Jews and Christians received their holy books only on the basis of a lengthy process of formation and canonization. Whereas the writings of the Hebrew Bible came into being over a period of perhaps a thousand years and those of the New Testament in less than a hundred years, the Quran was formed within twenty three years. In Islam the process of canonization did not last so long. Here it was not a matter of collecting and recognizing the writings of different (‘apostolic’) authors but of collecting, ordering and editing different surahs of the one Prophet. In this process of canonization it was not bishops and synods which decided but the scholars.
The Prophet Could Neither Read Nor Write
There is unanimous agreement among scholars that Prophet Muhammad himself did not write down the revelation. The Quran clearly states:
“And you (O Muhammad) were not a reader of any scripture before it, nor did you write it with your right hand, for then might those have doubted who follow falsehood.”
The Quran also refers to Muhammad on several occasions as the 'unlettered prophet' which means that that he did not read or write:
“Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet.”
There is no doubt that the Quran was not only transmitted orally by many Muslims who had learned parts or the whole of it, but that it was also written down during the lifetime of the Prophet. The Quran was written during the Prophet's lifetime.
God’s Promise to Protect the Quran
Muslims believe that God has already promised to protect the Quran from the change and error that happened to earlier holy texts. God states in the Quran:
“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Quran and indeed, We will be it’s guardian.”
Transmission of the Quran
The revelation contained in the Quran has been transmitted to us by numerous persons in two ways: orally and in written form.
Oral transmission of the revelation was based on hifz or memorization. Prophet Muhammad himself was the first to commit a revelation to memory after the Angel Gabriel had brought it to him:
“Move not thy tongue concerning the (Quran) to make haste therewith. It is for Us to collect it and promulgate it; but when We have promulgated it, follow thou its recital.”
“... a Messenger from God, reciting scriptures, kept pure and holy.”
- The Prophet declared the revelation and instructed his Companions to memorize it.
- It is also well known that the recital of the Quran during the daily prayers is required and hence many Companions heard repeatedly passages from the revelation, memorized them and used them in prayer.
- The Prophet also listened to the recitation of the Quran by the Companions:
- The Prophet sent teachers to communities in other places so that they might receive instruction in Islam and the Quran. The case of Mus`ab, the son of `Umair, illustrates that this was so even before the hijrah:
There are numerous reports giving account of various efforts made and measures taken by the Prophet to ensure that the revelation was preserved in the memory of his Companions. The following is perhaps the most clear:
Narrated `Uthman, the son of `Affan: The Prophet said: "The most superior among you (Muslims) are those who learn the Quran and teach it."
Narrated Ibn Mas`ud: Allah's Messenger said to me: "Recite (the Quran) for me." I said: "Shall I recite it to you although it had been revealed to you?!" He said: "I like to hear (the Quran) from others". So I recited Surat An-Nisa till I reached:
“How (will it be) then when We bring from each nation a witness and We bring you (O Muhammad) as a witness against these people?”
Then he said:
"Stop!" I saw his eyes were shedding tears then.’
When these men (of the first pledge of `Aqaba) left (for Madinah) the Prophet sent with them Mus`ab and instructed him to read the Quran to them and to teach them Islam and to give them instruction about religion. In Madinah, Mus`ab was called ‘the reader.’ (Seerah Ibn Hisham)
Another well-known case concerns Mu`adh who was sent to Yemen to instruct the people there.
Quran Reciters among the Companions
More than twenty well-known persons who memorized the revelation, among them were Abu Bakr, `Umar, `Uthman, `Ali, Ibn Mas`ud, Abu Hurairah, `Abdullah ibn `Abbas, `Abdullah ibn `Amr ibn Al-`As, `A'ishah, Hafsah, and Umm Salamah.
From among these, the Prophet himself recommended especially the following:
“Take (learn) the Quran from four: `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud, Salim, Mu`adh and Ubay ibn Ka`b.”
Another report informs us about those Companions who had memorized the Quran in its entirety and gone over it with the Prophet before his death. Qatada asked Anas ibn Malik, ‘Who collected the Quran at the time of the Prophet?’ He replied, ‘Four, all of whom were from the Ansar: Ubay ibn Ka`b, Mu`adh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit and Abu Zaid.’
It is therefore certain that the Quran had been memorized by the Companions of the Prophet during his lifetime.
“Al-Itqan” by Jalalud-Din as-Suyuti
The Isnad System
One of the most pressing issues in the eyes of the early Muslims was the protection of the sanctity of the Quran. Numerous times throughout the Quran and sayings of the Prophet ﷺ, the Muslims are reminded that the Jews and Christians corrupted their texts over time, which now cannot be taken as authentic. As a result, early Muslims developed a system for ensuring that the Quran and hadith would not be subject to change by human error, either intentional or unintentional.
The system that developed is known as the isnad system. The isnad system emphasized the sanad, of a particular saying. For example, in the hadith compilation of Bukhari, each hadith is preceded by a chain of narrators that goes from Bukhari back to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This chain is known as a sanad. To ensure that the hadith is authentic, each narrator in the chain must be known to be reliable, have a good memory, be trustworthy, and have other righteous qualities.
The isnad system worked to preserve the sanctity of the Quran as well, as it prevented people from making erroneous claims that could then be accepted as fact. Zaid bin Thabit used a isnad system in his work compiling the Quran during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, and the growth of the isnad system in subsequent decades helped protect the text from being altered in any way. This tradition continued among the Companions after the Prophet's death and, later, among their students, and all generations of Muslims that have followed, until today.
The author himself has an unbroken sanad (chain of transmitters) of teachers and Quran reciters going back to the Prophet Muhammad.
Quran’s Written Text
As far as the written text is concerned, one may distinguish three stages of compilation and transmission:
1. In the time of the Prophet:
2. In the time of Abu Bakr
3. In the time of `Uthman
1. In The Time of the Prophet
While writing was not widespread among the people in Arabia at the time of the Prophet, there were people who reportedly did write. It is said of Waraqah, Khadijah's cousin, that he had been converted to Christianity in the pre-Islamic period
"and used to write Arabic and write of the Gospel in Arabic as much as God wished him to write."
The Prophet himself did much to encourage the Muslims to learn to write. It is related that some of the Quraish, who were taken prisoners at the battle of Badr, regained their freedom after they had taught some of the Muslims the art of writing.
The Quran was dictated by the Prophet
The Quran was not only written down by those Companions who did so on their own initiative. Indeed, the Prophet, when a revelation came, called for the scribe and dictated to him. The Prophet while in Madinah had several such scribes, among whom Zaid bin Thabit was very prominent. M. M. Azami, in his book Kuttab An-Nabi mentions 48 scribes who used to write for the Prophet.
Narrated Bara' that when
“Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and those who strive and fight in the cause of God.”
was revealed, the Prophet said: "Call Zaid for me and let him bring the board, the ink pot and the scapula bone." Then he said: "Write: Not equal are those believers…" (Bukhari)
It is also reported that material upon which the revelation had been written down was kept in the house of the Prophet.
Another report informs us that when people came to Madinah to learn about Islam, they were provided with 'copies of the chapters of the Qur'an, to read and learn them by heart'.
Why was no Book left by the Prophet?
The Prophet Muhammad did not present to his Companions the revelation collected and arranged in a single written volume. There are a number of good reasons for this:
- Because the revelation did not come down in one piece, but at intervals and was received continuously until the end of the Prophet's life.
- Because some verses were abrogated in the course of revelation, and therefore flexibility needed to be maintained.
- The ayat and surahs were not always revealed in their final order, but were arranged later.
- The Prophet lived only nine days after the last revelation and was severely ill.
2. In the time of Abu Bakr
The Quran was put in a book form after the Battle of Yamamah (11AH/633CE), after the Prophet’s death, during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr. Many companions became martyrs at that battle, and it was feared that unless a written copy of the entire revelation was produced, large parts of the Quran might be lost with the death of those who had memorized it.
Therefore, Zaid ibn Thabit was requested by Abu Bakr to head a committee which would gather together the scattered recordings of the Quran.
To safeguard the compilation from errors, the committee accepted only material which had been written down in the presence of the Prophet himself, and which could be verified by at least two reliable witnesses who had actually heard the Prophet recite the passage in question. Once completed and unanimously approved by the Prophet’s Companions, these sheets were kept with the Caliph Abu Bakr (d. 13AH/634CE), then passed on to the Caliph Umar (13-23AH/634-644CE), and then Umar’s daughter and the Prophet’s widow, Hafsah.
“Al-Itqan” by Jalalud-Din as-Suyuti
“Sahifa Hammam ibn Munabbih” by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah
3. In the time of `Uthman
The third Caliph Uthman requested Hafsah to send him the manuscript of the Quran which was in her safekeeping, and ordered the production of several bounded copies of it. This task was entrusted to the Companions Zaid ibn Thabit, Abdullah ibn Az-Zubair, Sa’eed ibn Al-’As, and Abdur-Rahman ibn Al-Harith ibn Hisham. Upon completion (in 25AH/646CE), Uthman returned the original manuscript to Hafsah and sent the copies to the major Islamic provinces.
Ancient Written Copies of Quran Today
The historical credibility of the Quran is further established by the fact that one of the copies sent out by the Caliph Uthman is still in existence today. It lies in the Museum of the City of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. According to Memory of the World Program, UNESCO, an arm of the United Nations, ‘it is the definitive version, known as the Mushaf of Uthman.’
Figure 1 This manuscript, held by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, is the earliest existent written version of the Quran. It is the definitive version, known as the Mushaf of Othman. Image courtesy of Memory of the World Register, UNESCO.
A facsimile of the mushaf in Tashkent is available at the Columbia University Library in the US. This copy is proof that the text of the Quran we have in circulation today is identical with that of the time of the Prophet and his companions. A copy of the mushaf sent to Syria (duplicated before a fire in 1310AH/1892CE destroyed the Jaami’ Masjid where it was housed) also exists in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, and an early manuscript on gazelle parchment exists in Dar al-Kutub as-Sultaniyyah in Egypt. More ancient manuscripts from all periods of Islamic history found in the Library of Congress in Washington, the Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin (Ireland) and the London Museum have been compared with those in Tashkent, Turkey and Egypt, with results confirming that there have not been any changes in the text from its original time of writing.
The Institute for Koranforschung, for example, in the University of Munich (Germany), collected over 42,000 complete or incomplete ancient copies of the Quran. After around fifty years of research, they reported that there was no variance between the various copies, except the occasional mistakes of the copyist which could easily be ascertained. This Institute was unfortunately destroyed by bombs during WWII.
The Muslim World, 1940, Vol.30, p.357-358
Yusuf Ibrahim al-Nur, Ma’ al-Masaahif, Dubai: Dar al-Manar, 1st ed., 1993, p.113
Bilal Philips, Usool at-Tafseer, Sharjah: Dar al-Fatah, 1997, p.157
Mohammed Hamidullah, Muhammad Rasullullah, Lahore: Idara-e-Islamiat, n.d., p.179.