Transmission of the Quran

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.