During the Makkan period

Though revealed verbally, the Qur’an consistently refers to itself as kitab (Book), as something written, indicating that it must be placed into written form. In fact verses were recorded from the earliest stages of Islam, even as the fledgling community suffered innumerable hardships under the wrath of Quraish. The following narration concerning ‘Umar bin al-Khattab, taken just prior to his conversion to Islam, helps illustrate this point:

One day Umar came out, his sword unsheathed, intending to make for the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) and some of his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) Companions who (he had been told) were gathered in a house at as-Safa. The congregation numbered forty, including women; also present were the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s uncle Hamza, Abu Bakr. ‘Ali, and others who had not migrated to Ethiopia. Nu‘aim encountered Umar and asked him where he was going. “I am making for Muhammad, the apostate who has split Quraish asunder and mocked their ways, who has insulted their beliefs and their gods, to kill him.” “You only deceive yourself, Umar,” he replied, “if you suppose that Bani ‘Abd Manaf will allow you to continue treading the earth if you dispose of Muhammad. Is it not better that you return to your family and resolve their affairs?” Umar was taken aback and asked what was the matter with his family. Nu‘aim said, “Your brother-in-law, your nephew Sa‘id, and your sister Fatima have followed Muhammad in his new religion, and it is best that you go and deal with them.” Umar hurried to his brother-in-law’s house, where Khabbab was reciting Surah Ta-Ha to them from a parchment. At the sound of Umar’s voice Khabbab hid in a small room, while Fatima took the parchment and placed it under her thigh …1

Umar’s angry quest that day culminated in his embrace of Islam; his stature and reputation proved a tremendous boon to those who, just a few hours before, he had meant to kill. The point of this tale is the parchment.

According to Ibn ‘Abbas, verses revealed in Makkah were recorded in Makkah,a statement echoed by az-Zuhri.3 ‘Abdullah b. Sa‘d bin Abi as-Sarh, the one scribe officially engaged in recording the Quran during this period,4 is accused by some of fabricating a few verses in the Quran – accusations which I have exposed elsewhere as baseless.5 Another candidate for official scribe is Khalid bin Sa‘id bin al-‘As, who states, “I was the first to write down ‘Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim’ ( In the Name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful).” 6

Al-Kattani cites this incident: when Rafi bin Malik al-Ansari attended al-‘Aqaba, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) handed him all the verses that had been revealed during the previous decade. Once back in Madinah, Rafi‘ gathered his tribe together and read these pages to them.7


During the Madani period

Scribes of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)

Regarding the Madani period we have a wealth of information including, at present, the names of approximately sixty-five Companions who functioned as scribes for the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) at one time or another:

Aban bin Sa‘ld, Abu Umama, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, Abu Bakr as-Siddlq, Abu Hudhaifa, Abu Sufyan, Abu Salama, Abu ‘Abas, Ubayy bin Ka‘b, al- Arqam, Usaid bin al-Hudair, Aus, Buraida, Bashir, Thabit bin Qais, Jafar bin Abi Talib, Jahm bin Sa‘d, Juhaim, Hatib, Hudhaifa, Husain, Hanzala, Huwaitib, Khalid bin Sa‘id, Khalid bin al-Walid, az-Zubair bin al-‘Awwam. Zubair bin Arqam, Zaid bin Thabit, Sa‘d bin ar-Rabi, Sa‘d bin ‘Ubada, Sa‘ld bin Sa’ld, Shurahbil bin Hasna, Talha, ‘Amir bin Fuhaira, ‘Abbas, ‘Abdullah bin al-Arqam, ‘Abdullah bin Abi Bakr, ‘Abdullah bin Rawaha, ‘Abdullah bin Zaid, ‘Abdullah bin Sa’d, ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abdullah, ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr, ‘Uthman bin‘Affan, ‘Uqba, al-‘Ala al-Hadrami, al-‘Ala bin ‘Uqba, ‘Ali bin Abl Talib, Umar bin al-Khattab, ‘Amr bin al-‘As, Muhammad bin Maslama, Mu’adh bin Jabal, Mu‘awiya, Ma’n bin ‘Adi, Mu‘aiqib, Mughira, Mundhir, Muhajir and Yazid bin Abl Sufyan. 8


The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s dictation of the Qur’an

Upon the descent of wahi, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) routinely called for one of his scribes to write down the latest verses.9

Zaid bin Thabit narrates that, because of his proximity to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s Mosque, he was often summoned as scribe whenever the wahy commenced.10 When the verse pertaining to jihad was revealed, the Prophet called on Zaid bin Thabit with inkpot and writing material (board or scapula bone) and began dictating; ‘Amr bin Um-Maktum al-Ama, sitting nearby, inquired of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), “What about me? for I am blind.” And so came,    11  غَيْرُ أُوْلِى ٱلضَّرَرِ   (“for those who are not among the disabled”).12

There is also evidence of proofreading after dictation; once the task of recording the verses was complete, Zaid would read them back to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) to ensure that no scribal errors had crept in.13


Recording the Qur’an was very common among companions

The prevalence of this practice among the Companions spurred the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) to declare that no one should record anything from him save for the Qur’an, “and whoever has written anything from me other than the Qur’an should erase it”,14 by which he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) meant that Qur’anic and non- Qur’anic (e.g. hadtlh) materials must not be written on the same sheet, so as to avoid any confusion.

In fact those who were unable to write often appeared in the Mosque, vellum and parchment in hand, requesting volunteers who might record for them.15 Based on the total number of scribes, and the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s custom of summoning them to record all new verses, we can safely assume that in his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) own lifetime the entire Qur’an was available in written form.


The arrangement of the Qur’an


The arrangement of verses within Surahs

It is commonly acknowledged that the arrangement of Ayat (verses) and Surahs (chapters) in the Qur’an is unique. The layout does not follow the chronological order of revelation, nor does it follow subject matter. What secret lies behind this arrangement is best known to Allah, for it is His Book.

Now if I play the unscrupulous editor and re-arrange the words of someone else’s book, changing the sequence of the sentences etc., then altering the entire meaning of the work becomes tremendously easy. This end product can no longer be attributed to the original author, since only the author himself is entitled to change the wording and the material if the rightful claim of authorship is to be preserved. So it is with the Book of Allah, for He is the sole Author and He alone has the right to arrange the material within His Book. The Quran is very clear about this:

“It is for Us to collect it (in your heart) so you may recite (and compile it). But when We have recited it, follow its recital (as promulgated): May more, it is for Us to explain it (through your tongue)” 16

In lieu of descending to earth to explain His verses, Allah entrusted the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) as His viceroy. The Qur’an states:

“… and We have sent down unto you the Message (O Messenger); that you may explain clearly to people what is sent for them” 17

In granting him (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) this privilege, Allah was sanctioning the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s explanations as authoritative.18 Only the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), through divine privilege and revelation, was qualified to arrange verses into the unique fashion of the Qur’an, being the only privy to the Will of Allah. Neither the Muslim community at large nor anyone else had any legitimate say in organising the Book of Allah.

The Qur’an consists of Surahs of uneven length; the shortest contain three verses while the longest has 286. Various reports show that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) actively instructed his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) scribes about the placement of verses within Surahs.

‘Uthman states that whether the revelation consisted of lengthy, successive verses, or a single verse in isolation, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) would summon one of his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) scribes and say, “Place this verse (or these verses) in the Surah where such-and-such is mentioned.” 19

Zaid bin Thabit remarks, “We would compile the Qur’an in the presence of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam).” 20

And according to ‘Uthman bin Abl al-‘As, the Archangel Jibril came to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) once expressly to instruct him (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) about the placement of a certain verse.21

‘Uthman bin Abl al-‘As reports that he was sitting with the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) when the latter fixed his gaze at a definite point, then said, “The Archangel Jibrll has just come to me and expressly asked me to place the verse 16:90 in a certain position within a particular Surah.”22

Al-Kalbl narrates from Abu Salih on Ibn ‘Abbas’ authority regarding the verse in Quran 2:281, He states, “This was the last verse revealed to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam). The Archangel Jibrll descended on him (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) and instructed him (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) to place it after verse two hundred and eighty in Surah al-Baqara.”23

Ubay bin Kab states, “Sometimes the beginning of a Surah is revealed to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), so I write it down, then another revelation descends upon him (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) so he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) says, ‘Ubay! write this down in the Surah where such- and-such is mentioned.’ At other times a revelation descends upon him (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) and I await his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) instructions, till he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) informs me of its rightful place.”24

Zaid bin Thabit remarks, “While we were with the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) compiling the Qur’an from parchments, he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said, ‘Blessed be the Sham.’25 He was asked, ‘Why so, O Prophet of Allah?’ He (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) replied, ‘Because the angels of the Most Compassionate have spread their wings upon it.”26

In this hadith we again note that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) was supervising the compilation and arrangement of verses.

Finally, we have the clearest evidence of all, that of reciting Surahs in the five daily prayers. No public recital can occur if the sequence of verses has not been universally agreed upon, and there is no known incident of a congregation disagreeing with its Imam on his sequence of verses, whether in the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s era or our own. In fact, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) would occasionally recite entire Surahs during the Jumu’a (Friday) sermon as well. 27

Further support is given by numerous hadiths which demonstrate that the Companions were familiar with the beginning and end points of Surahs.

The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) remarked to Umar, “The concluding verses of Surah an-Nisa would alone be sufficient for you (in resolving certain cases of inheritance).”28

Abu Mas’ud al-Badri reports that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said, “The final two verses from Surah al-Baqara will suffice for whoever recites them at night.”29

Ibn ‘Abbas recalls, “Spending the night in my aunt Maimuna’s house [wife of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)], I heard the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) stirring up from his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) sleep and reciting the final ten verses from Surah Ali-Imran.”30


The Arrangement of Surahs

Some references allege that the Mushafs (compiled copies of the Qur’an)31 used by Ubayy bin Ka‘b and Ibn Mas’ud exhibited discrepancies in their arrangement of Surahs, based on the universal norm. But nowhere do we find any reference to a disagreement in the ordering of verses within a particular Surah.

The Qur’an’s unique format allows each Surah to function as an independent unit; no chronology or narrative carries over from one to the next, and therefore any change in the sequence of Surahs is purely superficial. Such were these discrepancies, if indeed they did exist, that the message of the Qur’an remained inviolate. Variations in word order or the sequence of verses would be a different matter altogether a profound alteration that thankfully not even the best-known variant Mushafs can
make claims to.

Scholars unanimously agree that to follow the Surah order in the Qur’an is not compulsory, whether in prayer, recitation, learning, teaching or memorisation.32 Each Surah stands alone, and the latter ones do not necessarily possess greater legal bearing than their earlier counter-parts; sometimes an abrogated (naskh) verse appears in a Surah that is subsequent to the Surah containing the verse that replaces it.

Most Muslims begin memorising the Quran from the end, starting from the shortest Surahs (No. 114, 113, …) and working backwards. The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) once recited the Surahs of al-Baqara, an-Nisa then Al-lmran (Surahs No. 2, 4 and 3, respectively) within a single rak’a),33 contrary to their order of appearance in the Quran.

As far as I am aware, there are no hadiths in which the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) delineates the order of all the Surahs. Opinions differ, and can be summarised as follows:

  1. The arrangement of all the Surahs, as it stands, harkens back to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) himself.34 This is the opinion that I subscribe to. The counter view disagrees with this, citing that the Mushafs of certain Companions (such as Ibn Mas’ud and Ubayy bin Ka’b) supposedly differ in Surah order from the Mushaf presently in our hands.35
  2. Some believe that the entire Quran was arranged by the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) except for Surah no. 9, which was placed by ‘Uthman.36
  3. Another view credits the arrangement of all Surahs to Zaid bin Thabit, Caliph ‘Uthman and the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s Companions. Al-Baqillani adheres to this notion.37
  4. Ibn ‘Atlyya supports the view that the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) arranged some of the Surahs while the rest were arranged by the Companions.38


The Arrangement of Surahs in Some Partial Mushafs

Muslim scholarly opinion unanimously holds that the present arrangement of Surahs is identical to that of ‘Uthman’s Mushaf.39  Anyone desiring to copy the Qur’an in its entirety has to follow that sequence, but for those who seek to copy only particular Surahs, following the arrangement outlined in ‘Uthman’s Mushaf is no longer necessary. An analogous situation occurs when I travel by air: I like to take my work with me but, not wanting to carry bulky volumes in my suitcase, I simply photocopy those portions that I need during my trip.

In the early days Mushafs were scribed on parchment of course, usually much heavier than paper, so that a full Mushaf may have weighed a few kilograms. And we have many examples (for instance the Yemeni collection; see Figures 5.1-5.2) where the Qur’an is written in such large calligraphy that an entire Mushafs thickness would easily exceed one metre.



Taking the Mushaf that is printed by the King Fahd complex in Madinah as a standard, we find that it contains some six hundred pages (approx­imately 9,000 lines). Interestingly, the entire text of the parchment in Figure 5.2 is half a line in the Mushaf printed at Madinah, meaning that an entire Mushaf written on that scale would require 18,000 pages.  Voluminous calligraphy is by no means rare, but it does generally indicate that the Mushaf consisted of no more than a handful of Surahs.

Library shelves throughout the world are filled with partially written Qur’ans; listed below are a few dozen examples from just a single library, the Salar Jung Museum40 in Hyderabad, India.


We can conclude that anyone desiring to scribe a partial Mushaf would have felt at liberty to place the Surahs in whichever order he saw fit.



By understanding the need to document every  verse, the Muslim community (already swelling with the ranks of the huffaz) was setting up both an aid to memorisation, and a barrier to shield the text from corruptive influences. Even the grind of Makkan oppression could not dampen this resolve, and when the Muslims at last enjoyed the prosperity of Madinah the entire nation, literate and illiterate alike, took this task to heart. At the centre of this nation resided its energising focal point, the final Messenger (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), dictating, explaining, and arranging every verse through the divine inspiration which was his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) privilege alone, till all the pieces were in place and the Book was complete.

How the sacred text fared after the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s death, and how the nation shunned complacency and exerted renewed efforts to ensure the Qur’an’s integrity, are the focuses of our next Article – THE WRITTEN COMPILATION OF THE QURAN



  1. Ibn Hisham, Sira. vol. 1 -2, pp. 343-46.
  2. Ibn Durais, Fada’il al- Qur’an, p. 33.
  3. Az-Zuhri, Tanzil al-Qur’an, 32; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya, v : 340; Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, ix : 22.
  4. Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, ix : 22.
  5. For details see M.M. al-A’zami, Kuttab an-Nabi, 3rd edition, Riyad, 1401 (1981), pp. 83-89.
  6. As-Suyuti, ad-Durr al-Manthur, I : 11. The printed text gives his name as Khalid bin Khalid bin Sa’id, likely the mistake of a previous copyist.
  7. Al-Kattani, at- taratib al-idariya, I : 44, quoting Zubair bin Bakkar, Akhbar al-Madina.
  8. For a detailed study, see, M.M. al-A’zami, Kuttab an-Nabi.
  9. Abu ‘Ubaid, Fada’il, p. 280; See also Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, ix : 22, quoting ‘Uthman, referring to Sunan of at-Tirmidhi, an-Nasa’i, Abu Dawud, and al-Hakim in his al-Mustadrak.
  10. Ibn Abi Dawud, al-Masahif, p. 3; see also al-Bukhari, Sahih, Fada’il al-Qur’an.
  11. Qur’an 4 : 95.
  12. Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, ix : 22; as-Sa‘a, Minhat al-Ma‘bud ii : 17.
  13. As-Suli, Adab al-Kuttab, p. 165; al-Haithami, Majma’ az-Zawa’id, I : 152.
  14. Muslim – az-Zuhd : 72; Ibn Abi Dawud, al-Masahif, p. 4. For a detailed discussion see M.M. al-A’zami, Studies in Early Hadith Literature, American Trust Publications, Indiana, 1978, pp. 22-24.
  15. See al-Baihaqi, Sunan al-Kubra, vi : 16.
  16. Quran 75:17-19.
  17. Qur’an 16:44.
  18. As mentioned previously, in this light the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s sunna – which is in fact a working explanation of the Qur’an — has also been practically and verbally sanctioned by Allah, with no one possessing the authority to deny it its rightful place.
  19. See Tirmidhi, no. 3086; al-Baihaqi, ii : 42; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, I : 69; Abu Dawud, I : 290; Mustadrak Hakim, I : 221; Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, ix : 22; see also Abu ‘Ubaid, Fada’il, p. 280.
  20. See Tirmidhi – Manaqib : 141, no. 3954; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, v : 185; Mustadrak Hakim ii : 229.
  21. As-Suyuti, al-Itqan, i:173.
  22. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, iv : 218, no. 17947; see also as-Suyuti, al-Itqan, I : 173.
  23. ibid, p. 176.
  24. Sham is the name given to present-day Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
  25. Al-Baqillani, al-Intisar, pp. 176-7.
  26. Muslim – Jumu’a : 52.
  27. Muslim – al-Faraid : 9.
  28. Bukhari – Fada’il al-Qur’an : 10.
  29. Bukhari – al-Wudu’; Muslim – Musafirin, no. 182. For details see Muslim, Kitab at-Tamyiz, edited by M.M. al-A’zami, pp. 183-5.
  30. Literally a collection of sheets, here meaning sheets of parchment containing the Qur’an. See pp. 84-85.
  31. Al-Baqilani, al-Intisar, p. 167.
  32. Muslim – Musafirin, no. 203.
  33. See as-Suyuti, al-Itqan, I :176-77; see also Abu Dawud, Sunan, no. 786.
  34. See Chapter 13, which is specially devoted to Mushaf of Ibn Mas’ud.
  35. As-Suyuti, al-Itqan, i: 177, quoting al-Baihaqi, Madkhal; see also Abu Dawud – no. 786.
  36. Al- Baqilani, al-Intisar, p. 166.
  37. Ibn ‘Atiyya, al-Muharrar al-Wajiz, I : 34-35.
  38. See Chapter 7.
  39. Muhammad Ashraf, A Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts in Salar Jung Museum & Library, pp. 166-234.
  40. Some Mushafs had the scribing date written on them, while others are undated. For the latter, i copied the approximate date (A.H.) as per the catalogue and preceded it with the circa symbol.
  41. Six Surahs with some supplications in accordance with the Shiite creed.
  42. In addition to some supplications in accordance with the Shiite creed.





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