The Canon

Surah 53 (Al-Najm/The Star): 1-5

1. I swear, by the star when it goes down,
2. Your companion does not err, nor does he go astray.
3. Nor does he speak out of desire.
4. It is naught but revelation that is revealed
5. That the Lord of Mighty Power has taught him

[The Qur’an’, M H Shakir, 1968 (Al Azhar Univ., Cairo, Shia-orientated)]


The Qur’an advises its readers and listeners that it consists of the words of God announced by Muhammad, and only those words. Muhammad did not err when he announced the words and God would protect the transmission of these words thereafter:

{15.9}  Truly it is We who have sent down the Reminder and surely We are its Preserver.


{41.42}  Falsehood comes not upon it, from before it or from behind it, a revelation from One Wise, Praised.


The phrases ‘None alters His Words’, in {6.115} and {18.27}, and ‘None alters the Words of God‘ in {10.64} are also capable of being read as God’s reassurance that He would prevent His message being corrupted after the words had been announced, although reading them in this way would contradict the common Islamic belief that God’s previous revelations, the Torah and the Injeel,  had been corrupted by Jews and Christians 〈19.〉


The traditional-popular account of the canonization of the Qur’an has it that the verses announced by Muhammad were initially just memorised by his followers, before some, over time, also came to be recorded in an ad hoc manner upon a haphazard variety of writing surfaces.


One related tradition, that can be regarded as orthodox Muslim belief, is that the Qur’an was originally announced by Muhammad, and indeed by the angel Gabriel in seven variant forms, known as ahruf to make memorisation easier to the speakers of differing Arabic dialects, and possibly to add different shades of meaning to individual words.


Following Muhammad’s death in 632, and the deaths in battle shortly thereafter of some of those who had memorised the Qur’an in its entirety, the first caliph, Abu Bakr, (ruled 632-634), commissioned one Zayd ibn Thabit to identify and preserve on a single set of parchments all of the Qur’an revelations that he could identify. Two decades later, the third caliph, Uthman (644-656) is said to have convened a committee, led by Zayd, tasked with arranging the Quranic material that had previously been assembled, organised into a single canon. The arrangement of surahs that supposedly resulted from this committee’s work, i.e. the Qur’an as it is read today, is consequently often referred to as the ‘Uthmanic recension’.  When this definitive canon had been settled upon, Uthman is said to have ordered the creation of a number of bound copies, one of which he sent to ‘every Muslim province’, after which, in order to ensure uniformity, Uthman is reported as having ordered that all unofficial Qur’an manuscripts to be burnt.


Since early Qur’an manuscripts recorded only the consonantal rasm of the Qur’an’s text, a vast range of different readings and meanings could each be consistent with the basic script, depending upon  which short vowel and diacritical markers the reader should read into it. In the tenth century, one Abu Bakr ibn Mujahid approved the ‘readings’ (‘qira’at’) of seven illustrious Muslims from a hundred years earlier, and for each of these ‘readers’, named two more contemporary ‘transmitters’ as the sources from which these approved readings may be learned.


Reports of lost, non-canonical and divergent texts

This traditional narrative contains several internal inconsistencies. If people were present who had memorised the Qur’an, why would Zayd have had to reconstruct it from a haphazard collection of written records, and if he had completed the task for Abu Bakr, why should he have to repeat the operation for Uthman? Moreover, if Uthman’s recension was supposedly the first canon, what manuscripts could he have destroyed?


There are several Islamic traditions that verses and even whole surahs revealed by Muhammad were lost during the canonisation process. One hadith recounts that Abu Bakr had only been persuaded to compile the first written Qur’an on the urging of Umar, after Umar had asked for a verse to be recited to discover that the one person known to have memorised it had been killed in battle. The earliest collection of hadith, al-Muwatta of Malik bin Anas, contains a tradition that Surah 9, which now consists of 128 verses, had initially been the same length as Surah 2 (with 286 verses).One of the companions of Muhammad, Ubay ibn Ka’b, is said to have made a similar claim for Surah 33, a surah which in now has just seventy-three verses.[ii] This is particularly significantly, since Surah 33 contains verses personal to the Qur’an’s author and his household (including the renunciation of his adopted son, Zaid (see 62)  and one may reasonably wonder whether any missing verses may have addressed the succession to leadership of the Muslim community One surah missing in its entirely, ‘which resembled in length and severity to (Surah 9)’, was spoken of by Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, who could only remember one verse of it:

If there were two valleys full of riches, for the son of Adam, he would long for a third valley, and nothing would fill the stomach of the son of Adam but dust.

Most notoriously, Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives, is said to have explained the absence in the Qur’an of any reference to the sentence of stoning to death for adultery with the account:

The verse of stoning [see 66.] and of breastfeeding an adult ten times [57.] was revealed, and the paper was with me under my pillow. When the Messenger of Allah died, we were preoccupied with his death, and a tame sheep came in and ate it.’

Umar is quoted as having lamented that ‘most of the Quran has been lost’ and that what had been preserved should not be described as the Qur’an, but ‘the Qur’an that appeared.’


If there is any truth to the report Uthman ordered the destruction of all non-canonical Qur’an manuscripts, his endeavour must have been singularly unsuccessful since over a dozen such manuscripts are known to have survived into the eight century when their deviations from the Uthmanic recension were recorded in Abdallah Ibn Abu Dawud’s  Kitab al-Masahif (the Book of the Manuscripts’) .


One of these ‘companion codices’, that of Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, omitted the first and final two surahs of the present Qur’an. Ibn Masud’s contemporary, Ubay ibn Ka’b, is said to have had a manuscript that contained these three surahs and two other short surahs that did not make Zayd’s final canon (although the contents have now been reconstructed from other sources.) Ibn Mas’ud is said to have been scathing of Zayd’s editing of the Qur’an canon and to have disparaged Zayd personally describing him as ‘from the loins of a disbeliever’, and boasting: ’I read the Qur’an while this Zayd was still a boy with two locks of hair, playing among the Jewish children in the (Jewish school)’. He was even said to have urged Muslims in Iraq to conceal alternative Qur’an manuscripts made by himself in order to preserve what he saw as the true message of God from Thabit’s innovations. None of these traditions can be corroborated today, and Muslims take different views concerning them. However, the existence of such accounts is evidence that the canonisation of the Qur’an was more controversial that is popularly imagined.



Canonisation of the text

The Qur’an is today read across the Muslim world with a wide range of different allocations of vowels and diacritical markers.  The coincidence that Muhammad was said to have delivered the Qur’an in seven different ahruf and ibn Mujahid approved seven qira’at has been seized upon by some Muslims to explain the divergent readings as part of God’s intended plan. On this view the Qur’an becomes a unique, indeed miraculous, multi-layered script with a single rasm capable of communicating a rich diversity of possible meanings of equal legitimacy. However, it should be pointed out that there is no record that ibn Mujahid claimed such a thing for his endorsement of seven readers, nor that the towering figure of early Islam, al-Tabari, was aware of such a belief when he endorsed a further three readers (via six transmitters) bringing the number of canonical Qur’ans by the late tenth century to twenty.


Modern scholarship is beginning to cast a little light into the later part of the canonisation process. The accuracy of Abdallah Ibn Abu Dawud’s description of non-canonical Qur’an manuscripts in his  Kitab al-Masahif seems to be corroborated by the discovery that part of one companion codex has survived to the present day. A Qur’an manuscript found in a mosque in Sana’a in 1972 has been discovered to be a palimpsest (a document for which an original text was erased and overwritten) containing a non-canonical lower text containing several of precisely the same variants that are listed by Abdallah Ibn Abu Dawud.


It has also been observed that in comparing the canonical manuscript with the variants of Ibn Abu Dawud, the former tends to follow the majority view of the latter. Recalling that of five surahs that appear in the codex of Ubay ibn Ka’b but are absent from that of Ibn Masud, the canon includes three, and one gets a sense of the canonical Qur’an having emerged as the result of a process of compromise and harmonisation of differing codices.


However, the early part of the canonisation process remains obscure. All the Qur’anic variants, whether from the Kitab al-Masahif or the ‘qira’at’, could fairly be described as relatively minor and inconsequential. Yet even a fairly cursory reading of the Qur’an, and in particular the very short surahs towards its end (see in particular Surahs 103, 105, 106 and 111) and the much longer but disjointed surahs towards its beginning (Surahs 2 to 9), should raise the suspicion that the former are mere fragments of longer compositions whilst the latter are amalgams of shorter ones. And the insertion at the start of every surah except Surah 9 of the declaration:

 ‘Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim’,

(‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful’)

is by its nature an act of placing disparate texts into a single canon  that must have preceded the creation of all the variant manuscripts from the Kitab al-Masahif.


It can rightly be claimed that the Qur’an is an exceptionally well preserved document for its age and type. In fact, mapping the variations amongst the oldest manuscripts, far from weakening confidence in the reliability of the transmission of the Qur’an text, has had the opposite result of confirming the hadith account of four first generation copies made from a canonical archetype. But the obscurity concerning the process leading to its compilation into a canon, and the suspicion of lost and misplaced verses is important. It makes the natural inclination of a reader to interpret any verse within its textual context a potentially misleading one. To excavate the original meaning of the Qur’an words when they were composed (rather than when organised into a single text) from the present Qur’an canon, where this is possible at all, requires painstaking textual analysis.



Further reading


Ṣan‘ā’ 1 and the Origins of the Qur’ān, Behnam Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi

Zayd B. Thabit, “A Jew with Two Sidelocks”: Judaism and Literacy in Pre-Islamic Medina (Yathrib), Michael Lecker

Two ‘Lost’ Sūras of the Qurʾān: Sūrat al-Khalʿ and Sūrat al-Ḥafd between Textual and Ritual Canon (1st -3rd/7th -9th Centuries), Sean Anthony