By Firas Alkhateeb
12 June 2015
Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, ordered a committee to be organized, under the leadership of Zaid bin Thabit, to collect all the written pieces of Qur’an that were spread throughout the Muslim community. Because of the enormous responsibility of not accidentally altering the words of the Qur’an, he only accepted pieces of parchment with Qur’an on them had to have been written down in the presence of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and there had to be two witnesses who can attest to that fact.
These fragments of Qur’an that he collected were each compared with the memorized Qur’an itself, ensuring that there was no discrepancy between the written and oral versions.
When the task was completed, a finalized book of all the verses was compiled and presented to Abu Bakr, who secured it in the archives of the young Muslim state in Madinah. It can be assumed with certainty that this copy that Abu Bakr had matched exactly the words that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had spoken because of the numerous memorizers of Qur’an present in Madinah, coupled with the disseminated pieces of parchment on which it was recorded. Had there been discrepancies, the people of Madinah would have raised the issue. There is, however, no record of any opposition to Abu Bakr’s project or its outcome.
During Uthman’s caliphate (644-656), a new issue arose in the Muslim community: Pronunciation. During the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him), the Qur’an was revealed in seven different dialects (qiras). The dialects differed slightly in their pronunciation of certain letters and words, but the overall meaning was unchanged.
It was mentioned by the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself, and there are numerous sayings of his describing the authenticity of all seven dialects that are recorded in the Hadith compilations of Bukhari and Muslim. The reason for there being different dialects for the Qur’an was to make it easier for different tribes around the Arabian Peninsula to learn and understand it.
During Uthman’s reign, people coming into the Muslim world at its periphery, in places like Persia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and North Africa were beginning to learn the Qur’an. An issue arose for them when it came to pronunciation of words, as they would hear different Arabs pronouncing the same verses differently.
Although the different pronunciations were sanctioned by the Prophet (peace be upon him) and there was no inherent harm in people reciting and teaching them, it led to confusion among new non-Arab Muslims.
Uthman responded by commissioning a group to come together, organize the Qur’an according to the dialect of the tribe of Quraish, and spread the Quraishi dialect to all parts of the empire. Uthman’s team (which again included Zaid bin Thabit) compiled a Qur’an into one book, known as a mushaf (from the word for page, sahifa) based on first hand manuscripts along with the memories of the best Qur’an reciters of Madinah.
This mushaf was then compared with the copy that Abu Bakr commissioned, to make sure there were no discrepancies. Uthman then ordered numerous copies of the mushaf to be made, which were sent to far off provinces throughout the empire, along with reciters who would teach the masses the Qur’an.
Because the Qur’an was now compiled and being produced on a regular basis, there was no need for the numerous fragments of verses that people had in their possession. He thus ordered that those fragments be destroyed so they cannot be used in the future to cause confusion among the masses.
Although Orientalists use this incident to try to prove the erroneous claim that there were some discrepancies that Uthman wanted to eliminate, that is a simplistic way of looking at the event.
The entire community in Madinah, including numerous eminent Companions such as Ali ibn Abi Talib, willingly went along with this plan, and no objections were voiced. Had he been eliminating legitimate differences, the people of Madinah would have surely objected or even revolted against Uthman, neither of which happened. Instead, the mushaf of Uthman was accepted by the entire community as authentic and correct.
The isnad system
One of the most pressing issues in the eyes of the early Muslims was the protection of Qur’an’s sanctity. Numerous times throughout the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him), 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 an isnad system for ensuring that the Qur’an and Hadith would not be subject to change by human error, either intentional or unintentional.
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 (peace be upon him). 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 early Muslims placed huge emphasis on this system for determining the authenticity of Hadith as well as verses from the Qur’an. If someone were to claim to have had a verse that was not in the canonical text of Uthman’s mushaf, scholars would look at the chain that person claimed went back to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and determined from it if there was a chance that it was authentic. Clearly, anyone forging verses of the Qur’an would not be able to connect it to the Prophet (peace be upon him), according to the isnad system.
The isnad system thus worked to preserve the sanctity of the Qur’an as well as the Hadith, as it prevented people from making erroneous claims that could then be accepted as fact. Through the focus on the reliability of the sanad, the reliability of the verses or Hadith themselves could be ascertained.
Zaid bin Thabit used a proto-isnad system in his work compiling the Qur’an 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.
The sanctity of the Qur’an cannot be boiled down to a few thousand words. It is clear through the introductory issues mentioned here that the text of the Qur’an clearly was not altered from the time of Muhammad (peace be upon him) to the present day.