The Early Transmission of the Quran

by Luke Wayne
7/22/16

Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over the course of his ministry and passed faithfully and accurately onto his followers. They also believe that Muhammad was the last of the prophets. The caliphs and imams that led the Muslim people after Muhammad are greatly respected, but they are not prophets. They were not inspired by God and were by no means perfect or infallible men. Knowing this, it is important for Muslim and Christian alike to understand by what process these imperfect and fallible men passed the Quran on to future generations and how it made it down to us in the form that it is in. To what degree can we know that it was passed on reliably? I will provide here the historical accounts by which we learn that information.

Shortly after the death of Muhammad, the Muslims were involved in a great battle at Yamama in which many of those who had been close to Muhammad and who knew the Quran well had died. At this time there was not yet a complete written Quran (though many passages were written on various materials in various places). There are a couple of authoritative Muslim Hadith that tell us about how the Quran first came to be collected into a single book under the first caliph, Abu Bakr:

"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 Musailama). (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 Quran 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 collected." I said to 'Umar, "How can you do something which Allah's Apostle did not do?" '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 Apostle. 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 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) palmed 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." - Sahih Al-Bukhari: Volume 6, Book 61, Number 509

"Abu Bakr sent for me and said, "You used to write the Divine Revelations for Allah's Apostle: So you should search for (the Qur'an and collect) it." I started searching for the Qur'an till I found the last two Verses of Surat At-Tauba with Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari and I could not find these Verses with anybody other than him. (They were): 'Verily there has come unto you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty ...' (9.128-129)" - Sahih Al-Bukhari: Volume 6, Book 61, Number 511

This volume was produced and kept, but all the evidence points to the fact that it was not copied or distributed. At this time the Quran was still largely passed down orally and through unofficial fragments and copies of individual passages. This eventually led to disputes over differences in the Quran, and by the time of the third caliph, Uthman, these disputes threatened to tear the Muslim community apart:

"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 (Quran) 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, Said 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. Said bin Thabit added, "A Verse from Surat Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur'an and I used to hear Allah's Apostle reciting it. So we searched for it and found it with Khuzaima bin Thabit Al-Ansari. (That Verse was): 'Among the Believers are men who have been true in their covenant with Allah.' (33.23)" - Sahih Al-Bukhari: Volume 6, Book 61, Number 510

This account of Uthman re-gathering the Quran, distributing copies of his new edition, and destroying all the source material is generally corroborated by the 9th century Christian writer Al-Kindi, who recounts an extremely similar story in a detailed account that is too lengthy to reproduce here. 1

These first "Mushaf", or written Qurans, were probably not read publically. The practice in reading from a written Quran in public worship seems to have been instituted later, during the time of a late 7th century caliph named 'Abd al-Malik and introduced by his close associate and advisor Al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf, as Ali al-Samhudi records:

"Malik said, "Reading from the Mushaf at the Mosque was not done by people in the past. It was al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf who first instituted it."2

This does not mean, as some critical scholars imply, that people did not recite the Quran in these early meetings. It more likely means that they were still reciting from memory. Prior to the time of Malik and Hajjaj, the Mushaf seem to have existed primarily as a reference. They were a check against changes or errors in what was being recited. The emphasis among Muslims seems to have still been on the Quran as an oral tradition rather than a written book.

Under 'Abd al-Malik, there appears to have been an effort to change this and to put greater emphasis on the written Quran. The Islamic world was becoming increasingly fractured and factionalized, and Malik probably hoped to bring better unity to the Muslim community by bringing greater uniformity to the way the Quran was recited. Like Uthman, Malik commissioned Hajjaj to produce official copies of the Quran and to have them distributed to major urban centers. He also, like Uthman, had all pervious materials destroyed. Al-Kindi explains:

"Then followed the affair of Hajjaj who would not give up his material but put it together, omitting many things among which they say were verses concerning the sons of Umayya and the sons Abbas with names mentioned. Five copies were made of the version approved by Hajjaj, one of which was sent to Egypt, one to Syria, one to Medina, one to Mecca, one to Kufa and one to Basra. All copies of earlier additions (sic) on which he laid his hands he boiled in oil till they were sodden, and so made an end of them, following the example of ’Uthman. You are yourself witness to the truth of this," - Al-Kindi3

Al-Kindi was a Christian, not a Muslim, and it is possible that his account is somewhat polemical, but it seems to largely fit the facts. Muslim sources do tell us that 'Abd al-Malik referred to the time he "gathered the Quran"4 and further explain:

"Ibn Zabala said, "Malik b.Anas reported to me: 'Al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf sent the Mushaf to the capitals. He sent a large one to Medina. He was the first to send Mushaf to the cities."5

We also have reports that those at Medina, familiar with Uthman's manuscript, were not pleased with al-Hijjaj's version:

"I was one of the guards of Hajjaj b. Yusuf. Al-Hajjaj wrote the Mushaf. Then he sent them to the military capitals (al-amsar). He sent one to Medina. The members of Uthman's family disapproved of that. They were told: 'get out the Mushaf of Uthman b. Affan, so that we may read it!' They answered: 'It was destroyed on the day when Uthman was killed.'"6

This not only points us to the idea that Hijjaj's version may have in some ways differed from Uthman's, but also that Uthman's copies may not have even been available anymore. Other sources point to this as well:

"Malik also said: 'Uthman's Mushaf has disappeared [taghayyaba]. And we have found no information about it among the authoritative writers[al-ashyakh]."7

"Ibn Wahb reported back to us, and said, 'I interrogated Malik concerning the Uthman's mushaf, and he said to me 'it has disappeared''" - Ibn Abi Dawud8

There were also other versions of the Quran in existence at the time. A version attributed to one of Muhammad's close disciples named Abdullah Ibn Masud was still in circulation. Al-Hajjaj had particular animosity toward the Ibn Masud readings of the Quran, writing them off is "rajaz" or "ecstatic poetry". Multiple Islamic sources quote him as having said of the Quran of Ibn Masud:

"This concerns the rajaz of the Bedouin [rajaz k-rajaz al-A'rab]. By God, if I can find someone who will read it, I will kill him, and I will even rub his mushaf with a side of pork." 9

To summarize, then, one modern scholar on the history of Islam writes:

"Islamic sources report that the Quran was collected on two separate occasions, once during the caliphate of Abu Bakr and again during the caliphate of Uthman; and that additional redactional activity took place during the caliphate of 'Abd al-Malik. The sources also report that a systematic campaign to destroy non-conforming Qur'an codices was carried out on two separate occasions, first during the caliphate of Uthman and again during that of 'Abd al-Malik; and that in the year 45/665, the suhaf or sheets collected by Zayd b. Thabit for Abu Bakr were destroyed by the governor of Medina."10

After this time, the text became relatively stable, at least in the core Arabic consonants of it. Variations occurred, but most were rather minor. Arabic script, however, lacks vowels and has several consonants that are written the same way but pronounced very differently. Various vowel points and other grammatical markings were developed to aid in a more consistent pronunciation, but these developed over a long period of time. Most early Quran manuscripts have some such markings, but there was no standard system for several centuries. This allowed the same manuscript to be read in a variety of ways by different readers. These different ways of reading the text could sometimes have profound effects on the meaning. This was no small concern. In the tenth century, an influential Muslim scholar by the name of Ibn Mujahid sifted through the many popular recitations of the Quran and established seven ways of reading the Quranic text that he deemed acceptable.11 Through the work of scholars like Ibn Mujahid combined with governmental pressure, the number of canonical recitation systems was settled at ten. These were then written down in an improved and more standardized Arabic script of the day to be preserved for future generations and to keep recitations of the Quran at least relatively standardized.12 Even so, the ambiguities in the script allowed eighty different related but distinct oral transmissions to develop out of the ten accepted readings of the one consonantal text.13 Still, in spite of these difficulties, it must be acknowledged that the efforts of leaders like Uthman and Malik to preserve one core Arabic text to the exclusion of all others were remarkably successful.

The question, of course, that one must inevitably ask is: did the various governing authorities that chose which text and which readings were correct and who destroyed all others get it right? How can we know? They were not prophets. They were not inspired. They may well have been deeply pious Muslims all trying to do the right thing, but what assurance do we have that they were correct and that all of those other pious and believing Muslims who had different versions of the Quran were wrong? With all the other texts destroyed and one version imposed by force, can we be sure that what we have today is exactly what Muhammad really recited, or is it just what the most powerful people thought he recited over against what so many other faithful Muslims thought? The tragedy of early Quranic history is that, with so much material destroyed, we may never know. As Dr. Keith Small observes:

"While bearing testimony to the careful preservation of one particular consonantal text, the history of the transmission of the Qur'an is at least just as much a testament to the destruction of Qur'an material as to its preservation"14

  • 1. N.A. Newman, "The Early Christian-Muslim Dialogue: A collection of Documents from the First Three Islamic Centuries" (Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1994) 455– 459 as cited by Dr. James White, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an (Baker Publishing Group, 2013) Kindle Edition, Location 4395
  • 2. Ali al-Samhudi, Wafa al-Wafa bi-akhbar dar al-Mustafa, ed. Muhammad Muhyi I-Din Abd al-Hamid (Cairo, 1955; repr. Beyrouth: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyya, 1984), Vol. 2:667. (quoted in Alfred-Louis de Prémare, “ Abd al-Malik b. Marwan and the Process of the Qur’an’s Composition,” in Ohlig and Puin, The Hidden Origins of Islam, 205).
  • 3. N.A. Newman, "The Early Christian-Muslim Dialogue: A collection of Documents from the First Three Islamic Centuries" (Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1994) as cited by Dr. James White, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an (Baker Publishing Group, 2013) Kindle Edition, Locations 3604-3608
  • 4. David Powers, Muhammad is Not the Father of Any of Your Men (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) 160
  • 5. Ali al-Samhudi, Wafa al-Wafa bi-akhbar dar al-Mustafa, ed. Muhammad Muhyi I-Din Abd al-Hamid (Cairo, 1955; repr. Beyrouth: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyya, 1984), Vol. 2:668. (quoted in Alfred-Louis de Prémare, “ Abd al-Malik b. Marwan and the Process of the Qur’an’s Composition,” in Ohlig and Puin, The Hidden Origins of Islam, 205).
  • 6. Umar Ibn Shabba, Ta'rikh al-Madina al-munawwara, (Mecca, 1979) Vol I:7, (quoted in Alfred-Louis de Prémare, “ Abd al-Malik b. Marwan and the Process of the Qur’an’s Composition,” in Ohlig and Puin, The Hidden Origins of Islam, 204)
  • 7. Ali al-Samhudi, Wafa al-Wafa bi-akhbar dar al-Mustafa, ed. Muhammad Muhyi I-Din Abd al-Hamid (Cairo, 1955; repr. Beyrouth: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyya, 1984), Vol. 2:669 (quoted in Alfred-Louis de Prémare, “ Abd al-Malik b. Marwan and the Process of the Qur’an’s Composition,” in Ohlig and Puin, The Hidden Origins of Islam, 205).
  • 8. Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab Al-Masahif, pg. 35, lines 18-19 (quoted in Alfred-Louis de Prémare, “ Abd al-Malik b. Marwan and the Process of the Qur’an’s Composition,” in Ohlig and Puin, The Hidden Origins of Islam, 205).
  • 9. Alfred-Louis de Prémare, “ Abd al-Malik b. Marwan and the Process of the Qur’an’s Composition,” in Ohlig and Puin, The Hidden Origins of Islam, 208
  • 10. David Powers, Muhammad is Not the Father of Any of Your Men (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) 161
  • 11. Keith Small, Textual Criticism and Qur'an Manuscripts (Lexington Books, 2011) 146-147
  • 12. ibid, 145
  • 13. ibid, 145
  • 14. ibid, 180