Collection of the Qur’an, Part 2
15 Feb, 2009
Introductory Notes: The first part of this study opened our eyes to the fact that the Qur’an was not collected as “one unit” during the time of Muhammad (PBUH). The prophet himself allowed tampering with Qur’anic wording. This was evident when he changed some of the words in the Qur’an as suggested by one of his scribes. Also, the scandal of satanic verses revelations casts doubts on any and all of the Qur’an. How are we to judge which verses are satanic and which are not? When Muhammad (PBUH) died, the Qur’an has already been changed with Muhammad’s approval. It was also not collected as one unit, thus, allowing varieties of claims about which writings belong to the “revealed” Qur’an, and which do not.
- The previous article followed the Qur’an’s formation up to the time when Uthman sanctioned one version, and ordered the destruction of all other “Qur’ans”. To give credit to Uthman, he tried his best to make some order of a chaotic “Qur’an” situation. However, as one might expect, some parts of “unofficial” Qur’anic revelations survived after the time of Uthman, and are still a troubling matter for those, who claim that the Qur’an we have nowadays is the unaltered word of Allah, word by word, letter by letter. We also saw that the frailties of human memory may have contributed to having many versions of the Qur’anic suras and ayas. Humans just remember things in a variety of ways.
In this article, I take readers beyond what we talked about so far. We will go on a journey that follows the Qur’an, and what happened to it, after the “official” Uthmanic version was born.
The Qur’an after Uthman
Orthodox Muslims insist that the Uthmanic official version of the Qur’an is the totality of the revelation by Allah to Muhammad (PBUH). This position, as I have clarified earlier, is not supported by historical facts. It is a dogmatic position adopted by many adamant Muslim apologetics, unsupported by historical facts. Charles Adams observes that the orthodox position is motivated by dogmatic factors and cannot be supported by historical evidence.
As a matter of fact, earlier Muslim scholars and Qur’anic commentators knew that many parts of the Qur’an were lost, perverted, and changed. They realized that there were many variants of the Qur’an. In this sense, those scholars were more objective to the facts than the dogmatic Muslim apologists of today. As-Suyuti (d. 1505), a revered Quranic commentator, quotes the son of second Caliph Umar Al-khattab: “Let no one of you say that he has acquired the entire Koran for how does he know that it is all? Much of the Koran has been lost, thus let him say, ‘I have acquired of it what is available’” He also quotes Ayesha, the beloved wife of the Prophet, that “During the time of the Prophet, the chapter of the Parties used to be two hundred verses when read. When ‘Uthman edited the copies of the Koran, only the current (verses) were recorded”. As-Suyuti records this story about Ubai ibn Ka’b, one of Muhammad’s (PBUH) great companions:
This famous companion asked one of the Muslims, “How many verses in the chapter of the Parties?” He said, “Seventy-Three verses.” He (Ubai) told him, “It used to be almost equal to the chapter of the Cow (my addition: 286 verses!!), and included the verse of the stoning.” The man asked, “What is the verse of the stoning?” He (Ubai) said, “If an old man or woman committed adultery, stone them to death.”
It should be evident to readers by now that many changes did occur in the Qur’an. Such changes include additions, deletion, and just flat out changes and variations of the wordings in the Ayas.
I move now back to discussing the official Uthmanic version of the Qur’an. As I mentioned previously, Uthman attempted to bring order to chaotic version of the Quran. He tried to canonize the Medinan Codex. He sent copies of it to Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Kufa, and Basra. He ordered the destruction of all others. He tried to standardize the consonantal text, but, alas, many variant traditions of the consonantal text survived well into the fourth Islamic century. This, in my view, was expected. Muhammad (PBUH) was not keen on preserving the Qur’an in its originality. Also, Arab tribes had their own dialects. So, variable versions of the Qur’an were expected. Uthman’s task was impossible right from the start. Also, the consonantal text was unpointed. In Arabic language, this indeed spells catastrophe as to the meaning of words and verses in the Qur’an. Ibn Warraq writes:
….the consonantal text was unpointed, that is to say, the dots that distinguish, for example, a “b” from a “t” or a “th” were missing. Several other letters (f and q; h, and kh; s and d; r and z; s and sh; d and dh, t and z) were indistinguishable (my emphasis). In other words, the Koran was written in a scripta defective. As a result, a great many variant readings were possible according to the way the text was pointed (had the dots added).
What Ibn Warraq is saying here spells disaster. It will be impossible for any human being to decipher the actual meaning of the Qur’an. The Qur’an , at first, was not “dotted”. This is a huge problem in Arabic language. I do not think an English reader will appreciate how big a problem it is without solid examples. Let me give a couple of examples. Take two Arabic words like “Sami” and “Shami”. The two words are written in Arabic the same way except for one minor thing: the word “Sami” has no dots on top of the letter “S”. the word “Shami” has three dots on the same first letter. So the difference between the two words is just three dots on the first letter. Now, the difference in meaning is huge. The word “Sami” in Arabic can be a man’s name, but also means “High in position”. A man with “Sami” morals means a man with high moral values. The word “Shami”, on the other hand, means “Syrian”, or someone from “Sham” (could mean the from the city of Damascus, or from the country of Syria). Here is another example: take the word “Hal” in Arabic (with heavy H). It mean “situation”. In contrast, the word “Khal” may mean “Empty” or “Uncle-on the mother’s side”. Now the difference in writing in the Arabic language between the two words is just one dot on top of the first letter in the word “Khal”. The word “Hal” is not dotted at all. You see, one dot difference can make a huge difference in the meaning of the word in Arabic language. This huge Qur’anic problem cannot be appreciated by an English reader without live examples. I tried to clarify this matter in these two examples.
As if this is not enough, vowels presented another problem for Muslims. Arabic script is consonantal. Vowels influence the meaning in Arabic language. They are represented by orthographical signs above or below letters. So, after settling the problems associated with consonants, Muslims had to decide on which vowels to employ in each case, where there is a wording issue. Using different vowel renders a different meaning!
The above problems eventually led to the growth of different centers with their own traditions on how the Qur’anic texts should be pointed and vowelized. So, it is clear that Uthman did not succeed in getting rid of the older Qur’anic codices. Charles Adams observes about the Qur’an:
…far from being a single text passed down inviolate from the time of ‘Uthman’s commission, literally thousands of variant readings of particular verses were known in the first three (Muslim) centuries. Theses variants affected even the ‘Uthmanic’ codex, making it difficult to know what its true form may have been.”
In conclusion, I hope that the reader has a realistic sense of the impossibility of trying to ascertain the exact meaning of any “verse” or even “word” in the Qur’an. Multiple genuine problems face us, as we have seen in this article, when we try to ascertain the exact meaning of any part of the Qur’an.
In the next article, I will take readers to Islamic scholar Ibn Mujahid (d. 935) and discuss his role in canonizing consonants and limiting vowelization in the Qur’an, and discuss ensuing problems.
4. C. J. Adams, “Quran: The Text and Its History,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, editor-in-chief (NY, London: Macmillan, 1987.), p. 157-76
5. As-Suyuti, Itqan, part 3, p. 72
6. As-Suyuti, Itqan, part 3, p. 73 [author’s note: this chapter currently has 73 verses]
7. Ibn Warraq, The Origins of the Qur’an (New York, 1998), p. 15
Ibn Kamuna is an Arabic-speaking writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.