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Introduction to Islam – History of the Qur’an

Introduction to Islam

History of the Qur’an 

Qur’an‘ literally means ‘reading’ or ‘recitation.’ While dictating this to his disciples, the Prophet assured them that it was the Divine revelation that had come to him. He did not dictate the whole at one stretch – the revelations came to him in pieces, from time to time. As soon as he received one, he would communicate it to his disciples and ask them not only to learn it by heart, (in order to recite it during the service of worship) but also to write it down and to multiply the copies. On each occasion, he indicated the precise place of the new revelation in the text of until-then-revealed Qur’an. His was not a chronological compilation. One cannot admire too much the precaution and care taken for accuracy, if one takes into consideration the standard of the culture of the Arabs in that time. 

It is reasonable to believe that the earliest revelations received by the Prophet were not committed to writing immediately, for the simple reason that there were then no disciples or adherents. These early portions were neither long nor numerous. There was no risk that the Prophet would forget them, since he recited them often in his prayers and proselytising talks. 

Some historical facts give us an idea of what happened. ‘Umar is considered to be the fortieth person to embrace Islam. This refers to the year five of the Mission (eight before the Hijrah). Even at such an early date there existed written copies of certain chapters of the Qur’an, and as Ibn Hisham reports, it was due to the profound effects produced by the perusal of such a document that ‘Umar embraced Islam. We do not know precisely the time that the practice of writing down the Qur’an began, but there is little doubt that during the remaining eighteen years of the life of the Prophet, the number of the Muslims increased and so did the copies of the sacred text increase day by day. The Prophet received the revelations in fragments. Therefore, it is natural that the revealed text should mention the problems of the day. 

It may be that one of his companions would die and the revelation would be to promulgate the law of inheritance. It could not be that the penal law regarding theft, murder, or drinking wine, for instance, should have been revealed at that moment. The revelations continued during the whole missionary life of Muhammad, thirteen years at Mecca and ten at Madinah. A revelation would sometimes consist of a whole chapter, short or long, and at other times of only a few verses. 

The nature of the revelations necessitated that the Prophet should repeat them constantly to his companions and revise on a continual basis the form in which the collections of fragments had to take. It is authoritatively known that the Prophet recited every year, in the month of Ramadan, in the presence of the angel Gabriel, the portion of the Qur’an up til then revealed, and in the last year of his life, Gabriel asked him to recite the whole of it twice. The Prophet concluded thereupon that he was going soon to depart his life. Whatever the spiritual meaning of his angelic aid to the Prophet, his companions attended these public recitations (called ‘ardah, and the celebrated last presentation: the ‘ardah akheerah) and corrected their private copies of the Qur’an. Thus the Prophet used to revise the verses and chapters, in the fasting month, and put them in their proper sequence. This was necessary because of the continuity of new revelations. Sometimes a whole chapter was revealed at a stretch, whereas at other times, fragments of the same chapter came continually, and this posed no problems. This was not the case if several chapters began to be revealed simultaneously in fragments (sunwar dhawat al-‘adad of the historians). In this latter case, one had perforce to note them provisionally and separately on handy materials, such as shoulder blades, palm leaves, slate- like stones, pieces of hides, etc.; and as soon as a chapter was entirely revealed, the secretaries classified these notes (nu’allif al-Qur’an) under the personal supervision of the Prophet and made a true copy (cf. Tirmidhi, Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Kathir, etc.). It is also known that the Prophet, who was in the habit of celebrating an additional service of worship every night during the fasting month, would sometimes (even in congregation) recite the Qur’an from the beginning to the end, completing its entire recital in the course of the month. This service (Tarawih) continues to be observed with great devotion to this day. 

When the Prophet breathed his last, a rebellion was afoot in certain parts of the country. In quelling it, several people fell who knew the Qur’an by heart. The caliph Abu-Bakr felt the urgency of codifying the Qur’an and that task was accomplished a few months after the death of the Prophet. 

During the last years of his life, the Prophet used to employ Zaid ibn Thabit as his chief amanuensis for taking dictation of the newly received revelations. Abu-Bakr charged this same gentleman with the task of preparing a true copy of the entire text in book form. Then there were several hafizes (1) in Madinah and Zaid was one. He had also attended the ‘ardah akheerah referred to above. The caliph directed him to obtain two written copies of each portion of the text from among those which had been collated with the recitation of the Prophet himself, prior to its inclusion in the corpus. At the direction of the caliph, the people of Madinah brought Zaid copies of the various fragments of the Qur’an which they possessed. The sources declare authoritatively that only two verses were such as had a single documentary evidence and that the rest were supported by the production of numerous copies. 

The true copy thus prepared was called the Mus’haf (bound leaves). It was kept in his own custody by the caliph Abu-Bakr, and after him by his successor ‘Umar. Meanwhile, the study of the Qur’an was encouraged everywhere in the Muslim empire. Caliph ‘Umar felt the need of sending authentic copies of the text to the provincial centres to avoid deviations; but it was left to his successor, ‘Uthman, to bring the task to a head. One of his lieutenants, having returned from far away Armenia, reported that he had found conflicting copies of the Qur’an, and that there were sometimes even quarrels among the different teachers of the Book on this account. ‘Uthman caused immediately the copy prepared for Abu-Bakr to be entrusted to a commission, presided over by the above-mentioned Zaid ibn Thabit, for preparing seven copies. He authorized them to revise the old spelling if that was necessary. When the task was completed, the caliph held a public reading of the new ‘edition’ before the experts present in the capital from among the companions of the Prophet. He then sent these copies to different centres of the vast Islamic world and ordered that thenceforward all copies must be based only on the authentic edition. He then ordered the destruction of copies which deviated in any way from the text which was officially established. 

It is conceivable that the great military conquests of the early Muslims persuaded some hypocritical spirits to proclaim their outward conversion to Islam for material motives, and to try to do it harm in a clandestine manner. They could have fabricated versions of the Qur’an with interpolations. The crocodile tears shed at the order of the ‘Uthman, regarding the destruction of unauthenticated copies of the Qur’an, could have only been by such hypocrites. 

It is reported that the Prophet sometimes abrogated certain verses that had been communicated to the people previously, and this was done on the strength of new Divine revelations. There were companions who had learnt the first version but who were not aware of the later modifications, either due to death or residence outside Madinah. These persons might have left copies to posterity which, although authentic, were outdated. Again, some Muslims had the habit of asking the Prophet to explain certain terms employed in the holy text, and noting these explanations on the margins of their copies of the Qur’an, in order not to forget them. The copies made later, on the basis of these annotated texts, could sometimes have caused confusion in the matter of the text and the gloss. In spite of the order of the caliph ‘Uthman to destroy the inexact texts, there existed in the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Hijrah enough matter to compile voluminous works on the “Variants in the Qur’an.” These have come down to us, and a close study shows that these “variants” were either due to glosses or mistakes of deciphering the old Arabic writing (which neither possessed vowel signs nor distinguished between letters of close resemblance by means of points, as is done now.) Moreover, different dialects existed in different regions, and the Prophet had allowed the Muslims of these regions to recite in accordance with their dialects, and even to replace the words which were beyond their kith and kin by synonyms which they knew better. This was an emergent measure of grace and clemency. However, from the time of the caliph ‘Uthman, public 

instruction had advanced enough that it was agreed upon that those concessions would no longer be tolerated lest the Divine text be affected and variants of reading take root. 

The copies of the Qur’an, sent by ‘Uthman to the provincial centres, gradually disappeared in the succeeding centuries. One of them is at present in the Topkapi Museum of Istanbul and another incomplete one is now in Tashkent. The Czarist government of Russia had published this latter with a facsimile reproduction, and we see that these copies are identical in text to those otherwise in use. The same is true of other extant MSS of the Qur’an, both complete and fragmentary, dating from the first century of the Hijrah onwards. 

The habit of learning the text of the entire Qur’an by heart dates from the time of the Prophet himself. The caliphs and other heads of Muslim states have always encouraged this habit. A happy coincidence has further reinforced the integrity of the text. In fact, from the very beginning, Muslims have been accustomed to read a work in the presence of its author or one of his authorised pupils and obtain his permission of further transmission of the text established and corrected at the time of study and collation. Those who recited the Qur’an by heart or had simply read the written text acted in the same manner as well. The habit has continued down to our own day, with this remarkable feature: that every master would indicate in detail in the certificate given by him, that not only was the rendering of his pupil correct, but also that it was in conformity with that which this master had learned from his own master, and that this last had affirmed that he in turn had learnt it from his master, the chain leading back to the Prophet. The writer of these lines studied the Qur’an at Madinah with Shaikh al-Qurra, Hasan ash-Sha’ir, and the certificate he obtained, notes among other things, the chain of masters and masters of masters, and in the final act how the master had studied simultaneously from ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, Ibn Mas’us, Ubaiy ibn Ka’b and Zaid ibn Thabit (all companions of the Prophet) and that all had taught exactly the same text. The number of hafizes are counted by hundreds of thousands in the world today, and millions of copies of the text are found in all parts of the globe. And what deserves to be noted is that there is absolutely no difference between the memories of thesehafizes and the texts employed. 

The original of the Qur’an was in Arabic, and the same text is still in use. Translations have been made in all the important languages of the world, which is more or less serviceable to those who do not know Arabic. It is to be remembered, however, that it is in the original Arabic language that the text has come down to us, and that there has been no need to retranslate it into Arabic from some later translation. 

These are some of the remarkable features of the Qur’an, the holy book of the Muslims: (1) a text in the original language (2) a codification under the auspices of the Prophet himself (3) a continued preservation by the simultaneous double control of memory and writing in addition to the study under qualified teachers (4) and this by a large number of individuals in every generation, and the absence of any variants in the text.

[From the book – ‘Introduction to Islam’ by ‘Dr Muhammad Hamidullah]

The Preservation of the Original Teachings of Islam 

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