Response to “History of the Qur’ān: A Critical Study”
I have received criticisms on my recently published book “History of the Qur’ān: A Critical Study” from Marijn van Putten and Hythem Sidky. Someone brought to my attention that they have been presented as tweets by these two scholars who I had actually met at the IQSA moot in San Diego in the last week of November 2019. These tweets can be found at:
The critiques are based on an inadequate understanding of my view. So before the critiques are discussed, here is a brief summary of my view on the qirā’āt mentioned in the relevant chapters of the book.
I have argued that the Qur’ān was transmitted from prophet Muhammad and his companions in two distinct modes: one of them was tawātur (perpetual concurrent transmission) and the other was akhbār aḥād (isolate reports). While the acceptance of the former was for the obvious reason of faithful transmission, the latter was accepted because early Muslim scholarship concurred with the view formed by one of the earliest scholars of usul: Shāfi‘ī (d. 204 AH) that though it is not essential for the common man to acquire knowledge through the akhbār aḥād, it is essential for the scholars and the select to accept them after being satisfied about their reliability. He writes:
وعلم الخاصة سنة من خبر الخاصة يعرفها العلماء ولم يكلفها غيرهم وهي موجودة فيهم أو في بعضهم بصدق الخاص المخبر عن رسول الله بها وهذا اللازم لأهل العلم أن يصيروا إليه
And the knowledge of the select is the Sunnah which is acquired through their reports, which the scholars know and which is not essential for the common man to know. This Sunnah is present with all the scholars or with some of them from God’s Messenger (sws) through the information provided by a reliable informant and this is the knowledge which scholars must necessarily turn to. (Shāfi‘ī, Al-Risālah, 478)
They were led to accept these reports because if they rejected these reports regarding the Qur’ān, they would not have any basis to accept other Ḥadīth from the Prophet (sws) transmitted as aḥād. However, in my view, accepting these reports which mentioned the qirā’āt was against the stipulations of the Qur’ān itself (details given below). It was this erroneous acceptance that paved the way for the issue of variants readings to arise and proliferate among Muslims.
As far as the tawātur mode is concerned, the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah (reading of the masses) was transmitted through it. Our earliest scholars referred to it by this very name:
قال أبو عبد الرحمن السلمي: كانت قراءة أبی بكر وعمر و عثمان و زيد بن ثابت و المهاجرين والأنصار واحدة كانوا يقرءون القراءة العامة وهی القراءة التی قرأها رسول الله صلي الله عليه وسلم علی جبريل مرتين في العام الذى قبض فيه وكان زيد قد شهد العرضة الأخيرة وكان يقرئ الناس بها حتی مات.
Abū ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī said: “The reading of Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthmān and Zayd ibn Thābit and that of all the Muhājirūn and the Anṣār was the same. They would read the Qur’ān according to the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah. This is the same reading which was read out twice by God’s Messenger (sws) to Gabriel in the year of his death. Zayd ibn Thābit was also present in this reading [called] the al-arḍah al-akhīrah and it was this very reading that he taught the Qur’ān to people until his death.” (Al-Zarkashī, Al-Burhān, vol. 1, 299)
Now the question arises that how can al-qira’at al-‘ammah be identified. The answer to this question is that al-qira’at al-‘ammah is the only reading which has been transmitted through tawātur and this tawātur can be traced back to prophet Muhammad himself. All other readings whether they are found in our tafsīr or ḥadīth books or physically in about 10-11 Muslim countries are aḥād.
Consider next the Qur’ānic verses which call for a rejection of the variant readings and the acceptance of only one final reading of the Qur’ān:
لَا تُحَرِّکۡ بِہٖ لِسَانَکَ لِتَعۡجَلَ بِہٖ. اِنَّ عَلَیۡنَا جَمۡعَہٗ وَ قُرۡاٰنَہٗ. فَاِذَا قَرَاۡنٰہُ فَاتَّبِعۡ قُرۡاٰنَہٗ. ثُمَّ اِنَّ عَلَیۡنَا بَیَانَہٗ (75: 16-19)
[O Prophet!] do not move your tongue over it to hastily acquire this [Qur’ān]. Its collection and recital – all is Our responsibility. So, when We recite it, follow that recital of it. Then upon Us is to explain it. (75:16-19)
The scheme of God regarding the revelation and collection of the Qur’ān mentioned in these verses can be stated as follows:
Firstly, prophet Muhammad has been informed that the Qur’ān is being revealed to him in installments. Once this revelation is complete, a new arrangement will be given to the Qur’ān and its recital will take place.
Secondly, once this new recital takes place, he would be bound to follow this new recital in future. He would then not be allowed to read the Qur’ān according to its previous recital (the chronological one).
Thirdly, if the application of a Qur’ānic directive needed explanation, it would be done so at this second recital.
It is this second and final recital of the Qur’ān which is also termed as al-‘arḍah al-akhīrah (the final presentation). It is evident from various narratives that each year Gabriel would read out the Qur’ān revealed in that year to the Prophet (sws) during the month of Ramaḍān. In the last year, he read out the Qur’ān to him twice.
Abū Hurayrah (rta) narrates:
كان يُعْرَضُ علي النبي صَلَّي اللّٰہُ عَلَیۡہِ وَسَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنُ كُلَّ عَامٍ مَرَّةً فَعُرِضَ عليه مَرَّتَيْنِ في الْعَامِ الذي قُبِضَ فيه
Each year the Qur’ān would be read out to the Prophet Muḥammad (sws) once; however, the year he died, it was read out to him twice. (Bukhārī, Al-Jāmi‘ al-ṣaḥīḥ, no. 4998)
The conventional interpretation of 75:16-19 is based on a report by ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Abbās. Almost all or most exegetes have cited it. However, in spite of this proliferation not only is the text of the report inflicted with flaws, its ascription to Ibn ‘Abbās is extremely doubtful too. (Details are provided in my book).
Now since the readings transmitted through aḥād came to be accepted by the scholars of the ummah in consonance with Shāfi‘ī’s view (referred to earlier), they continued to be read and it was on their basis that that many reciters developed their own ikhtiyār.
Instead of rejecting these readings found in aḥād reports since the Qur’ān in Sūrah Qiyāmah (75:19) had asked Muslims through the Prophet (sws) to only follow the final recital of the Qur’ān, they instead chose to accept them for the reason just stated. Moreover, almost all the scholars interpreted 75:19 in the light of an athr from Ibn ‘Abbas which has been shown to be questionable, as referred earlier. In the absence of any such guidance from this verse, they were led to accept these reports because if they rejected these reports regarding the Qur’ān, they would also not have any basis to accept other Ḥadīth from the Prophet (sws), as pointed out earlier.
Later this al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah came to be known as the reading of Ḥafṣ as he was the only reciter who did not use his ikhtiyar and transmitted al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah precisely the way it was. However, in times contemporaneous to Ḥafṣ, this final reading continued to be read as the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah.
Thus scholars like Khalīl, Sībawayah and Farrā have referred to it by this very name. I have given its examples in my book. It is here that Hythem Sidky has criticised my examples.
The first example he criticises is stated below in his own words:
The reading nakidā quoted in Q7:58 is shared by all 10 readers except for Abū Ja’far who reads nakadā. Hardly evidence for Hafs specifically. What would be meaningful is an exclusive variant of Hafs referred to as the common reading. But looking for this it all falls apart!
Hythem is failing to grasp the point here: the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah nakidā. It does not matter if all the 10 readers read it as such. It only means that in this particular case these readers concurred with the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah. The point that is being missed here is that it is not Ḥafṣ’ reading that is al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah. On the contrary, it is the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah that became famous by Ḥafṣ’ name.
While citing a second example, Hythem writes:
For example is Q70:16 where Ḥafṣ’s reading receives no mention. Hafs alone reads nazzā’atan in the accusative. However, this reading is not even mentioned by a-Farrā’ who only discusses nazzā’atun.
If Hafs is not mentioned here by al-Farrā, it does not matter at all because the al-qirā’ah al-‘āmmah does not depend on such mention. Moreover, if a mention is important, Ibn Mujāhid (650) does so: نزاعة للشوى روى حفص عن عاصم نزاعة ( نصبا)
While citing a third example, he writes:
But the real damning example is Q33:13 where Farrā’ explicitly uses the phrase “al-qirā’ah al-‘āmmah” to refer to *other than* Hafs’s reading. Here the common reading is maqām while Hafs reads muqām and Farrā says that this is an exceptional reading attributed to al-Sulamī.
My response to this is that al-Farra never uses al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah in the text. The expression used is al-qirā’ah al-‘awam. The two are not the same.
Now, a very interesting scenario is recorded by a fourth century Muslim geographical historian al-Bashshārī (d. 360 AH). In his geographical history of the then Muslim world Aḥsan al-taqāsīm fi ma‘rifah al-aqālīm he, among several other facts, records the readings of the Qur’ān that were prevalent in various areas. He has divided the Muslim world into two blocs: Aqālīm al-‘Arabiyyah (The Arab territories) and Aqālīm al-‘Ajam (The non-Arab territories).
In all the Arab territories (which include the Muslim centres of learning like Kufah, Basra, Makkah, Madīnah and Dimashq), he records some variant reading or the other being in vogue. However, in all the non-Arab territories, except for al-Jibāl, no existence of any variant reading is recorded by him in spite of the fact that he records various juristic and scholastic schools present in these areas. The only logical and plausible explanation is that in these areas it was the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah which existed and which never made news (being something very common) so as to be recorded.
Following are the provinces and their major regions of the Aqālīm al-‘Arabiyyah:
1. Jazīrah al-‘Arab (the Arabian Peninsula)
3. Aqūr (Mesopotamia)
4. Al-Shām (Syria).
5. Miṣr (Egypt)
Following are the Aqālīm al-‘Ajam:
Even more interesting is the stress scholars would give in adopting the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah and disregarding individual readings. Thus al-Bashshārī has recorded his dialogue with the Qādī of Zabīd while he was in Aqūr (Mesopotamia). This concerned al-Bashshārī’s preference of ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Āmir’s reading. Some very noteworthy points can be seen:
فإن قال الست ممن لقي مشايخ العلم والورع وأكثرهم ينهون عن التجريد ويختارون قراءة العامة اجبناه بلی، لكني لما سافرت وشاهدت أئمة المقرئين أحببت التلاوة عليهم وأخذ الفوائد منهم، فكنت إذا قرأت بالجائز هونوا امري وأحالوني علی تلاميذهم فإذا جردت أقبلوا علي
If he [the Qāḍī] were to say: “Are you not of those who have met scholars and pious people while most of them forbade individual readings and preferred the reading of the masses (qirā’at al-‘āmmah).” I answered: “Yes! But when I travelled and met the chief readers, I wanted to read under their tutelage and benefit from them; yet when I would read by the reading of the masses [al-jā’iz], they would not give me importance and consign me to their students; however, when, I read on an individual reading they would welcome me.” (Al-Bashshārī, Aḥsan al-taqāsīm, 144)
The above citation is an eye-opener: even in the Aqālīm al-‘Arabiyyah, authorities and scholars would actually prohibit people from following the individual reading of a reciter and would urge people to adopt the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah. Also evident from this data is that it was primarily in scholarly circles that for example the jurists of the Aqūr (Mesopotamia) province would adhere to the reading of ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Āmir. (Al-Bashshārī, Aḥsan al-taqāsīm, 142). Based on this information, it can be deduced that in other provinces also such readings were confined to scholars and their students; they never infiltrated in the masses. This data clearly shows that many of the readings do not survive today in the places that al-Bashshārī had outlined in his times. This is because they would change in an area with a change in scholar – a conclusion we have already reached earlier.
It may also be noted that in other areas or areas which were not under the influence of these learning centres of Aqālīm al-‘Arabiyyah, the issue of adopting a particular set of a variant reading never arose. These were the areas in which the Qur’ān generally reached through the common masses or conquering warriors. The profoundest example of this phenomenon can be seen in India where Islam entered in the first century of its history. This was the time when Ḥafṣ ibn Sulaymān (90-180 AH) whose reading is in vogue in this area was still an infant. Later, the same scenario can be witnessed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey and some other countries of Central Asia like Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Arran.
Van Putten claims that I have denied the existence of variant readings. This is not true. I have just re-interpreted their placement while acknowledging their existence. They occur in ahād reports and the primary reasons of their origin are:
i. Remnants of the Chronological Revelation
It is known that the Qur’ān was compiled afresh after its chronological revelation. In the revised order, verses and verb forms were likely to have been altered and some verses must have been abrogated. It seems that many of the existing variant readings could be remnants of the chronological revelation readings. Some Companions must have insisted that the record of these readings should not be destroyed as they had acquired them directly from the Prophet (sws). Thus we know that Ubayy ibn K‘ab (rta) had this streak in him. ‘Umar reports:
حدثنا عمرو بن علي حدثنا يحيی حدثنا سفيان عن حبيب عن سعيد بن جبير عن بن عباس قال قال عمر رضي الله عنه أقرؤنا أبي وأقضانا علي وإنا لندع من قول أبي وذاك أن أبيا يقول لا أدع شيئا سمعته من رسول الله صلی الله عليه وسلم وقد قال الله تعالی ما نَنْسَخْ من آيَةٍ أو نُنْسِهَا
‘Umar said: “Ubayy was the best reciter among us and ‘Alī was the best judge among us. We would leave recitals of Ubayy and this is because Ubayy would say: ‘I will not leave a thing that I have heard from God’s Messenger (sws).’ And God Almighty has said: ‘ما نَنْسَخْ من آيَةٍ أو نُنْسِهَا (We do not abrogate a verse or make it forget) …’” (Al-Bukhārī, Al-Jāmi‘ al-ṣaḥīḥ, vol. 4, 1628, (no. 4211))
It is also evident that the reason ‘Abdullāh ibn Mas‘ūd (rta) did not want to surrender his copy of the Qur’ān to officials of ‘Uthmān (rta) was because he had heard some sūrahs directly from the Prophet’s (sws) mouth:
حدثنا معاذ ،عن ابن عون ، عن عمر بن قيس ، عن عمرو بن شرحبيل أبي ميسرة قال: أتی علي رجل وأنا أصلي ، فقال: ثكلتك أمك ألا أراك تصلي وقد أمر بكتاب اللہ أن يُمزق؟ قال: فتجوزت في صلاتي ، وكنت لا أحبس ، فدخلتُ الدار فلم أحبس ، ورقيت فلم أحبس ، فإدا أنا بالأشعري ، وإذا حذيفة ، وابن مسعود يتقاولان ، وحذيفة يقول لا بن مسعود: ادفع إليهم المصحف ، فقال: والله لا أدفعه ، فقال: ادفعه إليهم ، فإنهم لا يألون أمة محمد إلا خيرا ، فقال: والله لا أدفعه إليهم ، أقراني رسول الله صلی الله عليه وسلم بضعا وسبعين سورة وأدفعه إليهم ، والله لا أدفعه إليهم
‘Amar ibn Shuraḥbīl Abū Maysarah said: “A person came over to me while I was praying and said: ‘May your mother lose you; why is it that I see you praying while the destruction of the Book of God has been ordered.’ I shortened my prayer and I was not one who could be stopped; then I entered the house and was not stopped and I climbed [the stairs] and was not stopped and then it came to my notice that Ḥudhayfah and Ibn Mas‘ūd were conversing with one another and the former was saying to the latter: ‘Hand over the muṣḥaf to them.’ At this, he replied: ‘By God! I will not hand over the muṣḥaf [to them].’ He again said: ‘Hand over the muṣḥaf to them for they will leave no stone unturned in wanting the good of the ummah of Muḥammad.’ Ibn Mas‘ūd responded: ‘By God! I will not hand over the muṣḥaf to them; God’s Messenger (sws) taught a little over a seventy sūrahs to me and should I then hand over the muṣḥaf to them. By God! I will not hand it over to them.’” (Abū ‘Ubayd, Faḍā’il al-Qur’ān, 157)
If all the narratives which record his hesitation in giving up his copy of the Qur’ān are studied, it seems that it also contained readings from the chronological revelation of the Qur’ān. He wanted to keep his copy as a prized possession and understandably wanted to keep a record of what he had directly heard from the Prophet (sws).
It seems that the students of “scholar” Companions like Ubayy ibn Ka‘b (rta) and ‘Abdullāh ibn Mas‘ūd (rta) insisted on transferring this record of their teachers and the distinction that it was merely a record became blurred. Under the influence of Shāfi‘ī, they came to be accepted as acceptable readings of the Qur’ān. From such “scholar” Companions was thus initiated, the transfer of these readings while they never infiltrated in the masses. The masses always adhered to the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah except in certain areas like the maghrib where they were implemented by state authority (details are given in my book). From such “scholar” Companions, these variant readings were primarily inherited by their true heirs: the earliest scholars of this ummah. These scholars then copiously recorded them in the books of tafsīr, ḥadīth and fiqh.
ii. Errors and Omissions of Narrators
Erroneous reporting of readings from the Prophet (sws) by the narrators of a Ḥadīth cannot be ruled out. This itself could be the result of the following:
a. Human Error
It is quite probable that many variant readings were erroneously transferred due to faulty hearing of the narrators.
b. Similarity of Text
There are several verses and passages in the Qur’ān which are very similar to one another; the difference is often in verb tenses and structures. Many of these variant readings could have resulted from narrators mixing up this similar content.
Here are some examples:
Consider the verses: وَ لَا یُظۡلَمُوۡنَ فَتِیۡلًا (49:4) and وَلَا تُظْلَمُوْنَ فَتِيلًا (77:4). There is no difference between readers in the first instance. However, according to Ibn Mujāhid in the second instance, Ibn Kathīr, Ḥamzah and al-Kisā’ī read: يُظْلَمُونَ. (Ibn Mujāhid, Kitāb al-sab‘, 235)
This could easily be the result of the memory of the first instance prevailing over the second one in their minds.
Consider the verses: (141:7) وَ اِذۡ اَنۡجَیۡنٰکُمۡ مِّنۡ اٰلِ فِرۡعَوۡنَ and اِذۡ اَنۡجٰکُمۡ مِّنۡ اٰلِ فِرۡعَوۡنَ (6:14). There is no difference between the readers in the second instance. However, according to Ibn Mujāhid in the first instance, Ibn ‘Āmir read اَنجٰكُم. (Ibn Mujāhid, Kitāb al-sab‘, 293)
This also could easily be the result of the second instance prevailing over the first.
Similarly, we know that there was a time in history when scores of Ḥadīth narratives were concocted. This could have been the case with many readings that exist in current Ḥadīth anthologies.
iv. Exegetical Explanations.
In the case of a huge number of shādh readings (readings that cannot be accommodated by the consonantal text), it is evident that at times, Companions would explain a Qur’ānic verse by furnishing a synonym to a word. Not realizing this, an explanatory synonym was mistook for a reading itself. Examples abound in this as well. (Have cited examples in my book)
In conclusion, my view argues in favour of a single valid qirā’at of the Qur’ān transmitted through tawātur. All other readings do not qualify to be given the status of the Qur’ān because none of them is mutawātir.
My critics are welcome to criticise this position taken by me.
A critical evaluation of the interpretation of the Surah Qiyāmah verses done in my book would really set this discussion alight as it is one of the pillars of my view.
The second pillar is the tawātur issue. Nothing less than tawātur can be classified as the mode of transmission of the Qur’ān. (This, as most people would know, is also the position taken by almost all Muslim scholars.) In my view, this status is only occupied by the al-qirā’at al-‘āmmah. It has being argued by scholars that this tawātur is actually found only in the bare consonantal text of the Qur’ān. However, I have attempted to show in my book that this view is untenable.