Textual Variants in the Qur’an

An Information Sheet Muslims often accuse Christians of corrupting the Bible. They point to the fact that textual variants exist in Biblical manuscripts as evidence of this. The argument, so it goes, is that if there is any variation at all in the text, that means God did not preserve it and that it has been corrupted. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the presence of variations in the manuscripts means the original readings are lost and cannot be recovered. In reality, most textual variants in the Bible are quite minor, and it is easy to determine what the original reading is in the majority of those cases (upwards of 99%). Less than 1% of variants in the New Testament are actually of any real significance. Also, the argument of corruption based on textual variation betrays a double standard: If variants demonstrate corruption in a text, then variants in the Qur‟an should prove its corruption as well. The standard Muslim claim (based on Surah 15:9) is that no such variation exists in the Qur‟an. The following opinion expressed b y Islamic apologist Mazhar Kazi represents the prevailing view amongst Muslims: Muslims and non-Muslims both agree that no change has ever occurred in the text of the Qur‟an. The above prophecy for the eternal preservation and purity of the Qur‟an came true not only for the text of the Qur‟an, but also for the most minute details of its punctuation marks as well.... It is a miracle of the Qur‟an that no change has occurred in a single word, a single [letter of the] alphabet, a single punctuation mark, or a single diacritical mark in the text of the Qur‟an during the last fourteen centuries.1 However, as David Wood has pointed out in his article Has the Qur’an Been Perfectly Preserved?, there are many problems with this claim. It is not supported by the Islamic Traditions as found in the hadiths and other Islamic literature. For example, according to Sahih al Bukhari, the text in Surah 33:23 had only one witness. Most other verses were verified by at least two witnesses, but Muslims must take it by faith that this one witness was able to remember this one verse correctly. This is to say nothing of the many verses that were known to the qurra who died at the battle of Yamama, but were not known to the ones who survived. Muslims must take it by faith that the verses that were lost weren‟t meant to go into the Qur‟an, since to believe otherwise would leave one to conclude that verses of the Qur‟an had been irretrievably lost during those early years. The rest of Wood‟s arguments will not be repeated here, but it is recommended that the reader look up Has the Qur’an Been Perfectly Preserved? to see the documented evidence for oneself. Qur’anic Textual Criticism That being said, if one does not accept the evidence from the Islamic traditions, there is also the physical evidence from various Qur‟an manuscripts. This information is not widely available because the field of Qur‟anic textual criticism is still in its infancy. However, some significant advances have been made in recent years. For example, there is the Corpus Coranicum project going on in Germany, which is aimed at producing a critical analysis of available Qur‟an manuscripts with the long term goal of producing a critical edition of the Qur‟an (similar to attempts to produce a critical edition of the New Testament, which yielded what is known as the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament). Though the English language website for the Corpus Coranicum is down, excerpts from it have been mirrored in other websites. This is what the website had to say about the project: The project “Corpus Coranicum” contains two unworked fields of qur‟anic studies: (1) the documentation of the qur‟anic text in his handwritten as well as orally transmitted form and (2) a comprehensive commentary which elucidates the text within the framework of its historical process of development. Because of the ambiguity of the early defective writing system of the Qur‟anic manuscripts, a strict separation of the data on the one hand provided by manuscripts and on the other hand transmitted via the tradition of

Mazhar Kazi, 130 Evident Miracles in the Qur’an (Richmond Hill: Crescent Publishing House, 1997), pp. 42-43, as quoted by David Wood in “Has the Qur'an Been Perfectly Preserved?,” 4Truth.Net, <http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbworld.aspx?pageid=8589953021>.


recitation is recommended. The documentation of the Qur‟anic text will provide a documentation for both traditions and compare them afterwards. The planned commentary focuses on a historical perspective, the Qur‟an seen as a text which evolved through the period of more than twenty years, thereby getting formal and content-related differences through abrogation and re-definitions within the text. Furthermore, the commentary is based on an inclusion of the judeo-christian intertexts and looks at the Qur‟an as a document of the Late Antiquity. “Corpus Coranicum” is in the early stage of its development; the first results are planned to be published online in 2009.2 So far, the results have still not been published. Hopefully, the research made by this project will be made available over the next 15 years. In the meantime, there have been some groundbreaking publications in the field of Qur‟anic textual criticism. One such publication is Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts by Keith Small (which I strongly recommend the reader obtain). This book provides extensive documentation of the types of variants found in extant Qur‟an manuscripts, with the hope that the information may be used to produced a critical text of the Qur‟an. Small writes concerning the lack of such a critical text: It is widely acknowledged that there has never been a critical text produced for the Qur‟an based on extant manuscripts, as has been done with other sacred books and bodies of ancient literature. The current printed texts of the Qur‟an are based on medieval Islamic tradition instead of the collation and analysis of extant manuscripts. In other literary disciplines it is almost taken for granted that scholarly study of a text must start with a text based on the collation and analysis of the oldest and best manuscripts available for that text. Qur‟anic studies operates with an open knowledge of this lack concerning the Qur‟an, and as such methods and their results have had to be adapted to this fundamental deficiency.3 In the attempts to categorize the different Qur‟anic texts, certain categories are utilized by textual scholars which are drawn from textual criticism of other books (such as the New Testament). These categories are the following: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Predecessor text-form: the oral or written sources the author used. Autographic text-form: the form the author wrote as it left his desk. Authoritative text-form: a form of text that acquired a degree of local geographic consensual authority. Canonical text-form: a form of the text that acquired a degree of wide geographic consensual authority. Interpretive text-form: any later intentional reformulation for stylistic, practical, or dogmatic reasons.4

Why are these categories important? Because they are the categories by which we may understand the transmission of the Qur‟an and the differences in the text in these various stages. The Qur‟an underwent two major recensions, first under the caliph Uthman and then later under the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik. Small further notes: After Muhammad‟s death, there were collections of this material in use among his Companions that became authoritative versions in their own right. This is seen in that they were recited and used in the different geographic locations where these Companions went in the early Islamic conquests. These can be considered Authoritative text-forms, each authoritative in its own right and in its own geographical sphere. It was the use of these different versions that allegedly caused conflicts so severe they threatened the unity of the empire and prompted „Uthman to create a single version. The traditions recount that „Uthman did this using for a basis one Companion‟s version, „Umar‟s, but after „Umar‟s death it was in the care of his daughter Hafsa. „Uthman had this version edited, possibly including additional material as well as removing some material. This version of „Uthman‟s then became the Canonical text-form. Any later versions that improved the orthography, such as by al-Hajjaj and Ibn Mujahid, and any others that added consontantal pointing or vocalization notation system, could be termed Interpretive text-forms. If this action was taken by „Uthman, it prevented the possibility of fully recovering either the authoritative text-forms of the Companions, or the autographic predecessor text-forms of the Qur‟an.5

2 3

Roger Pearse, “Critical edition of the Koran in preparation?,” Roger Pearse, < http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/?p=3829>. Keith E. Small, Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011), 3. 4 Ibid., 7 5 Ibid., 8.

The precise extent of the revisions that were made under these two caliphs is not yet fully known, but given the reactions of various sectors of the Muslim community (eg. Ibn Mas‟ud and Ubayy bin Kab during the time of Uthman), the differences must have been quite significant to the Muslims then.

The San’a Manuscripts and Fogg’s Palimpsest The textual variants between canonical recitations of the Qur‟an (eg. The Hafs recitation, the Warsh recitation, etc.) as well as those found in the Topkapi and Samarqand manuscripts are quite minor, usually involving a difference in diacritical marks, or the addition of a long vowel at certain points. In only a few places do these variants affect the meaning of the text in any significant way. However, there is evidence that more significant variants existed earlier in the Qur‟an‟s history. This can be gleaned from the manuscripts found in the great mosque at San‟a, Yemen. What is interesting about these Qur‟ans is that they are palimpsests: sheets of parchment where the original text has been partially or completely scraped off and a different text has been written over it. The top text in these palimpsests contains only minor variants. However, when the manuscripts are illuminated with ultraviolet light, the text that was scraped off becomes visible. The results are quite interesting: Words and phrases have been changed, and entire verses have been rearranged. The fact that these kinds of variants only exist in palimpsests indicates that there was a period when there was more variation in the text of the Qur‟an, and the standardization of the text resulted in the removal of these variants (though it should be noted that even the text that was written over the original ink in the palimpsests does not line up with modern Qur‟ans perfectly). One notable San‟a manuscript is DAM 0 1-27.1, also known as Fogg‟s Palimpsest (pictured above left). It is typical of manuscripts found there. Ultraviolet photography has revealed many interesting variants that were erased later on to make the text conform better to the standard Qur‟anic text. For an example of such a correction, the following changes were made at Surah 2:222, where the reading originally matched that of Ibn Mas‟ud prior to its revision:6

Aside from the transposition of phrases in Surah 2:222, there are also some significant variants found in Surat atTawba. Compare the standard Qur‟anic text with the text from Fogg‟s palimpsest in Surah 9:73:7

The following image is taken from James White‟s “Opening Presentation, Bible/Qur'an Dialogue, Queens,” Youtube, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1yxtAg7V4s>. 7 The following images of Fogg‟s Palimpsest and their explanation taken from Oskar‟s “The end of the Quran as Muslims know it,” Answering Islam, <http://www.answering-islam.org/authors/oskar/palimpsest.html>.


Here, the word for “hell” (jahannamu) is replaced with a synonym, “the fire” (an-naaru), making it almost identical to a parallel text in Surah 24:57. While this and the previous variant seem minor, they do indicate that the text of the Qur‟an then was not as uniform as it is now. Another variant of note is in the next verse. This concerns the part of verse 74 that reads “They swear by Allah that they said nothing, but indeed they uttered blasphemy, and they did it after accepting Islam.” The standard text and the text in Fogg‟s Palimpsest are here placed side by side:

Note that instead of “they swear” (yahlifuna), the palimpsest contains “yaqsimuna.” In the gray area after the word “word” (kalimah), it is uncertain what the original text read, and what comes next, “and they did it after accepting Islam” (wakafaru baʿda is'lāmihim), is missing altogether. Finally, one last variant later in the same verse should be noted. The difference between the standard text and Fogg‟s Palimpsest is as such:

In the standard text of the Qur‟an, this section reads “...if they turn back, Allah will punish them with a grievous penalty in this life and in the Hereafter: They shall have none on earth to protect or help them.” However, notice that the reading in Fogg‟s palimpsest is shorter. It reads: “If they turn back, Allah will punish in this life: They shall have none on earth to protect or help them.” The Implications Much of the information presented in this sheet is not well known to the vast majority of Muslims. Information regarding textual variations in the Qur‟an was well known to Muslim scholars in pas t centuries, but had been largely forgotten by the twentieth century with the publication of the Cairo standard edition of the Qur‟an in the 1920s. The information presented here is to show that the uniformity of the Qur‟anic t ext cannot be taken for granted. There is plenty of documentary evidence that shows that it was not as uniform as is commonly believed by most Muslims. So what is one to make of this information? That is up to the individual reader. Whether the unearthing of these finds and the future publication of a critical edition of the Qur‟an will affect the way the text is seen in the Islamic world is still not known, although it does not appear likely. Muslims may argue that even though variants exist in the Qur‟anic tradition, the original text is still knowable and the variants do not detract from the overall preservation of the text. If one is to go that route however, one ought to be consistent and say that textual variation does not prove the corruption of the Bible either.

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