Compilation of the Qur’an

Joanna asked: Okay, my question for today is about the compilation of the Qu’ran. Almost all Muslims claim that the Qu’ran that we have today contains the exact revelations that Muhammad (pbuh) received from Gabriel. On a few accounts, I have come across some information that says that Caliph Uthman had differing version of the Qu’ran burned and one unified version instituted at the primary Qu’ran that we now have. Apparently there was much discord amongst Muslims of the time, as well as fear on the part of the Caliph that there would be doctrinal debates and confusion if something was not done to unify the Qu’ran. What have you heard of this and how do you think this affects the Muslim claim that the Qu’ran has never been changed?

Firstly, my apologies for taking so long to answer!  Hopefully it will be worth the wait!

According to Muslim tradition, the revelation of the Qur’an began about 610, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad (peace be upon him) and instructed him to recite (“Iqra!”, from which the term “Qur’an” is derived).  The revelations continued for the next twenty or so years, until the Prophet’s (s’lm) death, with individual suras (chapters) preserved either orally or in writing by the early community of believers.

As far as I’m aware, the account regarding ‘Uthman’s collection of the Qur’an is generally accepted in Islamic tradition.  The first attempts to codify the whole of the Qur’an was under the first caliph Abu Bakr, after many of the Qur’anic reciters died in battle, but it was ‘Uthman, the third caliph, who compiled the first complete edition.  I’ve read several versions of the account of the codification, which tend to focus more on variation than rejection of tradition – that there were variations that could lead to division in the community-, but certainly the story as a whole seems to imply that there was a concern, among the earliest community of Muslims, that the Qur’an needed to be codified to avoid variant versions developing.

The biggest problem we face in trying to date texts is that we very rarely have manuscripts that are as old as the text itself.  This isn’t just true of the Qu’ran, but of nearly every ancient and Medieval text – it’s incredibly rare to have an original edition of anything.  If we were to base dating purely on the physical age of existing manuscripts, both the Qur’an and the Christian Bible would date from several centuries later than the communities themselves understand as their foundation date.  Sometimes we can date texts internally due to their construction of contemporary events, but as religious texts are meant to be timeless, they generally defy this kind of dating.

As it happens, the question of when the Qur’an dates from is one of the biggest dividing issues among modern Islamicists.  The debate started with the 1970s work of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism, in which they argued against the Muslim tradition and claimed instead that the Qur’an could not be held to date from earlier than the late seventh century, nearly a century after the rise of Islam.  Indeed, this debate relates to the issue of Islam’s connection to Judaism that I talked about in my last post, as many of the scholars who support the Hagarism approach further argue for Islam as a variation of Judaism, with the theological claims of the Qur’an only being applied later.

For myself, I would argue that there are several historical circumstances which support the Muslim tradition that the Qur’an as it survives is largely the same as it was received by the early community.  The most compelling evidence is the lack of variant Qur’ans.  The story of ‘Uthman certainly implies that variation was a concern for the early community, but more importantly, his death marked the first schisms and the emergence of the two earliest sects, the Shi’a and the Khawarij.  After the Islamic civil wars, both groups took up residence in the expanding edges of the caliphate, largely in order to avoid interference by the Umayyads, the caliphal dynasty that took its lineage from ‘Uthman.  Yet despite these variant groups, there is very little evidence for variation in the text of the Qur’an to be found in eighth and ninth century Muslim writing.

Similarly, contemporary non-Muslim sources provide almost no evidence for variation in the text of the Qur’an.  From the late eighth century we start to see the first Christian responses to Islam, and although some Islamic sources about Christianity criticize the variation found among Christians, this argument is rarely reversed, and when it is, Christians accuse the Muslims of divisiveness with no textual evidence taken from the Qur’an.  Again, if there were variant Qur’ans in the first few centuries, the variations between them would certainly have bolstered Christian claims of the inferiority of Islamic thought, so the absence of these kinds of references suggests (although by no means proves) that variant versions of the Qur’an did not exist or were not widespread.

As a historian, I would also be inclined to argue that on some level, this kind of speculation just isn’t terribly useful.  Variant versions of the Qur’an might have existed at some point, but trying to draw conclusions about what those non-extant variant might have said (as some modern Islamicists have tried to do), although it can be a fun thought exercise, doesn’t really tell us terribly much about the history of Islam.  The history of Islam has always focused on the continuity and consistency of Islamic thought, a focus which does, for whatever reason, parallel closely with what we see in the historical record.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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