An Examination of the Stages of the Qurʾān’s Collection

An Examination of the Stages of the Qurʾān’s Collection

by | Jul 9, 2014 | History | 0 comments

In this essay I will critically examine the different stages of the collection of the Qurʾān and highlight the importance of each of those stages and the critical role they played in relation to the preservation of the Qurʾānic text that Muslims possess in their hands today.  I will firstly begin by situating the context of the discourse thereafter defining the term ‘collection’ in classical Sunnite tradition. Secondly I will outline only the essential details of the traditional Muslim view of the process of collection as stated in various primary sources and at the same time present some of the central arguments in more detail proffered by Western scholarship apropos of particular aspects of the traditional view which I will evaluate.

In order to provide a facilitative framework from whence the discussion can be conceptualised, I have divided the stages of collection into two broad phases; the Prophetic collection and the Caliphal collection, the latter phase being divided into two sub phases; namely Abū Bakr’s collection which was later followed by ʿUthmān’s collection. This is generally in line with the classical traditionalist view.[1]

Before delving into the subject, an important point that needs to be highlighted in order to situate this essay in its contextual discourse is its close connection with the Science of Ḥadīth. At the heart of this discussion lies the issue of Western scholarship on Islāmic traditions (ḥadīths) which plays a crucial role in our understanding of the many non-traditional stances taken by scholars of this persuasion in relation to the historicity of the Qur’ānic text. It should be noted from the outset the traditional Sunnite view on the history of the Qur’ān is based largely on traditions that have been collected and reported in canonical ḥadīth collections which are viewed with great scepticism in Western scholarship. This is partially explained by the fact that modern Western study of history follows the Historical Critical Method approach which had its basis in the Renaissance but was further developed in eighteenth and nineteenth century Germany[2]. It involved a critical attitude towards historical sources by questioning their authority and reliability which could be assessed for example by the presence of anachronisms in historical reports.

Additionally the Principle of Analogy which stated that human society, regardless of era or place, function in essentially the same manner, therefore we can understand the reason behind the occurrence of events in any ancient civilisation.[3] Thus, if people in general pursue selfish interests ‘to advance their own agendas today’ this means they did the same in any previous civilisation[4]. In the field of biblical studies these perceptions culminated in the theory of Form criticism which assumed historical texts to be of doubtful authority and reliability, the presentation of orthodox views in such texts to be suspicious and the criteria for analysing the veracity of historical source could be deciphered by ‘identifying which parts of the text served which historical agendas’.[5] The ‘default setting for the scholars was to doubt the reliability of material transmitted about the past’ as Brown insightfully notes [6].

It was not long until these perspectives of textual criticism were applied to Islāmic history thereby creating suspicion of the historical reliability of its sources.[7] In particular, I. Goldziher was instrumental in advancing a thesis which cast aspersions on the reliability of ḥadīths as a sound source because he believed such reports attributed to the Prophet or Companions were influenced by religious, dogmatic, political and ‘juridical developments of the Muslim community at a later time’[8]. Also the fact that Western views of ḥadīth and Islāmic history developed in the backdrop of European colonial pursuits with the aim of domination of the ‘other’ has led some to conclude that ‘Western discussions about the reliability of the ḥadīth tradition are thus not neutral’[9].  The Western criticisms of the traditional views that I mention below to balance the arguments offered in this essay reflect such modes of thinking as described above.

The final introductory point is regarding the term jam῾ (collection) which is defined as understood by the classical Muslim scholars. The term, according to its multiple occurrence in numerous traditions has been varyingly defined as meaning; arrangement[10], writing[11], memorisation[12] and physical collection[13] in relation to the Qur’ān. As a result of its multivalent meaning, the revisionist scholar; John Wansbrough (ob. 2002) concluded that it was indicative of the nebulous nature of the traditional conception of the Qur’ānic collection[14]. However, the following discussion will seek to demonstrate that each meaning is in fact clearly reflective of the different contextual stages of the Qur’ānic collection.


The Prophetic Collection

The traditional view states that during the lifetime of the Prophet revelation would be written down immediately following its reception by one of his many amanuenses including Zayd b. Thābit on primitive writing materials that were available at hand inter alia stripped palm branches, stone plates, leather parchments and animal shoulder blades[15]. In this manner the complete Qur’ān was noted down on scattered pieces of materials but had not been compiled into one volume as reported by Zayd b. Thābit who stated: “The Prophet passed away without having collected the Qur’ān in anything[16].”Consequently, the view adduced primarily from this tradition and secondarily from others was that the Qur’ān was not compiled between two covers during the Prophetic era.[17]

However a minority of Muslim scholars such as Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim (ob. 287AH)[18] have claimed that the Prophet had compiled the Qur’ān into a muṣḥaf and sought to substantiate this view with a tradition that forbids travelling to enemy lands with the muṣḥafs. In tracing the sources of this tradition I found that none of the texts (mutūn) mention the word muṣḥaf or its plural maṣāḥif but instead they all mention the word Qur’ān.[19] Therefore, it appears Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim is mistaken in using the word maṣāḥif in the tradition instead of the proper word Qur’ān. Furthermore, even if the term muṣḥaf was used it would refer to the personal collections made by his Companions as some have argued[20].

There appear to be several reasons why the Qur’ān was not compiled into one volume during the Prophet’s life. From a Sunnite creedal point of view the Prophet had been promised by Allāh that he would not forget the Qur’ān as stated in 75:17-19, however this promise did not extend to his Companions who were individually liable to forget. As long as the Prophet was alive he was the reference point of the Qur’ān so there was no exigent need to compile it in a book form. From a practical point of view some verses were subject to abrogation as well as the fact that the chronology of the revelation of the Qur’ān was not reflected in its non-chronological arrangement which means it would not have been practically feasible to maintain a fixed volume, accordingly as al-Azami states; ‘a loose page format greatly simplified the insertion of new verses and new sūras[21]. With the death of the Prophet and cessation of revelation and just as significantly the availability of the whole Qur’ān in scattered written form as recorded in the presence of the Prophet; it was an opportune moment to now compile the Qur’ān ‘into a single, unified volume’[22].

Abū Bakr’s Collection

The traditional summative view states, as recorded by Bukhārī from Zayd b. Thābit’s report that during the Apostasy Wars, which Abū Bakr had to deal with upon being appointed the Caliph of the Islamic state, in one particular sanguinary battle a large number of readers (qurrā’) were killed. News of this severely distressed ῾Umar who advised Abū Bakr to compile the Qur’ān otherwise much of it would disappear. Abu Bakr’s initial reluctance was followed, after persuasion from ῾Umar, by a firm conviction to collate all the Qur’ān into one volume for which he tasked Zayd to undertake. Zayd was chosen due to his youth and intelligence, unimpeachable character, having been the Prophet’s scribe and for having attended the final review of the Qur’ān in the last year of the Prophet’s life[23]. Although Zayd also hesitated at first he was convinced by Abū Bakr and ῾Umar and proceeded to undertake this momentous task. The Qur’ān was collected from disparate primitive writing materials and from people’s memories – along with witnesses to attest to it being written in the Prophet’s presence[24] – and put into one volume. The end of the ninth sūrah was found with none except Abū Khuzaymah al-Anṣārī. The copy was kept with Abū Bakr and then by ῾Umar who finally left it with his daughter and the wife of the Prophet ‘Ḥafṣah[25].

The historical reliability of the above report is rejected by the German Orientalist Friedrich Schwally (ob. 1919) who produced a revised edition of Theodore Nöldeke’s classical study on the history of the Qur’ān entitled Geschichte des Qorāns.[26]Whilst Nöldeke adopted the traditional Sunnite account of the Qur’ān’s historicity Schwally on the other hand in the first two volumes of the revised edition independently compiled by him arrives at conclusions markedly different from those of Nöldeke.[27]

One particular argument put forward by Schwally to support his conclusion that there was a spurious connection between the collection of the Qur’ān and the heavy death toll of the memorisers in the Battle of Yamāmah, thereby casting doubt on the motive for the collection, was the mention of only a handful of names in the list of dead who were experts of the Qur’ān.[28]The weaknesses in this argument lie firstly in the fact that no evidence is produced to substantiate the claim and secondly in the existence of documented proof of some of the names of memorisers who fell at the battle such as ῾Abd Allāh b. Ḥafṣ b. Ghānim, Sālim the client of Abū Ḥuẓayfah b. ῾Utbah b. Rabī῾ah, Zayd b. al-Khaṭṭāb (῾Umar’s elder brother) et cetera.[29]

Another argument which Schwally believes disarticulates the traditional view is that the Caliphal copy of the Qur’ān was bequeathed by Abū Bakr to ῾Umar who passed it onto his daughter Ḥafṣah and not to ῾Uthmān – an act which he believes contradicts the claim that it was an official copy.[30] However, ῾Umar’s bequeathing of the Caliphal copy to his daughter in no way discredits its official nature because; firstly, unlike Abū Bakr, ῾Umar did not appoint a specific person to be his successor but instead left a consultation body consisting ‘six senior Companions’[31] to choose the next Caliph. As there was no Caliph to leave the copy with and there being no modern system of state archives or ‘official depository of records’[32] he left it in the hands of his daughter Ḥafṣah. Secondly, Ḥafṣah was not just ῾Umar’s daughter but was also one of the prominent wives of the Prophet, accordingly ῾Umar’s bequeath to his daughter was not merely the transference of something to an undistinguished heir lacking social recognition or status but to the religiously recognised institution of ‘The Mothers of the Believers’ which was bestowed upon the wives of the Prophet.

Watt adds a further argument which questions the validity of the motive by stating that according to other traditions, the Qur’ān was already in written form albeit in scattered materials therefore there was no need to fear the loss of the Qur’ān along with the death of the memorisers[33]. The problem with this argument is that Watt seems to have overlooked the established fact that the written Qur’ānic material during that particular period was consonantal in appearance and therefore divested of yet-to-be- conceived diacritical vowel marks.[34] Consequently, in order for majority of the Muslim populace to be able to recite the Qur’ān correctly the physical availability and expertise of the qurrā’ was the sine qua non of Qur’ānic teaching and learning[35] and a mitigating factor in incorrect readings. This latter point appropriately leads us to our next discussion regarding ῾Uthmān’s collection.

In summary though,  according to the traditional Sunnite view Abū Bakr’s aim was to gather all primary, first hand Qur’ānic fragments that were scattered amongst various Companions in Madīnah ‘and arrange for their transcription into a master volume’[36]. The importance of this stage to the Qur’ān thus lay in the fact that this action allowed the preservation of the Qur’ānic message which Muslims believe the Prophet Muḥammad had been sent with as a form of creedal and practical guidance.


῾Uthmānic Collection

The rapid expansion of the Islāmic state not only precipitated the expatriation of numerous Companions into different parts of the world but also brought a spectrum of languages and cultures under its control[37]. Classical traditions state the Companion Huẓayfah b. al-Yamān whilst leading a cosmopolitan army in the areas of present day Armenia and Azerbaijan noticed disputes arising amongst his men over the validity and supremacy of each others’ regional dialects and Qur’ānic reading styles. Shocked by these events he set out to ῾Uthmān and entreated him to act immediately ‘before they differ regarding the Book just as the Jews and Christians have differed’[38]. ῾Uthmān subsequently borrowed Ḥafṣah’s muṣḥaf and commissioned Zayd b. Thābit, ῾Abd Allāh b. al-Zubayr, Sa῾īd b. al-῾Āṣ and ῾Abd al-Raḥmān b. al-Ḥārith b. Hishām to transcribe the copy and streamline any differences in dialectal readings that occurs amongst themselves to that of the Quraysh dialect as the Qur’ān had been revealed in that dialect[39].

According to another report a different methodology was used which was more similar to that utilised in the time of Abū Bakr’s collection[40]. Not only was the master copy from Ḥafṣah used but the written materials along with witnesses[41] were also required to be present during the scribal process[42].  Upon completion of the task copies of the muṣḥaf were dispatched to various provinces along with a decree for the burning of all other muṣḥafs[43].

One of the criticisms Watt brings in relation to the motive of ῾Uthmān in compiling the Qur’ān is that his instruction to write it in the Quraysh dialect is questionable due to the primitive writing system of the time.[44]Although it is conceded that the writing system especially of ‘῾Uthmān’s Muṣḥaf [was] largely consonantal, frequently dropping vowels and containing no dots’[45] this does not mean the differences of certain variations of dialectical readings could not be exhibited through their writings – otherwise there would have been no reason to burn all other copies of the muṣḥaf. To further remove any confusion over the correct reading ῾Uthmān sent with each of the copies a reciter to demonstrate the correct form of reading[46]. The main importance of this stage to the Qur’ān is that the aim was to unite the Muslims upon a uniform reading of the Qur’ān[47] and to this end ῾Uthmān was highly successful.[48]

Western Displacement of the Traditional View

Two of the principle criticisms regarding the traditional views mentioned above stem from Burton and Wansbrough. Burton believed that European scholars had fallen short in thinking that only one version of a ḥadīth is true whereas no one had thought of suggesting that the whole corpus of ḥadīth traditions was equally untrue[49]. He believed it was the Prophet himself who collected the Qur’ān but Muslim jurisprudents upon examining the Qur’ān when it was later identified as a serious source noticed that many of their juridical rulings had no basis in the Qur’ān[50]. Consequently, in order to gain legitimacy for their views the Uṣūlīs forged the notion of naskh (abrogation) thereby suggesting the Qur’ān was incomplete and the Prophet had not collected the Qur’ān due to the possibility of naskh. Since the Prophet was excluded as the original compiler the job was ascribed to the next best people who were his Companions[51].

Wansbrough’s views were even more radical than Burton’s. Similar to Burton he suggested the Caliphal collection history was forged and fictitious but went farther based on two primary reasons; firstly he accepted Schacht’s scepticism regarding traditions that they were produced two centuries after the Prophetic era without actually investigating those traditions himself.[52] Secondly, due to his ‘form-analytical’ study of the Qur’ān and Muslim exegetical works[53] which he believed indicated the composite nature of the Qur’ān and that ‘the period required for its achievement was rather more than a single generation’[54].  The radical conclusion therefore is that the Qur’ān as we know it today was not canonised until after the end of the second century according to both Burton and Wansbrough[55].

The problem facing this conclusion, as demonstrated by Motzki’s methodological developments, lies in the fact that documented evidence exists of traditions mentioning the collection of the Qur’ān which have been dated to the last quarter of the second century AH in the form of ‘fragments found in Ibn Wahb’s Jāmi῾’[56]. Furthermore, the texts of these traditions must have existed earlier than manuscript evidence based on the concept of the ‘common link’ in the isnād (chain of ḥadīth transmission). If for argument’s sake we accept that these traditions are forged as both Burton and Wansbrough believe, then the source of this forgery can be identified via isnād analysis. Motzki’s analysis illustrates that the famous Minor Successor; Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī is the common link and therefore the originator of the ḥadīth[57]. This would then place the traditions in the ‘first quarter of the 2nd century AH’, thereby rendering Burton and Wansbrough’s theories fundamentally flawed and can ‘therefore be dismissed’[58].

More explicitly, Whelan’s analysis of the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Madīnah inscriptions place the writing of a canonised form of the Qur’ānic text to 72AH[59]. Her analysis showed that the verses inscribed on these buildings were in conformity with the popular Cairo edition of the Qur’ān except for minor variations and the inscriptions on the Great Mosque indicate that the Qur’ān was in a fixed and stable form, especially sūrahs 1 and 91-114. This completely contradicts Wansbrough’s conclusions[60].

In conclusion I have examined the three different but critically important stages of the collection of the Qur’ān and the importance each step played towards the preservation of the text as is extant today. I have demonstrated how each ‘collection’ was different and the preparatory role each played for the other. At the same time I mentioned some of the key criticisms that have been made by Western scholars in relation to the motivations for each stage of collection and brought evidence to clarify the weakness of such arguments. I have made references to how the two very different perspectives of the Muslim traditional view based on the Science of Ḥadīth and the Western view based on form and textual criticism have come, at times, to completely diametrically opposed conclusions and the rationale behind the latter.



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[1] Al-Naysābūrī, Abū ῾Abd Allāh al-Ḥākim (1997) Al-Mustadrak alā al-aḥīḥayn, ed. Muqbil b. Hādī. Cairo: Dār al-Ḥaramayn, vol. 2, p.275

[2] Brown, Jonathan (2009) adīth: Muammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, p.200

[3] Ibid, p.202

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p.203

[6] Ibid, p.201

[7] Motzki, Harald (2001) ‘The Collection of the Qur’ān: A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments’. Der Islam: 78:1-34, p.7

[8] Ibid.

[9] Brown, supra n. 2, at p.198

[10] Al-Naysābūrī, supra n.1, at vol.2, p.275

[11] Ibid.

[12] Al-῾Asqalānī, Aḥmad b. ῾Alī b. Ḥajr (2000) Fat al-Bārī Shar Ṣāḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, eds. ῾Abd al-῾Azīz b. ῾Abd Allāh b. Bāz & Muḥammad Fu’ād ῾Abd al-Bāqī. Riyāḍ: Dār al-Salām, vol.9, p.15

[13] Ibid, p.17

[14] Wansbrough, John (1977) Qur’ānic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.46

[15] Al-Suyūṭī, Jalāl al-Dīn (1425/2004) al-Itqān fī ῾Ulūm al-Qur’ān ed. Zamarlī, Fawwāz Aḥmad. Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-῾Arabī, pp.156-157

[16] Al-Suyūtī, Jalāl al-Dīn (nd) Al-Itqān fī Ulūm al-Qur’ān ed. Markaz al-Dirāsāt al-Qur’āniyyah. Saudi Arabia: np, vol.2 p.377

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim, Abū Bakr (1991) Al-Āḥād wa al-Mathānī, ed. Bāsim Faiṣal Aḥmad al-Jawābirah. Riyāḍ: Dār al-Rāyah, vol.3, p.191

[19] See: BukhārI (2990), Muslim (1869), Abū Dawūd (2610) and Ibn Mājah (2879) respectively. All these authors used the word ‘Maṣāḥif’ in their headings for the tradition Ibn Abī ῾Āṣim is referring to, so it appears he has mistakenly interpolated the headings of the authors with the actual text of the tradition.

[20] Qadhi, Abu Ammaar Yasir (1999) An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’ān. Birmingham: al-Hidaayah Publishing and Distribution, p.130

[21] Al-Azami, M.M (2003) The History of the Qur’ānic Text from Revelation to Compilation. Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, p.77

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, p.78-79

[24] Al-Sijistānī, ῾Abdullāh b. Abī Dāwūd (1427/2006) Kitāb al-Maṣāḥif ed. Salīm b. ῾Īd Al-Hilālī. Beirut: Mu’assasah Ghrās, p.144

[25] Bukhārī, Muḥammad b. Ismā῾īl (1419/1999) aḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. Riyāḍ: Maktabah Dār al-Salām, p.894

[26] Motzki, Harald (2001) ‘The Collection of the Qur’ān: A Reconsideration of Western Views in Light of Recent Methodological Developments’. Der Islam: 78:1-34, p.7

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid and repeated by Montgomery Watt in Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’ān, p.41

[29] ῾Alī, Muḥammad Mohar (2004) The Qur’ān and the Orientalists. Oxford: Jam’iyat Iḥyā’ Minhāj al-Sunnah, p.234

[30] Motzki, supra n. 15, at p.8

[31] ῾Alī, supra n. 29, at p.237

[32] Ibid.

[33] Turner, Colin (ed.) (2004) The History of the Text by W. Montgomery Watt The Koran: Critical Concepts in Islāmic Studies. Oxon: RoutledgeCurzon, p.95

[34] ῾Alī, supra n. 18, at p.235

[35] Ibid.

[36] Al-Azami, supra n. 21, at p.84

[37] Al-Rūmī, Fahd, (1427/2006) Dirāsāt fī ῾Ulūm al-Qur’ān al-Karīm. Riyāḍ: NP, p.90

[38] Bukhārī, Muḥammad b. Ismā῾īl (/14191999) aḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. Riyāḍ: Maktabah Dār al-Salām, p.894

[39] Ibid.

[40] Al-Sijistānī, supra n. 24, at pp.209-210 and 205-206

[41] Ibid.

[42] Al-Azami, supra n. 21, at pp.92-93

[43] Bukhārī, supra n.38, at p.894

[44] Turner, supra n.33, at p.97

[45] Al-Azami, supra n. 21, at pp. 94-95

[46] Ibid.

[47] Al-Sijistānī, supra n.24, at p.172

[48] Ibid, p.97

[49] Burton, John (1977) The Collection of the Qur’ān. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.160

[50] Ibid, p.161

[51] Ibid, p.165

[52] Motzki, supra n. 26, at p.11

[53] Ibid.

[54] Wansbrough, supra n.14 p.44

[55] Motzki, supra n. 26, at p.15

[56] Ibid, p.20

[57] Ibid, p.29

[58] Ibid, p.31

[59] Turner, Colin (ed.) (2004) Forgotten Witness by Estelle Whelan, The Koran: Critical Concepts in Islāmic Studies. Oxon: RoutledgeCurzon, pp. 185-206

[60] Ibid.

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