How was the Qur’an put into writing? Or how did the revelations given to the Prophet Muhammad end up in written texts? The answer to this reveals a fairly complex process that will be the focus of this article.
Based on the Qur’an, Muslim tradition claims Muhammad was illiterate (7:157-58). He did not, on this view, write down the revelations received because he could not do so. The Qur’an refers to Muhammad as “the unlettered one”, traditionally understood to mean that he could neither read nor write. It has been argued that Q7:157-58 does not necessarily mean that Muhammad, described as the unlettered one, was illiterate which, if true, means that he could have written down some of his revelations. There are also hadith traditions that suggest Muhammad could read and write (Sahih al-Bukhari 1.3.65; Sunan Abu Dawud 18:2921, etc.). What one can be certain of, however, is that Muhammad did not find the need to collect all his revelations into one codex or book during his life.
Muslim tradition maintains that it was Muhammad’s followers who saved his revelations and put them into written text. For example, in Sahih al-Bukhari, we read that “The Qur’an was collected in the lifetime of the Prophet by four (men), all of whom were from the Ansar: Ubai, Muadh bin Jabal, Abu Zaid and Zaid bin Thabit” (5.58.155). Muhammad’s revelations were committed to memory by his followers. But as time went on it became necessary for Muslims to commit the revelations to writing.
The Battle of Yamama
Shortly after Muhammad died in 632 CE, several Arabian tribes declared their independence from the Islamic community, which led Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, to march an army to subjugate them. This conflict is known as the battle of Yamama. What is particularly relevant in this conflict is that large portions of the Qur’an were lost in this battle. A number of the soldiers had memorized large portions of Muhammad’s revelations, but then died in battle and their memory died with them. Abu Bakr became aware that if Muhammad’s revelations were not put into written form, the revelations might perish:
“Abu Bakr As-Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed (i.e., a number of the Prophet’s Companions who fought against Musailima). (I went to him) and found Umar bin Al-Khattab sitting with him. Abu Bakr then said (to me)
,"Umar has come to me and said: “Casualties were heavy among the Qurra’ of the Qur’an (i.e. those who knew the Qur’an by heart) on the day of the Battle of Yamama, and I am afraid that more heavy casualties may take place among the Qurra’ on other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur’an may be lost” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6.61.509).
Zaid ibn Thabit
Abu Bakr then instructed Zaid ibn Thabit to collect all the words of Muhammad and put them into one book: “Then Abu Bakr said (to me). ‘You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Messenger. So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’an and collect it in one book.”
Zaid ibn Thabit goes to completing this task. According to Sahih al-Bukhari, he set out to collect whatever revelations he could find from palm stalks, whites stones, and from those who knew the revelation by heart (memory). Once finished, the Qur’anic manuscripts were given to Abu Bakr. After Abu Bakr died, the manuscripts were then given to Hafsa, the daughter of Umar and one of Muhammad’s widows.
Variations and Uthman’s Standardization
Other groups in various regions of the Islamic empire had begun producing their versions of Muhammad’s revelations. As such, the Qur’an was being recited in various ways across the empire. Interestingly, Abu Bakr did not impose Zaid ibn Thabit’s edition of the Qur’an on these other regions. Instead, the Qur’an was kept beneath the bed of Hafsa. It was also kept there during the rule of Abu Bakr’s successor, Umar. But once Umar had died, Uthman, the third caliph of the empire, sought to standardize the Qur’an across his empire. According to Sahih al-Bukhari,
“Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to Uthman, “O Chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and Christians did before.” Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and 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” (6.61.510).
Uthman instructed Hafsa to send him the Qur’anic manuscripts so that he could commission four writers (Zaid ibn Thabit, Abdullah bin AzZubair, Said bin Al-As, and Abdur Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham) to produce an official version. What did Uthman do concerning the other variations of the Qur’an in the empire? He issued that they be burned and destroyed. After the four men produced an official version and 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” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6.61.510).
Anger by Uthman’s Standardization
There was, however, resistance to Uthman’s standardization of the Qur’an. Another Muslim, Abdullah Ibn Masud, claimed that his version was the most reliable and authoritative. Abdullah Ibn Masud had been one of the closest companions of Muhammad and had learned directly from the Prophet himself,
“Once Abdullah bin Masud delivered a sermon before us and said, “By Allah, I learnt over seventy Suras direct from Allah’s Messenge. By Allah, the companions of the Prophet came to know that I am one of those who know Allah’s Book best of all of them, yet I am not the best of them.” Shaqiq added: I sat in his religious gathering and I did not hear anybody opposing him (in his speech)” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6.61.522).
“And if I know that there is somebody who knows Allah’s Book better than I, and he is at a place that camels can reach, I would go to him.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6.61.524)
Others seemed to agree that Abdullah Ibn Masud’s version was indeed reliable because no-one in the “religious gathering” challenged him when he claimed it to be so. Clearly then the version produced by Zaid ibn Thabit and Abdullah Ibn Masud’s differed.
According to Islamic tradition, the Qur’an was produced and put to paper through a complex and contested process. Muhammad, supposedly illiterate, did not himself write down his revelations; rather, they were first memorized by his followers. Parts of the Qur’an had been lost at the battle of Yamama, which motivated Abu Bakr, the first caliph, to produce an official version by instructing Zaid ibn Thabit to assemble it. This version was then kept under the bed of Hafsa. Yet, variations of Muhammad’s revelation were being recited across the empire, leading Uthman to instruct four writers to produce an official version on several manuscripts. These manuscripts were then sent to every Muslim province where other variations had been recited. Uthman then instructed that all these other versions of Muhammad’s revelations be burned. But this did not go unchallenged. Abdullah Ibn Masud claimed that his version was the most accurate and that he had learned his account by direct access to Muhammad.
Does this Square with Popular Muslim Belief?
Critics of Islam argue that this description of the Qur’an’s development is inconsistent with contemporary Muslim views of the perfect preservation of the Qur’an and Islamic truth claims. This criticism is leveled against lofty claims made by writers like the Islamic apologist Mazhar Kazi who states that “Muslims and non-Muslims both agree that no change has ever occurred in the text of the Quran… it is a miracle of the Quran that no change has occurred in a single word, a single [letter of the] alphabet, a single punctuation mark, or a single diacritical mark in the text of the Quran during the last fourteen centuries” (1). Statements like these are made because Muslims believe that the Qur’an, which was perfectly preserved in heaven, was gathered and passed on without error or omission. Kazi’s claim is, on its surface, obviously false because most non-Muslims, especially non-Muslim scholars of Islam, do not agree that the Qur’an was perfectly preserved, which seems to make this a claim of Muslim piety, not of academic scholarship.
But contrary to such claims, rather than the Qur’an being perfectly preserved from its beginning, there were conflicting versions. The Qur’an was not an undisputed, uniform text, and this led to Uthman’s standardization. Although one can agree that the Qur’an was preserved after Uthman’s standardization, the problem lies, argues the critic, with its earliest history from the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE until the standardization sometime around 650 CE. It is here the problem is most pertinent to the claims of Muslims of perfect preservation. The critic argues that this skepticism is proven by Islamic sources like Sahih al-Bukhari, not by sources hostile to Islam or seeking to undermine the religion.
- Kazi, Mazhar. 1997. Evident Miracles in the Qur’an. Richmond Hill: Crescent Publishing House. p. 42-43.