Though the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) enlisted all possible measures to preserve the Qur’an, he (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) did not bind all the Surahs together into one master volume, as evidenced by Zaid bin Thabit’s statement that, “The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) was taken (from this life) whilst the Qur’an had not yet been gathered into a book.” 1
Note the usage of the word ‘gathered’ rather than ‘written’. Commenting on this, al-Khattabi says, “This quote refers to (the lack of) a specific book with specific traits. The Qur’an had indeed been written down in its entirety during the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s lifetime, but had not been collected together nor were the Surahs arranged.”2
Setting up a master volume might have proved challenging; any divine naskh ( abrogation) revealed subsequently, affecting the legal provisions or wordings of certain verses, would have required proper inclusion. And a loose page format greatly simplified the insertion of new verses and new Surahs, for the revelations did not cease until a short time before the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s death. But with his (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) death the wahy ended forever: there would be no more verses, abrogations or rearrangements, so that the situation lent itself perfectly for the compilation of the Quran into a single, unified volume.
No hesitation was felt in arriving at this decision; prudence compelled the community to hasten in this task, and Allah guided the Companions to serve the Quran in such fashion as to fulfill His promise of forever preserving His Book,
“We have, without doubt, sent down the message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption).” 3
Compilation of the Qur’an during Abu Bakr’s reign
Appointment of Zaid bin Thabit as compiler of the Quran
Zaid reports: Abu Bakr sent for me at a time when the Yamama battles had witnessed the martyrdom of numerous Companions. I found ‘Umar bin al-Khattab with him. Abu Bakr began, “Umar has just come to me and said, ‘In the Yamama battles death has dealt most severely with the qurra 4 and I fear it will deal with them with equal severity in other theatres of war. As a result much of the Qur’an will be gone. I am therefore of the opinion that you should command the Qur’an be collected.” Abu Bakr continued, “I said to ‘Umar, ‘How can we embark on what the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) never did?’ ‘Umar replied that it was a good deed regardless, and he did not cease replying to my scruples until Allah reconciled me to the undertaking, and I became of the same mind as him. Zaid, you are young and intelligent, you used to record the revelations for the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), and we know nothing to your discredit. So pursue the Qur’an and collect it together.” By Allah, had they asked me to move a mountain it could not have been weightier than what they requested of me now. I asked them how they could undertake what the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) had never done, but Abu Bakr and ‘Umar insisted that it was permissible and good. They did not cease replying to my scruples until Allah reconciled me to the undertaking, the way Allah had already reconciled Abu Bakr and ‘Umar.5
On being convened Zaid accepted the momentous task of supervising the committee and ‘Umar, who had proposed the project, agreed to lend his full assistance.6
Zaid bin Thabit’s credentials
In his early twenties at the time, Zaid had been privileged enough to live in the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s neighborhood and serve as one of his most visible scribes. He was also among the huffaz the breadth of these credentials made him an outstanding choice for this task. Abu Bakr as-Siddlq listed his qualifications in the narration above:
- Zaid’s youth (indicating vitality and energy).
- His irreproachable morals. Abu Bakr specifically said, “We do not accuse you of any wrongdoing.”
- His intelligence (indicating the necessary competence and awareness).
- His prior experience with recording the wahy.7
- I may add one more point to his credit: Zaid was one of the fortunate few who attended the Archangel Jibrll’s recitations with the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) during Ramadan.8
Abu Bakr’s instructions to Zaid bin Thabit
Let me quote a brief case brought before Abu Bakr while he was Caliph. An elderly woman approached him asking for her share in the inheritance of her deceased grandson. He replied that the amount of a grandmother’s share was not mentioned in the Qur’an, nor did he recall the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) making any statements regarding this. Inquiring of those in attendance, he received an answer from al-Mughira who, standing up, said he had been present when the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) stated that a grandmother’s share was one-sixth. Abu Bakr asked if any others could corroborate al-Mughira, to which Muhammad bin Maslama testified in the affirmative. Carrying the matter beyond the realm of doubt meant that Abu Bakr had to request verification before acting on al-Mughira’s statement.9 In this regard Abu Bakr (and subsequently ‘Uthman, as we shall see) were simply following the Quran’s edict concerning witnesses:
“O you who have attained to faith! Whenever you give or take credit for a stated term, set it dorm in writing…. And call upon two of your men to act as witnesses; and if two men are not available, then a man and two women from among such as are acceptable to you as witnesses, so that if one of them should make a mistake, the other could remind her. And the witnesses must not refuse (to give evidence) whenever they are called upon.” 10
This law of witness played an essential role in the Qur’an’s compilation (as well as in hadith methodology), and constituted the very core of Abu Bakr’s instructions to Zaid.
Ibn Hajar relates: Abu Bakr told ‘Umar and Zaid, “Sit at the entrance to the [Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s] Mosque. If anyone brings you a verse from the Book of Allah along with two witnesses, then record it.” 11
Ibn Hajar comments on what Abu Bakr may have meant by ‘witness’ – “As if what was meant by two witnesses were memory (backed by) the written word. Or, two witnesses to testify that the verse was written verbatim in the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s presence. Or, meaning they would testify that it was one of the forms in which the Qur’an was revealed. The intention was to accept only what had been written in the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s presence, not relying on one’s memory’ alone.” 12
The second opinion finds the most favour with me: acceptance of only those materials which, according to the sworn testimony of two others, had been written in the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s very presence. Ibn Hajar’s statement affirms this view, that – “Zaid was unwilling to accept any written material for consideration unless two Companions bore witness that the man received his dictation from the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) himself.” 13
According to Professor Shauqi Daif, Bilal bin Rabah paced the streets of Madinah requesting the attendance of any Companion who possessed verses recorded by the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s own dictation. 14
How Zaid bin Thabit utilised the written materials
The normal procedure in collating manuscripts is for the editor to compare different copies of the same work, though naturally not all copies will be of equal value. In outlining manuscript gradations, which are most dependable and which are worthless, Bergstrasser set out a few rules among the most important of which are:
- Older copies are generally more reliable than newer ones.
- Copies that were revised and corrected by the scribe, through comparison with the mother manuscript, are superior to those which lack this.15
- If the original is extant, any copy scribed from this loses all significance.16
Blachere and Sauvaget reiterate this third point: should the author’s original autograph exist, or a copy revised by the author, then the value of all other copies is negated.17 Likewise, in the absence of the author’s original, any duplicate whose mother copy is available is discarded.
Suppose that a manuscript’s lineage follows the tree above. Consider these two scenarios:
One: Assume that the original author only produced a single edition of his book. There were no second editions, or emendations to the first.
Three manuscripts of this work are uncovered: (1) the autographed original (an entire copy written in the author’s hand); (2) a single manuscript which was scribed from the author’s original (A for example); and (3) another manuscript which is very late (L perhaps). Obviously the second and third manuscripts are worthless and cannot be taken into consideration when editing the work, since neither of them is of equal status to the original author’s hand- written copy.
Two: Again, assume a single edition of the book. Failing to locate the autographed copy however, the editor is forced to rely on three other manuscripts. Two manuscripts, written by the original author’s students, we designate as A and B. The third manuscript X is copied from B. Here X has no value. The editor must depend entirely on A and B, and cannot discard either of them since both have equal bearing.
Such are the underpinnings of textual criticism and editing as established by Orientalists in the 20th century.
Fourteen centuries ago, however, Zaid did precisely this. The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s sojourn in Madinah had been a time of intense scribal activity: many Companions possessed verses which they had copied from the parchments of friends and neighbours. By limiting himself to the verses transcribed under the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s supervision, Zaid ensured that all of the material he was examining was of equal status, thereby guaranteeing the highest attainable accuracy. Having memorised the Qur’an and scribed much of it while seated before the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), his memory and his writings could only be compared with material of the same standing, not with second- or third-hand copies.18 Hence the insistence of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and Zaid on first-hand material only, with two witnesses to back this claim and assure ‘equal status’.
Spurred on by the zeal of its organisers, this project blossomed into a true community effort:
– Caliph Abu Bakr issued a general invitation (or one may say, a decree) for every eligible person to participate.
– The project was carried out in the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s Mosque, a central gathering place.
– Following the Caliph’s instructions, ‘Umar stood at the gates of the Mosque and announced that anyone possessing written verses dictated from the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) must bring them. Bilal announced the same thing throughout the streets of Madinah.
Zaid bin Thabit and the use of oral sources
It appears that while the focus lay on the written word, once the primary written source was found – whether parchment, wooden planks, or palm leaves the writings were verified not only against each other but also against the memories of Companions who had learned directly from the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam). By placing the same stringent requirements for acceptance of both the written and memorised verse, equal status was preserved.
In any case Zaid alludes to people’s memories: “So I gathered the Qur’an from various parchments and pieces of bone, and from the chests of men (i.e. their memories).”
Az-ZarakhshI comments, “This statement has lead a few to suppose that no one had memorised the Quran in its entirety during the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s lifetime, and that claims of Zaid and Ubayy bin Ka’b having done so are unfounded. But this is erroneous. What Zaid means in fact is that he sought out verses from scattered sources, to collate them against the recollections of the huffaj. In this way everyone participated in the collection process. No one possessing any portion of it was left out, and so no one had reason for expressing concern about the verses collected, nor could anyone complain that the text had been gathered from only a select few.” 19
Ibn Hajar draws special attention to Zaid’s statement, “I Found the last two verses of Surah at Bara’a with Abu Khuzaima al-Ansari,” as demonstrating that Zaid’s own writings and memorisation were not deemed sufficient. Everything required verification.20
Ibn Hajar further comments, “Abu Bakr had not authorised him to record except what was already available (on parchment). That is why Zaid refrained from including the final ayah of Surah Bara’a until he came upon it in written form, even though he and his fellow Companions could recall it perfectly well from memory.” 21
Authentication of the Qur’an: The case of the last two verses from Surah Bara’a
Tawatur is a common word in the Islamic lexicon; for example, that the Qur’an has been transmitted by tawatur or that a certain text has become established through tawatur. It refers to gathering information from multiple channels and comparing them, so that if the overwhelming majority agrees on one reading than that gives us assurance and the reading itself acquires authenticity.
While no scholarly consensus exists on the number of channels or individuals needed to attain tawatur, the gist is to achieve absolute certainty and the prerequisites for this may differ based on time, place, and the circumstances at hand. Scholars generally insist on at least half a dozen channels while preferring that this figure be much higher, since greater numbers make falsification less likely and more difficult.
So we return to Surah Bara’a, where the two concluding verses were verified and entered into the Suhuf based solely on Abu Khuzaima’s parchment (and the obligatory witnesses), backed by the memories of Zaid and some other huffaz. But in a matter as weighty as the Quran how can we accept one scrap of parchment and a few Companions’ memories as sufficient grounds for tawatur?
Suppose that in a small class of two or three students a professor recites a short, memorable poem and we, directly after the lecture, individually quiz every student about it; if they all recite the same thing then we have our absolute certainty that this is what the professor taught. The same can be extended to the written word or any combination of written and oral sources, provided of course that no collusion has occurred between the players, and this is a concept that I myself have demonstrated in classrooms empirically.
Such was the case with Surah Bara’a in that the unanimity of the sources on hand, relatively meagre though they were, provided enough grounds for certainty. And to counter any fears of collusion there is a logical argument: these two verses do not hold anything new theologically, do not speak praise of a particular tribe or family, do not provide information that is not available elsewhere within the Qur’an. A conspiracy to invent such verses is irrational because no conceivable benefit could have arisen from fabricating them.22 Under these circumstances and given that Allah personally vouches for the Companions’ honesty in His Book, we can infer that there was indeed sufficient tawatur to sanction these verses.
Placement of the Suhuf into the state archives
Once complete, the compiled Qur’an was placed in the ‘state archives’ under the custodianship of Abu Bakr.23 His contribution, we can summarise, was to collect all first-hand Quranic fragments, then scattered about Madinah, and arrange for their transcription into a master volume. This compilation was termed Suhuf. It is a plural word (literally, sheets of parchment), and I believe it bears a different connotation from the singular Mushaf which now designates a written copy of the Qur’an).
At the conclusion of Zaid’s efforts all Surahs and all verses therein were properly arranged, most likely penned using the prevalent Madanite script and spelling conventions as he was a native son of Madinah. But it seems that sheets of unequal size were used for this task, resulting in what may have been a disorderly heap of parchments. Thus the plural appellation Suhuf.
A mere fifteen years later, when Caliph ‘Uthman sought to dispatch copies to the far corners of the expanding Muslim realms, the revenues from military conquests had greatly enhanced the availability of quality parchments and he was able to adopt books of equal sheet sizes. These came to be known as Mushafs.
‘Umar’s role in the spread of the Quran
Appointing Umar as the next Caliph on his deathbed, Abu Bakr entrusted his successor with the Suhuf.24 Aside from decisive victories on the battlefield, ‘Umar’s reign was marked by the Qur’an’s rapid spread beyond the confines of the Arabian Peninsula. He dispatched at least ten Companions to Basra for the purpose of teaching the Qur’an,25 and likewise sent Bin Masque to Kufa.26 When a man subsequently informed ‘Umar that there was a person in Kufa dictating the Holy Quran to them solely by heart, ‘Umar became furious to the point of madness. But discovering the culprit to be none other than Ibn Mas’ud, and recalling his competence and abilities, he calmed down and regained his composure.
Significant information also exists about the spread of the Qur’an in Syria. Yazid bin Abu Sufyan, Syria’s governor, complained to ‘Umar about the masses of Muslims requiring education in Qur’an and Islamic matters, and urgently requesting him for teachers. Selecting three Companions for this mission – Mu‘adh, ‘Ubada, and Abu ad-Darda – ‘Umar instructed them to proceed to Hims where, after achieving their objectives, one of them would journey on to Damascus and another to Palestine. When this triumvirate was satisfied with its work in Hims, Abu ad-Darda’ continued on to Damascus and Mu’adh to Palestine, leaving ‘Ubada behind. Muadh died soon afterwards, but Abu ad-Darda’ lived in Damascus for a long time and established a highly reputable circle, the students under his tutelage exceeding 1600.27 Dividing his pupils into groups of ten, he assigned a separate instructor for each and made his rounds to check on their progress. Those passing this elementary level then came under his direct instruction, so that the more advanced students enjoyed the dual privileges of studying with Abu ad-Darda and functioning as intermediary teachers.28
The same method was applied elsewhere. Abu Raja al-‘Ataradi states that Abu Musa al-Ash‘ari separated his students into groups within the Basra Masjid,29 supervising nearly three hundred.30
In the capital, ‘Umar sent Yazid bin ‘Abdullah bin Qusait to teach the Quran to the outlying Bedouins,31 and designated Abu Sufyan as an inspector, to proceed to their tribes and discover the extent to which they had learned.32 He also appointed three Companions in Madinah to teach the children, each with a monthly salary of fifteen dirhams,33 and advised that everyone (including adults) be taught in easy sets of five verses.34
Stabbed by Abu Lu’lu’a (a Christian slave from Persia)35 towards the end of 23 A. H., ‘Umar refused to nominate a caliph, leaving the decision to the people and in the meantime entrusting the Suhuf to Hafsa, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam)’s widow.
In serving the Qur’an Abu Bakr acquitted himself most admirably, heeding its mandate of two witnesses for establishing authenticity,36 and applying this rule to the Qur’an’s own compilation. The result, though written on rudimentary parchments of varying size, constituted as sincere an effort as possible to preserve the Words of Allah.
Decisive victories beyond Arabia’s desert boundaries pushed the frontiers of Islamic education to Palestine and Syria; ‘Umar’s reign witnessed the blossoming of schools for the memorisation of the Qur’an in both the parched sands of Arabia and the rich soils of the fertile crescent. But a new concern clouded the horizon during the ‘Uthmani Caliphate, and Zaid bin Thabit’s endeavours, as it turned out, were not to end with the passing of Abu Bakr.
1. Ibn Hajar, Fathui Bari , ix:12; see also Bukhari – Jam’i al-Qur’an, hadith 4986.
2. As-Suyuti, al-Itqan, i: 164.
3. Quran, 15 : 9
4. Qurra (literally: reciters) is another term for the huffaz, those who had completely memorised the Quran. The qurra’, in their piety, always fought in the front lines during combat and hence suffered greater losses than other soldiers.
5. Bukhari – Jami’ al-Qur’an, hadith no. 4986; see also Ibn Abu Dawud, al-Masahif, pp. 6-9.
6. See Ibn Abu Dawud, al-Masahif, p. 6.
7. See Bukhari -Jam’i al-Qur’an, hadith 4986; also Ibn Abu Dawud, al-Masahif p. 8.
8. Tahir al jaza’iri, at- Tibyan p. 126; see also A. Jeffery (ed.), al-Mabani, p. 25.
9. Malik, al-Muwatta, al-Fra’id:4, p. 513.
10. Qur’an, 2 : 282. The decree of substituting two women for one man may be due to the former’s lesser fluency with general business procedures. See Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Qur’an, Surah 2 footnote 273.
11.Ibn Abu Dawud, al-Masahif, p. 6; see also Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, ix: 14.
12. Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari , ix:14-15.
13. Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, ix: 14. For the sources of collecting materials, see Bukhari – hadlth 4986.
14. Shauql Daif, Kitab as-Sab‘a of Ibn Mujahid, Introduction, p. 6.
15. Bergstrasser, Usul Naqd an-Nusus wa Nashr al-Kutub (in Arabic), Cairo, 1969, p. 14.
16. ibid, p. 20.
17. R. Blachere et J. Sauvaget, Regles pour editions et traductions de textes arabes. Arabic translation by al-Miqdad, p. 47.
18. In establishing any text, it is academically unacceptable to compare between different grades of manuscripts.
19. Az-Zarakhshi, Burhan, i:238-239.
20. Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, Lx: 13.
21. ibid, ix: 13.
22. See pp. 290-1 for an instance of fabrication where the passage has tremendous theological importance.
23. Bukhari – Fada‘il al-Qur’an:3; Abu ‘Ubaid, Fada’il p. 281; Tirmidhi – hadlth 3102.
24. Abu ‘Ubaid, Fada’iI, p. 281.
25. See ad-Darimi, Sunan i: 135, edited by Dahman.
26. Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat, vi:3.
27. Adh-Dhahabi, Seyar al-A’lam an-Nubala, ii:344-46.
28. ibid, ii:346.
29. Al-Baladhuri, Ansab al-Ashraf i : 110; Ibn Durais, Fada’il p. 36; Mustadrak Hakim ii:220.
30. Al-Faryabi, Fada’il al-Qur’an, p. 129.
31. Ibn al-Kalbl, Jamhrat an-Nasab, p. 143; Ibn Hazm, Jamhrat al-Ansab, p. 182.
32. Ibn Hajar, al-Isaba, i:83, no. 332.
33. Al-Baihaqi, Sunan al-Kubra, vi:124.
34. Ibn Kathlr, Fada’il, vii:495.
35. William Muir, Annals of the Early Caliphate, p. 278.
36. Quran, 2 : 282.
From the book: THE HISTORY OF THE QURANIC TEXT