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Paper Trail: Lost Versions of the Qu'ran

What we can learn about the Companions' versions from the San'aa manuscripts and ahadith

by Scott Cherry—

Introduction

As far as I know, there are no sacred writings, or scriptures, that have descended from heaven in their modern codex form: not the Hindu Vedas, nor the Book of Mormon, nor the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, nor even the Qur’an (whose claim possibly comes closest). These were all written by human hands. Neither did any of them emerge in a vacuum, but rather with an historical context over time. Another way of capturing this is that all holy books have a history. They have all left a ‘paper trail’ as it were. This consists of old manuscripts of the sacred texts themselves as well as other surviving writings that shed light on the sacred texts. The existence of said paper trail at first pass is a given fact, and it is neutral. However, any paper trail is examinable and open to scrutiny. Once it is examined, that paper trail could be generally favorable toward its resulting holy book, unfavorable, or perhaps somewhere in between. That depends on many factors and presuppositions. Philosophically, in the case of some ancient literature, including some sacred texts, might it be more favorable to them if they did not have a paper trail? Possibly so. That is what this paper is about.
 

Thesis

In this article we will go deep into what I am calling the ‘philosophy of paper trails’.  In specific, we will attempt to identify the history of the sacred text known as the Qur’an. We will do this by examining the text of the Qur’an itself as well as extra-Qur’anic Muslim sources such as the hadith and the tafsir, or Islamic commentaries. We also make use of scholarly, peer-reviewed sources such as Proquest and the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, popular online sources such as Wikipedia, and lesser-known but still credible articles that I had at my disposal.  The questions we will ask and attempt to answer are not novel: Have the texts of the Qur’an been perfectly preserved since their initial emergence into 7th century Arabia, in the first century A.H. and to the present time? This article will argue no: 1) that the Qur’anic recitations by Muhammad experienced diversity/variation within the initial revelatory period; 2) that some or many of the variants were mutually exclusive; 3) that the standardized Uthmanic mushaf did not eliminate them to-present. My conclusion is that today’s Qur’an/s have changed because they are not the same as the pre-Uthmanic version. In subsequent parts of this paper I will argue that even present-day Qur’ans are not identical owing to the history of its transmission. To be sure, other writers who are far more qualified than I have entered in to this thorny territory. It’s thorny, of course, because if the results of one’s research cast any shadow of doubt on the prevailing narrative of the Qur’an it is sure to be met with scorn. That aside, let's follow this trail to see where it takes us. 

On this subject, the brevity of this paper will not allow for the full scope of questions, sub-topics and the various sources of evidence such as existing Qur’an manuscripts. Thus, it will necessarily limit its focus to one important focus of study, the Sana’a manuscript, and the scholarly findings related to it. We will also consider selected hadith related to the textual issues raised in this paper. Therefore, the reader should consider this as part 1 of a progressive series of articles on this subject.

 
Part 1: Background

The first thing that is necessary is to provide the context for the very first ‘revelation’ offered by almost every Muslim source. So, let’s go back to the year 610. The following is a very common rendition of the account copied from Islamreligion.com. We will see that the first Qur’anic ayas, or verses, flowed out of Muhammad’s initial encounter with the angel Gabriel who told him what to say and he said it.

It came on a night late in the sacred month of Ramadan, the night known to Muslims as Laylat-ul-Qadr, the ‘Night of Decree.’ Prophet Muhammad was in solitude in the cave on Mount Hira.  He was startled by the Angel of Revelation, Gabriel, the same who had come to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who seized him in a close embrace.  A single word of command burst upon him: ‘Iqra’—‘Read!’  He said: ‘I am not able to read!’  but the command was issued twice more, each with the same response from the Prophet.  Finally, he was grasped with overwhelming force by the angel.  Gabriel released him, and the first ‘recitation’ of the Quran was revealed to him:

“Read in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clot.  Read: for your Lord is Most Bountiful, who teaches by the pen, teaches man that which he knew not.” (Quran 96:1-5)

"Thus began the magnificent story of God’s final revelation to humanity until the end of times. The encounter of an Arab, fourteen centuries ago, with a being from the realm of the Unseen was an event of such momentous significance that it would move whole peoples across the earth and affect the lives of hundreds of millions of men and women, building great cities and great civilizations, provoking the clash of mighty armies and raising from the dust beauty and splendor unknown previously.  It would also bring teeming multitudes to the Gates of Paradise and, beyond, to the beatific vision.  The word Iqra’, echoing around the valleys of the Hejaz, broke the mold in which the known world was casted [sic]; and this man, alone among the rocks, took upon his shoulders a burden which would have crushed the mountains had it descended upon them."   islamreligion.com/articles/183/muhammad-biography-part-3/ 

There are numerous accounts similar to this that can be found in Muslim websites. All the accounts follow the same basic outline but may vary in some of the significant details. Some say, for example, that Muhammad was so distressed by this terrifying encounter that several times he considered throwing himself over a cliff, and even came close to attempting it. Here is a report by one of the early Islamic chroniclers, in this case a famous writer of tafsir, or commentary:

Al-Tabari, Volume VI, p. 68—'He (Muhammad) said: I had been thinking of hurling myself down from a mountain crag, but he appeared to me, as I was thinking about this, and said, “Muhammad, I am Gabriel and you are the Messenger of God.” Then he said, “Recite!” I said, “What shall I recite?” He took me and pressed me three times tightly until I was nearly stifled and was utterly exhausted; then he said: “Recite in the name of your Lord who created,” and I recited it. Then I went to Khadijah and said, “I have been in fear for my life.”'

If Muhammad’s reaction to the angelic encounter were the focus of my discussion we would consider some additional sources to this effect. But it is not, so we shall immediately move on to other matters. But this example has already served to draw out the fact that Qur’an itself does not contain the contextual narrative of that encounter, nor a great many others. Rather, the situational details must be obtained from extra-Qur’anic sources of literature.  One is tafsir, as we have just seen; another is hadith of which there are multiple collections containing some 16,000 reports of Muhammad’s actions and sayings known as sunna, or traditions. While Tabari wrote tafsir, the hadiths are generally short, they had thousands of writers, and they were collected by various Muslims. One highly-regarded collector was Bukhari, whose name will show up again. (Two other well-reputed collectors were Ibn Majah and Abu Dawood.)  A third source is called the sira, the biographical writings about Muhammad. Without these three sources there would be a vast amount of Islamic history that could not be known from the Qur’an alone. (For the sake of comparison, the Bible has its contextual, historical and biographical material integrated with its revelatory and didactic content.) 

The two primary sources for Muslim faith and practice are the Qur’an and the hadith.  As we will continue to see, much of what we can know about the historical formation of the Qur’an itself comes from the hadith.  Just today I was discussing a question from the Qur’an with a Muslim student using Facebook Messenger. The subject itself is not important, but we disagreed over the clear meaning of the verses addressing it in the Qur’an, which I thought were ambiguous. To shed more light on the matter the student turned to the hadith. He found two separate passages that supplement the Qur’anic position on this question.  What’s more, the hadith are incredibly interesting because of how candid they are, among other reasons. This will become more apparent.  Over the course of this paper—part 1 and subsequent ones—we are going to use the hadith to learn about the history of the Qur’an. They will tell us much of what the Qur’an does not tell us about itself.

Returning to the narrative about Muhammad’s first encounter with the angel, the Qur’an records the revelatory content in Surah 96; you know, when the angel squeezes Muhammad and tells him, “Read”.  Why is that not in Surah 1, or 2? you may ask, as I have. It’s a good question. The answer is, well, just because. There is no chronological order to the Qur’an; they simply come when they may. Also, the number of Surah’s will be part of our investigation.  For example, in my review of the scholarly literature I have discovered that there are several versions of the Qur’an in circulation even today, and they are not identical.  One version called the Warsh, for example, has only 113 surahs and 6214 verses (ayahs). By contrast, the most widely circulated version is called Hafs which has 114 surahs and 6236 verses. Those numbers are very close, but they are supposed to be identical. A tradition of Abi Abdullah recorded by Hasham-ibn-Shalam relates that “There were 17,000 verses in the Qur’an which were delivered to Muhammad.”  Already there are apparent discrepancies. But again, if not for the hadith and other sources we could never know that, or even the rumor of it. Certainly we should question the truthfulness of that report in the interests of intellectual honesty. But how would we go about that? 1) We would look to the hadith and tafsir for corroboration, and 2) we would examine existing Qur’an manuscripts (MS) for the purpose of analysis. Now we turn to this important subject.


*Thanks for reading part one of this article. The entire article (16 pages) may be downloaded here. 

**Also see this downloadable document: Scribal Changes in the Qur'an

  • 26 June 2018
  • Author: Scott Cherry
  • Number of views: 815
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