THE COMPILATION OF THE QURAN

Muslims proudly boast that the Quran is the best preserved of all revelations and that the Bible, with its many versions, many errors and many contradictions is corrupted beyond all recognition. Some say that the Quran was compiled within the lifetime of Muhammad. Others say that the prophet’s recitations were entrusted to hundreds of eidetic-minded companions, who guarded the Quran from all error until it was written down. However, it is interesting to note that these opinions are not supported by the most treasured and trusted sources of Islamic history; that is, the hadith historians do not at all support the popular idea of the word-perfect transmission of the Quran. Any person, with only a little knowledge or Islamic history, will come to understand that these common notions are, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, careless or deceptive. I have, therefore, endeavoured to report, in a more concise form, the research of others on this topic – the only thing that I have to add to this is my relentlessly logical, philosophical perspective. I hope that this will be a useful starting point for those who wish to research this topic further. (This essay is more or less a regurgitation of a work John Gilchrist, Jam' Al-Qur'an - The Codification of the Qur'an Text, available online.) THE OFFICIAL UNOFFICIAL VERSION After the death of Muhammad the Quran lay scattered in people's memories and written down, here and there, on odds and ends. At that moment, no matter how thoroughly memorised it was, there arose a need to gather these recitations into a single, authoritative volume, to protect and preserve the revelation and to settle any future disputes as to which reading of the Quran was correct. I imagine that many people undertook this task, of their own initiative, for their own purposes, or for general consumption; in a very informal way or in an official capacity. However, the ultimate, tragic catalyst, which led to the compilation of the Quran as we know it, was the Battle of Yamama, wherein many prominent memorisers (huffas) died, reminding everyone that human memory is not fool proof, especially when that fool is waving a sword. Thus, Abu Bakr, the first caliphate of the young Islamic nation, requested the compilation of the Quran, by the trusted scholar Zaid Bin Thabit.
Narrated Zaid bin Thabit: Abu Bakr as-Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed. Then Abu Bakr said (to me): "You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah's Apostle (saw). So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur'an and collect it (in one book)". By Allah! If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur'an. Then I said to Abu Bakr, "How will you do something which Allah's Apostle (saw) did not do?" Abu Bakr replied "By Allah, it is a good project". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.477). (Emphasis mine.)

Notice, here, (1) that Zaid was ordered to, “search,” (2) the great reluctance of Zaid expressed in his hyperbolic description of the task and (3) the clear statement that Muhammad had not compiled the Quran into a single volume. Thus, we see that the popular notions of the Quran being compiled within Mohammed's lifetime, or of many companions memorising the entire Quran, are not in keeping with history: if many people knew the entire text of the Quran, the task of the compilation of the Quran
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would not be, “heavier than shifting a mountain”; it would be a simple matter of dictation. Similarly, if the Quran, were already compiled somewhere, such as Muhammad's household (as some suggest) then Zaid would not have been ordered to, “search,” and Zaid would not have described as such a heavy undertaking. (Early hadith literature confirms this fact.1) THE BATTLE OF YAMAMA As an aside, it is interesting to consider, the indications of the Battle of Yamama, as recorded in the following hadith:
Many (of the passages) of the Qur'an that were sent down were known by those who died on the day of Yamama ... but they were not known (by those who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman (by that time) collected the Qur'an, nor were they found with even one (person) after them. (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p.23). (Emphasis mine.)

Thus, we observe that a section of the Quran – the final verbatim revelation, from God to man – was lost, once and for all, at this tragic battle. To minimise the damage of this hadith, Muslim apologists will argue, that it was within God plan, that certain verses would not be codified in the final version of the Quran. However, it is nevertheless true, that unique portions of God's Word -- portions not in the current Quran -- were lost on the day and the damage of that is difficult to minimise. For, either God disposed of verses, which deserved to be thrown away, or he threw away verses that didn’t deserve to be thrown away. Thus, on the one hand, God issued revelations that were disposable in content, and, on the other hand, God destroyed extremely valuable verses. Neither option makes sense. It is more likely that God isn’t behind this revelation whatsoever. Were I a Muslim – which I am not – I would have trouble with this incident in Islam’s early history. SHELVED Once Zaid had completed his task, his monumental effort was shelved, for personal use, or else to gather dust. (It was not, for instance, distributed to the general populace, for general acceptance.) From there, it was handed down – in relative obscurity – from one caliphate to the next (from Abu Bakr to Umar) and thereafter to the daughter of Umar, Hafsa, as we read in the following hadith: “Then the complete manuscript (copy) of the Qur'an remained with Abu Bakr till he died, then with Umar, till the end of his life, and then with Hafsa, the daughter of Umar (ra). (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.478).” The fact that this version was requested by the caliphate, and executed by such a great and trusted scholar, makes this an extremely important, reliable text. It is, therefore, especially perplexing that this version was not released for public consumption, to be checked by other memorisers and read by the people. One might kindly regard this sheltering as a protective gesture, yet there is nothing to suggest that copying and
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So I started looking for the Qur'an and collecting it from (what was written on) palm-leaf stalks, thin white stones, and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last verse of suraht atTauba (repentance) with Abi Khuzaima al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.478). This tradition emphasises the search for and collection of the Quran, that it was gathered from different men and that the last verse was not found in Muhammad’s household. Thus, it was not simply found with the memorisers or with Muhammad’s household.
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distributing the text would do some unexplained harm, from which the text needed protection. This interim obscurity is best explained by the fact that neither Zaid, nor Abu Bakr, nor Umar saw this version as the final definitive version, the book to end all books, the one and only Quran as we know it. BOOK BURNING The next great catalyst for the standardisation of the Quran came also from military origins, but this time from squabbling soldiers rather than a bloody battlefield. A certain general led an expedition into Syria, drawing on troops from Syria and Iraq. As it happened, the Syrian soldiers had a different reading to the Iraqi soldiers (the former following the text of Ubayy ibn Ka'b, and the latter the text of Abdullah ibn Mas'ud.) The general, as astute as generals ought to be, saw a potential problem on the horizon, and took the matter to Uthman, the successor to Umar.
Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sha'm and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur'an, so he said to Uthman, 'O Chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur'an) as Jews and the Christians did before'. So Uthman sent a message to Hafsa, saying, 'Send us the manuscripts of the Qur'an so that we may compile the Qur'anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you'. Hafsa sent It to Uthman. Uthman then ordered Zaid ibn Thabit, Abdullah bin az-Zubair, Sa'id bin al-As, and AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, 'In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur'an, then write it in the dialect of the Quraish as the Qur'an was revealed in their tongue'. They did so, and when they had written many copies, Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur'anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p.479).

If Uthman chose the Iraqi version over the Syrian version, or vice versa, he would start a war instead of ending it: both parties knew their competition, to some extent, and might have had reasons for choosing the one version over the other; neither party would take kindly to having the others’ version forced on them. Thus, to settle the dispute, Uthman chose an independent, unknown version, which both parties highly regarded, but which neither party could object to, because it was unknown to them. It was a shrewd, expedient, political move, which angered and placated both parties equally, but at least there was no winner or loser. However, given the choice, neither party would give up their version willingly. Thus Uthman would have to take what the people would not give up willingly and destroy it. Both versions were loose ends that Uthman needed to tie up. Thus arose the sinister book-burning bonfires of Uthman (who I daresay has a fairly villainous-sounding name.) The mere mention of book-burning gives the Western mind chills, but it poses an even greater challenge to the Islamic mind: the mere fact that Uthman felt the need to burn other versions, suggests that the differences between different versions (all three versions) were significant. (It also suggests that these variants were dear to people and would not be given up willingly.) Thus, once again, the notion of one incorruptible version, compiled within Mohammed's lifetime, or of many word-perfect copies indelibly etched on the minds of memorisers, evaporates as a fiction. If these variants existed today, we know the extent of these differences, but, as it
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is, the metaphorical smoke of burning books hangs ominously, obscuring this crucial event in Islamic history. ABDULLA IBN MAS’UD Needless to say that Abdulla Ibn Mas’ud, the editor (for want of a better word) of the Iraqi codex, was quite irate at the prospect of all his hard work going up in smoke, and he had good reason to be. Mas’ud came with the highest prophetic endorsements. Muhammad himself related that Mas’ud was the best-of-the-best to learn the Quran from.2 Thus, we must infer that Mas’ud was the most reliable of all the memorisers, and ten-to-one would have compiled a better Quran than anyone else. (Zaid was not even mentioned in Muhammad’s top-four list.) Mas’ud himself boldly asserted his own expertise.3 Mas’ud even scathingly remarked that he had recited seventy surahs perfectly before Zaid had even converted to Islam. 4,5,6 Thus, we see that the source of Mas’ud’s anger was not a matter of slight variations of intonation and vocalisation – as some would have us believe – it was a matter of authority and qualifications. Mas’ud believed that he was the best man for the job – and arguably Muhammad also believed that he was the best man for the job – yet his work was consigned to the flames. THE VARIATIONS Fortunately we are not in the dark with regards to all the variations between Zaid and Mas’ud’s texts, since historians recorded many of these variations. The first, which is more like a rumour, (a possibly true rumour) is that Mas’ud omitted three surahs of the Quran. This fact was confirmed and denied by certain early commentators. Further than that, Gilchrist (the author whose work I am recapitulating) points out that the historian, Ibn Abi Dawud in his Kitab al-Masahif, dedicates a full nineteen pages to variations between the two texts, and that no fewer than a hundred differences are found in the surahtul-Baqarah hadith alone. To give you some idea of these differences, some examples will suffice: • While Zaid’s version reads, "those who devour usury will not stand". Ibn Mas'ud's text adds, they couldn’t stand on the, "Day of Resurrection". (2:275)
Narrated Masruq: Abdullah bin Mas'ud was mentioned before Abdullah bin Amr who said, "That is a man I still love, as I heard the Prophet (saw) saying, 'Learn the recitation of the Qur'an from four: from Abdullah bin Mas'ud - he started with him - Salim, the freed slave of Abu Hudhaifa, Mu'adh bin Jabal and Ubai bin Ka'b". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 5, p.96) 3 “Narrated Abdullah (bin Mas'ud) (ra): By Allah other than Whom none has the right to be worshipped! There is no surah revealed in Allah's Book but I know at what place it was revealed; and there is no verse revealed in Allah's Book but I know about whom it was revealed. And if I know that there is somebody who knows Allah's Book better than I, 4 Abdullah ibn Mas'ud said, "I recited from the messenger of Allah (saw) seventy surahs which I had perfected before Zaid ibn Thabit had embraced Islam". (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p.17). 5 "I acquired directly from the messenger of Allah (saw) seventy surahs when Zaid was still a childish youth - must I now forsake what I acquired directly from the messenger of Allah?" (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p.15). 6 "The people have been guilty of deceit in the reading of the Qur'an. I like it better to read according to the recitation of him (Prophet) whom I love more than that of Zayd Ibn Thabit. By Him besides Whom there is no god! I learnt more than seventy surahs from the lips of the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, while Zayd Ibn Thabit was a youth, having two locks and playing with the youth". (Ibn Sa'd, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 2, p.444).
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Zaid’s version reads, "Fast for three days". Mas’ud’s read, "Fast for three successive days". (5:91) • Zaid’s version reads, "Verily this is my path". Masud’s read, "This is the path of Your Lord". (6:153) • Zaid’s version reads, "and his wives are their mothers". Mas'ud's text added, "and he is their father". (33:6)7 Many of the differences were slight differences in pronunciation or the form of a word. Some differences were slight variations that altered the meaning of a word and in some cases words were added which didn’t affect the meaning of the text. However, the point is merely that (1) these differences were not just differences of pronunciation – as some people claim – and (2) the Quran might not be the word-perfect record that some people make it out to be. Gilchrist goes on to mention that, the extent of the differences between Zaid’s version and all other codices (not just Mas’ud’s) was so great that they, “fill up no less than three hundred and fifty pages of Jeffery's Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur'an […] one can understand why the others [other versions] were ordered to be destroyed.” UBAYY IBN KA’B Meanwhile, to add insult to injury, the Syrian codex, collected by Ubayy Ibn Ka’b, also had an uncanny habit of agreeing more with Mas’ud’s text than Zaid’s 8 and, once again, to aggravate the situation further, Ibn Ka’b came with pre-eminent recommendations from the prophet, who called him “the best reader” 9 out of everyone. (Gilchrist mentions a few differences, for instance, that Zaid’s version reads, "And We inscribed therein for them (the Jews)." Ubayy’s version reads, "And Allah sent down therein to the Children of Israel." (5:48)) In the hadith of Abu Ubaid we read that that, while Zaid’s version reads, “amarnaa mutrafiihaa fafasaquu” Ubayy’s version read, “ba'athnaa akaabira mujri-miihaa fdmakaruu.”10 In addition, interestingly enough, while Mas’ud’s text was said to have omitted to surahs, Ubayy’s text is said to have included two more, The Haste and The Separation. (The full texts are recorded in the source.) 11 Thus, again, history does not present us with one verbatim Word of God, but with multiple texts (some more legitimate than others) and many discrepancies, and not just errors of pronunciation but many meaning-altering textual variations also.

These differences are from various traditions noted by Nöldeke and Jeffery in John Gilchrist Jam' AlQur'an - The Codification of the Qur'an Text
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The following are examples of where Ubayy agreed with Mas’ud differed from Zaid: 1. For the standard reading wa yush-hidullaaha in surah 2.204 he read wa yastash-hidullaaha (cf. Nöldeke 3.83; Jeffery, p.120). 2. He omitted the words in khiftum from surah 4.101 (cf. Nöldeke 3.85; Jeffery, p.127). 3. He read mutathab-thibiina for muthabthabiina in surah 4.143 (cf. Jeffery, p.127). (From John Gilchrist Jam' Al-Qur'an - The Codification of the Qur'an Text.) 9 Affan ibn Muslim informed us ... on the authority of Anas ibn Malik, he on the authority of the Prophet, may Allah bless him; he said: The best reader (of the Qur'an) among my people is Ubayyi ibn Ka'b. (Ibn Sa'd, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 2, p.441). 10 Nöldeke 3.88; Jeffery, p.140. 17.16 in John Gilchrist Jam' Al-Qur'an - The Codification of the Qur'an Text 11 As-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, p.152-153 in John Gilchrist Jam' Al-Qur'an - The Codification of the Qur'an Text
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THE MUSLIM REACTION The Muslim might react to these facts in many ways. The usual tactic (in any religion) is to minimise and rationalise these findings until one forgets or grows accustomed to them. However, there is some danger in denying these things altogether. To deny these facts is to attack the reliability of trusted hadith traditions, which is really to attack Islam itself. This might not seem like a problem, however, one must remember that the Muslim relies on these hadith traditions for the interpretations of certain crucial verses (such as the verses which suggest that all Muslims will go to hell. 12) Thus, the Muslim is in a catch-22 situation: either they must accept that the Quran is not word-perfect or they must reject certain hadith traditions, which they rely on heavily, especially to iron out certain controversial verses. On the other hand, the Muslim might desire to reject only certain parts of hadith traditions, as they sometimes do with certain other documents. However, this would be an essentially dishonest (or at the very least inconsistent) undertaking, to ignore the evidence that doesn’t suite them, to protect a theory not supported by any evidence. Now, faith might sometimes be acceptable, in the absence of evidence (although I would not recommend it). However, it is quite a different thing to believe in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. That is not a step of faith but a step of insanity. However, we will consider this step further in the next paragraph. Naturally, it is impossible to fully anticipate the Muslims reaction, however, I anticipate that any response to this essay will lack any and all historical references or will involve a blatant misuse of early hadith traditions.) STARTING ASSUMPTIONS One might do well to ask, in view of all this, on what basis the Muslim does believe in the word-perfect transmission of the Quran at all? The short answer is that they do not believe because of historical evidence but for certain other reasons. First, the Muslim must, for obvious reasons, believe in the word-perfect transmission of the Quran: to prove that the Quran is reliable and authentic, they must (at bare minimum) prove that it is the exact Word of God; a little error creates a lot of doubt, and it stands to reason that God would protect his final revelation from both error and doubt. (This fact led me to formulate the rule of doubt, a short statement of which, I have included below.) THE RULE OF DOUBT: The more reasonable doubt that surrounds a faith, the less likely it is that the faith is true, and the relationship is hyperbolic; that is, the likelihood of the faith being false increases exponentially as reasonable doubt increases. The true God would not allow his true religion to be overwhelmed by uncertainty and reasonable doubt. A little reasonable doubt may be permissible, but as doubt increases, the likelihood of truth drops off suddenly, particularly if this is regarding a crucial part of the reliability of the faith, such as the early history of the faith, or, in this case, the history of the compilation of the Quran. Any reasonable doubt surrounding a true faith should evaporate on closer inspection, but the reasonable doubt surrounding a false faith should only increase.

(There will be no one of you who will not enter it (Hell). This was an inevitable decree of your Lord. Afterwards he may save some of the pious, God-fearing Muslims out of the burning fire.” 19.71-72
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Thus, the Quran must be perfect, or else it is not from God, in which case a quarter of the world is in the wrong religion. Thus, for Muslims to remain Muslim, they must believe in spite of all the historical evidence or they must discredit the historical evidence or they must invent new evidence. Second, the Muslim believes they have many ironclad reasons for believing in the Quran’s divinity: the inimitability of the Quran, the mathematical miracle of the Quran, the scientific/medical miracle, etc. Thus, for several reasons, the Quran must be divine and, therefore, anything that contradicts it must be false and everything that supports it is probably true. Thus, the Muslim goes back over history, accepting what he likes and ignoring what he doesn’t. (I might mention that this is not the only time that the Muslim does this.) Yet, we must caution – according to the rule of doubt (stated above) that no possible proofs can override the mounting evidence, from reliable (internal) sources, concerning the reliability of the Quranic text (or lack thereof). God would never allow the history of the compilation of the Quran to be so completely corrupted. It is far more likely that God is not the protector of this revelation. CONCLUSION In short, the Quran as we know it, was one of a handful of versions, some of which where written by more qualified persons, and there were many (mostly small) variations between the versions, but that the other versions were burnt, by a sinister caliphate – who enjoyed no especial qualifications – for no especial reason, except expediency. The impression one gets, overall, is that the surahs are mostly right – plus or minus one or two surahs – the order is mostly right – give or take a few changes -- the titles are mostly right – except for the ones Muhammad didn’t name – the wording is mostly right – plus or minus a few phrases and clauses – and beyond that there are the hundreds of (really very tiny) variations that don’t really affect the meaning at all. And all these variations – in one variant codex or another -- are recorded, partly in this tradition and partly in that. Thus, we have a scenario of errors on every level, some possible and others probably, most of which we know about, but quite possibly many we don’t. Then there are the verses that were abrogated (a troubling notion, in itself): some improvements possibly lost, some abrogated verses possibly included, and perhaps some improvements and abrogations side-by-side in the Quran. If we knew the extent of the variations, and abrogations, we might be able to put our minds at ease, yet when there are so many unknown variables flying about, we do not know whether it is a swarm or a plague. And really, the sheer amount of small errors, must inevitably add up to something significant, just as many tiny termites (insignificant on their own) might eventually make the entire house crumble. The best that can be said of the Quran that we have come to know, I should think, is that it is, “almost nearly entirely as good as the best versions,” or that it is, “mostly, probably not all that different from the verbatim Word of God,” although, there is still much doubt and uncertainty leftover from bloody battles, bickering soldiers, flaming books, buzzing gnats and the like. In a word, the history of the Quran is, well, infested. And if the rule of reasonable doubt is in any way true – that is, if the likelihood of falsehood increases drastically as reasonable doubt increases normally – then we cannot accept this revelation as even slightly divine.

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