What are these four stages of canonization that I’m talking about? I’ll give you here a very rough outline of the process from the beginning uh until the 20s. In 632 AD, the prophet dies. The prophet’s prophetic career spanned over 21 to 23 years and the revelation was always coming to him until he died. One of the questions that we ask ourselves is: The prophet did not die suddenly, he knew when he was dying, he predicted it, he performed the last pilgrimage and he did not collect the tax. There are weak accounts, weak even in terms of from Islamic tradition, that he probably had a prototype of the Quran. He told some people to write down some verses, to change the order but we really don’t any have solid accounts of the prophet collecting the Quran and coming up with the text. Let’s say as a fact that we don’t have. Even if he did, we don’t have this collection. The prophet dies and the text was not collected together. The first caliph and then the second caliph were busy with the wars and establishing the new Islamic government and then the third caliph Uthman and the major collection of the Quran happened during his time okay. This is the year 656, so this is roughly 30 something years after the prophet dies.
So according to the major narrative, the Quran was collected around 35 years after the prophet died and this is what we call the first collection. This is not canonization, this is still a collection of the Quran. The Quran was written on different forms, on different parchments, on bones, on leaves. I will show you now the two stories of the major collections and I will quickly summarize them. Uthman collects them (not himself, a committee did that) and this is what we call today the Uthmanic codex. If you open the Quran, it may say Uthmanic codex, which means that this is the collection of Uthman, because there were other codices by other companions that we don’t have access to. They were destroyed, they were burned and the only the codex which survived is the codex of Uthman.
Between the year 656 to 936 (this is almost 300 years), the first 200 years is what we usually called like the formative period of Islam. We really don’t know much about it from that period. We only have writings from later period, from later historical sources about what was happening. We don’t really have writings from the first century and basically the middle of the second century Islamic calendar. During that period, we do know that there were many reciters and many scholars reading and reciting the Quran in so many different ways, not even according to seven systems or ten systems, they were reciting the Quran and according to one compilation, 50 different systems and readings. This was of course too much. If you are establishing this new religion, new government, you need a constitution and you can’t have 50 different versions of one divine text. You need to limit these variants. So this man came, Ibn Mujahid and he compiled a book which is called The Seven Readings. And he said “Out of those 50 plus different systems of recitations, I’m going to limit myself to only seven and this is a canonization process where he neglected the 43 different systems and he chose seven systems because of different criteria that we are still trying to figure out. What helped him is that he was politically connected (he actually was connected with the court) and he forced people who did not follow his system to actually go to prison. There were other reciters and other scholars who disagreed with him and they said “No, why are you limiting yourself to those seven?” And he said “This is my opinion. You have to follow me.” He was politically connected and anyone who disagreed with Ibn Mujahid’s systems was tried and put in prison. If you don’t follow ibn Mujahid’s system, you are not reciting the Quran properly and they would either repent or they would follow the Mujahid system. It became basically a standard since then that people would follow the System of the Seven. After Mujahid died in 324, scholars still disagreed with him. “Why did ibn Mujahid do this, seven readings? We have so many wonderful readings out there. This man is very trustworthy, why did he neglect his reading?” So scholars still transmitted and recited Quranic readings and systems beside those seven systems.
At around 833, 500 years later this man came, Ibn al-Jazari, and he said “I’m not content with seven systems. I’m going to basically compile ten systems and this is what we call the System of the Ten Readings. Seven of those systems are the same systems of ibn Mujahid but he added three more and he said “I think that those three readings are also good and they are standard and we should include them in the system.” Right now, we still have people who are reciting according to those three additional readings and you can take a certificate also with the religious scholar and they are considered all to be equally Quranic and valid.
Between these two periods, we have this very important period and this is North Africa Muslim state and this is al-Dani and al-Shatini. If not for al-Dani and al-Shatini, we actually wouldn’t have the System of the Seven because they were the ones who popularized the system. Al-Shatini wrote a very famous poem and he summarized all the different variants of those seven readings in the poem and since that time, if you want to study the Quran, you have to memorize this poem in order to get your certificate. Even today, if you want to memorize the seven variants of the Quran, you memorize the manual of the different readings.
In each of those systems, you would think that we have one system and it’s one reading but actually it is not. Each of those seven eponymous readers had different disciples and each disciple actually was reciting something different from his other classmate. So you would have let’s say a professor who is the eponymous reader and he had 15 students and then the 15 students would go and say different things. They’ll say “The professor is saying that” but then those 15 really didn’t agree on everything so they would have let’s say 20 percent differences in what they are saying. So what al-Dani and al-Shatini did was to say” I’m not going to take what those 15 students narrated from the eponymous readers. I’m just going to take 2 out of 15 or 20. This is what we call the canonical transmitters, developed during that period again and it survived until today. If today you want to recite the Quran or memorize it or have a certificate in it, this is what we call Hafs/Aasim. Hafs is a transmitter and Aasim is the eponymous reader. If you want to do the Quran, you don’t do Aasim, there’s no such thing as Aasim, there’s Hafs/Aasim, Hafs on the authority of Aasim. Aasim’s other reading is Shubah. We have the Medina tradition Warsh/Nafi. Nafi is the eponymous – the boss – Warsh is the disciple. So there’s no such thing as the reading of Nafi; there’s a transmitter on behalf of his master. But we do have different transmitters but those traditions died out and only those two transmitters survived. This is because of these two men (al-Dani and al-Shatini).
The fourth transition is not actually official. I call it a fourth canonization because what al-Azhar did in 1923 and followed also by the first audio recording in 1964 of the Quran. The first audio recording was based on that specific reading, which we are all familiar with, Hafs/Aasim. In 1923, they printed the Quran and they voweled it based on that specific reading. When you grow up in a Muslim country, you read the Quran based on that unless you are in a very specific region in the Arab world for example Libya. In Medina, they do both Hafs and Warsh at the same time. In North Africa, they do Warsh, which is different. I don’t want to say very different from the other traditions but it is different. Due to that first printed edition, which became available to everyone, everyone would buy the Quran and would have access to it and it’s based on the reading of Hafs/Aasim, that specific reading out of seven systems. Actually if you want to also divide it into seven, two (transmitters) from each one, you have potentially 14 different systems.
The prophet received the revelation, not directly from God, but through Gabriel. The prophet never spoke with God directly, it’s always through the mediation of Gabriel, who recited the Quran to him and then the prophet recited it to the Muslim community, to his disciples, to the companions. The idea is that all of them received more or less the same transmission and the Muslim community, which are the disciples of the prophet back then, also transmitted that Quran orally. We are talking about oral transmission here, there’s no written transmission so this is all memory, you memorize it, you recite it to the others, the writing system was very minimal back then. The companions of the prophet also transmitted it and recited it to their disciples which we call the successors and this the same process happened over and over again. The Quran was transmitted in such a way that it is impossible for divergences or differences to happen within the text. The Quran was transmitted to the whole community and it’s known to everyone that it is transmitted through this mechanism. There’s no such way people can collude, err or fabricate things because it is known to the whole community. From the perspective of medieval Muslim scholars, when they looked at the different codices of the Quran and what we call the different variants, they said “Why do we have these variations in the text? Why did some of the companions of the prophet have different codices from the main codex? Why do we have dialectical variations? If the Quran is the word of God, did God speak in dialects? Did he go and recite to the prophet one verse according to the dialect of the east and then next day he recited to him the dialect from the west? So Muslim scholars were trying to understand these variations, what are the sources of these variations, are they divine or people came up with these variations, are they all permitted, do we have the license to read in these different variations?
Even the narratives of the collection of the Quran during the first collection and the second collection, many scholars tackled them and they pointed out the underlined portion is problematic. People try to challenge these accounts, are they fabricated, were they later on written and people forgot the details? One of the interesting parts here is that when the first collection of the Quran took place, the man who was responsible, the head of the committee (this account is the official narrative from one of the canonical account of the transmission of the Quran from the Muslim tradition), it says that there were two verses from the Quran that he did not find with anyone else and they were only with one specific companion. He’s locating the parchments and poems from the memories of man who knew it by heart and then he found with Khuzaima two verses from Surat at-tauba, which I had not found with anyone else. We have to ask ourselves why these two men had two verses from the Quran that no one else from the companions of the prophet had? What happened to the idea that the Quran actually was transmitted to everyone and everyone knew the Quran by heart? We compare this account with the other accounts from the standard tradition and we find contradictions. What we try to understand is why we have these contradictions. Is this narrative before the narrative that the Quran is transmitted to everyone equally or it’s way the other way around or we really can’t know which one came before the other.
The other interesting part of this account is when they collected the Quran, the only copy was with Abu Bakr, the first caliph. When he died, the copy stayed with Omar, the second caliph. But when Omar died, the copy did not go to the third caliph, it went to his daughter. That’s also very intriguing because we are talking here about a governmental constitution which should stay with the caliph. It goes from the first one the second one and it goes to the third one but then when the second one died, it did not go to the third caliph, it went to his daughter, as if the whole matter transitioned from a governmental space into an individual space. Why would the daughter of the caliph possess this codex and not pass it or give it to the third caliph, which should be the case?
And then if you compare with the second account, which is what we call the official canonization of the text of the Quran during Uthman, Uthman sends a messenger to her and tells her “Please give us the copy that you have, let us copy it down.” and this is where the first copying or the first codification of the Quran took place. And then Hafsa (she was the wife also of the prophet and the daughter of Omar) sent them the first sheets, they copied it and they made multiple copies and then he gave it back. We don’t have these sheets of Hafsa or the first codex (they are lost or maybe they never existed) and also those five different copies from the time of Uthman, we don’t have access to them (they either never existed or they were lost).
This is basically a justification of what we call the five different codices so we have the main codex which is from Kufa in Iraq and the second codex is from Basra, also in Iraq. They have differences in vocabulary and syntax and particles. And you have a codex in Mecca, you have a codex in Medina, you have a codex in Damascus in Syria. So these are the five major codices and in Kufa, you have one codex but there are three different readings on Kufa and this is what makes seven in total. So three from Kufa, one from Syria, one from Mecca, one from Medina, and one from Basra and these are the seven. This account is a justification of why we have different readings and different variations in the text now.