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THE NATURE OF PROVABLE VARIANTS OF THE QUR`AN AND THE NEW TESTAMENT
By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
It is only to be expected that as the Qur`an and the New Testament were transmitted by scribes and/or reciters, certain deviations from the original took place. As we move away from the time and place of the original composition of the books, it is also likely that some of the deviations from the original got established in some areas. In this chapter we examine for the two books the question: how serious are these deviations and how far the original texts can be restored.
In case of the Qur`an we now show that its variants can be either recognized as deviations from the original or they are so insignificant in their number and in their effect on the meaning of its verses that the claim of faithful transmission of the Qur`an is not effected. Furthermore, if need be we can completely recover the original by relatively simple applications of textual and historical criticism.
We begin by classifying the variants of the Qur`an in the following four categories:
I) Variants that have no manuscript support; they are alleged only in relatively late extra-Qur`anic traditions and clearly serve some theological or political interest. Examples are the stoning verse that was allegedly once a part of the Qur`an and a passage or surah in favor of ‘Ali or against the Umayyads.
Any sound methodology must reject such variants as imaginary.
II) Variants that have no manuscript support and serve no theological or other interest. These can be of several types:
a) a word or phrase not found in any extant manuscript may be added in an alleged reading, e.g., 9:100: 'Gardens under which rivers flow' which some read as 'Gardens from under which rivers flow', adding the word 'from' (min) to the text; or, 2:275, which Ibn Mas‘ud allegedly read as: “those who devor usury will not stand on the day of judgment", where the phrase “on the day of judgment” is added to the text; alleged addition by some companions of consecutively in 5:89: “expiation (for breaking an oath) is … fasting for three days consecutively …”; or the alleged addition by Hafsah or ‘Aishah of and the ‘asr prayer in 2:238: “Guard the prayers carefully and the middle prayer and the ‘asr prayer”;
b) a word may be replaced by another, e.g., the word qissisina (“priests”) in 5:82 was allegedly read by Salman and Ubayy bin Ka‘b as siddiqina (“faithful ones”); the word al-islam in 3:19 (“Indeed, the acceptable religion before God is al-islam”) was allegedly read by Ibn Mas‘ud as hanifiyah;
c) A word may be replaced by its complete synonym, e.g. Ibn Mas‘ud is alleged to replace the word ‘ihn (wool) in 101:5 by suf (also meaning wool) and the word ihdina in 1:6 by arshidna, both mean “guide us”.
Again, such variants should be rejected as the result of errors that must have inevitably taken place during copying and reciting the Qur`an. One particular type of error that seems to have occurred is that a companion explained a verse of the Qur`an in such a way that some hearers could not separate the actual verse and the explanatory words of the companion. This created the false report that the companion read the explanatory words as part of the verse. Thus in 3:19 ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud might have explained al-islam as hanifiyah or in 101:5 ‘ihn as suf. Or, he or some other companion might have explained in regard to 5:89 that the fasting was to be done for three days consecutively. Such explanations were misunderstood as in some way a part of the Qur`an.
It should be noted in regard to variants of type I and type II that they are not always distinguishable sharply. For it is not always possible to exclude an enthusiasm to support an exegetical position behind the alleged variant. Thus the addition of consecutively in 5:89 might have been alleged under enthusiasm for supporting the position that the expiation fast of three days is to be done consecutively.
Our rejection of the variants of type I and type II is not based entirely on a lack of textual evidence. The traditions themselves when examined carefully for authenticity fall apart. This point will be supported below in the section entitled, Detailed Examination of Some Alleged Variants without Textual Support, by a detailed look at a tradition that has an early attestation and that alleges variants of the Qur`an without manuscript support. This is the tradition where ‘Aishah allegedly dictated the addition of and ‘asr prayer in 2:238.
III) Variants in pronunciation only. These arose when certain words were pronounced according to different dialects current among the tribes of Arabia in early days of Islam, e.g. hiyyaka for iyyaka (1:5); al-tabuh for al-tabut (2: 248); and atta for hatta (12: 35); similarly, 'alayhim was read by some as 'alayhumu, sirat as zirat, and mu'min as mumin.
IV) Variants supported by the extant manuscripts. These are of three types:
i) Some words are different in their consonantal form; these include those that are spelled differently in different dialects;
ii) Some words are supplied with dots and vowels differently;
iii) Some sentences are punctuated differently, e.g. 2:2 reads: dhalik al-kitab la rayb fi hi huda … In one way of reading one stops after rayb and in another way the stop is made after fi hi. The first way will give the translation: “This is the book without doubt. In it there is guidance …” The second way will give the translation: “This is the book without doubt in it, a guidance …”
It is the last two types of variants that we will now discuss. It is convenient to divide these in two categories:
A) Variants in the consonantal written text.
B) Variants arising from different ways of supplying vowels and dots or from different ways of punctuating or pronouncing but do not effect the underlying consonantal text. They may be described as variants in recitation.
A) Variants in the consonantal text
The examples of worst cases of variants with manuscript support are provided by the following differences between the Hafs and Warsh transmissions:
Surah Hafs Warsh
2:132 wa wassa wa `awsa
3:133 wa sari‘u sari‘u
18:36 minha minhuma
73:20 anllan allan
Before evaluating these examples it must be repeated again that before our age of standardization script used for a language was subject to a great deal of variation. This was, as we have seen, especially true about the Arabic script. The absence of vowels and dots to distinguish letters that looked the same created uncertainties. In addition, exactly the same word or phrase could be written in different ways. And when diacritical marks were developed for vowels and for differentiating letters having the same form, the system did not develop in a smooth way. Keeping this in view, when we say that the Qur`anic text has remained the same throughout centuries we first of all mean that when we identify words that differ only with respect to diacritical symbols as well as words that are written in different ways but are in reality the same, then all extant manuscripts or printed copies of the Qur`an are identical, except possibly for some scribal errors, which can be identified by a straightforward way. This definition is reasonable, as we can see from the following examples.
In the first edition of the King James Version of the Bible published in the sixteenth century "Bible" was written as "Byble", "Hebrew" as "Hebrue"; "texts" as "textes" and the phrase "Old and New Testament" as "Olde and Newe Testament" etc. Clearly this does not make this sixteenth century copy of the KJV different from any modern copy. Even in copies produced in the modern times we can have equivalent words written in different ways. Thus “says” may be written as “saith”. Nor are such differences limited only to the Bibles. They are found even in secular literature. Thus in England “labor” would be written as “labour”. This, however, does not make “labor” a different word from “labour”. Likewise, “do not” may be written as “don’t”. Perhaps even a better example is an Arabic piece written in the Latin script by transliteration. At present there are in use several systems of transliteration. Thus ‘Abd al-Rahman may be written as Abdurrahman or Abd ar-Rahman or Abdur Rahman with or without a dot or dash underneath “h” or with or without any sign to make the last “a” long. Now suppose we had two Arabic texts transliterated into the Latin script but using different transliteration systems. They will look very different, but in reality they are the same.
Let us now look at the examples cited above. In 2:132 the different readings wassa and `awsa are completely equivalent words; these may be compared to “says” and “saith” in English. Likewise, in 73:20 anllan is the same as allan (something like “do not” and “don`t”). In 3:133 the wa (“and”) in Hafs occurs at the beginning of a sentence, and hence makes no difference in the meaning of the sentence, as you may see by reading the following translations:
“And be quick to gain forgiveness” (Hafs)
“Be quick to gain forgiveness …..(Warsh)
Sentences that precede this sentence also have a wa in the beginning. It is possible that wa was omitted by mistake or a wa was added under the influence of the wa found in the beginning of the previous sentences.
The situation in the remaining case (18:36) is as follows: The relevant passage talks about the parable of a man who has two gardens. He enters one of the gardens and says that even if there is a day of resurrection he will get in the hereafter something better than it (minha) or something better than these two (minhuma). The first reading (minha) refers to the one garden in which the man is standing and the second reading (minhuma) refers to the two gardens that he owns. The reading minha is more natural since we should expect the man to refer to the garden he is looking at. The reading minhuma would then be a scribal error, perhaps resulting from the fact that there are different ways of writing the letter “h”. In one way it looks like the number 8 while in another way it looks like the number 6. In the first way one of the two “circles” can get separated a little and become an “m”. This could have changed m(i)nha into m(i)nh(u)ma, and since the word made good sense within the passage, it could not be rejected; hence the error persisted in some part of the Muslim world. In any case, we can conclude that the worst cases of unresolved textual variants of the Qur`anic manuscripts are exemplified by the addition or omission of wa (“and”) in the beginning of the sentence in 3:133 and a change of minha into minhuma in 18:36, none of which makes any difference in meaning.
In the Christian missionary literature a great importance is given to the existence of such variants along with variants in vowels and dots. Abandoning all sense of proportion and integrity some of them consider these “variants” as proof that Muslims’ own Qur`an is not free of the sort of changes that the Muslims and critical scholars believe the Biblical tradition has suffered. But to suggest a comparison between variants of the Qur`an and what we find in the manuscripts of the Biblical books is to suggest a comparison between a glass of pure water with a few atoms of a harmless substance that found their way into the glass accidentally and a glace of water permeated with all types of substances, including some potentially harmful ones, some of which were deliberately dropped into the glass. To fully appreciate this analogy, see below, section II entitled “The New Testament”.
The New Testament and the Qur`an are books of comparable size. So it is significant that genuine variants in the Qur`anic manuscripts (i.e. variants that are not the result of different ways of putting vowels or dots or the same words or phrases being written in different ways like “labour” and “labor”, “says” and “saith”, and “do not” and “don’t”) number no more than a few dozens in comparison to tens of thousands in the case of the New Testament. That is the Qur`an has about 0.01% of the number of variants found in the New Testament. And if we limit ourselves to the variants resulting from deliberate tampering with the text for theological or other interests, then the Qur`an has zero variants compared with the thousands in the Bible. Even if we add all the variants that are alleged in extra-Qur`anic traditions without any manuscript support the percentage relative to the New Testament will be no more than 0.01%.
In this connection it would be interesting to look into the work done by the "Institute fur Koranforschung" of the University of Munich, Germany, which collected and collated some 42,000 complete or incomplete copies of the Qur'an, gathered from all over the world. The institute was destroyed by American bombs during World War II, but some of their reports have survived and seem to provide further support to the above conclusion.
The percentage of Qur`anic verses with genuine variants is well within the level of accuracy often required even in the most exact sciences. Arthur J. Arberry therefore is within acceptable limits of accuracy when he states: “Apart from certain orthographical modifications of the originally somewhat primitive method of writing, intended to render unambiguous and easy the task of reading the recitation, the Koran as printed in the twentieth century is identical with the Koran as authorized by ‘Uthman”. And certainly, Muir, who is otherwise rather hostile to Islam, is right when he writes: “The recension of ‘Uthman has been handed down to us unaltered. So carefully, indeed, has it been preserved, that there are no variations of importance, - we might almost say no variations at all, - amongst the innumerable copies of the Koran scattered throughout the vast bounds of the empire of Islam. Contending and embittered factions, taking their rise in the murder of ‘Uthman himself within a quarter of a century from the death of Muhammad, have ever since rent the Muslim world. Yet but ONE KORAN has always been current amongst them ...” We can even go further in view of what we established earlier in Chapter 1, that is, it is next to impossible that ‘Uthman wanted or was able to make any changes in the Qur`an. In the light of this fact we can say that the Qur`an printed in the twenty-first century is identical with the Qur`an received by the Muslim community from the Holy Prophet.
B) Variants in recitation
It is clear that differences only in how one pronounces a word without changing its meaning are of no significance. But it is clearly important how we punctuate and supply vowels and dots. In case of the Qur`anic text there exist variant ways of punctuating some verses or supplying vowels and dots to some words. Since in the early Qur`anic manuscripts there were no vowels or punctuation marks or dots distinguishing different letters (Chapter 3), supplying these in different ways does not amount to changing the text but only interpreting it in different ways (Chapter 1). But we may still ask: do different ways of supplying vowels, punctuating etc create such an uncertainty that it calls into question the preservation and effectiveness of the Qur`anic message?
There are two factors that limit the possible ways of supplying vowels and diacritical marks to such a degree that the teachings of the message of the Qur`an is not effected in any significant way:
First, the Qur`an was transmitted both orally and in writing, the oral transmission greatly limiting the possible ways of supplying vowels, dots, and punctuations.
Second, in any composition in any language words with different meanings are to be given the meaning(s) that makes sense within the context in which they are used and in the composition as a whole; and the same holds true for how we choose punctuations. Similarly, in Arabic language the vowels, dots, and punctuations are to be supplied in such a way that the sentences are meaningful within their immediate context as well as within the context of the text as a whole. In fact, if in Arabic, Nabatean and other such languages vowels or dots or punctuation marks did not exist or were not often used, it is because this principle of interpretation was understood.
As a result of the above two factors, in the Qur`an the admissible variations in vowels, dots, and punctuations, are very limited and are necessarily consistent with the teachings of the Qur`an as a whole and therefore do not amount to alteration of those teachings. They simply expand the range of possible interpretations of the text within the framework provided by the text as a whole without affecting the teachings in any significant way.
Here are some examples of variant readings resulting from different ways of supplying dots and vowels.
Surah Hafs Variant
1:3 malik malik
2:9 yakhda‘una yukhadi‘una
2:125 wattakhidhu wattakhadhu
2:140 taquluna yaquluna
2:214 yaqula yaqulu
2:259 nunshizuha nunshiruha
3:37 wa kaffalaha wa kafalaha
3:81 ataytukum ataynakum
5:6 arjulakum arjulikum
5:54 yartadda yartadid
20:63 in hadhayni inna hadhani
23: 8 li-amanatihim li-amanatihim
Let us look at a few of them more closely. In 1:3, the word mlk has been supplied with vowels to read malik or malik. The first means “owner” or “master”, the second “king” or “sovereign”. Both readings give essentially the same meaning. The first one is more comprehensive, since the owner or master is entitled to be the king and sovereign.
In 2:259, the “z” in nunshizuha becomes “r” if a dot is omitted and this will change the word to nunshiruha. Both words give the same meaning to the verse.
Some variants do result in a change in the meaning. Thus in 5:6, which talks about ablution, the word for “your feet” has been supplied with vowels to read arjulakum or arjulikum. The first reading would result in the following sense of the verse: “wash your faces … wipe your heads with wet hands and (wash) your feet (like the faces)”. The second reading will provide the translation: “wash your faces … and wipe your heads with wet hands and (wipe) your feet (like the heads)”. In this case, however, one can decide on the original reading by the following argument: all available evidence suggests strongly that ablution involved actual washing of the feet and not just their wiping. Hence the original reading is arjulakum. Some have referred to the exceptional case in which according to some ahadith it is permissible to wipe over leather socks instead of taking off the socks and washing the feet. However, this exception cannot be derived from the second reading (arjulikum) since socks are nowhere mentioned. The Hadith does mention the exception but that does not by itself support the second reading. The Hadith has been considered as able to provide exceptions to Qur`anic commands without any support from the Qur`an. For example, in the Hadith we find many exceptions to the Qur`anic command to cut off the hands of the thieves and these exceptions are not based on any variants in the Qur`an. Hence if an exception to the regulation about washing feet existed in the early Islamic history on the basis of the Hadith it cannot be used as an argument for a particular reading unless that reading is specifically mentioned in the Hadith, which is not the case for the example under consideration.
Even if we do not accept the above reasoning, and leave the variants unresolved, we do not have here a significant difference, given Qur`an’s relativistic outlook on rules governing rituals (2:177, 22:34, 67). Thus following 2:177 we can say: it is not virtue to wipe your feet or to wash them, but virtue is to believe in God and in the hereafter … In other words, uncertainty about vowels in the verse under consideration does not call into question the preservation and effectiveness of the message of the Qur`anic revelation.
A simple mathematical calculation
The number of variants in recitation consistent with the extant manuscripts is very small when compared with the actual number of possibilities.
A simple calculation can show that the number of possible, yet meaningful, ways of putting dots and vowel marks in the text of the Qur`an is in trillions. For, suppose that we have in each surah of the Qur`an no more than two meaningful ways of supplying vowels or dots or punctuations, an extremely cautious estimate. Suppose further that half of the surahs (including the short surahs) have only one way of supplying vowels etc while each of the remaining half have two such ways, again a very cautious estimate of what is actually possible. Then there are 257 = 144115.2 trillion possibilities!!! This means that if the transmission of the Qur`an did not have a very high degree of faithfulness to an original source, we should have an extremely large number of different readings. This would then be reflected in a very large number of copies of the Qur`an differing in the ways they supplied vowels, dots and punctuations. But this is clearly not the case. This proves that the transmission of the Qur`an, employing dual means of memorization and writing has been extremely faithful.
The original can be completely recovered
As noted earlier, the provable variants, whether in the written text or in recitation, do not serve any theological or other interests. Hence they could only be the result of some natural accidents. This fact can enable us, if need be, to choose between the variants and recover the original reading. Even the following simple rule can go far in establishing the original reading: take all the manuscripts prepared in the first four or five centuries of the Islamic era and take the reading that makes sense and is supported by a clear majority. This is because accidental errors are expected to get established only in particular time and/or place and hence not affect the majority of manuscripts coming from different times and places. Muslims have not bothered to go through such a recovery process precisely because genuine variants are so few and so unimportant. But as a scholarly curiosity one could by using this simple rule along with other methods completely recover the reading or readings that go back to the Prophet.
Provable variants of the Qur`an may be considered a part of revelation
It is possible that research may show that some variant readings go back to the Prophet himself. This is because in most languages we have the use of “pun” in which two different meanings of the same word in the same phrase are intended. It is similarly possible that different words that may be obtained by different ways of putting vowels and dots may also be intended. The Qur`an does say that some of its verses are mutashabihat (ambiguous, parabolic, symbolic). Some ambiguity as to how dots and vowels are to be supplied may therefore be intended to cover a wider range of meanings. I personally do not consider it likely that any variants go back to the Prophet. This is because there is not a single tradition, at least not a reliable one, according to which the Prophet himself recited any particular verse in more than one way and presented both ways as revelation. We only have some traditions in which the Prophet states in general terms that the Qur`an was revealed in seven ahruf and he approves different but unspecified recitations by his companions (see below).
If any variants do go back to the Holy Prophet, we can clearly consider them a part of the Qur`anic revelation. But even if the provable variants do not go back to the Prophet, as seems likely, they can still be considered part of revelation in some sense. This is because they completely blend with the Qur`anic revelation and are the result of natural accidents. Anything blending with the divine revelation and resulting from natural accidents (acts of God) without deliberate human intervention can with some justification be considered a part of that revelation.
The New Testament
This book is about the revelation received by both the Prophet Muhammad and by the Prophet Jesus. In Chapter 2 we briefly showed that the gospel reports were formed by the same fallible process by which many of the reports in the Hadith are formed, some examples of which are provided by the ahadith discussed in this book: those about the collection of the Qur`an, the stoning verse, the seven ahruf, the reference to the ‘asr prayer etc. Once the Christian traditions formed in this very fallible way were collected in gospels and finally in the New Testament, the text that resulted continued to suffer extensive alterations. It is to this issue that we now turn. Once again we provide simply brief summaries of what is common knowledge among textual critics of the New Testament.
n At the present time we have about 5000 Greek MSS of the New Testament, in whole or in part. Every one of these MSS is different from every other.
n In addition to the Greek MSS, there are more than 10,000 MSS of the early versions and thousands of quotations of the Church Fathers. These also differ from one another.
n The study of all the MSS is far from complete, but whatever has been studied so far reveals tens of thousands of variations. Thus a study of just 150 Greek MSS of the Gospel of Luke has revealed more than 30,000 different readings. The examination of all the MSS is bound to reveal hundreds of thousands of variations by the simple laws of statistics.
n There is hardly any sentence in the New Testament in which no variations have been found.
n Most importantly, thousands of the variants that have been found are the result of deliberate tampering with the text for theological or dogmatic reasons.
n Some books of the Jewish Bible were written almost three thousand years ago and the textual form of these and other books in the Jewish scriptures was standardized sometime in the mid-to-late second century C.E. But our earliest manuscripts of this text in semitic languages date to much later. We do possess some fragments from the second century C. E., but these, when pieced together, give only twenty-four lines of the Ten Commandments and the shema (Ex 20:2-17; Deut 5:6-19; 6:4-5). Also, for some books we now have copies from the first century C.E. prepared by the community that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. Complete manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date from no earlier than the ninth century C.E. Probably the earliest such manuscripts are those from Aleppo (c. 915 C.E.) and Leningrad (1009 C.E.).
n All the books in the New Testament were written by the middle of the second century C.E., but there is no Greek manuscript before 800 C.E. that has 27 books comprising the New Testament. The Codex Sinaiticus (prepared about 350 CE) comes closest, but it also contains the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, which are not among the canonical books. The Codex Vaticanus (Codex B) prepared in the second quarter of the 4th century is the earliest Greek manuscript with substantial part of the New Testament.
n We have no dated manuscripts of the New Testament until the Uspenski gospels of 835 C.E.
n Textual criticism has been able to restore only about half the verses in the gospels, as is shown by the following table presented by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland in their book The Text of the New Testament. The table gives the total number of verses in Nestle-Aland edition with complete agreement among the critical editions of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, von Soden, Vogels, Merk, Bover, and Nestle-Aland, ignoring the orthographical differences.
Total Number Of Verses
Variant Free Verses-Total
If we look just at the gospels we can see that textual critics can completely agree on the original text of only 2056 out of a total of 3769 verses, that is, on about half of the verses. The original version of the remaining half of the verses is uncertain.
Consequently, it is not possible to say in any reasonable sense that the texts of the gospels individually and the New Testament as a whole have been faithfully preserved.
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