The Uthmanic Recension as a Problem for the Perfect Preservation of the Qur’an

The expansion of Islam shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) came with its challenges, one of which concerned the Qur’an, namely the differences and disagreements among the faithful. For many critics of Islam, the Uthmanic recension is one pillar in a cumulative case leading to doubt that the Qur’an has been perfectly preserved down to the very letter from the time of Muhammad. We note why this is the case in this article. 

Roughly twenty years after Muhammad’s death, we learn from Muslim sources that there was a lack of uniformity on the Qur’an across the growing Muslim empire. This was because other memorizers had also begun compiling and communicating their versions of the text. The trusted Hadith Sahih al-Bukhari recounts how one of Muhammad’s companions, Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman, approached caliph Uthman to report that the Qur’an was being recited with extensive variations throughout the empire,

“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 (Qur’an) 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, Sa`id 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” (4987, emphasis added).

This they did and when they had completed writing copies, “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” (4987).

One might speculate as to why Uthman wanted to “standardize” the Qur’an across the empire by producing one copy and burning all the other ones he disagreed with. The answer is likely provided by the Hadith scholar Abu Dawud (817-889 CE) who informs us that Uthman wanted to overcome strong divisions in the Muslim empire based on readings of different Qur’anic codices,

“By Allah, he did not act or do anything in respect of the manuscripts (masahif) except in full consultation with us, for he said, ‘What is your opinion in this matter of qira’at (reading)? It has been reported to me that some are saying ‘My reading is superior to your reading’. That is a perversion of the truth. We asked him, ‘What is your view (on this)?’ He answered, ‘My view is that we should unite the people on a single text (mushaf waahid), then there will be no further division or disagreement’. We replied, ‘What a wonderful idea!’ Someone from the gathering there asked, ‘Whose is the purest (Arabic) among the people and whose reading (is the best)?’ They said the purest (Arabic) among the people was that of Sa’id ibn al-‘As and the (best) reader among them was Zaid ibn Thabit. He (Uthman) said, ‘Let the one write and the other dictate’. Thereafter they performed their task and he united the people on a (single) text.” (emphasis added)

Uthman wanted to bring consensus among the Muslims based on a single Qur’an text so he decided to favor the codex of Zaid ibn Thabit (610-665 CE), Muhammad’s scribe. Why? As is the case with any expanding empire, centralized rule becomes difficult. In Islam’s case, as it grew the newly subjugated and conquered peoples would have known little about the religion’s core, defining beliefs and practices. They might have felt little loyalty to Muhammad’s successors ruling them from Medina. 

By the time Uthman was in power, the empire owned territories across the Middle East, Azerbaijan, Anatolia, Egypt, and northern Africa (there were twelve provinces in all when Uthman was the caliph). It was in some of these far outlying areas and in several major cities that the Qur’an was being recited with variation. Uthman thought that by standardizing the Qur’an it would unite all the people under the sole rule of the caliphate. The Qur’an that Muslims believe they have today is this standardized one produced by Uthman.

The implications of the Uthamnic recension are worth noting. The event indicates that up until Uthman’s burning of different versions of the Qur’an, there was no standardized Qur’an but several variations throughout the empire. A critic will point out that this is not what one would expect if the Muslim view that the Qur’an has been preserved perfectly down to the very letter from its beginning as revealed to Muhammad is the case. Uthman indeed did great damage. In Uthman’s attempt to standardize the Qur’an, he essentially destroyed codices that were written by the very closest companions of Muhammad himself.

Muslim Apologetic Responses

How have Muslim apologists attempted to overcome this difficulty of various codices muddying the Muslim view of the perfect preservation of the Qur’an

The common retort is that the differences between the codices were purely in the recitation and pronunciation of the texts. If true, then the differences were not in the texts themselves but only in the pronunciation of the Qur’an as it was recited. But there is reason to question this response.

For one, recitation and pronunciation relate only to a verbal recital of the text. Such differences would never have appeared in the written texts. Yet it was the destruction of these written texts that Uthman ordered. If the differences were merely a matter of recitation and pronunciation, there would be no reason to destroy the texts in the first place.

Second, in the earliest days of the codification of the Qur’an in writing, there were no vowel points in the texts, which means that differences in recitation would never have appeared in the written codices.

Third, it also seems extreme to go to the lengths of destroying all the codices simply because of recitation and pronunciation. After all, the problem lies not with the text but how Muslims are reciting and pronouncing it. Remedying that problem would require a different solution. We must then conclude that Uthman ordered the destruction of the texts because differences existed in them and that this threatened division.

The Damage of the Uthmanic Recension 

There are additional damages caused by the Uthmanic recension, which is that we simply cannot know if the Qur’an we have today is the original. 

Uthman’s attempt to suppress competing versions caused a significant interruption in transmission. This proves restrictive to Muslims. For the Muslim, Uthman had to get it right. If he did not, there is no way of fixing his errors. But how confident can we necessarily be over whether or not Uthman got it right? We might have questions: Was Uthman perhaps biased, like any other human being? Was he influenced by the debates and struggles of his time? If so, could this have influenced the composition of the Qur’anic codices produced by Zaid ibn Thabit?

We simply cannot know the answer to these lingering questions and this proves the danger of controlled transmission: one has no choice but to have ultimate trust in the controller. If that controller is inaccurate, disingenuous, or grievously biased, it could threaten to undermine the entire project. The resultant limitation is that the Muslim has little else than to answer these questions by appealing on theological grounds that Allah preserved the Qur’an. That is his only recourse. 

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