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, although reading them in this way would seem to contradict the common Islamic belief that previous Words sent by God had been corrupted by Jews and Christians, 〈19.〉 Even setting aside this problem, no such guarantees, however they are worded, can avoid the circularity of reliance upon a document’s intrinsic guarantee of authenticity, which can only be reassuring to the extent that it can itself be relied upon as authentic.


The traditional 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 a haphazard manner upon a variety of items. 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), required that Zayd ibn Thabit 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 into a single corpus. 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.

Divergent readings

According to Islamic tradition, prior to the canonization of the Uthmanic recension, seven ways of reciting (‘aḥruf’) the Qur’an had been practised. Some hadith explain that these variations reflected the dialects of seven named Arabian tribes and in one such hadith, Muhammad is said to have stated that the angel Gabriel purposefully revealed the Qur’an in seven different versions in order to make it easier for believers from each of these different tribes to memorise. This pious explanation is, of course, impossible to reconcile with the belief that Gabriel recited the Qur’an verbatim from a single celestial script, and if true would lead inevitably to the awkward conclusion that Uthman had taken it upon himself to deliberately frustrate God’s will by destroying six of the seven divinely revealed versions of the Qur’an. Moreover, since by the time of the so-called ‘Uthmanic’ recensions, Arabic was still written without vowel or diacritical marks, the only reason for Uthman to have ordered the destruction of divergent texts would be to remove alternative versions of the consonantal skeleton, meaning that the now lost ’aḥruf‘ must have involved, not merely matters relating to pronunciation or reading style, but completely different words.
The canonical archetype from which all other copies were made, has now been lost, along with all the regional codices and as early as the ninth century minor variations between manuscripts meant that it had become impossible to check these against a single universally recognised canon. In the tenth century, one Abu Bakr ibn Mujahid devised a set of criteria that had to be satisfied before a reading might be recognised as legitimate, and he effectively ‘canonized’ seven different Qur’anic readings (‘qira’at’) each of which he considered satisfied these tests. Even after this date, however careful examination of early manuscripts reveals plentiful evidence of additions, alterations and erasures. Editions of the Qur’an are used to the present day, with a proliferation of minor variations, although the ‘Cairo Edition’ of the Qur’an approved by the Al-Azhar University in 1924 is now emerging as a single standard text, achieving Uthman’s purpose fourteen centuries on.
Most of these manuscript variations are of a minor and inconsequential nature, such as differences in spelling only or occasionally the use of different pronouns where the noun that the pronoun refers to is still identifiable. In fact, mapping these variations amongst the oldest partial 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. However since the Birmingham Manuscript, which cannot have been the original Qur’an, appears to have been written no later than 645, and since Uthman is traditionally said to have assumed the role of Arab ruler in 644, the crediting of him with responsibility for the Qur’an’s production – and consequently the whole story of how the Qur’an came into existence – is no longer sustainable.


Lost and disputed surahs

Demonstrating that Qur’an manuscripts were in existence from 645 does not preclude the possibility that verses were lost before that date, nor that verses were not added to it or altered after the death of Muhammad, said to have been in 632. Classical Islamic texts, and in particular the Kitāb al-Maṣāḥif of Abu Bakr Abdullah ibn Abi Dawud contain numerous reports of divergent Qur’an texts. Some companions of Muhammad described verses, even whole surahs, of the Qur’an that had been lost, and protested that Uthman’s Qur’an had corrupted the authentic text announced by Muhammad. 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. Umar would later be 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.
Evidence of missing verses may exist in the absence of a bismala from Surah 9. Every surah of the Qur’an other than for 9, begins with a declaration:

‘Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim’,

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

see 〈9.〉. Since it seems reasonable to suppose that one would not have purposefully written one surah only without this introduction, its absence from Surah 9, and the surah’s rather abrupt start, is strong evidence of a re-organisation the text before the canon became fixed (for more on which see 〈9.〉) A missing first section is consistent with a claim from Malik bin Anas, the compiler of the earliest collection of hadith, who records a tradition that Surah 9, which now consists of 128 verses, had initially been the same length as Surah 2 (at 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. Some of which, possibly significantly, are relevant to the succession to leadership of the Muslim community (see 〈62〉) 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.’


More illuminating than the ‘lost’ Qur’an are the accounts of acrimony within the early Islamic community over what was selected for inclusion in Uthman’s manuscript. The principal Shia collection of hadith, the early tenth century Kitab al-Kafi, retains traditions that several verses of the Qur’an, including {2.23}, {4.47} and {33.71}, originally contained specific references to Ali, Muhammad’s son in law, which were falsified in order to prevent him inheriting the caliphate. Shia Qur’ans also include the words ‘for a term appointed’ in the marriage provisions of {4.24}, which has the effect of permitting men arrangements with women under the sanction of Islamic law, which might euphemistically be termed ‘nikah al-mutah’ (‘temporary marriages’). {9.128-129}, were included in the Qur’an despite only being recalled by one individual.


One companion, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud is known to have compiled his own Qur’an manuscript – which omitted the canonical Qur’an’s first and final two surahs, the Our Father-like communal prayer of Surah 1 〈53.〉 and the pagan-sounding incantations of Surahs 113 and 114 〈18.〉 He 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 their Qur’an manuscripts in order to preserve what he saw as the true message of God from Thabit’s innovations. His contemporary, Ubay ibn Ka’b, is said to have had a manuscript that contained two short surahs that did not make Zayd’s final canon (although the contents have now been reconstructed from non-canonical sources.)


Even before Zayd commenced his editorial task, some verses may have been lost, by accident or design. Scepticism must surely attach to the following explanation from Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives, for the absence in the Qur’an of any reference to the sentence of stoning to death for adultery:

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.’


Whatever the credence that one might afford the precise complaints reportedly made by contemporary Muslims against the so-called Uthmanic recension, the fact that from the eighth century to the high middle ages, such stories were recorded and preserved as part of the general Islamic historical record, points to a long-standing tradition in which the fixing of the canon of the Qur’an had been far more contentious, and criticism of it more socially acceptable, than such criticism one might expect, given the suppression of such debate in Muslim society today.