Collection of the Qur’an, Part 1
13 Feb, 2009
- Because the Qur’an is considered of vital importance to Muslims, I will discuss the events regarding its collection in this series of articles. Let me mention beforehand that the Qur’an itself, I believe, will end up as a book having no real utility or value. So, I am embarking on a journey aimed at showing that we, in all honesty, have no clue which parts of the Qur’an are Muhammad’s and which are some “additions” or “changes” that took place sometime during early Islam’s history. Some changes took place during Muhammad’s life. Salomon Reinach writes:
“….the Koran has little merit. Declamation, repetition, puerility, a lack of logic and coherence strike the unprepared reader at every turn.”
So, from a literary point of view, the Qur’an is worthless. It is awfully boring to read, lacks logical sequencing in its verses. It is also full of historical and grammatical errors as pointed out by many researchers who contribute to this site (i.e. Ali Sina, Mumin Salih).
Tradition tells us that the Qur’an was “revealed” to Muhammad (PBUH) over many years. It is not clear how much of the Qur’an was written down during Muhammad’s (PBUH) time. Ibn Warraq writes:
“it seems probable that there was no single manuscript in which the Prophet himself had collected all the revelations. Nonetheless, there are traditions which describe how the Prophet dictated this or that portion of the Koran to his secretaries.”
So, right to the time of Muhammad’s death, we actually have many reasons to believe that the Qur’an that was claimed to have been revealed to the Prophet may not have been recorded as accurately as one might think. Let me list some of those reasons:
The Qur’an was not recorded as a full unit by the scribes from Muhammad himself.
The scandal of “Satanic verses” that Muhammad went through with the Quraysh tribe at one time in his life, sheds some doubt on which of the Qur’an was “revealed” by Allah, and which was of “Satanic” origin. Those Satanic verses were assumed to have come from Allah at first. Muhammad worshiped the pagan deities with the Qurayshites on this account. Then, a while later, Muhammad said that those verses were put into him as revelation by Satan (Shaytan).
Some of the scribes suggested changes to the Qur’an, and Muhammad rubber-stamped the change. Ali Dashti writes about Abdollah Bin Sa’d Bin Abi Sarh, who was one of the scribes of Muhammad in Medina:
“…had been one of the scribes employed at Medina to write down the revelations. On20a number of occasions he had, with the Prophet’s consent, changed the closing words of verses. For example, when the Prophet had said “And God is mighty and wise” (aziz, hakim), Abdollah b. Abi Sarh suggested writing down ‘knowing and wise’ (alim, hakim), and the prophet answered that there was no objection. Having observed a succession of changes of this type, Abdollah renounced Islam on the ground that the revelations, if from God, could not be changed at the prompting of a scribe such as himself. After his apostasy, he went to Mecca and joined the Qorayshites.“3
Muhammad actually ordered killing this scribe when he took over Mecca. He, the scribe, was saved, through his foster brother, Uthman, who begged the Prophet for Abdollah’s life. In any case, this story shows that even Muhammad himself was not keen on preserving the Qur’an as it was exactly (i.e. word by word, and letter by letter) “revealed” to him by the angel Gabriel. One can easily assume that Muhammad (PBUH) accepted other suggested changes to the Qur’an by some of the other scribes too.
Collection of the Qur’an after Muhammad
There are confusing facts on when and how the Qur’an was collected. One of the traditions tells us that the Qur’an was collected during Abu Bakr’s time (632-634), the first Caliph who took over after Muhammad (PBUH) died. After the battle of Yamama during Abu Bakr’s time, Omar got worried about losing parts of the Qur’an. The reason for that is that many of those who memorized the Qur’an or major parts of it died in that battle. Abu Bakr, then, asked Zaid Ibn Thabit, a former secretary of the Prophet, to take on this task of collecting the Qur’an. Zaid collected the Qur’anic verses which were written on many different kinds of materials used for writing at the time (papyrus, flat stones, palm leaves, ribs of animals,..). Then this version of the Qur’an was handed over to Abu Bakr, who passed it to Umar on his death bed. Umar did the same and gave this version of the Qur’an to his daughter Hafsa.
This above tradition of how the Qur’an was collected, is suspect to many criticisms. First, this Qur’an was not treated as an official codex, but as a private property of Hafsa, thus no authority is given to Abu Bakr’s Qur’an. Second, some believe that the whole story of collecting the Quran during Abu Bakr’s time was fabricated to give credit to Abu Bakr, and take the credit away from Uthman, the third Caliph. Some even suggested that this whole story was invented later to take the collection of the Qur’an as back as possible to the time of Muhammad’s death.
A more realistic tradition about the collection of the Qur’an, in my view, is that it was collected during Uthman’s time. One of Uthman’s generals asked him to collect an “official” Qur’an. Why? Because some serious disputes have broken out regarding the correct readings of the Qur’an by people who came from different provinces in the Arabian peninsula. Zaid Ibn Thabit was given this task. Zaid compared what he had and known with the leaves from Hafsa’s Qur’an. Three people from noble Meccan families helped Zaid in this task. When there was a difficulty in the reading of verses, Zaid followed the Quraysh dialect to resolve the issue. The new version of the Qur’an was completed between the years 650 to 656. Copies of the new Qur’an were then sent to Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and Mecca. One copy was kept in Medina.
The above tradition that I just mentioned is also open to many criticisms. The Arabic language is not a dialect. It is a written language. This leaves us with the puzzle of how Zaid solved the issue of different wordings of the same verse in the Qur’an. Also, tradition tells us that other versions of the Qur’an were destroyed. Can we be really sure that Zaid made all the right decisions to give us the “original” Qur’an as it was “revealed” to Muhammad (PBUH)? It is evident that believing that demands putting human intellect on the side line and taking a huge step of irrational belief. There is really no conclusive evidence that can convince us that what Zaid came up with was any better than those versions of the Qur’an that were ordered to be destroyed by Uthman. One of the issues that come to my mind here is this: If Hafsa, supposedly, had the “right” Qur’an, why did Uthman have to do it again? Why did Zaid have to reconcile what Hafsa had, with other Qur’ans laying around in multiplicity of places?
Another matter that I think is important for us is the fallibility of human memory. How many times did I think I put my red socks in my chest drawer, only to discover that they were in the trunk of my car since last summer! In fact, the fact that there were multiple Quran’s floating around testifies to this fact. Arabs, like other human beings, remember things as individuals. Everyone remembers things not exactly in the same manner or wording. This is why there were multiple Qur’ans floating around during that period. Also, there is human intentions that may have contributed to multiplicity of Qur’ans during the early time of Islam. Not all Arabs appreciate the Qur’an equally. We know of some people who wrote “Suras” to compete with Muhammad’s “revelations”. Off course, such people were called liars by the Muslims. Some were even killed. Musailimah is just one name that comes to mind. I know there were others, even including at least one woman. So, it is not unrealistic to believe that some people “wrote “ verses or Suras and attributed them to Muhammad. We have no way of knowing for sure since this was done in the far past, humanly speaking.
1. S. Reinach, Orpheus: A History of Religion, (New York, 1932), p.176
2. Ibn Warraq, The origins of the Koran, (New York, 1998), p.10
3. Ali Dashti, Twenty Three Years, California, 1994), p.98
Ibn Kamuna is an Arabic-speaking writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.