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Islamic History: Part 3 Compilation of the Quran

By Dr. Mansoor Alam 

The Quran is the final Book of Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It is meant for all human beings and for all times.  After the opening chapter, the Quran states categorically that this is a book in which there is no doubt (2:2).  Therefore, it should  i) be treated as a book and  ii)  as the only book carrying Allah’s stamp of approval of being doubt free. No other book(s) can claim this status.  

Since it is a book of guidance for all human beings, the Quran must have been written down and compiled as a book during the Prophet’s lifetime. How else would an unwritten book serve as the code of guidance for all?  Apart from being doubt-free, this Book also has the unique distinction of having Allah’s seal of approval for its future protection: “We have revealed this Book (Dhikr) and We will protect it” (15:9). Its author, Allah, also categorically states that it is complete and unalterable (6:115). 

In light of these verses it should have been enough for Muslims, at least, to accept that the Quran we have today is exactly the same as the one the Prophet (PBUH) gave to his companions. Allah took the responsibility of making sure that it was collected, compiled, and completed as a book. This 100% certainty could not have been possible except if it was done during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH).  

Throughout the world, all Muslims have the same Quran (in book form). There are not different versions of the Arabic Quran, since Allah guarantees that it is complete and fully protected.  Why then should we have to find out how it was collected and compiled?  Some historians and Imams – after more than 200 years after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) – started investigating how the Quran was collected and compiled. It was not that they were going to collect and compile the Quran themselves – this had been done already. They also knew that whatever they might find, was not going to change the text of the Quran in anyway – these Imams (including Imam Bukhari and Tabari) had the same Arabic Quran in their hands as we have today.  

Was their effort to investigate the history of the compilation of the Quran purely for academic reasons? It probably seems that way. Since their effort could not alter the text of the Quran, the only thing they could do was to produce their own books about it. Their works became popular among Muslim scholars and subsequently turned into a whole new field of knowledge called the ‘Ulum al-Quran or the Sciences of the Quran. There are now experts (scholars and professors) holding academic positions in this area. Allah says to all Muslims to ponder over the meanings of the Quran (4:82, 47:24), but these scholars are more interested in pondering over the compilation of the Quran.

The fact that these investigations were started after more than 200 years after the Prophet (PBUH) is important and should not be overlooked. The only tool available to them for the investigation was to find the chain of narrators going back to the Prophet’s time. No matter how truthful the chain of narrators might have been, the chances of error due to lapses in memory cannot be ruled out – even if we assume that these narrators were completely truthful. So, how much reliability should be placed on these historical accounts based on oral narrations?  Certainly not 100%.

Here is a hadith (Vol. 6 No. 201, pages 162-164, Translated by Dr. Muhsin Khan) from Sahih Bukhari [Imam Bukhari was born in 194 AH (810 CE) and died in 256 AH (870 CE)]: 

Narrated Zaid bin Thabit Al-Ansari, one of the scribes of the Revelation: Abu Bakr sent for me after the casualties among the warriors (of the battle) of Yamama (where a great number of Qurra were killed). 'Umar was present with Abu Bakr who said: "Umar has come to me and said, the People have suffered heavy casualties on the day of (the battle of) Yamama, and I am afraid that there will be some casualties among the Qurra (those who know the Qur'an by heart) at other places, whereby a large part of the Qur'an may be lost, unless you collect it. And I am of the opinion that you should collect the Qur'an.' Abu Bakr added, 'I said to 'Umar, "How can I do something which Allah's Apostle has not done?" 'Umar said (to me) "By Allah, it is (really) a good thing". So 'Umar kept on pressing trying to persuade me to accept his proposal, till Allah opened my bosom for it and I had the same opinion as 'Umar'. (Zaid bin Thabit added:) 'Umar was sitting with him (Abu Bakr) and was not speaking. Abu Bakr said (to me), 'You are a wise young man and we do not suspect you (of telling lies or of forgetfulness); and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah's Apostle. Therefore, look for the Qur'an and collect it (in one manuscript)'. By Allah, if he (Abu Bakr) had ordered me to shift one of the mountains (from its place) it would not have been harder for me than what he had ordered me concerning the collection of the Qur'an. I said to both of them, 'How dare you do a thing which the Prophet has not done?' Abu Bakr said, 'By Allah, it is (really) a good thing. So I kept on arguing with him about it till Allah opened my bosom for that which He had opened the bosoms of Abu Bakr and 'Umar. So I started locating the Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leafstalks of date palms and from the memories of men (who knew it by heart). I found with Khuzaima two verses of Suraat-at-Tauba which I had not found with anybody else (and they were):

 

     'Verily there has come to you an Apostle (Muhammad) from

     among yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive

     any injury or difficulty. He (Muhammad) is ardently anxious

     over you (to be rightly guided)' (9:128).

 

The manuscript on which the Qur'an was collected, remained with Abu Bakr till Allah took him unto Him, and then with 'Umar till Allah took him unto Him, and finally it remained with Hafsa, 'Umar's daughter.           

From this hadith we conclude: 

  1. That Prophet (PBUH) did not compile the Quran and did not give it to the Ummah in a book form.

  2. That ‘Umar (R) was the first one to realize that the Quran needed to be collected – and that, too, only after the battle of Yamama when he feared that too many Qurra (i.e., those who had memorized the entire Quran) might die due to future wars. That Abu Bakr (R) initially resisted this suggestion because he did not want to do something that the Prophet (PBUH) himself did not do.

  3. That 'Umar (R) swore by Allah and told Abu Bakr (R) that it was a good thing to do. And 'Umar (R) kept pressing Abu Bakr (R) till Allah opened his heart to accept the proposed idea.

  4. That after Abu Bakr (R) was convinced of the idea he asked Zaid bin Thabit (R) to find the revelations of the Quran and to start collecting and compiling them.

  5. That Zaid bin Thabit (R) resisted the idea initially. (Zaid bin Thabit (R) resisting the order of the Khalifa of the Islamic state?) In any case, Abu Bakr (R) kept pressing Zaid bin Thabit (R) till Allah finally opened his heart to accept the proposed idea. But he found the task extremely difficult: collecting the Quran would be harder than moving a mountain, in his opinion.  One is led to think why it would be left undone by the Prophet (PBUH).

  6. That, in any case, Zaid bin Thabit (R) accepted this responsibility and started collecting the Quran.

  7. That the verses of the Quran were scattered on parchments, scapula, and leafstalks of date palms.  

  8. That Zaid bin Thabit (R) found all the verses of the Quran except the last two verses of Surah Al-Tauba which he finally found with Khuzaima bin Thabit (R).

  9. That the material on which Zaid bin Thabit (R) prepared his manuscript of the Quran is not mentioned in this hadith. Did he use paper? If he did, then why didn’t the original scribes use it to record the revelation during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH)? Didn’t our Prophet (PBUH) know that palm leafstalks are not a very reliable way to protect the Quran? (It is reported in Sunan ibn Maajah (one of the six authentic Sunni books of ahaadith) that ‘Aisha’s (R) goat ate two of the verses of the Quran that were written on palm leafstalk.)

  10. That Abu Bakr (R) kept the suhuf (the manuscript with loose chapters) prepared by Zaid bin Thabit (R).

  11. That Abu Bakr (R) did not get this suhuf put together in the form of a book during his lifetime. Neither did he distribute copies of this earliest collected manuscript of the Quran to the people.

Keep in mind that Abu Bakr (R) was the Khalifa (the head of the Islamic the State) at the time.  Compiling Quran was certainly not for his private use only. It would have been for public use as well as being a guide for the Islamic state. While accepting the caliphate, Abu Bakr (R) had asked the people to keep a close eye on his actions and point out if any were against Allah and the Prophet (PBUH). If the people did not have the same copy of the Quran that the Khalifa had, how were they to judge if any of his actions were against the word of Allah?

Also, why didn’t he officially order the destruction of any other versions kept by the Companions? To destroy them would have been the proper course of action because there was a long list of Companions who were reported to have had their own written collections that differed from one another. These included the following: Ibn Mas'ud, Ubay bin Ka'b, 'All, Ibn 'Abbas, Abu Musa, Hafsa, Anas bin Malik, 'Umar, Zaid bin Thabit, Ibn Al-Zubair, 'Abdullah ibn 'Amr, 'A'isha, Salim, Umm Salama, 'Ubaid bin 'Umar. [Abi Dawud: Musahif, p.14, quoted by Ahmad Von Denffer in his book ‘Ulum al-Quran]

It was also known that 'A'isha and Hafsa had their own scripts written after the Prophet passed away. [M. Rahimuddin (Transl.): Muwatta Imam Malik, Lahore, 1980, No. 307, 308; Malik b. Anas: Al-Muwatta, Cairo,n.d., p.15. (Quoted in ‘Ulum al-Quran)]

The differences in the above collections are listed in the book ‘Ulum al-Quran, pages 47-52. Why did Abu Bakr (R) allow these differences to continue? And why did ‘Umar (R) let them continue during his lifetime?

According to reports in hadith literature, at the time of 'Uthman, the differences in reading the Qur'an became so obvious that, after consultation with the Companions, 'Uthman (R) had a standard copy prepared from the suhuf of Abu Bakr (R) which was kept with Hafsa.  He ordered all other copies destroyed. 

The following is the report transmitted in Sahih Bukhari [Volume 6, No. 510, pages 478-479] 

Narrated Anas bin Malik: 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 'Uthmfin, '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 Az-Zubair, Sa'id bin Al-'As and 'Abdur Rahman bin Hari-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 as 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. Zaid bin Thabit added, 'A verse from Sura al-Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur'an which I used to hear Allah's Apostle reciting. So we searched 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). 

Several points are worth pondering here: 

  1. Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman was afraid of differences in the recitation of the Quran of the people of Sham (Syria) and Iraq. So he pleaded with Khalifa ‘Uthman (R) to save the Muslim nation from this difference.

  2. Was this difference in the pronunciation of the Arabic words of the Quran? It does not seem so from this hadith. (Even now, there are differences in the recitation of Arabic text by Muslims from different areas of the world although they have the same copy of the Quran.) So, Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman’s fear must have been due to differences in the Arabic text of the Quran between the people of Syria and Iraq.

  3. The committee of four appointed by Khalifa ‘Uthman (R) included Zaid bin Thabit (R) whom Khalifa Abu Bakr (R) had earlier asked to compile the Quran. The committee’s effort was to start with Zaid bin Thabit’s copy which was now in possession of Hafsa, Khalifa ‘Umar’s daughter.

  4. Zaid bin Thabit (R) missed copying a verse from Surah Ahzab which he used to hear the Prophet (PBUH) reciting. The other three committee members must have also missed it. Was this verse in Hafsa’s copy that Zaid bin Thabit (R) had originally prepared?

However much we may try to reconcile the contradiction contained in these two ahaadith, we cannot deny the fact that they cause at least some doubt in the Quran’s status of 100% infallibility. One can only wonder what contradictions, if any, may be in the other multitude of ahaadith collected on this subject and that have been put together in the book Kitab al-Musaahif.  

Kitab al-Musaahif was compiled by Abu Bakr Abdullah bin Abi Dawood.  He was born in 230 A.H. and died in 316 A.H. He is the son of Imam Abu Dawood, the collector and compiler of Sunan Abu Dawood, one of the six most authentic Sunni books of hadith. 

Here are some excerpts from this book:

  1. Imam Ibn Abi Dawood reports on the authority of ‘Urwah bin Zubair that, when many Qurrahs were martyred, Abu Bakr (R) feared that the Quran might get lost forever this way. So he asked ‘Umar (R) and Zaid bin Thabit (R) to sit at the door of the Prophet’s mosque and write down anything in the Quran if anyone could bring two witnesses regarding the Book of Allah.

  2. Imam Ibn Abu Dawood reports on the authority of ‘Abd Khair that he heard ‘Ali (R) saying that Abu Bakr (R) will get great reward in connection with the Musaahif. May God shower His mercy on him because he is the first person who collected the Quran and put it into a book form.

  3. Imam Ibn Abu Dawood reports on the authority of Salem and Khaarija that Abu Bakr (R) compiled the Quran on paper. He then requested Zaid bin Thabit to have a look at it but he refused. Then Abu Bakr (R) enlisted the help of ‘Umar (R) to persuade Zaid bin Thabit to look at it which he did. These manuscripts remained with Abu Bakr (R) until he died. Then they remained with ‘Umar (R) until he died. Then they remained with Hafsa. When Khalifa ‘Uthman (R) asked for them, Hafsa refused to give them until she got the promise that he would return them. After copying these manuscripts ‘Uthman (R) returned the original to Hafsa. These remained with Hafsa until Marwaan burnt them.

  4. Imam Ibn Abu Dawood reports on the authority of Yahya bin Abd al-Rahman bin Haatib that it was ‘Umar (R) who decided to compile the Quran.  He gave a sermon asking the people to bring him any papers, wood plates, leafstalks of date palms, on which they might have written any verses of the Quran after listening to the Prophet (PBUH). ‘Umar (R) did not accept anything from anyone unless he obtained confirmation of two witnesses for everything brought to him.  Meantime ‘Umar (R) was martyred. Then ‘Uthman (R) followed the same principle of accepting from people verses of the Quran only with confirmation from two witnesses. Then Khazima bin Thabit came and told ‘Uthman (R) that he (‘Uthman) had left out two verses from his collection which he (Khazima bin Thabit) used to hear from the Prophet (PBUH).  ‘Uthman (R) asked Khazima bin Thabit where he should place these verses. Khazima bin Thabit suggested putting them at the end of the Surah that was revealed last. So, these two verses were put at the end of Surah Baraat (also known as Tauba). [Apparently, there is an error in this hadith. According to Nasai and Muslim (books included in the six most authentic Sunni books of ahaadith), Surah Nasr is the last revealed Surah of the Quran.]

What could be more important than the compilation of the Quran in book form? Yet, we see several contradictions in the ahaadith dealing with this subject.  Indeed, from these ahaadith, it is even questionable as to who originally thought of this idea, Abu Bakr (R) or Umar (R). Then there is an apparent contradiction between hadith 201 and 510 of Bukhari. In hadith no. 201 Zaid bin Thabit does not mention any problem with a verse from Surah Ahzab when he originally compiled the Quran at the request of Abu Bakr (R). In fact, he was concerned with some other verses, the last two verses of Surah Tauba, which he finally found with Khuzaima.  

Also, the idea that two witnesses were enough to include verses in the Quran does not seem right. The final Book of Allah could not depend on the authenticity of two witnesses. What if they erred, even if they were honest? And there is always room for distortion of words and verses by the enemies of Islam. There were plenty of enemies of Islam at the time. Who could have prevented their sinister designs against the Book of Allah if all that was necessary was to have two witnesses before including verses in the Quran?  Assuming that the people who gave written input were completely honest (although this cannot be guaranteed 100%), and assuming that the two witnesses were also completely honest and did not make any honest mistakes (although this cannot also be guaranteed 100%), still there remain many unanswered questions. The scattered verses and the chapters had to be arranged in the correct order. How could anyone (or any group) do this in the absence of the Prophet (PBUH)?  

We can say (and those scholars who support all these ahaadith do say) that the Arabs then had good memories and that there were people among the Companions who had memorized (Huffaz) the entire Quran. Sure, they could have helped here. But if that was the case, why call on all those who had written down verse(s) of the Quran and why the need for witnesses? Why not bring together all the Huffaz who had committed to memory the entire Quran and let them recite every verse of every Surah, in order?  Why not write the Quran that way?  This would have had the added benefit of these Huffaz corroborating each other like the way it is done nowadays during the Taraawee‘h prayers. Also, these Huffaz must have been truly dedicated to the Quran. Otherwise, they could not have committed the entire Quran to memory.  

On the other hand, if these Huffaz had only memorized parts of the Quran, then they could tell the order of the verses within the Surahs they had memorized but they could not tell the order of the Surahs of the entire Quran. Then the only person who could tell with 100% surety about the order of all the Surahs would be the Prophet (PBUH).  

It is clear, then, that the complete Quran must have been written down in book form during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH), most probably, on paper. After all, paper just didn’t suddenly appear during Khalifa ‘Uthman’s period. Paper was around during the Prophet’s time. Our Prophet (PBUH) wrote letters to the kings of Abyssinia and of Iran, on paper. So, it is inconceivable that he would not have used paper for the Quran, the most valuable message for humanity.  

The fact is no one else except the Prophet (PBUH) could have received any instructions from Allah about the compilation of the Quran in book form. The Prophet (PBUH) must have employed the best scribes to write the revelation and he personally must have checked the written text for accuracy. The Quran itself tells us that these scribes were truthful and most honorable (80: 15-16). As Muslims, we are obliged to believe that our Prophet (PBUH) faithfully discharged his duty of delivering the Quran to humanity in the form of a written book. Its proof is in our hands.