A Contemporary Review of the Preservation of the Quran
BY: ASLAM ABDULLAH
- 1 How was the Quran preserved?
- 2 The practice of writing at the time of the Prophet
- 3 Motivation to learn the Quran
- 4 The Writing of the Quran
Deen, or what we loosely translate as religion or faith, is in the realm of divinely revealed knowledge. We do not invent deen. We receive it. We believe that it is given to us by an authority, which is higher, objective and neutral. We believe that the higher authority chooses someone to receive the message through an angel. We use the terms Prophet (nabi) and the messenger (rasul) for the person who is chosen to deliver the divine message to humanity.
The message itself confirms that it is not made up by human beings; rather, it is given by the Supreme Creator who has the interests of all in His mind and who does not favor a race over the other or one ethnicity or culture over the other.
The deliverance of the divine message began with the advent of humanity. Some people followed it and others rejected it. Over a period of time, the divine message got corrupted and the original essence of the message was lost. Thus the message was repeated through succeeding prophets and messengers from time to time to ensure that people never lose sight of the original message. Thus, every prophet and messenger repeated the same divine message that was revealed originally. The Creator did not confuse people of different ages with different messages. The language, the methodology and the issues may have been different in the community of a new prophet depending on the nature of the human evolution. Yet, the message in its essence remained the same.
What was revealed upon Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is in fact a continuation and finalization of the divine message. Thus the Muslim understanding is that the Quran was revealed at a time when all previously revealed divine messages were either lost or were tainted due to human interference. It is in this context that the Creator declared in the Quran that it is He who revealed it and it is He who would protect it. In other words, he would enable the Prophet and the Messenger to create conditions ensuring that not a single word of that divine message is lost.
If we are sincere in our affirmation of the fact that God does exist and He guides humanity to a better path, then we must also admit that He would ensure His message is preserved properly. He would not leave it to chances to have the message compiled or preserved because one slight mistake in recording or preserving His words could be crucial. His majesty and organization are well displayed in everything that exists in the universe. Why would he leave His words unprotected and unorganized? If the previous messages were lost or forgotten, then we have to assume that He did not plan their preservation. He wanted to preserve the message that he would repeat for the final time through a Prophet in Arabia.
Only a prophet knew what was being revealed to him. No one other than a prophet could have experienced it and no one other than a messenger had the authority or the knowledge to declare what is revealed. While none of the previously revealed books were written or preserved during the lifetime of the prophet who received them, the Quran became the first revealed Book, which was written during the life of the Prophet who had received it. It was verified, checked, approved and authenticated by him because he alone had the knowledge and authority to do so.
How was the Quran preserved?
The Quran and the books of ahadith (statements attributed to Prophet Muhammad ) explain the process and the outcome. Even though there are some references in the books of ahadith that contradict the divine assertion about the preservation of the Quran, yet the overwhelming evidence clearly proves that the Quran that was revealed to the Prophet is the same that we read today. The presence of these traditions does not invalidate the authenticity of the Quran. Rather, they reveal their own weaknesses.
There are several anecdotes in our Islamic literature that challenge the claim that the Quran was compiled in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. For instance, we are told that the Quran was first compiled at the time of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and then at the time of Uthman bin Affan, the third caliph, under the supervision of a commission. The simple fact is that none other than the Prophet had the knowledge of the Quran revealed to him through direct sources and he was the only one to determine the accuracy of the divine revelation. A commission might have supervised the process of copying the Quran, but how could it have performed a task it was not qualified to do so. The Prophet would not have left the compilation of the Quran on the basis of witnesses of other people. It was his duty and he fulfilled it with the utmost responsibility. It is an irony that in many of the Friday sermons, the name of Uthman bin Affan is mentioned as the compiler or collector of the Quran without realizing that it is the Prophet and not Uthman bin Affan who had the duty, authority and legitimacy to compile and collect the Quran. Those who say that the compilation of the Quran began at the suggestion of Umar, the second Caliph, ignore the fact that it was God who had given His word for the protection of the Quran through His messenger, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. I believe those who say that the Prophet did not leave a completed written copy of the Quran before he left this world do not have a complete understanding of the role of Prophethood.
We are also told that several verses of the Quran were not included in the Quran as they were lost. This is also an accusation and not a fact because if the verses were lost and no one knew what those verses were, then how do we know about their existence. Moreover, if the Prophet did not include them in the Quran, then who are we to question the decision of the Prophet about their inclusion or exclusion in the Quran. Hence, to say that parts of the Quran were lost is like accusing the Prophet of not carrying the work that Allah had assigned him.
We are also told that certain verses of the Quran were abrogated by other verses of the Quran. Scholars differ in their identification of these verses. Some say they are 500 and others say they are five. There is no authentic hadith of the Prophet that clearly informs the believers what was canceled and what was not. On the contrary, there are verses in the Quran that emphatically states, “you will not find the words of Allah ever-changing,” or you will never find the practice of Allah ever-changing (15:9, 18:27). No scholar was given the authority to declare what is abrogated and what is not. The whole idea of abrogation of the verses of the Quran needs to be seen in the light of the divine message. When it comes to the Quran, we cannot dismiss the divine statement as a mere play of words. Unfortunately, in the case of deciding the issue of abrogation, many Muslims have misunderstood the words of the Quran due to a lack of their own understanding of the Quran.
We are also told that the written copies of the Quran in the personal use of many of the companions were different as some had more and some had fewer verses revealed upon the Prophet ﷺ. First of all, none of these copies are preserved and secondly, whatever has been preserved does not have any contradictions. Thirdly, none of the companions of the Prophet who had these copies ever made the claim that they had the authentic copy of the Quran verified by the Prophet ﷺ.
We are also told that since the Quran was not compiled in its final form, and the companions of the Prophet used to carry in a sack or bag the scattered ayas (verses) of the Quran written on stones, leaves, wood and hide. This suggests that even the surahs of the Quran were not put together at the time of the Prophet as the ayas were scattered. Unless a companion knew the Quran by heart, it was almost impossible for him to put all the scattered ayas in sequence. Even a hafiz would find it hard to put together over 6,000 scattered verses in the proper sequence if they are scattered. It is these kinds of traditions that promote the idea that preservation of the Quran was not the priority of the one whose sole responsibility was to ensure that the Quran is transmitted to people fully and rightly. The Quran says addressing the Prophet: “Your duty is to convey the message.” (3:20). When the Prophet addressed over 100,000 people in his final Hajj sermon, one of the questions that he asked was, “did I convey the message to you and each one of them responded, yes.” He did not say part of the message or the message communicated verbally only.
The authenticity of Islam depends on the accuracy of the Quran and the integrity of the Prophet ﷺ. It rests on the assertion that it is the same as was revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ; and that he ensured that it was preserved forever through efforts that are well documented and well known. It also rests on the fact that nothing was added or removed from the Quran. Unfortunately, some of our Islamic literature can lead people to believe that the original Quran is not the same as we read today.
Thus, loyalty to deen rests on the simple fact that whatever has been given to us in the name of deen is divine and the scripture is not contaminated with human ideas and thoughts.
A good number of books written on the subject of the Quran probably, unconsciously, promote the idea that the Quran was not compiled in its current form as it was during the time of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. The Quran refutes this and authenticates the integrity of the Prophet in preserving the final divine message. What an irony that in terms of the history of the compilation of the Quran, many of our scholars and writers have given more credibility to history written some three hundred years after the Prophet when the Quran was compiled and preserved in his lifetime.
The Quran was not for Arabs even though its language was Arabic and the Prophet that delivered this message was from them. The guidance of the Quran was for all people and for all time. In other words, those who did not know the Arabic language were also the addressee of the Quran. (O Muhammad) tell them: “O mankind, I am the Messenger of Allah to all of you.” (7:158) The Quran was for the contemporaries of the Prophet as well as for those who would come after them and even to others who have not yet joined them, Arabic speaking and non-Arabic speaking. (62:2-3)
The Quran includes everything that was revealed to all previous messengers. “And We revealed to you this Book based on truth. It will validate in real earnest all the assertions made in the previously revealed books. And it has subsumed all the teachings of those Books.” (5:48)
The Quran introduces itself as Allah’s guidance based on truth and justice have been set forth in this Book in a complete form. None has the authority to make any change in these laws. The Prophet was asked to “Present to them whatever is revealed to you O Rasool; none shall change Allah’s words (18:27). Not a single word of the Quran has been changed since the time of its revelation. “There is no doubt that it is We, Ourselves, who have bestowed this Quran step by step and it is We who shall see that it is always preserved.” (15:9) There is nothing in the Quran that is contrary to the truth. “The untruth, the wrong, the falsehood from anywhere, neither from the front nor from the back of it will ever come by it.” (41:42)
Thus according to Islamic belief, the Quran is the only divinely revealed book that exists in its original form word by word, even though attempts have been made to prove that the Book was not compiled in the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ. The following facts are proven by the Quran and the books of ahadith.
The Quran as we read today in Arabic is the same that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
The Prophet compiled it under his supervision as he was the only one who received the divine revelations.
There were several copies of the entire Quran available to companions during his lifetime.
The order of surahs as we find in the Quran today is the same as it was at the time of the Prophet ﷺ.
There were scores of companions of the Prophet ﷺ, both men and women, who had memorized the entire Quran under his guidance.
The Quran was the only source that the Prophet used to educate people about Allah’s guidance.
The Quran that we read today is the same that was read by people who followed him and the succeeding generations after them. They transmitted it through the written word as well as orally. There were no differences in pronunciations of the Quran.
The Prophet ensured that every revelation is preserved in writing as well as memory as he was fully aware of the change other people had brought in their scriptures.
The practice of writing at the time of the Prophet
The practice of writing and reading was common among the people of Arabia at the time of the Prophet ﷺ. The Quran exhorts the people: “Whenever you enter into a matter pertaining to the giving of loans for a particular period, do commit it to writing.” (2:282) The Quran explains that the writing establishes the evidence. Thus the Quran asserts: “(This revelation) is preserved in such scrolls, which are the most respect-worthy, the most exalted, the most cleansed, are of the highest grandeur, free of every inkling of any error, of any human inclination – pristine sacred. It is written by the calligraphers, who are held of high esteem and exalted prestige in the society.” (80:13-16)
The Quran even mentions that: It is a written Book on spread-out parchment, (52:2-3) or “It is the most esteemed the noblest, Quran, preserved and conserved in the form of a Book.” (56:77-78). There were at least forty-one companions of the Prophet whose names we know who knew how to write and read. They included:
Handhala bin Rabee, Umr bin Rafey, Rafey bin Malik, Saad bin Ibadah, Usaid bin Hadheer, Munzir bin Rawah, Saad bin Ar Rabee, Abu Abas bin Jabar, Abdur Rehman, Abu Yunus Maula Ayesha, Abdur Rehman bin Hur bin Umr bin Zaid, Abdullah bin Saeed bin al Aas, Zaid bin Thabit, Abdullah bin Saad bin Abi Sarh, Abu Bakr, Umr, Uthman, Ali, Zubair bin Awwam, Khalid bin Saeed bin al Aas, Aban, Saad bin al-Aas, Handhala al Asadi, ala bin al-Hadhrami, Khalid bin Waleed, Muhammad bin Salma, Abdullah bin Abdullah bin Abi Salool, Mughera bin Shaba, Umr bin al Aas, Muawaiya bin Abi Sufiyan, Jaheem bin as Sulat, Muaqeeb bin Fatima, Abdullah bin Arqam and Sharjeel bin Hasana.
The tradition of writing was present among Arabs when the Prophet began his mission. The Prophet patronized it and improved it. For example, during the battle of the Badr, seventy members of the Makkan army were taken prisoners. Those who were unable to pay for their freedom were asked to teach at least ten youth of Madina how to read and write. When these young people excelled in the art of reading and writing, the prisoners were released. (Tabaqat ibn Saad, Volume II, P 14)
In Medina, one of the first tasks that the Prophet assigned to Abdullah bin Saeed was to teach the people of Medina how to read and write.
It is said that Yahya Bermaki was the first one who introduced paper for writing among Arabs. (Muqaddama Ibn Khaldun) Some people suggest that it was Hujjaj bin Yusuf who introduced it first. It is also said that the Khurasan paper was manufactured with cotton during the time of Bani Ummayad. Many historians assert that it predates the Ummayad period as the Chinese first introduced it in Khurasan (Sanajat-u-Tarb)
In his book Miftahul Afkar, the author records some 36 letters that were written at the instance of the Prophet to different tribes and rulers. The treaty of Hudaibiya was also written down. The famous Muallaqat known as Saba Muallaqat were placed on the door of the Kaaba in writing during the Prophet’s time in Makkah.
There were two popular methods used during that time to put things in writing. People used to write on thin parchments prepared from the hides of animals and this was known as Riq. The Quran also uses this word. There was also something called Mehriq. In Lisan ul Arab, Mehriq is defined as a very fine thin hide that was produced for the purpose of writing. The Quran also uses the word Qirtas twice as a material used for writing. This means that the paper was in use at the time of the revelation and Allah used the word to emphasize the importance of writings.
The prophet was very particular about the availability of writing material at all times. This was to ensure that the message of Allah can be written down instantly. For instance, during the migration to Medina, there are references that he made sure that his companions carried pen, inkpot and paper. The letter written to Suraqa, the one who was chasing him during the journey, provides evidence of this fact.
It is evident that at the time of the Prophet, a large number of Muslims knew how to read and write. The material for writing was easily available and the community of believers under the leadership of the Prophet was aware of preserving the divine revelations in writing. The Prophet would instantly ask the available scribers to write down the revelation and would also teach the believers to memorize the portion.
Motivation to learn the Quran
The Quran was the text the Prophet used to teach Allah’s revelation to people. “The best among you is the one who learns the Quran and teaches it.” (Uthman bin Affan in Bukhari)
“The one who reads the Quran is like a fruit that tastes good and whose smell is also good and the one who does not read it is like the date that is good, but that does not have a good smell. (Abu Musa in Bukhari)
“On the Day of Judgment, the reciters of the Quran would be asked to read the Quran the way they used to recite in the world and climb up and wherever their recitation completes, that place would become their home.” (Abdullah ibn Umar in Ahmed, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawood and Nasai)
The Prophet said that he was commanded to sit in the company of those who recite the Quran. (Abu Saeed in Abu Dawood)
Uthman bin Abi al Aas reported that as part of the delegation of Bani Thaqif, I came to the Prophet and he taught me the Quran. (Tabaqat ibn Saad, Volume VII), page 27)
Ibn Masood reported that we used to learn ten ayas (verses) from the Prophet in one lesson and after we had memorized it, we would learn the next ten verses. (Bukhari)
Abu Darda reported that he personally read the entire Quran from the Prophet ﷺ. (Bukhari)
It is reported that the Prophet asked the people to learn the Quran from Ibn Masood, Salim Maula Abu Hudhaifa, Abi ibn Kaab and Maaz. (Bukhari)
Ubadah bin as Samit reported that whenever any would migrate to Medina, the Prophet would connect him with one of his companions so that he could learn the Quran.
During the 10th Hijri Ramadan, ten people from the tribe of Aamir accepted Islam and as long as they remained in Medina, they learned the Quran from Ubai ibn Kaab (Muqaddamma ibn Khaldun)
The same year, people from the tribe of Bani Hanifa accepted Islam and they also learned the Quran from Ubai ibn Kaab.
It is reported that Khubab ibn al-Arat used to teach the Quran to the sister of Umar bin Khattab and her husband on a regular basis from the written material.
During the eighth century, when Makkah came under the supervision of Islam, the Prophet asked Maaz bin Jabal to teach the Quran to the people. In the 10th Hijra Maaz was sent to Yemen to start giving mass education about the Quran. When the people of Daqa and Adhal accepted Islam, the Prophet sent Marthad, Aasim, Khubaib, Khalid bin Bakr, Zaid bin Dathna and Abdullah bin Tariq to teach them the Quran.
Whenever any tribe would come to Medina to accept Islam, the Prophet would appoint a companion to teach them the Quran as well as instruct some to accompany the tribe back to their place to help them acquire the knowledge of the divine revelations.
During the 4th Hijra when one of the tribal leaders of Najad came to Medina, he requested Quran teachers for his people. Some seventy teachers of the Quran were sent with him. If the number of instructors exceeded seventy in the initial stages of the Hijra, one does not have to guess about the importance of learning and teaching the Quran during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ.
Thus the spirit of learning and teaching the Quran was a norm of the time. Everyone knew a part or full of what was revealed until then. The Quran was the textbook, the Quran was the curriculum and the Quran was the applied science of the time.
The Writing of the Quran
There were several companions of the Prophet who knew how to read and write. Among them were Abu Abas bin Heer, Ubai bin Kaab, Saad bin Rabee, Shahur bin Saeed, Awus in Zaid, Awus bin Khauli, al-Muzir bin Umr, Usaid bin Hudhair, Saad bin Ubadah, Rafey bin Malik, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali and many others.
Ibn Abdul Bir mentions the name of at least twenty-four companions who were always available to put words in writing for the Prophet ﷺ. Among them were Ubai bin Kaab, Zaid bin Thabit, Abdullah bin Saad, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Zubair bin Awwam, Khalid, Aban, Saeed, Handhala, Alaa, Khalid bin Waleed, Abdullah bin Rawah, Muhammad bin Muslamah, Abdullah bin Abdullah bin Salool, Mughaira bin Shuaba, Umr bin Aas, Muwaiya bin Sufiyan, Hajam bin as Sult, Muaqeeb bin Fatima, Sharjeel bin Hasana, Abdullah bin Arqam. .
Thus the Quran not only was in the memory of hundreds of companions, male and female but also in writing form at the time of the Prophet ﷺ. The Quran was memorized by hundreds of the companions of the Prophet ﷺ. “These are the lucid verses, (preserved) in the hearts of the people who have been bestowed with the knowledge of (Wahi).” (29:49).
There was a Master Copy of the Quran. It was always kept in a box near the pillar of the pulpit at Prophet’s Mosque. It was exactly the same copy that the Messenger of Allah used to ask the calligraphers to write the revealed verses. This copy was called Imam or Umm in their own dialect, and the pillar with which this copy was placed was called “Astawaana Mashaf.” Sitting by this pillar, the companions, under the supervision of the Messenger, used to make copies.
Professor Hamidullah, a noted Islamic scholar of the last century, writes: “The sources all agree in stating that whenever a fragment of the Qur’an was revealed, the Prophet called one of his literate companions and dictated it to him. The Prophet Muhammad also recommended that the faithful learn the Quran by heart. The method of doubly preserving the text both in writing and by memorization proved to be extremely precious.”
From this copy, several copies were made and distributed in all parts of the Muslim world. Abu Bakr (R), the first Caliph of Islam, asked Prophet Muhammad’s main scribe, Zaid Ibn Thabit, to make copies of the Quran. Caliph Omar bin Khattab subsequently made a single volume (mushaf) that he preserved and gave on his death to his daughter Hafsa, the Prophets’ widow.”
Imam ibn Hazm has noted down in his book Kitab al Fisl: “During the period of the first caliph, there was no city where the inhabitants had not had a number of personal copies of the Quran. And during the period of Caliph Omer, the number of written copies of this majestic Book, the Quran, was not less than one hundred thousand.
The third Caliph, Uthman bin Affan asked a commission to prepare seven or eight copies of the Quran from the master copy. One of his authentic copies was kept in Madina. A 3rd-century researcher, Abu Ubaida Al-Qasim bin Salaam (d. 223 H.), in his Kitaab-ul-Qiraat, claims to have seen that copy of the Quran. Ibn Batuta, a Muslim traveler, says that Abu Bakr al Shaashi had placed it on the shrine of Abdullah. When the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was established, this very copy of the Quran came into the Balschiwk’s hands. The information regarding this copy published in a Soviet Journal (Soviet Vase) in 1995 indicated that this very copy of Uthmaan (Mashaf-i-Usmaani) was in Timur’s library, which was established in 1393 AD. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 AD, this copy of the Quran reached Ufa through the courtesy of a meeting of the Muslim representatives of the Russian Parliament. Then it was brought to Tashkent. (Source: Abu Mahfooz-ul-Karim Masoomi: Mashafey Usmaan key T’areekhi Nuskhey (The historical copies of the Quran of Mashaf-I-Usmaan) published in the Journal of Uloom-I-Qslamia, December 1961 printed and published by Aligarh University)
Fakhry Pasha, the governor of Turkey, along with other sacred documents, took this copy to Constantinople and now it is there. Shibly Nomani noted biographer of the Prophet in his writing is said to have seen a copy of the original Quran in the Damascus University in 1896. One copy of the Quran is in Paas; another copy is in the library of Khadairya (Egypt). Several copies of the Quran written by the companions of the Messenger are found in the various libraries and museums of India, Iran, Egypt, Arabia and Turkey.
In Istanbul Library, there are copies of the Quran written by Uthman bin Affan , Ali bin Abi Talib wrote in his own handwriting and this copy is in Istanbul. Other handwritten copies of the Quran, including the one by Zain ul Aabedeen and Zaid bin Thabit, Usmaan, Hasan bin Ali, and Sajjad, are found in the museum-archeological section of Iran. Maurice Bucaille, in his book The Bible, The Qur’an and Science writes that: ” It (The Quran) was written down at the time of the Prophet (p.126); The Qur’an (is) a Book of written Revelation (p.127); As the Revelation progressed, the Prophet and the believers following him recited the text by heart and it was also written down by the scribes in his following (p.127); Long before the Prophet left Makka for Madina the Quranic text so far revealed had been written down (p.128); The Quran itself, therefore, provides indications as to the fact that it was set down in writing at the time of the Prophet ﷺ. It is a known fact that there were several scribes in his following, the most famous of whom, Zaid Ibn Thabit, has left his name to posterity (p.129).”
Thus, the fact is well established that the Quran was preserved in writing in its complete form, the same form that we have today at the time of the Prophet ﷺ.