By Samuel Gonzalez
According to original Muslim sources and historical accounts, the Noble Qur’an descended upon the heart, mind, and tongue of the Honorable Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) over the course of the following 23 years of his life. As many Muslims may already know, the revelation of the Qur’an was a fragmentary process, with chips and splinters of divine words being revealed piecemeal to the original Muslim community. The revelations began in the Cave of Hijra one night during the month of Ramadan in the year 609 when Mohammed (pbuh) was 40 years old and followed him until his death in the year 632.
While the history of the transmission of the Qur’an from the archangel Jibreel to the Messenger of Allah is epic, interesting, and worthy of its own article (which can be found here: A Timeline of the Quranic Revelation) this article will focus on the events that transpired shortly after the death of the Honorable Prophet – dedicating particular attention to the historical and spiritual climate of the Companions after the Prophet’s passing, the religio-political atmosphere that facilitated and influenced the compilation of the Qur’an, and the preservation of this most righteous book that descended from Heaven.
Shortly After Mohammed (pbuh)’s Death. . .
The Qur’an was memorized by the best of those who walked with the Messenger of Allah (pbuh); only those recitations considered to be most important, primarily those dealing with legal matters, were written down on bits of bone, sheets of leather, and the stringy ribs of palm leaves; these recitations had to be corroborated by at least three witnesses. In other words, if someone’s recitation was off by a letter, vowel, or measured beat, it was immediately put into question. In Mohammed (pbuh)’s lifetime, the Qur’an was never compiled into a single volume or codex – rather, as each individual recitation poured out of the Prophet’s mouth, it was scrupulously memorized by the Qurra, a unique class of scholars who dispersed throughout the community as the authorized missionary-preachers of the Prophetic Revelation, and by the Hafiz, companions considered to be the guardians of the revelation, since they had memorized all its verses exactly as the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) had uttered them.
The Collection and Compilation of the Qur’an
In ancient times, literacy was a very rare skill (some scholars estimate that in seventh-century Arabia, it was only the intellectuals, poets, and clergy who had access to books and possessed knowledge of writing), and even Mohammed (pbuh) himself was an illiterate man! What was recited and preached by poets and scholars was repeated orally by the unlettered masses. The Christians had their codified Old and New Testaments, the Jews had their Torah and rabbinical texts, and the Zoroastrians had their own religious corpus. What tangible, monolithic text did the newly flourishing Muslim community have? The Honorable Prophet was succeeded by two caliphs, Hazrat Abu Bakr and Hazrat Uthman.
First Stage of Compilation under Abu Bakr
Under the leadership of Abu Bakr, between seventy to eighty Muslims who had memorized the entire Qur’an were slaughtered during the Battle of Yamama. This became a source of concern for the caliphate because without the hafiz (those who had memorized it for preservation), there would be less people to verify the legitimacy of a revelation and, ultimately, there would be less chance that the revelation would be preserved. Hence, after some deliberation and hesitation, Abu Bakr ordered for the chief scribe, Hazrat Zain bin Thaabit, to manifest it in the form of a written volume. Over the course of the next few months, respected and honored memorizers of the Qur’an were gathered together and recited it in its entirety, verse after verse, surah after surah – every recitation was cross-referenced with the verses written down on bones and palm leaves, and if it had not yet been recorded in this way, it would have been compared with the recitation of another hafiz. In addition, the verses memorized by the companions were heard as well. Each of them was asked to show two witnesses for the verse they read. Once the whole text was collected and compiled, the commission carefully proofread it and certified that it was correct and present in its entirety.
Second Stage of Compilation under Uthman
However, as human history tends to show, deviations began to appear in the recitations, mostly insignificant and harmless differences reflecting the cultures of Muslims in Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, of Egypt. And as one scholar notes, “these differences were immaterial to the meaning and message of the Qur’an.” (Aslan, 2011) While the theological message was not heavily affected by the different cultures and dialects, these surrounding peoples each considered their dialect to be correct which gave rise to disputes, and it was feared that if this problem was left unresolved and unaddressed, the Muslim community would be divided into hundred of sects like the Jews and Christians, and there would be no universally accepted version of the Qur’an. Furthermore, to complicate issues even more, the Qur’an had been revealed in seven ahruf (translated as either dialects, modes, forms, or styles), which was a linguistic miracle allowing for different Arab tribes to be able to recite it easily, yet at the same time each tribe claimed its own authenticity over the other recitations. Hence, the shaken Medinan community began the compilation, codification, uniformification, and standardization of the Qur’an in the form of a singular, approved codex. Under the leadership of Uthman somewhere between the years 620 and 625, a delegation was assembled which aimed to eliminate the various readings and standardize the text under the Qurayshi dialect since 1). Mohammed (pbuh) was from the Quraysh tribe, and 2). Most members of the delegation were Qurayshi. This final edition of the text was completed and compiled within two years of the death of the Messenger of Allah, was distributed to the major centers of the early Islamic empire, and became the preserved version of the Qur’an that we have today.
Within most religious circles, it is too easy to think of Mohammed (pbuh), his Companions, the conflicts with the Quraysh, and the conquests that took place as picturesque, immaculate images stuck in time, glistening and sparkling like static Rembrandt paintings. However, the world of seventh-century Arabia was hot and sticky, gritty and sandy, and inevitably intertwined with the religio-political and geopolitical landscape of surrounding cities. In thinking about Islamic history, there is a trend of highlighting the transcendent, divine aspect of God in history, whilst neglecting the immanent, gritty humanness of the situation.
At this point it is important to address the concern of Uthman’s burning of the other versions of the Qur’an. Yes, there were versions that contained influences from the other dialects; yes, there were some variations circulating throughout the early Muslim communities; yes, Uthman really did burn the other manuscripts that remained after he compiled his edition of the Qur’an. However, this fails to produce any evidence that the original text, the original recitations, or the original meanings were changed, diluted, or altered as a result of the burning. Five master codices were prepared under the guidance of Uthman and the remaining existing fragmentary codices were burnt, erased or melted down. To say that Uthman burned the remaining texts that differed from the standardized edition in order to conceal the truth or to propagate his own changes to the text is a false allegation – his actions were approved unanimously by the senior companions and all the companions were still alive and witnessed its compilation. The purpose of burning the remaining editions was to respectfully dispose of the unauthorized copies.
Sources of the Noble Qur’an
“And those who disbelieve say, ‘This Qur’ān’ is nothing but a falsehood he invented, which he made up with the help of others.’ But they have committed an injustice and a lie. And they say, ‘These revelations are but ancient legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon.’ Say, O Prophet, ‘This ˹Quran˺ has been revealed by the One Who knows every secret within the heavens and the earth. Surely He is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’” [Surah al-Furqan 4-6]
Ever since the Messenger of Allah opened his mouth and preached the Word of God as it was revealed to him, disbelievers, critics, and skeptics have charged him with borrowing stories and religious material from other texts – in short, he has been charged with plagiarism. These accusations continue up until the present day, but there are really only two options in the case of Islam: either the religious ideas present in the Qur’an are radically new, or the religious ideas have been long in existence but never before appeared in this novel combination. Interestingly, there are multiple Rabbinical Hebrew words which have been Arabized in their appearance in the Qur’an and standardized into common usage in the Arabic language: Tabut (ark), Tora (Torah), Jannatu’Adn (Paradise, or the Garden of Eden), Jahannam (Hellfire), Darasa (the deep and intentional study of Scripture), Rabbani (teacher), Sabt (Sabbath, or Saturday), Sakinat (Presence of God), Taghut (error), Furqan (deliverance or redemption), and Malakut (the governing rule of God).
However, these similitudes are most likely a result of the interconnectedness of the Hebrew and Arabic languages, and not so much the product of the borrowing of religious ideas, since 1). Mohammed (pbuh) was unlettered, 2). While the words are in harmony with the spirit of Judaism, their meanings are clarified and further elucidated in the Arabic revelation, and 3). between the time of Adam and the Messenger of Allah, covenants between man and God were plentiful and not always identical – prophets were sent to every nation from every culture, and, unlike in Judaism and Christianity, the Qur’an affirms a multiplicity of covenants throughout history. Hence, neither the revelation nor the compilation of the Noble Qur’an were plagiarized – while Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism may provide some ideological templates for Islam, these religions developed their own theologies and particular doctrinal matters that swerved from their original source – the revelation, preservation, and compilation of the Qur’an richly invests old meanings and erroneous religious concepts with a fuller, fresher meaning not limited to ethnic or racial interpretations. In many ways, Islam was meant to be a simplified, universalized Judaism, complete with a text that harmonizes, disentangles, and corrects the erroneous ideas of old.
In spite of the ever-changing vicissitudes of human history, the corruptive nature of time, geopolitical and religio-political complications, accusations of plagiarism, and the self-flourishing nature of ideas within human communities, Allah Himself guided the preservation of the Noble Qur’an, utilizing human rulers, human communities, human cultures, and human efforts to realize divine ends. Out of love for justice, freedom, faith, and equality, Allah made sure that the ultimate revelation given to the Messenger of Allah was preserved perfectly in a clarified universal form designed to guide all of humanity. The Qur’an recited by the Honorable Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) and his Companions (sahaba) is the exact same Qur’an recited by Muslims all throughout the globe. Despite the messy and complicated history of human affairs, Allah made sure it would all work out. To this we say Alhamdulilah for it is indeed a miracle from heaven.
Dirks, J.F. Did Islam Just Copy from Judaism and Christianity? Islamicity, 2007.
Ekinci, E.B. History of the Compilation of the Qur’an. Daily Sabah, 2017.
Geiger, A. What Did Muhammad Borrow from Judaism? Madras, 1898. Retrieved from The Origins of the Koran.
Margoliouth, D. Textual Variations of the Koran. Oxford, 1925. Retrieved from The Origins of the Koran.