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Compilation and Preservation of the Qur'an


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Compilation and Preservation of the Qur'an


Considering the compilation and preservation of the Qur'an will address some important questions that might sensibly arise. Even accepting that Muhammad (on whom peace be) was a true Prophet who received revelation from Allah, how do we know that we have this very revelation in our hands today? How can we trust that it was correctly recorded so many centuries ago and that it hasn't gone through additions, deletions and corruptions since then?





These questions are doubly important because of the claims Muslims make concerning the Bible. If we are to say that the Bible contains true revelation but also the work of men, what’s to stop others making equally strong claims about the Qur’an? On one level, we can point out the coherency of the book as we have it today and how its very nature shows that it must be free of alterations.


However, such an approach is not sufficient. We need to examine the way in which the Qur’an came to be written down and collected in one volume and how it has been preserved through the ages. Before we do so, however, it would be sensible to ask whether we have any real reason to suppose in the first place that the Qur’an has been preserved. Could we be doing what people of other religions do and proving something that isn’t internally supported and therefore unnecessary?


In fact we find once again that the Qur’an actually makes a claim of preservation. There are numerous verses that make this claim, the most definitive being:


"We have without doubt, send down the message; and We will assuredly guard it(from corruption)." The Holy Qur'an, Chapter 15, Verse 9


In this verse, Allah promises that He Himself has taken on the responsibility of preserving the Qur’an. Unlike the Rabbis and Priests to whom the responsibility of preserving the previous scriptures was given, Allah is of course free of faults and perfectly able to guard His Word.


"No falsehood can approach it from before or behind it: is sent down by full by One Full of Wisdom, worthy of all praise" The Holy Qur'an, Chapter 41, Verse 42


Of course once we have established this internal evidence, we must consider the external evidence also. Let’s begin this discussion then, by remembering how the Qur’an came to be revealed. The Prophet received the first revelation at the age of 40:



" Read! In the name of your Lord and Cherisher, Who created. Created man out of a clot. Read! And your Lord is most bountiful; He Who taught (the use of )the pen; taught man that which he knew not". The Holy Qur'an, Chapter 96, Verse 1-5


After this first revelation, further parts came one at a time in varying lengths. The whole Qur’an was revealed piecemeal over a period of 23 years, the final revelation, which now appears in Surah 5 verse 3, being revealed shortly prior to the Prophet’s death (peace be upon him).


As we have mentioned, Muhammad was illiterate and therefore could not have written down these revelations himself. Instead, he had appointed scribes to carry out this task. They wrote on whatever materials were available, including pieces of cloth, leather, palm-fibre and even bones and stones. Some companions of the Prophet other than the official scribes also wrote parts of the Qur’an for their own use.


However, we find that the primary method of preserving the Qur’an was not the writing, which did take place, but in fact memorisation. Jamal Badawi explains some of the factors facilitating this memorisation:


The Arabs were known to have excellent memory. Not that writing was not known, but they depended largely on memory. So their lineage was based on memorisation; they used to memorise long poems, sometimes up to a hundred verses: they were very good at that. So Allah (SWT), as He says in the Qur’an, “Allahu a’lamu haythu yaj’alu risalatah”, Allah knows best where to put His message. Why reveal to the Arabs, not others, why in that particular point of time? There are certain qualities in the Qur’an that Allah saw it fit that it would be revealed to those people who can keep it in memory. Nobody in the world had as sharp memory as the Arabs of the time. There are lots of reports on that, even from pre-Islamic days.


Second, the Prophet (pbuh) encouraged people also to memorise it, so it’s not a passive listening to the Prophet. He encouraged people and you know some of the famous ahadeeth, “Khayrukum man ta’allamal-Qur’ana wa ‘allamah”, the best of you are those who learn the Qur’an and teach it to others. And people who memorise the Qur’an were regarded very highly in society, in the community. They are the ones who were asked to lead the prayers, so there were lots of incentives and encouragement. And above all, of course, the Prophet (pbuh) said that learning and memorising the Qur’an is immensely rewarded by Allah (SWT).


Number three: the style of the Qur’an itself made it easier to memorise. As the Qur’an says, “Wa laqad yassarnal-Qur’ana lidh-dhikr”, Allah made the Qur’an easy to remember. I’m not saying, easy to think that it’s so simple you can just take the Qur’an overnight and memorise it! Actually it’s hard to keep, they have to keep…But the style of the Qur’an, its beauty and connection and rhyme make it much easier to memorise than memorising a book of law, or sociology or psychology. It’s much easier and flowing, both in meaning and style. Number four: the Qur’an was not only recited once. And that’s a good response to those people who say, “How could we trust the memory of people, no matter how many, to preserve such a huge scripture?” No, they didn’t hear it once! The Qur’an was used on a constant basis: in the prayers; in various acts of worship; whenever people have problems, and they have a ruling, the Qur’an was the reference to that ruling.





As well as this, the facts that the Qur'an came gradually over 23 years and its interactive nature made it easier to commit to memory.


During the month of Ramadan each year, the Prophet (on whom be peace) used to recite all of the Qur’an that had been revealed to date in the presence of the Angel Gabriel, or Jibreel, the medium of revelation. This was the ultimate means of checking his own accuracy, which in turn allowed the accuracy of other memorisers to be verified. They could check it from the 3 daily recitations in the congregational prayer, and of course the Imam, while leading the prayer, would be corrected by the congregation if he made the minutest error in the recitation, as is the practice even until today.


In his final year on earth, the Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) recited the Qur’an twice before Jibreel to ensure that there were no errors. The chief scribe, Zayd ibn Thabit, was also present. By the time of the Prophet’s death, the whole Qur’an had been committed to writing as well as being solidly established in the memories of several thousands of Muslims, some of whom memorised portions while many knew it in whole. As well as the copies of the official scribes, there were many partial copies of various Surahs in the possession of various Companions of the Prophet, who verified their correctness by reading them to the Prophet.


In summary then, we can see that at this stage the Qur’an had been carefully recorded and verified in a number of ways. We should note, however, that the Qur’an at that point was not in a single volume in the order in which we find it today. The Surahs were still fragmented on the scraps on which they had been written down. Today the Surahs in the Qur’an are not in the order in which they were revealed, but in fact in the order they were later compiled in line with the instructions of the Prophet (on whom be peace).


During the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, two years after the death of the Prophet (on whom be peace), many of the believers were martyred in the Battle of Yamaamah. Most significantly, 70 people who had memorised the whole Qur’an were martyred, which gives an indication of the great number of these memorisers who existed. After this great loss, some of the senior Companions became concerned that if more such events occurred, the Qur’an could become partly lost or corrupted.


Therefore, at the suggestion of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, Abu Bakr set up a committee to compile the Qur’an into one volume. This was headed by the chief scribe Zayd ibn Thabit, who was selected because of his qualities of having a particularly excellent memory and superior knowledge of the Qur’an, and others such as the fact that he was present during the final verification before the Angel Gabriel.


The method of collection was very rigorous. All the materials on which the Qur’anic text had been written by the official scribes were collected and verified by the memories of Zayd ibn Thabit and Umar ibn al-Khattab. There had to be at least two righteous, humble and reliable persons who could certify that the text under scrutiny had been recorded in the actual presence of the Prophet (on whom be peace). These verses were then to be compared with the written records of the Companions.


All this was done in public so there was no chance that any tampering was done behind doors. The Arabs were not a complacent people who would have sat silent while people changed the revelation from Allah. The Qur’an was compiled into manuscripts, each being one Surah, or chapter. These were kept in the possession of the Khalifah, Abu Bakr. Upon his death, they passed to his successor, ‘Umar, who subsequently passed them onto Hafsah, his daughter and a wife of the Prophet (on whom be peace).


During the Caliphate of ‘Uthman, who succeeded ‘Umar, the boundaries of the Islamic state were expanding rapidly into lands where the people did not speak Arabic. The people were converting to Islam in large numbers and learning the Qur’an from the Companions of the Prophet. However, the Companions were teaching in different modes of recitation which although all correct, caused confusion among those with less mastery and understanding of the language. They started branding each other as unbelievers due to a misunderstanding of the allowed differences in recitation. In order to stem the possible conflicts arising from these misunderstandings, ‘Uthman decided to make a standard copy of the Qur’an in a single volume. He obtained the surah manuscripts from Hafsah and appointed a committee of four senior Companions to collate them in order according to the same criterion used for the original task of forming the manuscripts. Dr Badawi states:


Historians agree on at least four copies that were made. One of them was placed with ‘Uthman in Madinah – with the Khalifah [Caliph, leader]; the other two were in Iraq – what is now Iraq – one in Basra and one in Kufa. And of course the most important centre for Islam at the time was Syria, and the fourth one was in Damascus. In fact some historians, of course, add to this that there were also copies sent to Makkah – which would be quite logical – Yemen and Bahrain: but the full agreement is on the first four.


One of the interesting things is that one of the ‘Uthmanic copies, that was placed in Damascus in the Central Mosque, Umayyid Mosque, was seen by two historians. One is Al-Kindi, who died in the year 850 of the Common Era, and later, even several hundred years, in the 14th century of the Common Era, as late as 1372, the year in which Ibn Katheer the famous historian died, he reported to have seen that also in the Central Mosque in Damascus. The Madinan copy is believed – there is some dispute – to be now available in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. And there is another copy also that many of you might have seen or heard about in the media, ‘Uthmanic copy also, that is found now in Tashkent, in the province of Uzbekistan under the Soviet disunion at the present time. Since then, the Qur’an has remained identical except for a few helpful features for the ease of reading of those who are not as proficient in the Arabic language as the community of Muhammad (on whom be peace). First, there was the addition of diacritical marks, or dots that make it clear which letter is referred to by a single stroke that could otherwise be interpreted as a B, an N, a T or a TH sound, for example. Then there was the addition of vowel sounds to make it clear to non-Arabs to whom the correct rendering is less obvious. As well as this, the whole Qur’an was divided into 30 equal parts for ease of recitation over the period of a month, and 7 equal parts for a weekly recitation.


In summary then, the Arabic text of the Qur’an was meticulously compiled soon after the death of the Prophet (on whom be peace) using the written records made during his life and the sound memorisation of his companions. It has remained unchanged since then, as can be seen by comparing today’s copies with those standardised by ‘Uthman in 646. We can therefore have confidence in the miracle that is the Qur’an.




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