Which Qur’an is the Final Word of Allah?
03 Feb, 2008
When Muhammad died (A. D. 632), his revelations were not collected. Some of his followers tried to collect those known revelations and put them in a codex form. So, we had codices of scholars like Ibn Masud, Abu Bakr, Al-Asha’ri, ..etc. When Islam spread, we had codices in centers like Mecca, Medina, Kufa, Damascus, and Basra. The situation was chaotic because there were literally many Qur’ans. Uthman, bless his heart, tried to fix matters by canonizing the Medina Codex, and destroying all other “Qur’ans”. He sent copies of the one he chose to all places, and ordered the destruction of all other codices. Uthman tried to standardize the consonantal text of the Qur’an.
However, some variant traditions of the consonantal texts survived a few hundred years after that. Another problem was that the letters in the Qur’an were “unpointed”. Many Arabic letters have “points” or “dots” above or below them. For instance a “b” has one dot below it. The same letter is a “t” if it had two dots on top. The same letter is a “th” if it had three dots on top. The situation is similar for many other letters. There were also problems with the short vowels since early Arabic has no sign for short vowels during the time of the Qur’anic collection. Different variant traditions were in development to ascertain how the Qur’an should be pointed and vowelized. In the words of Charles Adams: “ It must be emphasized that 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.” [Source: Adams, C. E. “Quran: The Text and Its History.”]
This whole “mess” continued till Ibn Mujahid (died A. D. 935) came along and a definite canonization of consonants and a limit on the variations of vowels was placed. This resulted in the acceptance of seven systems. Each of the seven systems was traced by two different transmitters, providing in all, fourteen readings ! (it is amazing to me that Muslims still talk about “one Qur’an”, whatever that nonsense means):
- Nafi of Medina (d. A. D. 785)
- Ibn Kathir of Mecca (d. A. D. 737)
- Ibn Amir of Damascus (736)
- Abu Amr of Basra (770)
- Asim of Kufa (744)
- Hamza of Kufa (772)
- Al-Kisai of Kufa (804)
However, other scholars accepted ten readings and others accepted fourteen reading. I won’t go into the details much longer. A note from Charles Adams is appropriate here:
“It is of some importance to call attention to a possible source of misunderstanding with regard to the variant readings of the Quran. The seven [versions] refer to actual differences in the written and oral text, to dictinct versions of Quranic verses, whose differences, though they may not be great, are nonetheless real and substantial.” (bolded part is my emphasis)
What I just discussed is a dilemma to the Muslim. There is not “one Qur’an” at all. In fact, it is a very live possibility that the “real” Qur’an is no longer with us. “. In fact, it is a very strong possibility considering all the mess that the Qur’ans went through.
Ibn Kamuna an Arabic-speaking writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.