The following lengthy quotation is taken from the Blackwell’s Companion to the Quran, pp. 165-171, edited by Andrew Rippin. Not only does this scholarly source cite traditions confirming that the Quran in the possession of Muslims’ today is imperfect and flawed, it further quotes sources affirming that the codex of Abdallah ibn Masud was viewed to be actually superior and more reliable than the version that Uthman commissioned and foisted upon the Islamic world, since it was thought to be virtually identical to what Muhammad recited. It further shows an evolution in the claims made by Muslims regarding the preservation of the Quranic text, demonstrating that as time went on Muslims began adopting the position that the Quran had to have been perfectly preserved, which then lead them to argue that the Uthmanic must therefore be a perfect replica of what Muhammad originally passed on. All capital and underlined emphasis will be ours.
The Distinction Between the Actual Quran and the Heavenly Quran
Early Muslims stressed the Quran’s divine origin and nature and praised its mode of revelation in comparison to that of previous scriptures, but they made a distinction between the heavenly Quran and the actual, “earthly” text possessed by the believers. In fact, they considered the Quranic text in their possession, known as the “Uthmanic codex,” AS “FLAWED” AND INCOMPLETE. The Uthmanic codex was compiled and fixed, according to the most commonly accepted view in Islamic tradition, thirty years after Muhammad’s death. The codex was compiled and edited on the orders of the third Caliph, Uthman b. Affan (d. 35/656). The task of compilation was given to the companion Zayd b. Thabit (d. 45/663–4) who served as the prophet’s “scribe of revelations.”
The distinction between the two versions of the Quran, one in heaven and the other the Uthmanic codex, is made quite clearly in a group of traditions dealing with the history of the Quranic text, which describe the way Quranic revelations were compiled into a complete version of the Quran in the prophet’s lifetime. According to these traditions the various revelations were brought together toward the end of the period of prophetic activity, and the task of putting together the entire book was completed after considerable time had elapsed. The process began with the formulation of an annual version of revelations in the month of Ramadan, and ended with the formulation of a final and complete version not long before Muhammad’s death (cf. Burton 1977: 192–5). The annual and final versions are described in a pair of mutually complementary traditions, both from Ibn Abbas. One tradition reports on the formulation of the annual version, stressing the status of Ramadan as the month of revelation (based on Q 2:185): “God has sent down the Quran throughout the entire year. When the month of Ramadan arrived Gabriel compared the Quranic revelations with the prophet, and then God abrogated what was meant to be abrogated, wrote down what was meant to be written down, gave a decision on what was meant to be decided, and caused to abandon what was meant to be abandoned” (Ibn al-Durays 1987: 75; see also Abd al-Razzaq 1983: XI, 338; Ibn Hajar 1959: IX, 43). The second tradition goes on to describe the way in which the final version of the Quran was fixed. In it Ibn Abbas says: “The prophet recited the book before Gabriel every year in the month of Ramadan, and in the month in which he died he recited it before him twice” (ardatayni; see Ibn Abı Shayba 1989: VII, 204; Ibn H. ajar 1959: IX, 43). The term “reciting the Quran twice” means compiling all the Quranic revelations into a complete and final version. In other words, these traditions claim that toward the end of the prophet’s life a special act of revelation occurred in which a final and complete version of the Quran was created. The terms “recite” (ard) and “recital” (arda) which are here used in the context of the compilation of the Quran during the prophet’s lifetime are taken from the domain of learning the Quran. They refer to the custom whereby a Quranic scholar recites the entire Quran from beginning to end a number of times before a more senior scholar. (For examples of this custom, see Ibn Abı Shayba 1989: VII, 203; Abu Ubayd 1995: II, 191; for the meaning of the term ard as referring to a critical recital of the Quranic text, see also Melchert 2000: 11). This kind of critical recital, which had become customary among Muslims, thus became the model for the description of how the Quranic version was compiled in the prophet’s lifetime. It also explains why the act of recital according to these traditions was performed by the prophet, with the angel Gabriel playing the role of superior authority.
However, the final version of the Quran, critically reviewed by the angel of revelation, was not destined to become the text possessed by the believers, to wit the official canonical version edited according to accepted tradition in the days of the caliph Uthman by the companion of the prophet, Zayd b. Thabit. Rather, branching traditions created a continuous link between the intact revealed version dating from the times of the prophet and the “pre-Uthmanic” version of the companion Abd Allah b. Masud (d. 32/652–3), a highly respected early Islamic personality and an unimpeachable authority on the Quran. The claim that Abd Allah b. Masud’s version IS IDENTICAL to the original revealed text is articulated in Kufan traditions according to which Abd Allah b. Masud was actually present when the final version of the Quran was revealed to the prophet. In one such tradition Ibn Abbas says: “The Quran was recited before the prophet every year once, in the month of Ramadan, until the year in which he died. Then it was recited before him twice, in the presence of Abd Allah, who witnessed the abrogations and amendments made in it” (Ibn Abı Shayba 1989: VII, 204). Another Kufan tradition goes so far as to reject the notion that the authority of Ibn Masud’s version was ever replaced by that of a “second” version, an allusion to the Uthmanic codex. In this tradition Ibn Abbas is quoted as asking: “Which of the two versions do you consider to be the first?” When he was told that Abd Allah’s version was the first, he replied: “No. Indeed, this is the later version.” This tradition ends by saying that Abd Allah witnessed the abrogations and amendments made in the revealed version from the times of the prophet (Ibn Hanbal 1895: I, 362; Burton 1977: 195).
These traditions thus posit an opposition between Ibn Masud’s pre-Uthmanic complete version with its stamp of revelation, and the Uthmanic codex, here referred to indirectly as the “other” version. In another tradition the latter is explicitly called “the version of Zayd,” an expression referring to the Uthmanic codex (see also Burton 1977: 194), so called after Zayd b. Tha¯bit. According to this tradition the question asked by Ibn Abbas was: “Which of the two versions do you consider to be the later?” and the answer he received was: “The version of Zayd.” To this Ibn Abbas replied: “No, the prophet recited the Quran before Gabriel every year, and in the year of his death he recited it before him twice. Therefore, Ibn Masud’s version is the later” (al-Hakim al-Nısaburı 1990: II, 250; see also Burton 1977: 195).
The motivation behind these mainly Kufan traditions is quite clear: their aim is to replace the Uthmanic codex with an alternative version of the Quran, namely Ibn Masud’s, which represented THE ORIGINAL AND AUTHENTIC TEXT going back to the days of the prophet. Surprisingly enough this position, WHICH CASTS DOUBT ON THE UTHMANIC CODEX’S RELIABILITY AND SACREDNESS, was not rejected out of hand. Indeed, it was accepted by certain circles at the early stages of Islam, who went so far as to disseminate a tradition IN WHICH THE PROPHET HIMSELF APPEARS TO UNDERMINE THE STATUS OF THE UTHMANIC CODEX AS REPRESENTING THE PURE REVEALED TEXT. The prophet is quoted as saying: “Whosoever wishes to read the Quran pure as when it was revealed, let him read the version of Ibn Umm Abd,” i.e. Ibn Masud’s version (Ibn Abı Shayba 1989: VII, 184; Abu Ubayd 1995: II, 209; Burton 1977: 193).
Kufan preference for Abd Allah b. Masud’s version AS THE ONLY AUTHENTIC QURANIC TEXT sanctioned by revelation was accompanied by strong expressions of disapproval toward Zayd b. Thabit, WHO WAS CONSIDERED UNFIT TO COMPILE AND EDIT THE QURAN, both because he was younger than Ibn Masud and because of his humble origins (see also Goldziher 1920: 10; cf. Jeffery 1937: 20; Lecker 1997: 261–2). The traditions in question point out that Ibn Masud had learned seventy or more chapters of the Quran from the prophet when Zayd b. Thabit was still a boy with two sidelocks, or even just a seed in the loins of his infidel father. Thus, in one tradition, it is related that Abd Allah b. Masud gave a sermon in which he said: “I learned from the mouth of the prophet seventy-some suras when Zayd b. Thabit was still a youth with two sidelocks and played with the youngsters” (Ibn Hanbal 1895: I, 411). In another tradition Zayd is not mentioned by name but Abd Allah b. Masud is reported to have asked: “Why don’t you read [the Quran] according to the version of so-and-so?” to which he answered: “I recited seventy suras before the prophet and he told me I did well, at a time when the one whose version you would like me to recite was still a seed in the loins of an infidel” (Ibn Shabba 1979: III, 1006). The sharpest expression of opposition to Zayd b. Thabit and the version of the Quran which he edited is to be found in a single tradition in which Ibn Masud rejects the Uthmanic codex BECAUSE OF ZAYD’S JEWISH ORIGINS. According to this tradition Abd Allah b. Masud was asked: “Do you not read [the Quran] according to Zayd’s version?” to which he answered: “Why should I have anything to do with Zayd or his version? I learned seventy suras from the prophet when Zayd was still a Jew with two sidelocks” (Ibn Shabba 1979: III, 1008; Lecker 1997: 260).
The opposition to Zayd b. Thabit was not to defend Ibn Masud’s prestige among Muslims against that of Zayd, but rather to point out there exists an alternative version of the Quran, MORE COMPLETE AND EARLIER THAN THE UTHMANIC CODEX, in the form of Ibn Masud’s version. The claim in the pro-Ibn Masud traditions that the Uthmanic codex is incomplete, IS BASED ON WHAT CANONICAL TRADITIONS SAY CONCERNING HOW THE QURAN WAS COMPILED. These traditions, known by the name of “the collection of the Quran” (jam al-Quran), have been analyzed extensively, by Nöldeke (1909–38: II, 11–27, 47–62; cf. Burton 1977: 141–2, 225–40) and many subsequent scholars, who attempted to reconstruct the history of the Quranic text using the available materials.
According to these traditions, when Muhammad died, no complete, compiled, and edited version of the Quran was in existence; instead there were only scattered revelations, some of which had been put in writing but most were only remembered by heart. A typical feature of these traditions is the chronological gap between the prophet’s lifetime and the period in which the Quranic text was compiled, and the exclusion of the prophet from the compilation and the editing of the Quran (see Burton 1977: 126–7, 230–40). As a result, doubt has been cast on the authenticity of the codex and its integrity. It would therefore appear that it was these traditions which paved the way to the formation of the Kufan traditions whose aim was to present an earlier version of the Quran, dating back to the days of the prophet himself, a version which was later rejected and replaced by another one, i.e. the Uthmanic codex.
The claim that the version of the Quran which is in the actual possession of Muslims IS INCOMPLETE AND EVEN FLAWED can be found in related group of traditions in which specific arguments against the Quran’s completeness are advanced. The basic claim of these traditions is that certain verses which had been part of the Quran WERE LATER LOST OR OMITTED. These “lost verses” contained laws, sayings, ethical teachings, and merits of the prophet which do not appear in the version possessed by the believers. Occasionally we meet with the claim THAT ENTIRE PARAGRAPHS ARE MISSING, without any details being given as to their content, merely as an abstract argument against the book’s completeness. The terms used in these traditions to refer to the loss of a verse are: “raised to heaven” (rufia), a term which minimizes the damage to the book’s integrity since the verse was abrogated by the will of God; a second term used in the connection is “omitted” (usqita), WHICH IMPLIES PURPOSEFU ERASURE. The charge of omitting parts of the Quran is occasionally leveled at the caliph Uthman. Western scholars have cast doubt on the veracity of these traditions, or have demonstrated that the verses in question could not have been part of the Quran (see Nöldeke 1909–38: I, 255; Watt and Bell 1970: 54–5; Burton 1990: 49, 54).
The dominant tendency in Islamic tradition to ascribe incompleteness and flaws to the Quran is contradicted by a pair of traditions preserved in Ibn Shabba’s (d. 262/876) Tarıkh al-madına al-munawwara, although they do not represent the commonly accepted Muslim account of how the Uthmanic codex came into being. One of these traditions, with a Basran-Kufan chain of transmission, quotes Abd Allah b. Zubayr (d. 73/692) as claiming that the prophet had written down the entire Quran on scrolls (suhuf), which were then used by Uthman for creating the official version of the Quran. Ibn Zubayr relates that since in that caliph’s time different versions of Quranic texts abounded (a very common motif in traditions about Uthman’s compilation, which provides the motivation behind the creation of a single, uniform text), Uthman collected the “pre-Uthmanic” versions and sent Ibn Zubayr to Aisha, Muhammad’s wife. “I brought [from Aisha] the scrolls in which the prophet had written the Quran,” relates Ibn Zubayr, “and, after we read them and polished them, Uthman commanded that the other versions be torn up.” The second tradition claims that the entire Quran was written down on parchment from the mouth of the prophet. This tradition possesses a Syrian chain of transmission and quotes a person by the name of Abu Muhammad al-Qurashı as saying that Uthman had written to the provinces that in order to prevent disputes about the text of the Quran he had asked Aisha to send him the parchment “on which is to be found the Quran that was written down from the mouth of the prophet when God revealed it to Gabriel and Gabriel revealed it to Muhammad. And it (i.e. the text) was pure.” After that Uthman gave the task of editing the Quran to Zayd b. Thabit and other scribes from Medina (Ibn Shabba 1979: III, 997–8).
These SOLITARY traditions with their tendency to link the Uthmanic text to the prophet and to stress the chain of revelation of the text (Allah → Gabriel → Muhammad) prove that in early Islam there were those who wanted to represent the actual text possessed by Muslims as identical with the complete, pure, divine original. However, this trend DID NOT WIN WIDESPREAD ACCEPTANCE. Instead, preference was given to the tendency to present the Quranic texts AS INCOMPLETE. This is the trend that is reflected in the traditions according to which THE EARLIER AND MORE AUTHENTIC VERSION WAS THE ONE PRESERVED BY IBN MASUD, and in the traditions of the “collection of the Quran” type and their attendant claims ABOUT OMITTED VERSES.
From these latter kinds of tradition, taken together, we can conclude that in early Islam the believers considered the Quran which they possessed to be an incomplete version to which additions were possible. For this reason early Muslims granted the status of Quranic revelation to various laws, sayings, ethical teachings and merits of the prophet which they believed were worthy of being part of the Quran (cf. Burton 1977: 225–40). This approach then affected how “collection” traditions and traditions about specific omissions from the text were formulated. It seems that there was a sense among early Muslims that the Quran was lacking some necessary elements, and as a result the boundary between what were actual Quranic verses and what were utterances which deserved to be in the Quran became blurred. The sense of incompleteness is most clearly seen in the formulation of the Kufan traditions which ascribe ANTIQUITY, COMPLETENESS, AND AUTHENTICITY to Ibn Masud’s version. These traditions, too, challenge the Uthmanic version of the Quran and, in fact, present Ibn Masud’s “pre-Uthmanic” version as the ideal Quran. Traditions dealing with variant readings of the Quran go as far as claiming that the Uthmanic text is also IN NEED OF LINGUISTIC AND SEMANTIC CORRECTIONS. In fact, they even claim that the Uthmanic version contains texts which should not be in it; according to these traditions Ibn Masud omitted surat al-fatiha and suras 113 and 114 from his version (see Nöldeke 1909–38: II, 34–5; Jeffery 1937: 21; see also Madigan 2001: 36). Both this view as well as the approach denying the completeness of the Quran can be said to express a kind of early “textual criticism” of the Quran.
It did not take long, however, before a reaction set in to the claim that Ibn Masud’s version was superior to the Uthmanic codex, whose sacredness and unique status were being undermined. As part of a description of the revelation in which the final version of the Quran was fixed in the prophet’s lifetime, the Kufan Ubayda b. Amr (d. 74/693) is quoted as saying that the version recited to the prophet in the year in which he died is the version which the people read today (Ibn Abı Shayba 1989: VII, 204). Other traditions do express doubt as to the precise identity of the final version which was revealed to the prophet at the end of his life, but in any case they tend to identify that version with the Uthmanic codex, clearly with the intention of protecting its sacredness. Thus, for example, the Basran Muhammad b. Sırın (d. 110/728) says that in the year of the prophet’s death Gabriel recited the Quran before the prophet twice “and I hope that our reading [the Uthmanic version] is identical with the final recital” (Ibn Sad 1957: II, 195; see also Ibn Shabba 1979: III, 994).
A substantial change in attitude toward the Quranic text occurred during the subsequent centuries. Later Muslim scholars rejected the position taken by earlier generations concerning the Uthmanic text and insisted that the latter is, in fact, identical with the prophet’s text. Al-Baghawı (d. 510/1117), for example, claims that the Uthmanic codex is “the final recital” read to Muhammad before his death, and that this recital was witnessed by no other than Zayd b. Thabit, and not by Ibn Masud. “It is said that Zayd b. Thabit witnessed the final recital, in which it was made clear what was abrogated and what was allowed to stand,” says al-Baghawı, adding that the “final recital” is the text as it was written by the prophet and recited by him to Zayd b. Thabit. This written version of the Quran was, so he claimed, the one used in public readings of the Quran until the prophet’s death (see al-Suyuti 1991: I, 110). Ibn Hazm (d. 456/1064) also takes a stand definitely in favor of the Uthmanic codex, but unlike al-Baghawı he ascribes the fixing of the Quranic text which the believers possess to God alone. According to him, God collected the Quran and established the order of its chapters and in the year of the prophet’s death Gabriel taught him twice how to read it. “No one but God collected it,” adds Ibn Hazm (1987: VI, 266). Although they differ from each other, both Ibn Hazm and al-Baghawı represent, each in his own way, the attempts of later Muslim scholars to remove the faults and drawbacks which earlier Muslims had found in the Quranic text which they possessed, to wit the Uthmanic codex. Their intent was to represent this text as the pure and complete revealed version of the Quran, contra traditions which viewed Ibn Masud’s version as superior (see also Goldziher 1920: 10), as well as “collection” traditions whose descriptions of the history of the Uthmanic coodex opened the door to aspersions on its authenticity and sacredness.
Later Muslim scholars usually took great care when faced with the difficulties posed by such traditions not to reject overtly and out of hand ancient traditions whose authenticity was considered beyond doubt. Instead, they looked for ways to settle the difficulties they presented. Thus, al-Baghawı circumvented the difficulty by creating a harmonizing link between the canonical “collection” traditions and the traditions which report the creation of a final version of the Quran in the lifetime of the prophet. Ibn Hazm, however, did not hesitate to reject the “collection” traditions outright. A third approach to the Uthmanic codex is represented by the scholar Ibn Hajar (d. 852/1449) who refrained, here as elsewhere, from casting doubt on the authenticity of the traditions in question. He does not reject the claim of a continuous link between the final revealed version of the Quran in the prophet’s lifetime and the pre-Uthmanic version of Ibn Masud, but he tries to find an identical link also between the version made in the prophet’s lifetime and the Uthmanic codex. He points out that it is possible to combine the “two final recitals” (the “two recitals” of the Quran in the prophet’s final year) and to maintain that one is in fact the version of Ibn Masud and the other that of Zayd (Ibn Hajar 1959: IX, 45). When we compare the approaches of earlier and later Muslims we find that the two groups differ with respect to their views as to the quality of the Quranic text which they possessed. Earlier Muslims tended to the view that the Quranic text WAS INCOMPLETE AND FLAWED. In fact, they considered the Uthmanic text INFERIOR TO Ibn Masud’s “pre-Uthmanic” version. Later Muslim scholars, in contrast, represent the Uthmanic codex as a pure text of revelation, written entirely in the prophet’s lifetime. True, this view can be found already in early times, as in the traditions preserved in Ibn Shabba quoted above, but at the time it remained in the margins of Islamic tradition.
The difference in the views of earlier and later Muslims reflects changing attitudes toward the text of the Quran during the first centuries of Islam and provides us with a glimpse into the complex and gradual process by which the Quran developed into a sanctified text, perfect and flawless. Early comments on the Quran’s incompleteness and flaws were later replaced by a diametrically opposed approach that accepts without question the actual text possessed by the believers. This approach of later Muslim scholars, which views the extant text as complete and authentic, has not only replaced the other, earlier view, but has in fact come to represent the view which the Muslim community deems normative with respect to its holy scripture.