Perfect preservation of the Holy Quran: Dialects of the Holy Quran

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Last Updated on 25th June 2021

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A series of articles discussing the miracle of perfect preservation of the Holy Quran and responding to modern-day criticisms.

Farhan Iqbal, Missionary, Canada

It may sound surprising to many but an allegation that has gained popularity in recent years is that the Quran somehow has various “versions” that differ from one another. This is especially heard from Christian critics of Islam who make it sound as if the Holy Quran is somehow similar to the Bible in that it has contradictory readings, which in turn shows that the Quran is not perfectly preserved and cannot be termed a unique, matchless word of God (God forbid).

At the very outset, it is strange to see such criticism coming from Christian preachers. This is because despite admitting that the Bible has undergone corruption, has been edited and has differing versions, many of them would still consider the Bible the “inerrant” word of God. Yet, when it comes to the Quran, they would want us to believe that multiple readings nullify the Quran’s claim of being the word of God. 

In any case, this is a gross misrepresentation of facts. The Holy Quran does not have contradictory readings or so-called versions. What it has are different qira‘at, or recitations, and that is a well-known fact among the scholars of the Quran and is one of the beauties of the Holy Quran. 

In parts I to III of this series, I have discussed how much care was taken to preserve the Holy Quran perfectly and to ensure it did not come into any danger of being corrupted. This protection was granted to it by God Almighty through various means. What is remarkable is that the Quran was both written down in its entirety and memorised in full by several companions of the Holy Prophetsa during his lifetime. No other religious book in history has undergone such rigorous protection and preservation. 

After the death of the Holy Prophetsa, Hazrat Umarra proposed to Hazrat Abu Bakrra that a single manuscript of the Holy Quran should be prepared. (Introduction to the Study of the Holy Quran, p. 362)

During the life of the Holy Prophetsa, several companions wrote down the Holy Quran and the Quran had indeed been written down in its entirety, but it was not compiled or put together into a single-volume book. The writings were scattered and needed to be put together. The manuscript that was prepared out of this effort is called mush‘af-e-umm, and all the Companionsra had a consensus over the legitimacy of this manuscript. What is truly astounding is how early on this happened after the death of the Holy Prophetsa

The history of the dialects

Later on, during the time of Hazrat Uthmanra, an issue arose regarding the different ways in which the Holy Quran was being recited. Many new converts to Islam did not understand differences between the different dialects of the Quran and there was confusion. The Companionsra of the Holy Prophetsa knew about the dialect-based differences, but since the new converts were having some trouble, Hazrat Uthmanra decided to standardise the Quranic recitation to its main dialect, that is, the Qureshi dialect. 

This Qureshi dialect was the dialect of the Holy Prophetsa and the people of Mecca. This was the dialect in which the Holy Quran was revealed for much of its history. However, the Holy Quran was also revealed in other dialects as illustrated by the following Hadith: 

أَنَّ ابْنَ عَبَّاسٍ  رَضِىَ اللّٰهُ عَنْهُمَا  حَدَّثَهُ أَنَّ رَسُوْلَ اللّٰهِ صَلَّى اللّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ ‏ “‏ أَقْرَأَنِيْ جِبْرِيلُ عَلَى حَرْفٍ فَرَاجَعْتُهُ، فَلَمْ أَزَلْ أَسْتَزِيْدُهُ وَيَزِيْدُنِيْ حَتَّى انْتَهَى إِلَى سَبْعَةِ أَحْرُفٍ ‏”

“It is narrated by Hazrat Abdullah bin Abbasra that the Holy Prophetsa said, ‘Gabriel recited the Quran to me in one way. Then I requested him [to read it in another way], and continued asking him to recite it in other ways, and he recited it in several ways till he ultimately recited it in seven different ways”. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Fadha‘il al-Quran, Bab Unzila al-Quran ala Sab‘ati Ahrufin)

This hadith uses the phrase sab‘atu ahruf (i.e. seven huroof) which is the way the Holy Prophetsa referred to differences in dialects. 

The need for these recitations or readings arose during the growth of the Muslim community while in Medina. This is illustrated by the following narration: 

Hazrat Umarra bin Al-Khattab says:

“I heard Hishamra bin Hakim reciting Surah al-Furqan during the lifetime of the Holy Prophetsa and I listened to his recitation and noticed that he recited in several different ways which the Holy Prophetsa had not taught me. I was about to jump over him during his prayer, but I controlled my temper, and when he had completed his prayer, I put his upper garment around his neck and seized him by it and said, ‘Who taught you this surah which I heard you reciting?’ He replied, ‘The Holy Prophetsa taught it to me’. I said, ‘You have told a lie, for the Holy Prophetsa has taught it to me in a different way from yours’. So I dragged him to the Holy Prophetsa and said to the Holy Prophetsa, ‘I heard this person reciting Surah al-Furqan in a way which you have not taught me!’ On that the Holy Prophetsa said, ‘Release him [O Umar]! Recite, O Hisham!’ Then he recited in the same way as I heard him reciting. Then the Holy Prophetsa said, ‘It was revealed in this way,’ and added, ‘Recite, O Umar!’ I recited it as he had taught me. The Holy Prophetsa then said, ‘It was revealed in this way. This Quran has been revealed to be recited in seven different ways, so recite of it whichever (way) is easier for you’. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Fadha‘il al-Quran, Bab Unzila al-Quran ala Sab‘ati Ahrufin)

Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra has discussed this narration at length in Tafsir-e-Kabir. He writes that the qira‘at on the basis of which many critics make allegations are basically a reference to the different dialects among the Arabs. Some Arabs were able to pronounce the letter ر(raa) while others pronounced ل (laam) in its stead. At other occasions, they would use a different word as the other word would be difficult for them to pronounce. 

Huzoorra writes, “The meanings do not change; instead, in some cases, the meanings are expanded, and it enabled every tribe [in Arabia] to recite [the Quran] with ease”. (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 6, p. 414)

During the period of the Holy Prophet’ssa stay in Mecca, the qira‘at, or readings, of the Holy Quran did not exist as history does not record their existence at that time. 

Ahsanalluh Danish Sahib writes that the need arose at a time when Islam began to spread rapidly among various Arab tribes. This happened in the later years of the Holy Prophet’ssa stay in Medina. 

The above hadith refers to Hazrat Hakimra bin Hisham reciting the Quran in a reading which was not known to Hazrat Umarra. Hazrat Hakimra accepted Islam in 9 AH, which is a strong indication that the alternative readingswere revealed late and for most of the life of the Holy Prophetsa, Muslims learned the main reading, that is, the Hijazi or Qureshi qira‘at. 

Ahsanullah Danish Sahib estimates that out of the 22 and a half years of the revelation of the Holy Quran, more than 21 years were devoted to the recitation of the Quran in its main dialect. (Al-Zikrul Mahfuz, p. 293 [2007])

Hence, the main dialect always remained the Qureshi dialect and the other dialects were sub-ordinate to it and permission to recite them was meant for a temporary period of time due to necessity. (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 9, p. 49)

The types of differences

Considering all the historical records, Ahsanullah Danish Sahib notes three types of differences that were caused by the different dialects. (Az-Zikrul Mahfuz, pp. 289-291, [2007])

One form of difference is due to the sound of a letter that eventually came to be represented by diacritical marks to help non-Arabs recite with correct sounds. For instance, one tribe may pronounce a letter with a fatha while the other pronounces it with a kasrah. For example, يَفْعَل (yaf‘al)is pronounced as يِفْعَل (yif‘al). (Ibid, p. 289)

The second form of difference is due to the replacement of a letter altogether. A س (sin) may be replaced by a ت (taa), or a ك (kaaf) may be replaced by a ش (sheen), and so on. In the commentary of the above-quoted ahadith, Hazrat Sayyid Zainul Aabideen Waliullah Shahra gives an example of this form of difference when he writes, “حتي ‘hatta’a (up to here) is stated in the Qureshi dialect. The tribe of Huzail [however] pronounce the same word as عطي ‘attaa’ [ain instead of haa]. The Quraish could in fact say it in both ways”. (Sahih al-Bukhari with Urdu translation and commentary, Vol. 6, commentary of narration no. 3219, p. 54)

The third form of difference is one where the words do not change but they have different meanings based on the tribe they are used in. Illustrating an example of this, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra writes about a rich lady who used to live in Mecca who had a servant from Yemen. She gave him an instruction with the wordsغَيِّرِ‭ ‬الشِّيْشَةَ‭ ‬ (gayyir-ish-sheeshah), which meant that he was required to change the water in her hookah, but due to his Yemeni dialect, he thought that he was being instructed to break the container in which the water was kept. The words were the same but the different dialects meant that the meanings of the words were understood in different ways. (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 9, p. 49)

As such, the differences of dialects did, in fact, exist and the Holy Quran was revealed in these dialects so that the learning of the Quran remained easy for most Arabs. Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra notes, “If this permission had not been given, the memorisation and reading of the Holy Quran would have become difficult for people living outside of Mecca and the Holy Quran would not have spread as rapidly as it did”. (Ibid, p. 48)

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