Qur’an: No Variations! What say the hadiths?

“The Qur’an is the original scripture – same language, letters and recitation.  No place for human interpretation or corrupted translation …If you pick up a copy of a Qur’an from any home around the world I doubt you will even find a difference between them.”

A friend sent me this note.  He was  comparing the text of the Holy Qur’an with that of the Injil/Bible.  Twenty-four thousand ancient manuscripts of the Injil exist and they do have minor variations, where just a few words vary.  Though all themes and ideas are the same across all 24000 manuscripts, including the theme of Isa al Masih ransoming us in his death and resurrection, the claim is often made, as above, that there has been no variation in the Qur’an.  This is seen as the Qur’an’s superiority over the Bible, and evidence of its miraculous protection.  But what do the hadiths tell us about the formation and compilation of the Qur’an?

Formation of Quran from Prophet to Caliphs

Narrated `Umar bin Al-Khattab:

I heard Hisham bin Hakim bin Hizam reciting Surat-al-Furqan in a way different to that of mine. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) had taught it to me (in a different way). So, I was about to quarrel with him (during the prayer) but I waited till he finished, then I tied his garment round his neck and seized him by it and brought him to Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) and said, “I have heard him reciting Surat-al-Furqan in a way different to the way you taught it to me.” The Prophet (ﷺ) ordered me to release him and asked Hisham to recite it. When he recited it, Allah s Apostle said, “It was revealed in this way.” He then asked me to recite it. When I recited it, he said, “It was revealed in this way. The Qur’an has been revealed in seven different ways, so recite it in the way that is easier for you.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2419; Book 44, Hadith 9)

Narrated Ibn Mas`ud:

I heard a person reciting a (Qur’anic) Verse in a certain way, and I had heard the Prophet (ﷺ) reciting the same Verse in a different way. So I took him to the Prophet (ﷺ) and informed him of that but I noticed the sign of disapproval on his face, and then he said, “Both of you are correct, so don’t differ, for the nations before you differed, so they were destroyed.”  (al-Bukhari 3476; Book 60, Hadith 143)

These two clearly tell us that during the Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) lifetime there were several variant versions of the Qur’an’s recitation that were used and approved by Mohamed (PBUH).  So what happened after his death?

Abu Bakr and Qur’an

Narrated Zaid bin Thabit:

Abu Bakr As-Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed (i.e., a number of the Prophet’s Companions who fought against Musailima). (I went to him) and found `Umar bin Al- Khattab sitting with him. Abu Bakr then said (to me), “`Umar has come to me and said: “Casualties were heavy among the Qurra’ of the Qur’an (i.e. those who knew the Qur’an by heart) on the day of the Battle of Yamama, 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 (Abu Bakr) order that the Qur’an be “How can you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do?”collected.” I said to `Umar, `Umar said, “By Allah, that is a good project.” `Umar kept on urging me to accept his proposal till Allah opened my chest for it and I began to realize the good in the idea which `Umar had realized.” 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 Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ). So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’an and collect it in one book.” By Allah If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur’an. Then I said to Abu Bakr, “How will you do something which Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) did not do?” Abu Bakr replied, “By Allah, it is a good project.” Abu Bakr kept on urging me to accept his idea until Allah opened my chest for what He had opened the chests of Abu Bakr and `Umar. So I started looking for the Qur’an and collecting it from (what was written on) palme stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last Verse of Surat at-Tauba (Repentance) with Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him. The Verse is: ‘Verily there has come unto you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty..(till the end of Surat-Baraa’ (at-Tauba) (9.128-129). Then the complete manuscripts (copy) of the Qur’an remained with Abu Bakr till he died, then with `Umar till the end of his life, and then with Hafsa, the daughter of `Umar. (al-Bukhari 4986; Book 66, Hadith 8)

This was when Abu Bakr was caliph, directly succeeding Mohamed (PBUH).  It tells us that Mohamed (PBUH) had never collected the Qur’an into a standard text or given any indication that such a thing should be done.  With heavy battle casualties amongst those who knew the Qur’an by memory, Abu Bakr and Umar (he became the 2nd Caliph) persuaded Zaid to start to collect a Qur’an from diverse sources.  Zaid was initially reluctant because Mohamed (PBUH) had never indicated a need to standardize the text.  He had trusted several of his companions to teach the Qur’an to their followers as the following hadith tells us.

Narrated Masriq:

`Abdullah bin `Amr mentioned `Abdullah bin Masud and said, “I shall ever love that man, for I heard the Prophet (ﷺ) saying, ‘Take (learn) the Qur’an from four: `Abdullah bin Masud, Salim, Mu`adh and Ubai bin Ka`b.’ ”

(al-Bukhari 4999; Book 66, Hadith 21)

However, after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death disagreements arose between the companions because of these variant recitations.  The hadith below tells of a disagreement over Surah 92:1-3  (Al-Layl)

Narrated Ibrahim:

The companions of `Abdullah (bin Mas`ud) came to Abu Darda’, (and before they arrived at his home), he looked for them and found them. Then he asked them,: ‘Who among you can recite (Qur’an) as `Abdullah recites it?” They replied, “All of us.” He asked, “Who among you knows it by heart?” They pointed at ‘Alqama. Then he asked Alqama. “How did you hear `Abdullah bin Mas`ud reciting Surat Al-Lail (The Night)?” Alqama recited: ‘By the male and the female.’ Abu Ad-Darda said, “I testify that I heard me Prophet reciting it likewise, but these people want me to recite it:– ‘And by Him Who created male and female.’ but by Allah, I will not follow them.”

Bukhari Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 468

Today’s Qur’an has the 2nd reading for Surah al-Layl 92:3.  Interestingly Abdullah, who is one of the four in the previous hadith especially singled out by the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) as an authority on Qur’anic recitation, and Abu Ad-Darda used a different recitation for this verse and were not willing to follow the others.

The following hadith shows that whole regions of the Islamic empire were following different recitations, to the extent that one could verify where someone came from by what recitation he used.  In the case below, the Iraqis of Kufa were following Abdullah bin Mas’ud’s recitation of Surah 92:1-3.

‘Alqama reported:

I met Abu Darda’, and he said to me: To which country do you belong? I said: I am one of the people of Iraq. He again said: To which city? I replied: City of Kufa. He again said: Do you recite according to the recitation of ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud? I said: Yes. He said: Recite this verse (By the night when it covers) So I recited it: (By the night when it covers, and the day when it shines, and the creating of the male and the female). He laughed and said: I have heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) reciting like this.

Muslim Book 6, Hadith 346

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

`Umar said, Ubai was the best of us in the recitation (of the Qur’an) yet we leave some of what he recites.’ Ubai says, ‘I have taken it from the mouth of Allah’s Messenger () and will not leave for anything whatever.” But Allah said “None of Our Revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten but We substitute something better or similar.” 2.106

Bukhari. Book 66, Hadith 27

Though Ubai was considered ‘the best’ in reciting the Qur’an (He was one of those noted previously by Mohamed-PBUH), others in the community left out some of what he recited.  There was disagreement over what was to be abrogated and what was not.  Disagreements on variant readings and abrogation were causing tensions.  We see in the hadith below how this problem was solved.

Caliph Uthman and Quran

Narrated Anas bin Malik:

Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to `Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were Waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) 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 (Qur’an) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So `Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to `Uthman. `Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, `Abdullah bin AzZubair, Sa`id bin Al-As and `AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. `Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had written many copies, `Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. `Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt.

al-Bukhari 4987; Book 66, Hadith 9

This is why there are no variant readings today.  It was not because the prophet Mohamed (PBUH) only received or used one recitation (he did not, he used seven), nor because he compiled an authoritative Qur’an.  He did not.  In fact, if you search for ‘different recitations’ in online sunnah there are 61 hadiths that discuss different recitations of Qur’an.  Today’s Qur’an is non-variant because Uthman (3rd caliph) took one of the readings, edited it, and burned all the other recitations.  The following hadiths show how this editing lives on in today’s Qur’an.

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

`Umar said, “I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, “We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,” and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession.” Sufyan added, “I have memorized this narration in this way.” `Umar added, “Surely Allah’s Messenger () carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him.”

al-Bukhari 6829; Book 86, Hadith 56

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

… Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth and revealed the Holy Book to him, and among what Allah revealed, was the Verse of the Rajam (the stoning of married person (male & female) who commits illegal sexual intercourse, and we did recite this Verse and understood and memorized it. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) did carry out the punishment of stoning and so did we after him….

Bukhari  Book 86, Hadith 57

Today there is no verse about stoning (Rajam) for adultery in the Qur’an.  It was thus edited out.

Narrated Ibn Az-Zubair: I said to ‘Uthman, “This Verse which is in Surat-al-Baqara:  “Those of you who die and leave widows behind…without turning them out.” has been abrogated by another Verse. Why then do you write it (in the Qur’an)?” ‘Uthman said. “Leave it (where it is), …, for I will not shift anything of it (i.e. the Quran) from its original position.” Bukhari Vol 6, Book 60, No 60:

Here we see a disagreement between Uthman and Ibn Az-Zubair over whether abrogation of a verse meant it should or should not be kept in the Qur’an.  Uthman had his way and so this verse is in the Qur’an today.  But there was controversy about it.

Uthman and the Heading for Surah 9 (At Tawbah)

Narrated Uthman ibn Affan:

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 mi’in (surahs) (containing one hundred verses) and the (Surah) al-Anfal which belongs to the mathani (Surahs) in the category of as-sab’u at-tiwal (the first long surah or chapters of the Qur’an), and you did not write “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” between them?

Uthman replied: When the verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet (ﷺ), 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 Medina, 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 as-sab’u at-tiwal (the seven lengthy surahs), and I did not write “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” between them.

Dawud; Book 2, Hadith 396

Surah 9 (at Tawbah) is the only Surah in the Qur’an that does not begin with ‘In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful’.  The hadith explains why.  Uthman thought that Surah 9 was part of Surah 8 since the material was similar.  From the questioning we can see that this was controversial within the early Muslim community.  The next hadith shows the reaction of one of the Companions to Uthman’s Qur’an.

‘Abdullah (b. Mas’ud) reported that he (said to his companions to conceal their copies of the Qur’an) and further said:

He who conceals anything he shall have to bring that which he had concealed on the Day of judgment, and then said: After whose mode of recitation you command me to recite? I in fact recited before AIlah’s Messenger (ﷺ) more than seventy chapters of the Qur’an and the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) know it that I have better understanding of the Book of Allah (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 Mubkmmad (ﷺ) but I did not hear anyone having rejected that (that is, his recitation) or finding fault with it.

Sahih Muslim; Book 44, Hadith 162

 Several things stand out:

  1. Abdullah b. Masud tells his followers to hide their Qur’ans for some reason.
  2. He seems to have been commanded by someone to use a different recitation. This is best understood as referring to the time when Uthman standardized his version of the Qur’an.
  3. Ibn Mas’ud’s objection to changing the way he recited the Qur’an was that: I (Mas’ud) have better understanding of the Book
  4. Shaqiq said that the Companions of Muhammad did not disagree with Mas’ud.

Textual versions of Qur’an today

Following Uthman’s edition, however, variant readings still existed.  In fact, it seems that in 4th century after the Prophet [PBUH] there was a sanctioned return to different readings.  So though today the major Arab textual reading is the Hafs (or Hofs), there is also the Warsh, used mostly in North Africa, Al-Duri, used mostly in West Africa and still others.  The difference between these readings are mostly in spelling and some slight wording variations, usually without any affect on meaning, but with some differences that do have an affect on meaning only in the immediate context but not in wider thought.

So there is a choice as to what version of the Qur’an to use.

We have learned that there are variant Arabic readings of the Qur’an today, and it went through an editing and selection process after the death of the prophet Mohamed (PBUH).  The reason that there is such little variation in the Qur’anic text today is because all other text variants were burned at that time.  The Quran has no alternate reading footnotes, not because it had no alternate readings, but because they were destroyed.  Uthman probably produced a good recitation of the Qur’an, but it was not the only one, and it was not made without controversy.   Thus the widely accepted idea of the Qur’an being  “original scripture – same language, letters and recitation.  No place for human interpretation” is incorrect.  Though the Bible and Qur’an both have variant readings, they also both have strong manuscript evidence indicating that the text as it is today is close to the original.  Both can give us a trustworthy representation of the original.  Many are distracted from seeking to understand the message of the Books by having an undue veneration for the mode of preservation of the Qur’an and an undue disdain for the mode of preservation of the Bible.  We would be better off focusing on understanding the Books.  That was the reason they were given in the first place.  A good place to start is with Adam.

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