by Imam Farhan Iqbal, Missionary, Canada
Among the ancient books available today, scholars agree that the New Testament is the most well-attested book. What that means is that there are more manuscripts for the New Testament than any other book from antiquity. There are thousands of manuscripts – partial or fully – both in the original Greek language in which these were written, and in the form of translations in Latin, Ethiopic, Slavic and Armenian. As a leading New Testament scholar Dr. Bruce Metzger proudly puts it, the book which is the runner-up next to the New Testament in terms of manuscript testimony is Homer’s Iliad with fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts. . However, when it comes to preservation of ancient texts, scholars have pointed out differences between these numerous manuscripts available which makes it difficult to know without a shadow of doubt what the original words were.
Comparatively, the Holy Quran is the only ancient book which is the best preserved throughout the last 1400 years and this can be ascertained from the evidence and by taking a closer look at how the Quran was originally revealed and preserved since the time of the Prophet Muhammad(sa). Critics of Islam have made many objections to the claim by Muslims that the Quran is perfectly preserved. This debate has become even more furious nowadays because the preservation of other holy texts like the Bible have also been brought under close scrutiny for the last two to three hundred years. It is alleged, for instance, that there are different “versions” of the Quran and doubts are expressed regarding the motives of Hazrat Uthmān(ra) when he burned certain manuscripts of the Quran in favour of the official one. In light of this, it is important to first understand what methods were used for the preservation of the Quran.
Methods of Preservation of the Quran
Since the beginning of the revelation of the Holy Quran, much care was taken to ensure that it is recorded with 100% accuracy. God Himself gave a promise in the form of a prophesy that He will safeguard the revelation of the Quran from any kind of impurities. He says:
Verily, We Ourself have sent down this Exhortation, and most surely We will be its Guardian.[15:10]
In commentary of the above verse in Tafsīr Kabīr, Hazrat Muṣleh Mau‘ūd(ra) notes that it is not a co-incidence that the Quran has been preserved since its revelation. In fact, its preservation is hinted in the words Al-Kitāb and Quran. This means that it was preserved in two ways. First, it was written down since the very beginning, and second, it has been memorized by people in full since its very first revelation. Other than this, he notes several other factors that contributed to the preservation of the Quran:
- God ensured that such people exist who are able to memorize the Quran cover to cover.
- The rhythm of the Quran is very sweet and easy, enabling anyone to memorize it – fully or in parts – without difficulty.
- The recitation of the Quran was made obligatory in Salat – the 5 daily prayers – helping to preserve it.
- God created love in the hearts of the people to recite it regularly.
- God ensured that the Holy Quran spreads throughout the world right after its revelation, making it impossible for any group or government to make changes or amendments.
- Various kinds of knowledge in Islam are based on the Quran, causing the Quran to be quoted in all kinds of books related to different fields of study. Hazrat Muṣleh Mau‘ūd(ra) says that in his opinion, if the quoted verses of the Quran from all these books are collected and compiled, even then the whole Quran can be compiled from just those references.
- The academic form of Arabic never changed and can be understood even today with ease. This helped preserve the original language of the Quran in turn supporting the preservation of the Quran itself.
- God protected the Quran by sending fresh revelation in its support through Mujaddidīn and other chosen ones.
Adding to the 8th point, Hazrat Muṣleh Mau‘ūd(ra) notes that in this day and age, when irreligiousness has reached its climax, God has sent the Promised Messiah(as) who has purified the Quran from all incorrect interpretations and commentaries and presented it to the world in its purest form. Hence, in this manner, God has ensured that the Quran is preserved both in its script and in its true meanings and message.
What is more is that the Holy Quran itself points to how much care was taken in the way it was revealed in order to ensure its purity. For instance, God says that the Quran was revealed at a slow pace so that the Holy Prophet(sa) and the companions can learn it methodically and thoroughly without rushing through it:
And the Quran We have revealed in pieces that thou mayest read it to mankind at intervals, and We have sent it down piecemeal. [17:107]
This fact is corroborated by hi story as it is known that the Quran was revealed over a period of 22 and a half years which ensured a safe delivery of the message from God to the Holy Prophet(sa) and from him to his companions. It prevented it from being forgotten as there was plenty of time to memorize and revise the Quran in small, manageable portions. Hazrat Mirza Bashīr Aḥmad ṣāḥib(ra) has noted that the Holy Prophet(sa) spent 7,970 days as a Prophet, while the number of verses in the Quran are 6,236 and the number of words in the Quran are 77,934. This means that on average, every verse of the Quran has 12 words, while the average daily revelation of the Quran is only 9 words. In other words, the Quran was revealed so slowly that on average, even a full verse was not revealed on a daily basis.
Some critics of Islam may allege that the Quran should have been revealed all at once and cast doubt in regards to the reasoning behind its slow revelation. This allegation was made during the time of the Holy Prophet(sa) as well and the Holy Quran addresses it as follows:
And those who disbelieve say, ‘Why was not the Qur’an revealed to him all at once?’ We have revealed it thus that We may strengthen thy heart therewith. And We have arranged it in the best form.[25:33]
In commentary of this verse, the Promised Messiah(as) writes, “The disbelievers say, ‘Why was the Quran not revealed once?’ [God says] This is how it should have been so that We may strengthen your heart from time to time. This was also so that Divine knowledge and other kinds of knowledge are taught at their own time, appropriately. This is because it is harder to understand something before its time. With this wisdom, God revealed the Holy Quran over 23 years so that the prophecies are also fulfilled during this time”.
The scribes of the Holy Quran
Among the various precautions taken for the preservation of the Quran, let us have a closer look at just one: the writing down of the Quran. There were many companions of the Holy Prophet(sa) who had the responsibility of writing down the revelation of the Holy Quran. It is narrated that:
Whenever a verse was revealed, the Holy Prophet(sa) would call one of the scribes
This means that the Holy Prophet(sa) had several scribes available to him. Quoting from Fatḥul Bārī, Hazrat Muṣleh Mau‘ūd(ra) gives a list of 15 scribes, the most important of whom was Hazrat Zaid bin Thābit(ra).
Maulana Ahsanullah Danish sahib, a scholar of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who consulted various historical books that contain the names of the scribes, concludes that there were 28 companions who wrote down the Quran specifically during the time of the Holy Prophet(sa), and he has also noted that some researchers have placed the number as high as 40 companions. All of this research shows that those companions of the Holy Prophet(sa) who knew how to write loved to write down verses of the Holy Quran and this happened from the earliest of days, and it was common for companions to have some written portions of the Quran with them.
Even if those various manuscripts with parts of the Quran written were put together, complete copies of the Quran could be produced from them. On top of this, some companions had written down the Quran in its entirety as shown by the following narrations:
Narrated Qatada: I asked Anas bin Malik(ra) : “Who collected the Quran at the time of the Prophet(sa)?” He replied, “Four, all of whom were from the Anṣār: Ubayy bin Ka‘b, Mu‘ādh bin Jabal, Zaid bin Thābit and Abū Zaid”.
Narrated Anas bin Malik(ra): When the Prophet(sa) died, none had collected the Quran but four persons: Abū Ad-Dardā’, Mu‘ādh bin Jabal, Zaid bin Thābit and Abū Zaid.
Based on these two narrations, it can be determined that from the tribe of Hazrat Anas(ra) alone there were 5 people from the Anṣār who had written down the Quran in its entirety during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet(sa).
The first single-volume manuscript of the Quran
Based on his research on the compilation of the Quran, Maulana Ahsanullah Danish sahib writes that while it is true that the Quran had been written down in its entirety by the companions, the Quran did not exist in the form of a hardbound book or a single volume (like today) during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet(sa). This is why, during the Khilāfat of Hazrat Abū Bakr(ra), when the battle of Yamāma took place in which 500 reciters of the Quran were martyred, Hazrat ‘Umar(ra) suggested to Hazrat Abū Bakr(ra) that the Quran should be compiled into the form of a single volume. This incident is described at length in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī (Kitābul Fadhā’il) and mentions how Hazrat Abu Bakr(ra) had reservations at the beginning because such a task of putting the Quran into a single volume was never done during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet(sa) but eventually he realized the necessity of this undertaking, and assigned Hazrat Zaid bin Thābit(ra) to do this task. This was because he was the most trusted and prominent scribe of the Quran during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet(sa).
At this point, some critics allege that this was the first attempt to write the Quran as Hazrat Abu Bakr(ra) clearly said that this had never been done during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet(sa). However, this allegation is born out of a poor understanding of the actual narration in Arabic. Hazrat Muṣleh Mau‘ūd(ra) points out that the words which Hazrat Umar(ra) said to Hazrat Abu Bakr(ra) were:
This means, “I suggest that you order the collection of the Quran”. In other words, he was not suggesting the writing down of the Quran. That had already been done. He was suggesting the collection of the Quran into a single, complete volume. Similarly, when Hazrat Abū Bakr(ra) called Hazrat Zaid(ra), he said to him ijma’hu, meaning that he should collect it in one place. He did not tell him to write it down, as if for the first time. Hazrat Muṣleh Mau‘ūd(ra) concludes by saying, “These words themselves demonstrate that at that time, the question in front of them was to collect the pages of the Quran into a single volume. They were not concerned about writing it down per se”.
Contrary to the way critics wish to portray this narration, it actually shows the extent to which the companions strove in order to preserve the purity of the Quranic text. Prior to the time of the narration, the Quran had already been written down in its entirety by several companions, it had been memorized in its entirety by several companions, and it was being recited, memorized, studied, discussed and quoted frequently. On top of all this, the companions still wished to go a step further and have the Quran put together into a single volume. What remarkable, sincere service to the Quran! Is it still possible to assume that the Quran was corrupted in light of such evidence to the contrary? Furthermore, the reason why this single-volume manuscript could not be prepared during the time of the Holy Prophet(sa) is because the Quran was being revealed to him constantly and it was not possible to know if the revelation of the Quran had ended. However, when he died, it was understood that the Quranic revelation has come to an end and the Quran can be collected into a single book form.
In a remarkable book on the compilation, arrangement, and revelation of the Quran – Al-Itqān fī ’ulūmil Quran – Hazrat Imām Jalāluddīn Sayyūtī(rh) writes about the precautions that were taken to put together this first volume of the Quran. He writes that in light of the traditions, it should be understood that Hazrat Zaid(ra) was himself a Ḥāfiz (one who had memorized the Quran in full) but he still sought other witnesses to each verse both in written form as well as via memorization before adding it to the single volume or masḥaf of the Quran that he was asked to prepare. Then, Imam Jalāluddīn(rh) says:
Abū Da’ūd narrates that Abū Bakr(ra) said to ‘Umar(ra) and Zaid(ra): “Sit at the entrance to the Mosque and whoever comes to you with any portion from the book of Allah [i.e. the Holy Quran] with the support of two witnesses, write it down”. Ibn Ḥijr says that the two witnesses refer to two formats, that is, through memorization and in writing. Sakhāwi writes in his book Jamālul-Qurrā’, “This means that two witnesses should give testimony that it was written down in front of the Holy Prophet(sa)”… Abū Shāma says, “It was their intention that the Quran is written down in the same words that were written down in the presence of the Holy Prophet(sa), and not just based on memory.”,
Based on these numerous narrations Hazrat Muṣleh Mau‘ūd(ra) writes that for every single verse of the Quran, both memory of that verse and a written down format of that verse were asked for before it was included in the maṣḥaf of Hazrat Abū Bakr(ra). What is more is that for most of the Quranic verses, there were dozens or even hundreds of witnesses who said that they learnt the verse from the Holy Prophet(sa) directly. Many verses even had thousands of witnesses. The final volume that was produced out of this monumental exercise is called maṣḥaf-e-umm and no companions laid any objection to the accuracy of this manuscript of the Quran.
Standardized Copy of the Quran
During the time of Hazrat Uthmān(ra), copies of this maṣḥaf-e-umm were made and distributed to different Muslim lands as official, standardized copies of the Quran. This was because he started receiving complaints that different tribes enunciated or pronounced words of the Quran in distinctive ways and so Hazrat Uthmān(ra) forbade all variations of enunciation of even vowel points and sent a standard copy to be recited in the standard way. This standard form of recitation or pronunciation of words was based on the dialect of the Holy Prophet(sa) or the dialect of the Quresh of Mecca. In Arabic, this is called Qirā’ah and the closest analogy for English speakers to understand the difference between Qirā’āt (plural of Qirā’ah) is to think of the difference between American English and British English in terms of pronunciation. Since Arabic is a much more diverse language as compared to English, this difference in dialects becomes much more profound and distinctive among Arabic speakers. Hence, Hazrat Uthmān(ra) responded to this challenge of differences in pronunciation by standardizing the written copy of the Quran along with its mode of recitation. As an added precaution, he ordered the burning of all other written manuscripts of the Quran – whether they were complete or only had portions of the Quran written on them. Since a colossal effort had already been made to prepare the maṣḥaf-e-umm, there was no need to keep any other manuscripts of any other shape or form. One fear of allowing such manuscripts was that some companions took personal notes on their manuscripts and it could have led to confusion for later peoples as they may have wondered which part is the Quran and which part is a footnote or a side note.
The Manuscript of Hazrat Abdullāh bin Mas‘ūd(ra)
Some critics of Islam raise an objection at this point that Hazrat ‘Abdullāh bin Mas‘ūd(ra) did not consider Sūrah Al-Fatiḥa and the Mu‘awwidhatain (last 2 chapters of the Quran) as part of the original text of the whole Quran, causing his hypothetical manuscript to be made up of 111 chapters instead of 114 chapters. We call it hypothetical because he never compiled an official manuscript as opposed to maṣḥaf-e-umm and never declared or formally announced that his manuscript should be considered a standard instead of any other manuscript. Regardless, it is indeed true that some narrations mention this opinion of Hazrat ‘Abdullāh bin Mas‘ūd(ra) that he did not wish to include these three chapters in his manuscripts of the Quran. For instance, it is narrated in Masnad Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal as follows:
It is narrated by ‘Abdur Raḥmān bin Yazīd that Hazrat ‘Abdullāh bin Mas‘ūd(ra) used to erase the Mu‘awwidhatain from his manuscripts and used to say, “They are not from the book of Allah [i.e. the Holy Quran]”. One narrator, A‘mish, narrates that ‘Āsim narrates from Zirr, who in turn narrates from Hazrat Ubayy bin Ka‘b(ra) [who said] “We asked the Holy Prophet(sa) about them [i.e. Mu‘awwidhatain], and he said, ‘This is how I have been commanded’, and so I convey [this to others]”.,
A similar narration appears in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī as follows:
Zirr bin Ḥubaish narrates, I asked Ubayy bin Ka‘b(ra), ‘O Abul Mundhir! Your brother, Ibn Mas‘ud(ra) said so-and-so [i.e., the Mu‘awwidhatain do not belong to the Quran]’. Ubayy(ra) said, “I asked the Holy Prophet(sa) about them, and he said, ‘They have been revealed to me, and I have recited them (as a part of the Quran)’”. Ubayy(ra) added, ‘So, we say according to what the Holy Prophet(sa) said.
First, it must be clear from these narrations that Hazrat ‘Abdullah bin Mas‘ūd(ra) is only expressing an opinion about the last 2 chapters of the Quran. Other narrations mention that he thought these were merely prayers revealed to the Holy Prophet(sa) in order to seek protection from Allah on behalf of his grandsons, Hazrat Imām Ḥassan(ra) and Hazrat Imām Ḥussain(ra). Commenting on similar objections about Hazrat ‘Abdullāh bin Mas‘ūd(ra), the Promised Messiah(as) writes:
These ignorant people say that Ibn Mas‘ūd(ra) requested a prayer duel, which means that it is permissible for Muslims to do prayer duels. However they cannot prove that Ibn Mas‘ūd(ra) did not retract his opinion, and they also cannot prove that a prayer duel took place resulting in Divine punishment for those in error. The truth is that Ibn Mas‘ūd(ra) was an ordinary person, not a Prophet or Messenger. If he made a mistake out of passion, does that mean that we should consider his statement part of: It is nothing but pure revelation that has been revealed by God?
The Promised Messiah(as) is arguing here that no matter what the case, the status of Hazrat Abdullah bin Mas‘ūd(ra) is not so high that we should consider him immune from errors in judgement. His words and statements do not have the same status as the words of the Holy Prophet(sa) regarding whom it is clearly stated in the Quran that what he said for religious guidance was pure revelation from God. At the same time, there is absolutely no doubt that he was a great teacher of the Holy Quran and one of the most revered companions, and among the earliest converts to Islam, and every Muslim must respect him. A simple error in judgment about three of the chapters of the Holy Quran does not diminish his high status in the eyes of any Muslim. Our prayer for him has always been and continues to be: Radhi-Allahu ‘anho (May Allah be pleased with him!).
Second, the narrations themselves clearly refute the error of Hazrat ‘Abdullāh bin Mas‘ūd(ra) as Hazrat ‘Abdullāh bin Ubayy(ra) – another revered teacher of the Quran – is reported to have checked with the Holy Prophet(sa) about the Mu‘awwidhatain and he told him that they were part of the Quran. Similar to this narration, there are many other well-authenticated Aḥādīth that quote the Holy Prophet(sa) as clearly stating that Surah Al-Fātiḥa and the Mu‘awwidhatain are part of the Holy Quran and not separate from it. An interesting point is that other narrations state that Ibn Mas‘ūd(ra) did not include the Mu‘awwidhatain in his manuscript, or they were missing from the manuscript of Ibn Mas‘ūd(ra), but these narrations do not record his statement that they are not a part of the book of Allah. This is a subtle difference which means that there is some confusion as to the real reason why Hazrat ‘Abdullah bin Mas‘ūd(ra) did not include these two chapters in his manuscript. It may have been the opinion of Hazrat ‘Abdullah bin Mas‘ūd(ra) or it may have been the opinion of the person narrating this about him. In either case, these are just their opinions which are clearly refuted in these narrations as well as many other narrations from authentic sources. As Maulana Ahsanullah Danish sahib puts it, on the one hand, we have the opinion of the companions of the Holy Prophet(sa) supported by historical evidence, the united opinion of the entire ummah, the united opinion of the memorizers or ḥuffāz of the Quran, and on the other hand, there is the opinion of the person narrating this from Hazrat ‘Abdullāh bin Mas‘ūd(ra) or perhaps the opinion of Hazrat ‘Abdullah bin Mas‘ūd(ra) himself. What does our rational mind tell us? Accept the doubt of one or two people or the clear-cut statements of the Holy Prophet(sa) that plainly state that both Surah Al-Fātiḥa and the Mu‘awwidhatain are part of the revealed Holy Quran.
The evidence for the excellent preservation of the text of the Holy Quran is quite extensive. A recent discovery of a manuscript of the Quran gives further evidence for this. It was found in the University of Brimingham and scholars have said that it is perhaps the oldest manuscript of the Quran in the world. It dates from the period of 568 CE to 645 CE which makes it a possible manuscript from the time of the Holy Prophet(sa) himself. It contains parts of chapters 18 to 20 of the Holy Quran and a comparison with a present-day publication of the Quran reveals that they are identical, without any differences. Despite all of this evidence, if some critics object to the preservation of the Holy Quran, it can only be due to bias. An honest researcher in this field has no option but to affirm that the prediction of the Quran regarding its perfect preservation has indeed been fulfilled.