it is from the seven or from one who is older than them” (Suyuti, al-Ittiqan). The second of these three conditions clearly excludes variants of the consonantal text that have no manuscript support

Yet on the other hand, many scholars still give legitimacy to the variants alleged without manuscript support. They manage to do so by the hypothesis that readings alleged in the traditions without manuscript support were either abrogated or they are still in force but they cannot be recited; they can only be used in the tafsir of the Qur`an. This view, as we already noted in case of the stoning verse, is irrational. Its only purpose is to conserve the validity of the generally accepted ahadith. Not only it makes too convenient a use of the concept of abrogation but it also makes a highly artificial distinction between parts of the Qur`anic revelation that can be recited and parts of the same revelation that cannot be recited even if they are still in force. Why were the alleged variants not preserved in the written text or in the continuous tradition of recitation, if they are part the revelation and are still in force?

It is noteworthy that the Qur`an often repeats the same verses with some slight variation in wording, sometimes the variation adding no significant new idea (see, e.g., 2:62, 5:69). So if it was important to state some other verses in more than one way in order to bring some new angle to the meaning, the Qur`an could similarly have repeated them with the required variation in wording. There was no need for having variant readings that were excluded both from the text and from the tradition of recitation.

A fallacious way of looking at traditions

One common but mistaken way to interpret the various traditions discussed above is to say that although each given tradition is called into question by valid reasons, they all have in common the idea that the Qur`an underwent some changes after the Prophet and some historical truth must lie behind this common idea. This fallacious way of interpreting traditions, which is often applied when there is a large number of traditions of a particular type, ignores the way people create stories and traditions. It is a very common occurrence that misunderstanding, fraud, wishful thinking, rivalry, political differences, sectarian motives, and other similar factors create a story out of nothing and this story then generates a whole set of other stories. We cannot, therefore, establish facts on the basis of number and variety of stories having a common element. Otherwise, we would have to accept that Jesus was illegitimate, or he traveled to Tibet or that Elvis Presley is alive or that flying saucers and aliens regularly visit our planet. The reliability of a set of traditions is no more than the reliability of the most reliable of the individual reports.


Non-Muslim scholars


If the traditions about the “collection” and transmission of the Qur`an have put Muslims in the awkward position of defending those traditions and at the same time maintaining that the Qur`an has been faithfully transmitted, they have misled some non-Muslim students of Islam to deny the faithful transmission of the Qur`an. These writers are caught by a nagging feeling that there must be something more to the transmission of the Qur`an than the verifiable facts show and they want to discover that “something more”. Arthur Jeffrey spent years collecting data for a critical edition of the Qur`an, and in 1926 agreed to work with Professor B. Strasar to collect an archive that would serve as a future foundation for a history of the development of the text of the Qur`an. Seventy five years have passed and nothing has so far appeared in print.

It seems some of the non-Muslim students of Islam are misled by the traditions about the “collection” and transmission of the Qur`an because they want to be misled. They find in these traditions material for their agenda against Islam and are, as it were, afraid to subject them to critical analysis, lest they are deprived of ammunition against Islam.

Since the doubts raised by the relatively late and mutually contradictory traditions are not consistent with any hard manuscript evidence, there is among many non-Muslim scholars a hope that one day some discovery will provide such evidence and prove their suspicion right. Therefore after the discovery in 1972 of some documents in Yemen, including many fragments of the Qur`an, some felt that finally they might have found the hard evidence that they were waiting for. They made big claims, but three decades after the discovery nothing substantial seems to have been found to prove their contention.

Some scholars, however, had decided not to wait for any hard evidence to be discovered. One among them, Wansbrough, went ahead and published his “tentative” and “conjectural” theory any way, and the same is the case with Crone and Cook, although they do not seem to have either the perceptiveness or the honesty to admit to the tentative and conjectural nature of their views, as did Wansbrough. It is perhaps about these orientalists that Professor A. Jones of Oxford has said that "the varying views of orientalists [on the completeness and order of the Qur'an] are a mixture of prejudice and speculation" (Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period. p. 240).

But along with such orientalists, throughout the past century and a half there also have been non-Muslim scholars who were able to focus on the existing hard evidence and were not misled by the gossip-type traditions from the past or hopes of discoveries in the future. They therefore reached the only logical conclusion that is possible: the Qur`an as we have it today is the Qur`an as it was left by the Holy Prophet for his followers. Thus Dr. John Burton in a book based on his Ph. D. thesis says:

The single vigorous Qur'an text that throughout the ages has successfully withstood the assaults of both the exegetes and the usulis, stoutly retaining its textual identity in the face of countless attempts to insinuate interpolations through exploitation of the alleged codex of this or that Companion, is none other than the unique text of the revelations whose existence all their tricks betoken, the text which has come down to us in the form in which it was organized and approved by the Prophet ... (emphasis mine) (Collection of the Qur'an, 1977).

About hundred years before Burton, another Christian writer, R. Bosworth Smith, reached exactly the same conclusion:

In the Koran we have, beyond doubt, the exact words of Muhammad without subtraction and without addition (Muhammad and Muhammadanism, 1874, p. 21).

See also Chapter 4, Section I) for similar statements of other non-Muslim scholars.

Scholarly opinions on most issues are subject to wild variations, yet it is significant that many of the non-Muslim scholars, some of them well recognized, have affirmed the authenticity of the Qur`anic text. The significance of this fact can be fully appreciated if we keep in mind that there are hardly any reputable non-believing scholars who think that the gospels preserve faithfully what Jesus said or did.



Preservation of the Hadith


As noted earlier the revelation received by the Prophet Muhammad was transmitted in two forms: the Qur`an and the reports of his extra-Qur`anic words and actions in the Hadith. The Hadith consists of a variety of traditions, often found in several different versions. Muslims have always recognized that many traditions are unauthentic either in part or in full. Yet they have carefully preserved all kinds of conflicting, problematic, and unreliable traditions. This shows that had there been any different texts of the Qur`an, Muslims would have preserved them also. This allows us to see in yet another way that if today there is essentially one text of the Qur`an, it is because there never was any other.

In order to deal with the fact that many traditions were unreliable, Muslims developed a whole science to separate the authentic traditions from the unauthentic. The results of these earlier generations of Muslim researchers are taken by many Muslims as dependable enough but there is also a feeling buried in the Muslim psyche that these results, like the results of any science are subject to revision. What is revelatory is what the Messenger of God taught by words and example and not the process of discovering his words and example. Consequently, any time Muslim scholars can engage in fresh research in Hadith and may radically revise the conclusions of earlier scholars. Of course, at an individual and somewhat limited level such research has always been going on and still goes on. In a forthcoming book, The Sacred Hadith Project, I am arguing for the need for Muslims to undertake this research in a comprehensive and systematic way. When this will be done, I think, it will appear that the authenticity of many presently accepted ahadith is no better than the authenticity of the historical traditions about the collection of the Qur`an that I have considered above. Some evidence for this is provided in this book by our discussion in Chapters 5 and 6 of two sets of ahadith: those about the seven ahruf and those alleging that Qur`an 2:238 once contained a mention of the ‘asr prayer. These ahadith are found in generally trusted books but our discussion establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are largely unauthentic.

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