Many Muslims and non-Muslims are unaware that the Arabic Quran which underlies the English translations in circulation throughout the world did not exist until 1924. In fact, there is no extant manuscript of the Quran that is identical to the 1924 edition produced in Cairo Egypt.
I will allow the director of the Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary explain:
Can you believe that the official copy of the Quran used today did not exist in its current form UNTIL 1924? Surprisingly, today’s Muslims believe that this copy is identical to Uthman’s Quran from the seventh century. Why is it necessary to examine the 1924 Cairo edition? A little background is worth noting.
“The Quran is the only heavenly text that is preserved by Allah from any errors,” said my high school classmate Ahmad. Ahmad assumed that the Bible had been altered and corrupted over time, because the imam in our neighborhood mosque often repeated these accusations. Such accusations are spread by many Muslim clerics (as a we will discuss in question 22), but many informed and educated Muslims reject them altogether. My friend Ahmad was a nominal Muslim during our school years. He was not extraordinarily diligent in studying Islamic tenets or reading the Quran–he relied heavily on what he heard from the imam. Like Ahmad, many Muslims focus on the literal dictation of the revelation. They believe that Allah dictated specific words and that these words never change. These Muslims assume that, unlike the Quran, the Bible developed over time and was not protected against change. This claim emerges essentially from the various editions and translations of the Bible. A Muslim might bring to a Christian friend two copies of the New Testament, one a King James Version and the other a New International Version. The friend might ask, “Don’t you see the differences? Can’t you see the corruption of the text?” Of course, these questions demonstrate many Muslims’ unfamiliarity with the process of textual criticism, or establishing the best scriptural text based on manuscript examination. In other words, many Muslims wrongly assume that if a scripture exists in critical editions, which seek to establish the meaning closest to the original by comparing multiple manuscripts, then this scripture is flawed. This assumption is problematic because it assumes that the Quran has a different story, as it dropped straight from Allah to Muhammad. It is to them a text frozen in time–from Muhammad’s proclamation, to the supposed writing of the proclamations on various materials, to the compilation by the caliphs, to the copying of manuscripts by scribes throughout history in many locations and under the different political powers–that remained identical and unedited. Furthermore, this unedited text matches the 1924 Cairo edition exactly.
But this is impossible to support with evidence. Many manuscripts of the Quran written throughout Muslim history, when compared to one another, reveal ample differences, scribal errors, and obvious variants. (These discrepancies are addressed in question 15.) Simply stated, what many call the unchanged, inerrant copy of the Quran is actually a twentieth century project. Not surprisingly, the editorial board responsible for the 1924 project stated in the final copy that the project was a result of SIGNIFICANT CONCERNS among Muslims regarding “errors” in copies previously used in Egypt’s local schools. Nonetheless, most Muslims do not recognize this history and consider the 1924 Royal Cairo Edition of the Quran textus receptus (received text) that existed throughout Islamic history since Uthman. This copy has become the official Quran.
Still, there is a deeper problem with the 1924 Cairo edition: this copy was achieved not through a critical assessment of the many available readings of the Quran but rather through the selection of one–AND ONLY ONE–particular variant, which was then advanced as authoritative. While this is common knowledge among scholars, it is not so among the majority of Muslims. So how was the Cairo edition produced, and what “errors” did it eliminate?
Before the 1924 Quran, there were various readings of the Quran. By reading, I mean a text that included variants, or differences, from the supposed Uthmanic Quran. The differences included variations in letters, verbs, and nouns. Some differences were mor significant than others. Around the early twentieth century, during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, there were two widespread readings of the Quran: Hafs and Warsh. They contained MANY DISCREPANCIES. Copies of the two readings still exist today. The Warsh variant is commonly known in Morocco, while the Hafs variant is common in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (in addition to most countries, but not all). Hafs became well-known when the Ottoman Empire adopted it from among the many available variants of the Quran, claiming it as the authoritative text. This adoption made this particular reading the official variant of the empire. There was one problem: many Qurans imported during the last decade of the Ottoman Empire contained errors.
In 1907, during the reign of the Ottoman king Foad, the Egyptian government discovered that the copies of the Quran used in local schools were full of what were labeled “errors.” Where did these copies come from? The fact is that copies of the Arabic Quran (of various readings) were printed in Europe and sent to the Muslim countries. The first Quran was printed in Venice in 1537. Then in Hamburg in 1694, a copy was published by Abraham Hincklemann. This was followed by the well-known 1834 edition by the German scholar Gustav Leberecht Flugel, which became the definitive text for Western scholars for at least a century until the production of the Cairo edition. The 1924 Cairo edition was authorized by the Ottomans and supervised by Azhar University and a committee of Muslim clerics. The goal was to establish an authoritative text based on the Hafs reading ALONE in order to eliminate errors.
The production of the 1924 Quran was supported by a royal political decree and the Azhar’s religious influence. The Muslim scholars of the Azhar did not aim to create a critical edition of the Quran. They did not seek to examine different manuscripts and compare variants. Their goal was to produce a fixed text based on one preselected reading. In other words, the scholars of the Azhar did not scrutinize manuscripts but rather studied books written about one particular variant selected by the committee. In a sense, the committee relied on secondary–rather than primary–sources, which is a flawed method in establishing an ancient text.
Today the 1924 Quran is the authoritative text for Islam. Even foreign translations depend on it. It has been printed widely, and other readings have almost disappeared. While this is arguably a success for the committee of the Azhar, it does not mean that this copy is the only available reading of Islam’s scripture.
Interestingly, the 1924 Cairo edition required corrections after its initial publication. In the same year, a second edition was printed to fix a few typographical errors; then in 1936 another set of corrections was applied. One may ask, What did the government do with the previously printed copies that contained errors? It is reported that, after later prints eliminated all errors, the Egyptian government gathered the erroneous Qurans AND THREW THEM INTO THE NILE. Did this end the confusion over the text? Not necessarily. Today in a globalized age with the internet offering access to material that was previously inaccessible, one can compare copies of different Qurans and multiple variants.
Most Muslims worldwide today–whether Sunni or Shiite– trust the 1924 Quran and consider it the only Quran that has ever existed. To them, it is not only the official Quranic text but also, and more importantly, the exact documentation of the revelations proclaimed by Muhammad in the seventh century, codified by Uthman decades after Muhammad’s death, and transmitted perfectly throughout the fourteen centuries of Islam. The 1924 Cairo Quran is Islam’s scripture; this is the reality. However, critical thinkers must remember how this text reached us. It is hardly a reconstruction of what Muhammad proclaimed. The 1924 Quran is a purpose-designed and manipulated text built on one selected reading that ignored many other legitimate texts that existed throughout Islamic history. We CANNOT be confident in today’s Quran as a true representation of the text that initially appeared in a seventh-century Arabian desert. (Ayman S. Ibrahim, A Concise Guide to the Quran [BakerAcademic, Grand Rapids, MI 2020], Part 1: The History of the Text of the Quran, 13. What Do We Know about the 1924 Royal Cairo Edition of the Quran?, pp. 47-50; bold and capital emphasis mine)