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The Codification of the Qur’an text

John Gilchrist



For many centuries Muslims have been taught to believe that the Qur'an has been preserved in its original Arabic text right from the time of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, down to this very day absolutely intact without changes, deletions or additions of any kind and with no variance in reading. At the same time they have also been taught that this suggested textual perfection of the book proves that the Qur'an must be the Word of God. No one but Allah, it is claimed, could have preserved the text so well. This sentiment has become so strongly established in the Muslim world that one will rarely find a Muslim scholar making a critical analysis of the early transmission of the text of the Qur'an and, when such analyses do appear, they are predictably unwelcome.

What happens, however, when an objective assessment is made of the facts available to us in respect of the original compilation of the Qur'an? When sentiment is gently put aside in favour of a rational evaluation of the evidences a very different conclusion must be reached. As this book will show, in the only records available to us from within the heritage of Islam itself, the Qur'an once contained a number of verses and, at times, whole passages that are no longer part of its text, in addition to an astonishingly large number of different readings in the earliest collections of the book made before the Caliph Uthman summarily consigned all but one of the manuscripts then in existence to the flames and destroyed them.

During 1981, in response to a Muslim publication challenging the divine authenticity of the Bible, I published a booklet titled The Textual History of the Qur'an and the Bible. Whereas the bulk of the material in this publication was devoted to a refutation of the arguments brought against the Bible, a portion of it was given to an assessment of the textual history of the Qur'an to show that the transmission of the Qur'an text was no more accurate than that of the Bible. During 1986 two articles appeared in Al-Balaagh, a local Muslim newspaper, in response to this booklet: one written by Dr. Kaukab Siddique, an American-based Muslim scholar, and the other by the South African Muslim scholar Abdus Samad Abdul Kader. I will refer in more detail to these articles shortly.

In 1984, after more detailed research into the original compilation of the Qur'an, I published another booklet titled Evidences for the Collection of the Qur'an. This also solicited a Muslim response in the form of a booklet published in 1987 by the Mujlisul-Ulama of South Africa. Unfortunately the author does not name himself in this publication but I have been informed that it was written by Maulana Desai of Port Elizabeth and will refer to it as his work.

This book is being written basically as a restatement of the evidences considered in my earlier publications and my conclusions therefrom, together with an assessment of the three responses from the Muslims already referred to and a refutation of their arguments. One of the difficulties faced by an author in a situation like this is the sensitiveness surrounding the subject from the Muslim side. The popular Muslim sentiment that the divine origin of the Qur'an is proved by its absolutely perfect transmission leads, perforce, to the fear that if it can be proved that the Qur'an was not so transmitted. then its supposed divine origin must immediately fall to the ground. As a result Muslim writers cannot come to this subject in a spirit of objectivity or purely factual enquiry. There is a determination, a priori, to prove the popular sentiment: the hypothesis that the text of the Qur'an has been perfectly preserved. Emotions accordingly run high and it is not surprising, therefore, to find all three writers unable to regard me in a scholarly manner or treat my writings purely at a factual level.

Dr. Kaukab Siddique, right at the beginning of his article which he titles Quran is NOT Allah's Word says Christian lay preacher (Al Balaagh, Vol. 11, No. 1, Feb./March 1986), launches into a rhetorical assault by charging: "Mr. Gilchrist tries to bring down the mighty edifice of the Qur'an by using a polemic which is pitifully inadequate to the task. The method he uses shows the poverty of his arsenal, and the brazenness of his assault shows that he is banking for survival on the possibility of a total lack of knowledge among the Muslims", while the editor of the magazine, in a heading to the article, describes me as "an avowed enemy of Islam" who "hopes to dynamite the structure of Islam".

Mr. Abdus Samad Abdul Kader's article, in the very next issue of the same magazine, was titled How the Qur'an was Compiled (Al-Balaagh, Vol. 11, No. 2, May/June 1986). At the end of the article he describes writers such as myself as "frenetic foes of the Qur'an" who are motivated solely by "jealousy, envy, enmity and venom".

Maulana Desai, in the Ulama publication titled The Quraan Unimpeachable, likewise deems it necessary to revile me and supplement his arguments with much rhetorical material and numerous vilifications. He claims I have "set out to denigrate the authenticity of the Qur'aan Majeed" instead of adopting a more balanced approach which would have stated simply that I had ventured to assess the facts about the Qur'an's compilation. He goes on to speak of my "baseless assumptions", says in one place "Gilchrist will curse himself", and elsewhere charges that I suffer from "colossal ignorance" and "bigotted thinking".

Such emotional outbursts betray the Muslims' fear of a purely historical study of the Qur'an's compilation lest it should disprove the supposition that it was both perfectly collected and preserved. In this book I will confine myself purely to a study of the extent to which the text of the Qur'an has been accurately and/or completely transcribed. The study is purely an assessment of the facts. The issue of the alleged divine origin of the Qur'an must be determined by a study of its teaching and contents, it cannot be resolved through an analysis of the manner in which the text was originally transmitted. Here the question is purely one of analysing the extent to which the Qur'an was accurately transcribed. If Muslim writers such as those I have mentioned feel that such a study simultaneously undermines their conviction that the Qur'an is the Word of God (Desai often accuses me of seeking "to refute the authenticity of the Qur'aan Shareef"), the problem is theirs for supposing that a perfect compilation and transmission of the book would prove its divine origin. I find no need to vilify these authors in terms such as they use against me as I am free to assess this subject unemotionally and do not have a hypothesis or presupposition to maintain. Furthermore I also have no doubt that, if a book never was the Word of God in the first place, no amount of proof that it had been perfectly transcribed would make it the Word of God.

That these authors are all trying to prove a supposition is obvious from a study of their approach. Each one treats the compilation of the Qur'an very differently from the others - Siddique and Desai bluntly contradict each other on numerous occasions - and yet each endeavours to come to the same conclusion, namely the Qur'an's supposed textual perfection. Such an anomaly can only be explained in one way - each one is determined to end where he began, that is, the preconceived hypothesis above-mentioned. It will be useful to record briefly the approach each author takes.

1. Dr. Kaukab Siddique. Siddique takes the traditional Muslim approach. "One Text - No Variants", a heading of one section in his article, tells it all. The assumption is that there has always been only one text of the Qur'an and that nothing has ever been added to it or omitted from it, and that there have never been any variant readings of any of its verses.

The writer has to explain the evidences in the Hadith records - the only early historical records of any kind in the heritage of Islam describing how the Qur'an was compiled - which show that the Caliph Uthman ordered all the Qur'an manuscripts of his day other than the one in Hafsah's possession to be burnt because there were differences in the reading of the Qur'an in the various provinces. Siddique claims that the differences were purely in the recitation of the text - an argument used by many Muslims at this point. In this book we shall see how inadequate and unconvincing this argument is. Very little is said by Siddique, however, of those records showing that the Qur'an, as it is today, is somewhat incomplete.

2. Abdus Samad Abdul Kader. Abdul Kader is one of those Muslim scholars who prefers to gloss over the awkward evidences in the Hadith as if they simply did not exist. There is no mention of them in his article. Instead he seeks to prove that the Qur'an itself gives sufficient testimony to its own compilation and the perfection thereof. I will give separate attention to this argument at the end of the main section of this book as it does not much affect the general study.

3. Maulana Desai. Desai, despite his emotional outbursts against me personally, nevertheless freely admits the authenticity of virtually all the facts I have recorded. He acknowledges that there were indeed textual differences in the early codices of the Qur'an and that a number of passages once forming part of the Qur'an are no longer there. In respect of the different readings he leans exclusively on one hadith which records Muhammad as saying that the Qur'an originally came from Allah in seven different forms and he claims that all these variants, therefore, were actually authorised by Allah and make up the seven different readings. He has no difficulty in conceding that Uthman eliminated authentic copies of the Qur'an and justifies his action as in the interests of obtaining uniformity in reading. This line of reasoning exposes itself to serious considerations as we shall see.

In respect of the missing passages, Desai acknowledges their existence but claims they were lawfully abrogated by Allah and correctly no longer form part of the Qur'an text. I have little doubt that this argument will be unpalatable to apologists like Siddique and Abdul Kader, as will his admission of the existence of variant readings, yet here I find myself inclined to commend the maulana as the only one of the three authors who has the sincerity to admit the authenticity of the records in the Hadith narrating how the Qur'an was originally compiled. While I do not find his arguments convincing, as I will show, I do find his frank admissions of the facts most refreshing.

This book closes with a brief study of the earliest manuscripts of the Qur'an which have survived to the present day. One of the purposes of this study is to determine whether any of the Qur'ans copied out by Uthman after the destruction of the other codices still exists. Throughout this book photographs of early Qur'an manuscripts have been included and I have sought only to include those of the greatest antiquity, mostly those which survive from the second century of Islam before a refined form of Kufic script came into general use among Qur'anic calligraphers and duly became the standard form until replaced by the Naskhi script.

I trust that this book will be a contribution towards a genuine assessment of the early compilation of the Qur'an from a study of the evidences at hand. I make no apology for the extent to which it discounts the popular Muslim sentiments I have mentioned and, in the hope that it will not occasion responses of an emotional nature such as those which came out in reply to my earlier publications, let me say once again that my purpose is solely to arrive at a proper and accurate factual conclusion regarding the Qur'an's historical compilation and that I am not an "avowed enemy of Islam" possessed with a frenzied desire to denigrate the Qur'an or disprove its textual authenticity by any means as some Muslim writers choose to assume.

John Gilchrist. 29th January 1989


This book is dependent on a variety of works and it would appear appropriate to categorise them according to their particular relevance to the subject at hand, whether primary or secondary, and whether historical or of contemporary origin. Apart from the Qur'an itself, which gives some evidence as to the manner in which it was being assembled during the lifetime of Muhammad, the immediate historical sources for the collection of its text thereafter are found in the early Sirat and Hadith literature. Thereafter other works from later periods, compiled by prominent Muslim historians, give further perspectives on the compilation of the Qur'an text. The sources consulted are:

1. Sirat Literature.

The very earliest works recording details of the Qur'an's compilation are found in the following three biographies which are known as the Sirat literature:

1.       Muhammad ibn Ishaq. Sirat Rasul Allah. (translated into English by A. Guillaume), Oxford University Press, Karachi, Pakistan. 1978 (1955).

2.       Muhammad ibn Sa'd. Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir. (translated into English by S. Moinul Haq), 2 volumes, Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi, Pakistan. 1972.

3.       Muhammad ibn Umar al-Waqidi. Kitab al-Maghazi. 3 volumes, Oxford University Press, London, England. 1966.

2. Hadith Literature.

The second collection of traditions and historical records of Muhammad's life and the compilation of the Qur'an is known as the Hadith literature, and among Muslim historians these are regarded as the most reliable and second only to the Qur'an in authority. The following works have been consulted:

1.       Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari. Sahih al-Bukhari. (translated by Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan), 9 volumes, Kazi Publications, Chicago, United States of America. 1979 (1976).

2.       Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj. Sahih Muslim. (translated by Abdul Hamid Siddique), 4 volumes, Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore, Pakistan. 1972.

3.       Sulaiman Abu Dawud. Sunan Abu Dawud. (translated from Kitab as-Sunan by Prof. Ahmad Hasan), 3 volumes, Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore, Pakistan. 1984.

4.       Abu Isa Muhammad at-Tirmithi. Al-Jami as-Sahih. (edited by A.M. Sakir), 5 volumes, Beirut, Lebanon, n.d. (Cairo, 1938).

5.       Malik ibn Anas. Muwatta Imam Malik. (translated from Kitab al-Muwatta by Prof. Muhammad Rahimuddin), Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore, Pakistan. 1980.

6.       Abu Bakr Ahmad al-Baihaqi. As-Sunan al-Kubra. 10 volumes, Beirut, Lebanon, n.d. (Hyderabad, 1926-1936).

3. Tafsir Literature.

In the period succeeding the above-mentioned initial records a number of Tafsir works, being commentaries on the Qur'an, were written by prominent Muslim historians. The most famous was the Jami al-Bayan fii Tafsir al Qur'aan by Abu Jafar Muhammad at-Tabari. It is referred to only through references obtained from modern works.

Although at-Tabari's work was intended to be predominantly an exegesis of the Qur'an, there is much material dealing with the early compilation of the text itself. Many of the other commentaries did the same.

Two further records directly consulted in the preparation of this book which are not in the Tafsir mould but which deal considerably with the collection of the Qur'an text are:

1.       Abdallah ibn Sulaiman ibn al-Ash'ath Abu Bakr ibn Abi Dawud. Kitab al-Masahif. E.J. Brill, Leiden, Holland. 1937.

2.       Jalaluddin al-Khudairi ash-Shafi'i as-Suyuti. Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Qur'an. Biblio Verlag, Osnabrueck, Germany. 1980. (Reprint of the Calcutta edition of 1852-1854). 2 volumes.

The only manuscript of Ibn Abi Dawud's Kitab al-Masahif known to have survived now lies in the Zahiriya Library at Damascus. From this two further manuscripts were copied from one of which Arthur Jeffery was able to reprint the full text in his Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur'an (see infra) and it is this text which is referred to in this book.

4. Contemporary Books on the Qur'an.

A number of modern writings have given attention to the collection of the Qur'an of which the following deal exclusively, or at least considerably, with the subject at hand:

1.       Beeston, A.F.L. & others. Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. 1983.

2.       Burton, J. The Collection of the Qur'an. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. 1977.

3.       Jeffery, A. Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur'an. AMS Press, New York, United States of America. 1975. (E.J. Brill, 1937).

4.       Jeffery, A. The Qur'an as Scripture. Books for Libraries, New York, USA. 1980 (1952).

5.       Nِldeke, T. Geschichte des Qorans. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, Germany. 1981 (1909).

6.       Von Denffer, A. 'Ulum al-Qur'an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an. The Islamic Foundation, Leicester, England. 1983.

7.       Watt, W.M. Bell's Introduction to the Qur'an. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, Scotland. 1970.

The Geschichte des Qorans was originally published in three volumes and it is only the second and third volumes which are relevant to the actual collection of the Qur'an text. The second volume, titled Die Sammlung des Qorans and written by Noeldeke and Schwally, deals with the collection itself while the third volume, titled Die Geschichte des Korantexts, written by Bergstrasser and Pretzl, deals with the written text of the Qur'an and its variant readings. Both volumes consider at some length the famous codices of Abdullah ibn Mas'ud and Ubayy ibn Ka'b which were destroyed by order of the Caliph Uthman because they varied considerably with the text which he standardised as the textus receptus of the Qur'an which is that which has come down through the history of Islam to the present day.

5. Articles on the Compilation of the Qur'an.

The following articles have also been consulted from The Muslim World, published by the Hartford Seminary Foundation in the United States of America. The references here are all to the reprint volumes done by the Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York, in 1966. The articles dealing with the compilation of the Qur'an and the early Qur'an manuscripts are:

1.       Caetani, L. Uthman and the Recension of the Koran. Volume 5, p.380. (1915).

2.       Jeffery, A. Abu Ubaid on Verses Missing from the Qur'an. Volume 28, p.61. (1938).

3.       Jeffery, A. Progress in the Study of the Qur'an Text. Volume 25. p.4. (1935).

4.       Margoliouth, D.S. Textual Variations of the Koran. Volume 15, p.334. (1925).

5.       Mendelsohn, I. The Columbia University Copy of the Samarqand Kufic Qur'an. Volume 30, p.375. (1940).

6.       Mingana, A. The Transmission of the Koran. Volume 7, p.223. (1917).

In addition to these works reference will constantly be made to the following works published in South Africa and which are referred to in the Introduction:

1.       Abdul Kader, A.S. How the Quran was Compiled. Al-Balaagh, Vol. 11, No.2, Johannesburg, South Africa, May/June 1986.

2.       Desai, Maulana. The Quraan Unimpeachable. Mujlisul Ulama of South Africa, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. May 1987.

3.       Siddique, Dr. Kaukab. Quran is NOT Allah's Word says Christian Lay Preacher. Al-Balaagh, Vol. 11, No. 1, Johannesburg, South Africa. February/March 1986.

* * *



A study of the compilation of the Qur'an text must begin with the character of the book itself as it was handed down by Muhammad to his companions during his lifetime. It was not delivered or, as Muslims believe, revealed all at once. It came piecemeal over a period of twenty-three years from the time when Muhammad began to preach in Mecca in 610 AD until his death at Medina in 632 AD. The Qur'an itself declares that Allah said to Muhammad: "We have rehearsed it to you in slow, well-arranged stages, gradually" (Surah 25.32).

Furthermore no chronological record of the sequence of passages was kept by Muhammad himself or his companions so that, as each of these began to be collected into an actual surah (a "chapter"), no thought was given as to theme, order of deliverance or chronological sequence. It is acknowledged by all Muslim writers that most of the surahs, especially the longer ones, are composite texts containing various passages not necessarily linked to each other in the sequence in which they were given. As time went on Muhammad used to say "Put this passage in the surah in which so-and-so is mentioned", or "Put it in such-and-such a place" (as -Suyuti, Al Itqan fii Ulum al-Qur'an, p.141). Thus passages were added to compilations of other passages already collected together until each of these became a distinct surah. There is evidence that a number of these surahs already had their recognised titles during Muhammad's lifetime, as from the following hadith: The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) (in fact) said:

Anyone who recites the two verses at the end of Surah al-Baqara at night, they would suffice for him. ...

Abu Darda reported that Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) said:

If anyone learns by heart the first ten verses of the Surah al-Kahf, he will be protected from the Dajal. (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 2, p.386).

At the same time, however, there is also reason to believe that there were other surahs to which titles were not necessarily given by Muhammad, for example Suratul-Ikhlas (Surah 112), for although Muhammad spoke at some length about it and said its four verses were the equal of one-third of the whole Qur'an, he did not mention it by name (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 2, p.387).

As the Qur'an developed Muhammad's immediate companions took portions of it down in writing and also committed its passages to memory. It appears that the memorisation of the text was the foremost method of recording its contents as the very word al-Qur'an means "the Recitation" and, from the very first word delivered to Muhammad when he is said to have had his initial vision of the angel Jibriil on Mount Hira, namely Iqra - "Recite!" (Surah 96.1), we can see that the verbal recitation of its passages was very highly esteemed and consistently practised. Nevertheless it is to actual written records of its text that the Qur'an itself bears witness in the following verse:

It is in honoured scripts (suhufin mukarramatin), exalted, purified, by the hands of scribes noble and pious. Surah 80.13-16.

There is evidence, further, that even during Muhammad's early days in Mecca portions of the Qur'an as then delivered were being reduced to writing. When Umar was still a pagan he one day struck his sister in her house in Mecca when he heard her reading a portion of the Qur'an. Upon seeing blood on her cheek, however, he relented and said "Give me this sheet which I heard you reading just now so that I may see just what it is which Muhammad has brought" (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.156) and, on reading the portion of Surah 20 which she had been reading, he became a Muslim.

It nonetheless appears that right up to the end of Muhammad's life the practice of memorisation predominated over the reduction of the Qur'an to writing and was regarded as more important. In the Hadith records we read that the angel Jibril is said to have checked the recitation of the Qur'an every Ramadan with Muhammad and, in his final year, checked it with him twice:

Fatima said: "The Prophet (saw) told me secretly, 'Gabriel used to recite the Qur'an to me and I to him once a year, but this year he recited the whole Qur'an with me twice. I don't think but that my death is approaching.'" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.485).

Some of Muhammad's closest companions devoted themselves to learning the text of the Qur'an off by heart. These included the ansari Ubayy ibn Ka'b, Muadh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, Abu Zaid and Abu ad-Darda (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, pp. 488-489). In addition to these Mujammi ibn Jariyah is said to have collected all but a few surahs while Abdullah ibn Mas'ud, one of the muhajirun who had been with Muhammad from the beginning of his mission in Mecca, had secured more than ninety of the one hundred and fourteen surahs by himself, learning the remaining surahs from Mujammi (Ibn Sa'd, Kitab aI-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 2, p.457).

Regarding the written materials there are no records as to exactly how much of the Qur'an was reduced to writing during the lifetime of Muhammad. There is certainly no evidence to suggest that anyone had actually compiled the whole text of the Qur'an into a single manuscript, whether directly under Muhammad's express authority or otherwise, and from the information we have about the collection of the Qur'an after his death (which we shall shortly consider), we must rather conclude that the Qur'an had never been codified or reduced to writing in a single text.

Muhammad died suddenly in 632 AD after a short illness and, with his death, the Qur'an automatically became complete. There could be no further revelations once its chosen recipient had departed. While he lived, however, there was always the possibility that new passages could be added and it hardly seemed appropriate, therefore, to contemplate codifying the text into one harmonious whole. Thus it is not surprising to find that the book was widely scattered in the memories of men and on various different materials in writing at the time of Muhammad's decease.

Furthermore we shall see that the Qur'an itself makes allowance for the abrogation of its texts by Allah and, during Muhammad's lifetime, the possibility of further abrogations (in addition to a number of verses which had already been withdrawn) would likewise preclude the contemplation of a single text.

Still further, there appear to have been only a few disputes among the sahaba (Muhammad's "companions", i.e., his immediate followers) about the text of the Qur'an while Muhammad lived, unlike those which arose soon after his demise. All these factors explain the absence of an official codified text at the time of his death. The possible abrogation of existing passages, and the probable addition of further ayat (the Qur'an nowhere declares its own completeness or that no further revelations could be expected) prevented any attempt to achieve the result desired very soon thereafter by his closest companions. It also appears that new Qur'anic passages were coming with increasing frequency to Muhammad just before that fateful day, making the collection of the Qur'an into a single text at any time all the more improbable.

Narrated Anas bin Malik: Allah sent down his Divine Inspiration to His Apostle (saw) continuously and abundantly during the period preceding his death till He took him unto Him. That was the period of the greatest part of revelation, and Allah's Apostle (saw) died after that. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.474).

At the end of the first phase of the Qur'an, therefore, we find that its contents were widely distributed in the memories of men and were written down piecemeal on various materials, but that no single text had been prescribed or codified for the Muslim community. As-Suyuti states that the Qur'an, as sent down from Allah in separate stages, had been completely written down and carefully preserved, but that it had not been assembled into one single location during the lifetime of Muhammad (as-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Qur'an, p.96). All of it was said to have been available in principle - Muhammad's companions had absorbed it to one extent or another in their memories and it had been written down on separate materials - while the final order of the various verses and chapters is also presumed to have been defined by Muhammad while he was still alive.


If Muhammad had in fact bequeathed a complete, codified text of the Qur'an as is claimed by some Muslim writers (e.g. Abdul Kader - cf. Chapter 6), there would have been no need for a collection or recension of the text after his death. Yet, once the primary recipient of the Qur'an had passed away, it was only logical that a collection should be made of the whole Qur'an into a single text.

The widely accepted traditional account of the initial compilation of the Qur'an ascribes the work to Zaid ibn Thabit, one of the four companions of Muhammad said to have known the text in its entirety. As we shall see, there is abundant evidence that other companions also began to transcribe their own codices of the Qur'an independently of Zaid shortly after Muhammad's death, but the most significant undertaking was that of Zaid as it was done under the authority of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam, and it is to this compilation that the Hadith literature gives the most attention. It also became the standard text of the Qur'an during the caliphate of Uthman.

Upon Muhammad's death a number of tribes in the outer parts of the Arabian peninsula reneged from the faith they had recently adopted, whereupon Abu Bakr sent a large number of the early Muslims to subdue the revolt forcibly. This resulted in the Battle of Yamama and a number of Muhammad's close companions, who had received the Qur'an directly from him, were killed. What followed is described in this well-known hadith:

Narrated Zaid bin Thabit: Abu Bakr as-Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed. 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 Apostle (saw). 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 Apostle (saw) did not do?" Abu Bakr replied "By Allah, it is a good project". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.477).

Zaid eventually expressed approval of the idea in principle after Umar and Abu Bakr had both pressed the need upon him and agreed to set about collecting the text of the Qur'an into one book. One thing is quite clear from the narrative - the collection of the Qur'an is said quite expressly to have been something which Allah's Apostle did not do.

Zaid's hesitation about the task, partly occasioned by Muhammad's own disinterest in codifying the text into a single unit and partly by the enormity of it, shows that it was not going to be an easy undertaking. If he was a perfect hafiz of the Qur'an and knew the whole text off by heart, nothing excepted, and if a number of the other companions were also endowed with such outstanding powers of memorisation, the collection would have been quite simple. He needed only to write it down out of his own memory and have the others check it. Desai and others claim that all the huffaz of the Qur'an among Muhammad's companions all knew the Qur'an in its entirety to perfection, to the last word and letter, and Desai himself goes so far as to suggest that the power of thus retaining the Qur'an in the memory of those who learnt it by heart was no less than supernaturally acquired:

The faculty of memory which was divinely bestowed to the Arabs, was so profound that they were able to memorize thousands of verses of poetry with relative ease. Thorough use was thus made of the faculty of memory in the preservation of the Qur'aan. (Desai, The Quraan Unimpeachable, p.25).

He goes on to describe the memorising of the Qur'an as "this divine agency of Hifz" (p.26). If we are to take this assumption to its logical conclusion, we must conclude that the collection of the Qur'an would have been the easiest of tasks. If Zaid and the other qurra (memorisers) each knew, by divine assistance and purpose, the whole Qur'an to the last letter without any error or omission - this is the Muslim hypothesis - we would hardly have found him responding to the appeal to collect the Qur'an as he did. Instead of immediately turning to his memory alone he made an extensive search for the text from a variety of sources:

So I started looking for the Qur'an and collecting it from (what was written on) palm-leaf 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. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.478).

We saw earlier that the Qur'an, at the death of Muhammad, was scattered in the memories of men and on various written materials. It was to these that the young companion of Muhammad duly turned when preparing to codify the text into a single book. The two primary materials, amongst the others mentioned, were ar-riqa'a - "the parchments" - and sudur ar-rijal - "the breasts of men" (as-Suyuti, Al-ltqan fii Ulum al-Qur'an, p.137). He looked not only to human memory but also to written materials, consulting as many of the latter as he could find no matter what their origin (i.e., white stones, etc.). It was to many companions that he turned and to all kinds of material upon which fragments of the Qur'an had been written.

His was not the action of a man believing he had been divinely endowed with an infallible memory upon which he could exclusively rely but rather of a careful scribe who was going to collect the Qur'an from all the possible sources where it was known to be, from scraps, fragments and portions. This was the action of a man conscious of the wide dispersal of the text who would assemble as much of it as he could to produce as complete and authentic a text as was humanly possible.

The earliest traditions of Islam make it quite clear that the search was widespread, though one finds later writers claiming that all the written materials Zaid is said to have relied on - the shoulder-blades of animals, parchments, pieces of leather, etc. - were all found stored in Muhammad's own household and that they were bound together to ensure their preservation. Al-Harith al-Muhasabi, in his book Kitab Fahm as-Sunan, said that Muhammad used to order that the Qur'an be transcribed and that, whereas it was indeed in different materials, when Abu Bakr ordered it to be collected into one text, these materials "were found in the house of the messenger of Allah (saw) in which the Qur'an was spread out" (as-Suyuti, Al-ltqan fii Ulum al-Qur'an, p.137). They were thereafter gathered together and bound so that nothing could be lost.

The earliest records of Hadith literature, however, make it quite plain that Zaid conducted a wide search for the parchments and other materials upon which portions of the Qur'an had been inscribed. Desai also argues for a more limited field of research on the part of Zaid to collect the Qur'an, stating that Zaid was the only companion to be with Muhammad on the last occasion when Jibril went over the Qur'an with him (The Quraan Unimpeachable, p.18) and that he only looked for those pieces of leather and other materials already mentioned upon which the Qur'an had been written under "the direct supervision of Rasulullah (saw)" (p.27). He states that although there were other texts of the Qur'an available, these had not been written down under Muhammad's supervision but by his companions relying on their memories. No evidences or documentation of any kind is given by Desai to show his sources for all these claims, in particular to prove that they are based on the earliest records available. In fact we have already. seen that, in respect of Muhammad's last recitation of the Qur'an with Jibril, the fact that it was recited twice by him was a secret divulged only to his daughter Fatima (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.485). This would hardly have been a secret if Zaid had been present on that occasion.

Likewise the earliest records of the collection of the Qur'an under Abu Bakr make no distinction between portions of the Qur'an written directly under Muhammad's supervision and those that were not, nor do they suggest that Zaid relied on the former alone. As we in due course shall see, this is a relatively modern interpretation of the research done by him to maintain the hypothesis that the Qur'an was perfectly compiled, but one without foundation in the earliest records.

There are traditions that show that, upon receiving a portion of the Qur'an, Muhammad would command his scribes (of whom Zaid was one) to write it down (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.481), but there is nothing in the very earliest works to support the idea that the whole Qur'an, as written under Muhammad's supervision, was already assembled in his own home.

There are a number of traditions in the Kitab al-Masahif of Ibn Abi Dawud which suggest that Abu Bakr was the first to undertake an actual codification of the text, each of which reads very similarly to the others and follows this form:

It is reported ... from Ali who said: "May the mercy of Allah be upon Abu Bakr, the foremost of men to be rewarded with the collection of the manuscripts, for he was the first to collect (the text) between (two) covers". (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p.5).

Even here, however, we find clear evidence that there were others who preceded him in collecting the Qur'an texts into a single written codex:

It is reported ... from Ibn Buraidah who said: "The first of those to collect the Qur'an into a mushaf (codex) was Salim, the freed slave of Abu Hudhaifah". (as-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Qur'an, p.135).

This Salim is one of only four men whom Muhammad recommended from whom the Qur'an should be learnt (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 5, p.96) and he was one of the qurra (reciters) killed at the Battle of Yamama. As it was only after this battle that Abu Bakr set out to collect the Qur'an into a single text as well, it goes without saying that Salim's codification of the text must have preceded his through Zaid ibn Thabit.


At this stage we have a clear trend emerging. Official tradition focuses on the collection of the Qur'an by Abu Bakr as the first, foremost and, at times, only compilation of the text made upon Muhammad's death. Later writers have endeavoured to strengthen this view by suggesting that Zaid was the only man qualified for the task, that the whole Qur'an, no matter in what form, was found in Muhammad's apartments, and that it was to written portions inscribed under Muhammad's supervision alone that the redactor turned to compile his codex. Contemporary Muslim opinion goes even further to claim that the Qur'an, as thus compiled, is an exact record with not so much as a dot, letter or word added or lost - of the script as it was delivered to Muhammad.

On the other hand an objective analysis of the initial collection of the Qur'an, based on a rational assessment of the evidences without regard to sentiment or presupposition, can only go so far as to conclude that the text as compiled by Zaid, which later became the model for Uthman's standardised text, was simply the final product of an honest attempt to collect the Qur'an insofar as the redactor was able to do so from a wide variety of materials and sources upon which he was obliged to rely.

It is the very character of these sources that we should at this stage assess and reconsider. Zaid relied on the memories of men and various written materials. No matter how much those early companions sought to memorise the text perfectly, human memory is a fallible source, and, to the extent that a book the length of the Qur'an had been committed to memory, we should expect to find a number of variant readings in the text. As we shall shortly see, this anticipation proves to be well-founded.

The reliance on a host of portions of the Qur'an scattered among a number of companions must also lead to certain logical expectations. There exists a clear possibility that portions of the text may have been lost - the loose distribution of the whole text in many fragments and portions as opposed to a carefully maintained single text is adequate ground to make such an assumption and, as we shall see, the expectation again proves to be well-founded when the evidences are considered and assessed.

A typical example worth quoting at this point is found in the following hadith which plainly states that portions of the Qur'an were irretrievably lost in the Battle of Yamama when many of the companions of Muhammad who had memorised the text had perished:

Many (of the passages) of the Qur'an that were sent down were known by those who died on the day of Yamama ... but they were not known (by those who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman (by that time) collected the Qur'an, nor were they found with even one (person) after them. (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p.23).

The negative impact of this passage can hardly be missed: lam ya'alam - "not known", lam yuktab - "not written down", lam yuwjad - "not found", a threefold emphasis on the fact that these portions of the Qur'an which had gone down with the qurra who had died at Yamama had been lost forever and could not be recovered.

The very fact of such a wide distribution of the Qur'an texts, however, appears to negate the possibility that anyone could have added anything to the text after Muhammad's death. Not being collected into a single text but spread among many companions, there exists a strong possibility that some of the text may have been lost, but at the same time there appears to be no such possibility that it could have been interpolated in any way. The retention of so much of the Qur'an in the memories of Muhammad's companions is a sure guarantee that no one could have added to it in any way and gained acceptance for his innovations.

Lastly, in considering the sources, we should not be surprised to find that other codices of the Qur'an text were being compiled in addition to that being executed by Zaid. Once again we look to the evidence that a number of companions had an extensive knowledge of the Qur'an and it is only to be expected that these would soon seek to preserve, in single codices, what was at that time still fresh in their memories and loosely transcribed on a selection of different materials. Once again we shall find our expectations fulfilled and will discover that the evidences strongly support the conclusions one would draw naturally about the compilation of a book such as the Qur'an rather than the hypothesis that the book was divinely preserved, to the last dot and letter, without loss or variation.

The possibility that part of the text may have been lost is strengthened by evidences in the Hadith literature which show that even Muhammad himself occasionally forgot portions of the Qur'an. One of these traditions reads as follows and is taken from one of the earliest works of Hadith:

Aishah said: A man got up (for prayer) at night, he read the Qur'an and raised his voice in reading. When morning came, the Apostle of Allah (saw) said: May Allah have mercy on so-and-so! Last night he reminded me a number of verses I was about to forget. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol. 3, p.1114).

The translator has a footnote to this tradition, stating that Muhammad had not forgotten these verses of his own accord but had been made to forget them by Allah as a teaching for the Muslims. Whatever the purpose or cause, it is quite clear that Muhammad had occasion to forget passages that had been, as he proclaimed, revealed to him. The suggestion that Muhammad's oversight of such texts was not of his own doing but brought about through Allah's decree is based on the following text of the Qur'an:

None of our revelations (ayat) do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten (nunsihaa) but We substitute something similar or better. Knowest thou not that Allah has power over all things? Surah 2.106

The word ayat is the word consistently used in the Qur'an for its own texts and the word nunsihaa comes from the root word nasiya which, wherever it appears in the Qur'an (as it does some forty-five times in its various forms), always carries the meaning "to forget".

Let us conclude this section. Zaid, quite obviously one of the companions of Muhammad who had an outstanding knowledge of the Qur'an, set about collecting its text so as to produce as genuine and authentic a codex as he possibly could. His integrity in this undertaking is not to be questioned and we may accordingly deduce from all the evidences he consulted that the single Qur'an text he finally presented to Abu Bakr was a basically authentic record of the verses and suras as they were preserved in the memories of the reciters and in writing upon various materials.

The evidences, however, do not support the modern hypothesis that the Qur'an, as it is today, is an exact replica of the original, nothing lost or varied. There is no evidence of any interpolation in the text and such a suggestion (occasionally made by Western writers) can be easily discounted, but there are ample evidences to indicate that the Qur'an was incomplete when it was transcribed into a single text (as we have already seen) and that many of its passages and verses were transmitted in different forms. In the course of this book we shall give more detailed consideration to these evidences and their implications.


Before closing our study on the collection of the Qur'an during the caliphate of Abu Bakr it is important to study the brief mention made by Zaid of the two verses which he said he found only with Abu Khuzaimah al-Ansari. The full text of the hadith on this subject reads as follows:

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 to you an Apostle from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty ... (till the end of Bara'a)'. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.478).

Insofar as the text speaks for itself without further enquiry, we can see quite plainly that, in his search for the Qur'an, Zaid was dependent on one source alone for the last two verses of Surat at-Tauba. At face value this evidence suggests that no one else knew these verses and that, had they not been found with Abu Khuzaimah, they would have been omitted from the Qur'an text. The incident suggests immediately that, far from there being numerous huffaz who knew the whole Qur'an off by heart to the last letter, it was, in fact, so widely spread that some passages were only known to a few of the companions - in this case, only one.

This ex facie interpretation of the narrative naturally undermines the popular sentiment among Muslims of later generations that the Qur'an was preserved intact because its contents were all known perfectly by all the sahaba of Muhammad who had undertaken to memorise it. A more convenient explanation for the hadith had to be found and we find it expressed in the following quotation from Desai's booklet:

The meaning of the above statement of Hadhrat Zaid should now be very clear that among those who had written the verses under the direct command and supervision of Rasulullah (sallallahu alayhi wasallam), Khuzaimah was the only person from whom he (Zaid) found the last two verses of Surah Baraa-ah written. (Desai, The Quraan Unimpeachable, p.20).

Although the hadith as recorded by al-Bukhari makes no mention of this, Desai claims that the statement that Abu Khuzaima alone had the last two verses of Surat at-Tauba (Bara'a) means that he was in fact the only one who had them in writing under Muhammad's direct supervision. He goes on to say:

It was known beyond the slightest shadow of doubt that these two verses were part of the Qur'aan. Hundreds of Sahaabah knew the verses from memory. Furthermore, those Sahaabah who had in their possession the complete recording of the Qur'aan in writing also had these particular verses in their written records. But, as far as having written them under the direct supervision of Rasulullah (sallallahu alayhi wasallam) was concerned, only Abu Khuzaimah (radhiallahu anhu) had these verses. (Desai, The Quraan Unimpeachable, p.21).

The maulana gives no evidences whatsoever in support of these statements. Nowhere in the earliest records of the Hadith literature is there any suggestion that hundreds of Muhammad's companions knew these verses and that others had them in writing, and that what Zaid intended to say was that Abu Khuzaima alone had them in writing directly from Muhammad. Desai's omission of any documentation for his statement is, in the circumstances, most significant.

Siddique, in his article in Al-Balaagh (p.2), also claims that when Zaid said "I could not find a verse" he actually meant he could not find it in writing. As said before, there is nothing in the hadith text itself to yield such an interpretation. From what source, then, do these learned authors obtain this view? It is derived from the following extract which is taken from the Fath al-Baari fii Sharh al-Bukhari of Ahmad ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Asqalani ibn Hajar, the translation appearing in Burton's The Collection of the Qur'an on pages 127 and 128:

It does not follow from Zaid's saying that he had failed to find the aya from surat al Tawba in the possession of anyone else, that at that time it was not mutawatira among those who had learnt their Qur'an from the Companions, but had not heard it direct from the Prophet. What Zaid was seeking was the evidence of those who had their Qur'an texts direct from the Prophet. ... The correct interpretation of Zaid's remark that he had failed to find the aya with anyone else is that he had failed to find it in writing, not that he had failed to find those who bore it in their memories. (Fath al-Baari, Vol. 9, p.12).

The source from which Desai and Siddique derive their opinions is not from the earliest records of the compilation of the Qur'an but a much later commentary on the Sahih al-Bukhari done by the famous Muslim author al-Asqalani ibn Hajar who was born in 773 A.H. (1372 A.D.) and died in 852 A.H. The earliest source for the interpretation that Zaid was looking for the verses only in authorised written sources thus dates no less than eight centuries after Muhammad's death by which time, as is the case to this day, it had become fashionable to hold the view that the Qur'an had been widely known to perfection by all the companions of Muhammad who had memorised it. It is, therefore, a convenient interpretation read into the text of the hadith to sustain a more recent supposition. There is nothing in the text of the hadith itself, however, to support this interpretation. The extract continues with some very interesting comments:

Besides, it is probable that when Zaid found it with Abu Khuzaima the other companions recalled having heard it. Zaid himself certainly recalled that he had heard it. (Fath al-Baari, op.cit.).

While Desai boldly states that it was known "beyond the slightest shadow of doubt" that the last two verses of Surat at-Tauba were part of the Qur'an and that they were known by "hundreds of Sahaabah" in their memories and by others who had recorded them in writing, his source only goes so far as to suggest that it is "probable" that when Zaid produced them from Abu Khuzaima, the other companions recalled having heard them. A cautious suggestion that the others may have recalled having heard the verses has been transformed by Desai into a bold declaration that they were known by hundreds of them without the aid of recollection "beyond the slightest shadow of doubt".

Here is clear evidence that modern Muslim writers are out to establish a cherished hypothesis - the unquestionable perfection of the Qur'an text - instead of objectively assessing the factual evidences as they stand. Desai's source is only a comparatively recent work of interpretation and yet, even here, he cannot resist the temptation to expand it into wholesale allegations of fact.

Ibn Hajar goes on, on the same page, to say "al-Da'udi commented that Abu Khuzaima was not the sole witness. Zaid knew the verse. It was thus attested by two men", an indication that it was believed by other Muslim scholars that Zaid's statement was not to be manipulated into a claim that the verses were not found in writing but should rather be given its obvious meaning, namely, that no one else knew these verses at all.

What makes the convenient claims of Ibn Hajar, as repeated by Desai and Siddique, even less acceptable is the fact that there is a record in one of the very earliest works of tradition showing in greater detail what Zaid's statement really meant. The narrative reads:

Khuzaimah ibn Thabit said: "I see you have overlooked (two) verses and have not written them". They said "And which are they?" He replied "I had it directly (tilqiyya - 'automatically, spontaneously') from the messenger of Allah (saw) (Surah 9, ayah 128): 'There has come to you a messenger from yourselves. It grieves him that you should perish, he is very concerned about you : to the believers he is kind and merciful', to the end of the surah". Uthman said "I bear witness that these verses are from Allah". (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p.11).

This narrative implies that the incident took place during Uthman's reign and not at the time of the collection of the Qur'an under Abu Bakr, but it is clearly the same event that is under consideration. (Siddique in fact states that the records showing that Zaid also missed a verse at the time of the recension of the Qur'an under Uthman actually apply to the last two verses of Surat at-Tauba. We shall say more on this when discussing Uthman's recension shortly).

The significant feature of this narrative is that Zaid and the others are said to have missed these verses completely when transcribing the Qur'an. In fact the statement that Zaid only found them with Abu Khuzaima is hare stated to mean that it was only on the latter's initiative that the verses were recorded at all. He found it necessary to draw the compiler's attention to them - it was not Zaid's search for two verses he already knew that occasioned their inclusion. In fact the text goes on to say that Abu Khuzaima was asked where they should be inserted in the Qur'an and he suggested they be added to the last part of the Qur'an to be revealed, namely the close of Surat at-Tauba (Bara'a in the text).

When one considers this tradition with the relevant hadith in the Sahih al-Bukhari, certain facts cannot be avoided. The verses were missed completely, they were only recalled and thereafter included upon Abu Khuzaimah's initiative, and it was left to him to advise where they should be included. It is only by taking the word tilqiyya ("directly") to mean that he was the only companion who had these verses in writing under Muhammad's supervision that Muslim writers have been able to sustain the hypothesis that the verses were known to many of Muhammad's companions. It is surely quite obvious, however, that the word tilqiyya was used by Abu Khuzaima purely in the sense that he had the verses first-hand from Muhammad, thereby justifying their inclusion. What he was really saying was that he had not learnt them from a secondary source but from Muhammad himself and, therefore, they had to be included in the Qur'an. There is no warrant for the interpretation that he alone had them in writing under Muhammad's authority.

This convenient interpretation, in any event, goes right against the contents and implications of the narratives. If the verses had been well-known, Zaid would hardly have overlooked them. It was precisely because they were not known or remembered that Abu Khuzaima was obliged to point out the oversight. One cannot help asking these modern Muslim authors, on the basis of their own interpretation, whether Zaid would have included these verses in his redaction of the Qur'an if they had not been found "in writing under Muhammad's supervision" even though they were supposedly known in the memories of hundreds of the sahaba and were recorded In writing from other sources.

Our study shows that the collection of the Qur'an by Zaid under Abu Bakr was a gathering together of the texts of the Qur'an from widely divergent sources and materials where the Qur'an was scattered, so divergent that at the Battle of Yamama some passages were irretrievably lost and, in another case, only one of Muhammad's companions was aware of the text. "I searched for the Qur'an", Zaid declared, indicating that he did not expect to find all the texts of the book in the memory of any one man or on written materials in any one place.

The Qur'an thus compiled was the product of a widespread search for what was known in the memories of many men and had been inscribed upon various materials. This type of source-material hardly supports the notion and claim that the Qur'an, as eventually collected, was perfect to the last dot and letter. The Muslim hypothesis is the product of wishful sentiment, it is not based on an objective and realistic assessment of the facts contained in the earliest historical records of the initial collection of the Qur'an.

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