Module 1, Lesson 1
In Progress

Historical Preservation of the Qur'an

October 28, 2020

Historical Preservation of the Qur’an

The present arrangement of the Qur’an is not the work of later generations, but was made by the Prophet under God’s Direction. Whenever a Surah was revealed, the Prophet summoned his scribes, to whom he carefully dictated its contents, and instructed them where to place it in relation to the other Surahs. The Prophet followed the same order of Surahs and verses when reciting during ritual Prayer as on other occasions, and his companions followed the same practice in memorising the Qur’an. It is, therefore, a historical fact that the collection of the Qur’an came to an end on the very day that its revelation ceased. The One who was responsible for its revelation was also the One who fixed its arrangement. The one whose heart was the receptacle of the Qur’an was also responsible for arranging its sequence. This was far too important and too delicate a matter for anyone else to dare to become involved in. Since Prayers were obligatory for the Muslims from the very outset of the Prophet’s mission, and the recitation of the Qur’an was an obligatory part of those Prayers, Muslims were committing the Qur’an to memory while its revelation continued. Thus, as soon as a fragment of the Qur’an was revealed, it was memorised by some of the companions. Hence the preservation of the Qur’an was not solely dependent on its verses being inscribed on palm leaves, pieces of bone, leather and scraps of parchment ( the materials used by the Prophet’s scribes for writing down Qur’anic verses. Instead those verses came to be inscribed upon scores, then hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of human hearts, soon after they had been revealed, so that no scope was left for any devil to alter so much as one word of them.

When, after the death of the Prophet, the storm of apostasy convulsed Arabia and the companions had to plunge into bloody battles to suppress it, many companions who had memorised the Qur’an suffered martyrdom. This led Umar to plead that the Qur’an ought to be preserved in writing, as well as orally. He therefore impressed the urgency of this upon Abu Bakr. After some slight hesitation, the latter agreed and entrusted that task to Zayd ibn Thabit al-Ansari, who had worked as one of the prophet’s scribes. The procedure decided upon was to try and collect all written pieces of the Qur’an left behind by the Prophet, as well as those in the possession of his companions. When all this had been done, assistance was sought from those who had memorised the Qur’an. No verse was incorporated into the Qur’anic codex unless all three sources were found to be in complete agreement and every criterion of verification had been satisfied. Thus, an authentic version of the Qur’an was prepared. It was kept in the custody of Hafsa, one of the prophet’s wives and people were permitted to make copies of it and also to use it as the standard of comparison when rectifying the mistakes they might have made in writing down the Qur’an.

In different parts of Arabia and among its numerous tribes there existed a diversity of dialects. The Qur’an was revealed in the language spoken by the Quraysh of Makkah. Nevertheless, in the beginning, people of other areas and other tribes were permitted to recite it according to their own dialects and idiom, since this facilitated its recitation without affecting its substantive meaning. In the course of time, in the wake of the conquest of a sizeable part of the world outside of the Arabian peninsula, a large number of non-Arabs entered the fold of Islam. These developments affected the Arabic idiom and it was feared that the continuing use of various dialects in the recitation of the Qur’an might give rise to grave problems. It was possible, for instance, that someone hearing the Qur’an recited in an unfamiliar dialect might pick a fight with the reciter, thinking that the latter was deliberately distorting the Word of God. It was also possible that such differences might gradually lead to tampering with the Qur’an itself. It was also not inconceivable that the hybridisation of the Arabic language, due to the intermixture between Arabs and non-Arabs, might lead people to introduce modifications into the Qur’anic text, thus impairing the Grace of the Speech of God. As a result of such considerations, and after consultation with the prophet’s companions, Uthman decided that copies of the standard edition of the Qur’an, prepared earlier on the order of Abu Bakr, should be published, and that publication of the Qur’anic text in any other dialect or idiom should be proscribed.

The Qur’an that we possess today corresponds exactly to the edition which was prepared on the orders of Abu Bakr and copies of which were officially sent, on the orders of Uthman, to various cities and provinces. Several copies of this original edition of the Qur’an still exist today. Anyone who entertains any doubt as to the authenticity of the Qur’an can satisfy himself by obtaining a copy of the Qur’an from any bookseller, say in West Africa, and then have a hafiz (memoriser of the Qur’an) recite it from memory, compare the two, and then compare these with the copies of the Qur’an published through the centuries since the time of Uthman. If he detects any discrepancy, even in a single letter or syllable, he should inform the whole world of his great discovery!

Not even the most sceptical person has any reason to doubt that the Qur’an as we know it today is identical with the Qur’an which Muhammad set before the world; this is an unquestionable, objective, historical fact, and there is nothing in human history on which the evidence is so overwhelmingly strong and conclusive. To doubt the authenticity of the Qur’an is like doubting the existence of the Roman Empire, the Mughals of India, or Napoleon! To doubt historical facts like these is a sign of stark ignorance, not a mark of erudition and scholarship.