Perfect preservation of the Holy Quran: First manuscript and standardisation

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Last Updated on 23rd 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

Based on his research on the compilation of the Holy Quran, Ahsanullah Danish Sahib writes that while it is true that the Quran had been written down in its entirety by the Companionsra, the Quran did not exist in the form of a hardbound book or a single volume (like today) during the lifetime of the Holy Prophetsa. (Al-Zikrul Mahfuz, p. 77 [2007])

This is why, during the Khilafat of Hazrat Abu Bakrra, when the Battle of Yamama took place wherein 500 reciters of the Quran were martyred, Hazrat Umarra suggested to Hazrat Abu Bakrra that the Holy Quran should be compiled into the form of a single volume. (Introduction to the Study of the Holy Quran, p. 362)

This incident is described at length in Sahih al-Bukhari and it mentions how Hazrat Abu Bakrra had reservations at the beginning because such a task of putting the Quran into a single volume was never done during the lifetime of the Holy Prophetsa. Eventually, however, he realised the necessity of this undertaking and assigned Hazrat Zaidra bin Thabit to carry out this task as he was the most trusted and prominent scribe of the Quran during the lifetime of the Holy Prophetsa. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Fadha‘il-ul-Quran, Bab Jam‘ul-Quran)

At this point, some critics allege that this was the first attempt to write the Quran as Hazrat Abu Bakrra clearly said that this had never been done during the lifetime of the Holy Prophetsa. However, this allegation is born out of a poor understanding of the actual narration in Arabic.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIra points out that the words which Hazrat Umarra said to Hazrat Abu Bakrra were:

إِنِّی أَرَى أَنْ تَأْمُرَ بِجَمْعِ الْقُرْآنِ‏

This means, “I suggest that you order the collection of the Quran”. In other words, he was not suggesting the writing down of the Quran as that had already been done. He was suggesting the collection of the Quran into a single, complete volume.

Similarly, when Hazrat Abu Bakrra called Hazrat Zaidra, he said to him “Ijma‘hu”, meaning that he should collect it in one place. He did not tell him to write it down as if for the first time.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIra concludes by saying:

“These words themselves demonstrate that at that time, the question in front of them was to collect the pages of the Quran into a single volume. They were not concerned about writing it down per se”. (Fadha‘il-ul-Quran by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra, pp. 25-26)

Contrary to the way critics wish to portray this narration, it actually shows the extent to which the Companionsra strove in order to preserve the purity of the Quranic text. Prior to the time of the narration, the Quran had already been written down in its entirety by several companions, it had been memorised in its entirety by several companions, and it was being recited, memorised, studied, discussed and quoted frequently.

On top of all this, the Companionsra still wished to go a step further and have the Quran put together into a single volume. What remarkable, sincere service to the Quran! Is it still possible to assume that the Quran was corrupted in light of such evidence to the contrary?

Furthermore, the reason why this single-volume manuscript could not be prepared during the time of the Holy Prophetsa is that the Quran was being revealed to him constantly and it was not possible to know if the revelation of the Quran had ended. However, when he died, it was understood that the Quranic revelation had come to an end and the Quran could be collected into a single book form.

In a remarkable book on the compilation, arrangement and revelation of the Quran – Al-Itqan fi ‘ulumil-Quran – Hazrat Imam Jalaluddin Suyutirh writes about the precautions that were taken to put together this first volume of the Quran. He writes that in light of the traditions, it should be understood that Hazrat Zaidra was himself a hafiz (one who had memorised the whole Quran) but he still sought other witnesses to each and every verse, both in written form as well as via memorisation, before adding it to the single volume, or mush‘af, of the Quran that he was asked to prepare. Then, Imam Jalaluddin Suyutirh says:

و اخرج ابن أبي داود أیضاً من طریق ھشام بن عروۃ، عن أبيه: أن أبا بکر قال لعمر و لزیدٍ: اقعدا علی باب المسجد، فمن جاء کما بشاھدین علی شيء من کتاب اللہ فاکتباہ۔۔۔ قال ابن حجر و کا ن المراد بالشاھدین: الحفظ و الکتاب۔ و قال السخاويُّ فی ((جمال القراء)): المراد أنھما یشھدان علی أن ذلک المکتوب کتب بین یدی رسول اللہ ﷺ … قال أبو شامۃ: و کان عرضھم الا یکتب الا من عین ما کتب بین یدی النبی ﷺ، لا من مجرد الحفظ۔

“Abu Daud narrates that Abu Bakrra said to Umarra and Zaidra, ‘Sit at the entrance to the mosque and whoever comes to you with any portion from the book of Allah [i.e. the Holy Quran] with the support of two witnesses, write it down’. Ibn Hijr says that two witnesses refer to two formats, that is, through memorisation and in writing. Sakhawi writes in his book, Jamal-ul-Qurra, ‘This means that two witnesses should give testimony that it was written down in front of the Holy Prophetsa’ […] Abu Shama says, ‘It was their intention that the Quran is written down in the same words that were written down in the presence of the Holy Prophetsa, and not just based on memory.’” (Al-Itqan fi ulumil Quran [An-Nau‘ Ath-thamin Ashar, fi jam‘ihi wa tartibihi], Lebanon: Resalah Publishers, p. 131 [2008])

Based on these numerous narrations Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIra writes that for every single verse of the Holy Quran, both memory of that verse and a written down format were asked for, before it was included in the mush‘af of Hazrat Abu Bakrra. What is more is that for most of the Quranic verses, there were dozens or even hundreds of witnesses who said they learnt the verse from the Holy Prophetsa directly. Many verses even had thousands of witnesses. (Tafsir-e-Kabir by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra, Vol. 10, pp. 84-85)

The final volume that was produced out of this monumental exercise is called mush‘af-e-umm and no Companions laid any objection to the accuracy of this manuscript of the Quran.

Standardised copy of the Quran

During the time of Hazrat Uthmanra, copies of this mush‘af-e-umm were made and distributed to different Muslim lands as official, standardised copies of the Quran. This was because he started receiving complaints that different tribes enunciated or pronounced words of the Quran in distinctive ways, and so Hazrat Uthmanra forbade all variations of enunciation of even vowel points and sent a standard copy to be recited in the standard way.

This standard form of recitation or pronunciation of words was based on the dialect of the Holy Prophetsa or the dialect of the Quraish of Mecca. In Arabic, this is called qir‘ah and the closest analogy for English speakers to understand the difference between qira‘at (plural of qir‘ah) is to think of the difference between American English and British English in terms of pronunciation. Since Arabic is a much more diverse language as compared to English, this difference in dialects becomes much more profound and distinctive among Arabic speakers.

Hence, Hazrat Uthmanra responded to this challenge of differences in pronunciation by standardising the written copy of the Quran along with its mode of recitation. As an added precaution, he ordered the burning of all other written manuscripts of the Quran – whether they were complete or only had portions of the Quran written on them.

Since a colossal effort had already been made to prepare the mush‘af-e-umm, there was no need to keep any other manuscripts of any other shape or form. One fear of allowing such manuscripts was that some Companions took personal notes on their manuscripts and it could have led to confusion for later peoples as they may have wondered which part is the Quran and which part is a footnote or a side note.

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