Forgetting the Qur’an

Qur’an is a book greatly esteemed by Muslims and is considered a Divine Revelation, for all of humanity until kingdom come. There is also a belief prevalent amongst Muslims that the Qur’an has been unchanged since the time it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

Sana'a manuscript
Sana’a manuscript

Muslims generally provide a circular argument for this belief saying that the Qur’an has remained unchanged since the time of its revelation because the Qur’an says so itself. This circular argument is primarily derived from the 9th verse of Surat Al-Hijr, which is the 15th chapter of the Qur’an. The following table provides various translations of the verse:

Translator Translation
Sahih International Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian.
Muhsin Khan Verily We: It is We Who have sent down the Dhikr (i.e. the Quran) and surely, We will guard it (from corruption).
Pickthall Lo! We, even We, reveal the Reminder, and lo! We verily are its Guardian.
Yusuf Ali We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption).
Shakir Surely We have revealed the Reminder and We will most surely be its guardian.
Dr. Ghali Surely We, Ever We, have been sending down the Remembrance, and surely We are indeed Preservers of it.

As far as I see, there are two major problems in deciding, with absolute certainty, whether the Qur’an has been preserved in its entirety or not. The first problem pertains to the method of transmission of historical facts. Compared to the 21st Century America, where a plethora of media exists to record and archive events of the past, the 6th Century Arabia was quite different. The method of keeping records, in pre-Islamic Arabia, was largely oral.

No proper institutions such as libraries, museums and the Internet – to name a few – existed in Arabia during the time of Prophet Muhammad, which were responsible for the collection and maintenance of historical events. By modern standards, the process of archiving was extremely primitive. As a consequence, separating the myths and rumors from actual historical facts becomes problematic.

Muslims argue that since pre-Islamic Arabia was a largely oral culture, the Arabs were particularly good at memorization. However, as I will try to demonstrate in this post, humans generally tend to forget and even the Arabs are no exception.

The second problem in validating the Muslim narrative about the completeness and historical authenticity of the Qur’an is the absence of counter-narratives. We only know about the preservation, compilation and standardization of the Qur’an through the lenses of Muslim scholars and scribes, who lived during the initial years of Islam.

To the best of my knowledge, there appear to be no historical records, written and preserved by non-Muslims, who lived in that era about the process of compilation and canonization of the Qur’an. The lack of a counter-narrative raises more questions about the claim that the Qur’an has been preserved in its actual form since the time of its revelation.

There have been certain books, such as Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, which, according to Wikipedia, try to understand the origins of Islam in light of the then-contemporary historical, archaeological and philological data. Hagarism apparently draws not from just Arabic historical documents but also from Armenian, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Syriac sources. I will not go into the detailed analysis of this book for I have not read it and scholars do not seem to accept the conclusions of the book. I will, however, state that although early Islam, as described in works like Hagarism, may not be accurate according to scholars, stringent and skeptical standards along with ‘rich literatures of the Middle East that existed before, during and after the rise of Islam’ are needed in order to have a more accurate understanding about the emergence of the Qur’an.

So, without further ado, let’s start with the Muslim narrative about the compilation of the Qur’an, which can be understood through Hadith. Ahadith (plural of hadith) are the reports of the teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that are not part of the Qur’an. Ahadith also contain the saying and teachings of the companions of Prophet Muhammad. In this post, I will be elaborating my point about the difficulty in determining the completeness of the Qur’an, in light of the following hadith, which is attributed to Zaid bin Thabit Al-Ansari:

Who was one of those who used to write the Divine Revelation: Abu Bakr sent for me after the (heavy) casualties among the warriors (of the battle) of Yamama (where a great number of Qurra’ were killed). ‘Umar was present with Abu Bakr who said, ‘Umar has come to me and said, The people have suffered heavy casualties on the day of (the battle of) Yamama, and I am afraid that there will be more casualties among the Qurra’ (those who know the Qur’an by heart) at other battle-fields, whereby a large part of the Qur’an may be lost, unless you collect it. And I am of the opinion that you should collect the Qur’an.” Abu Bakr added, “I said to ‘Umar, ‘How can I do something which Allah’s Apostle has not done?’ ‘Umar said (to me), ‘By Allah, it is (really) a good thing.’ So ‘Umar kept on pressing, trying to persuade me to accept his proposal, till Allah opened my bosom for it and I had the same opinion as ‘Umar.” (Zaid bin Thabit added:) Umar was sitting with him (Abu Bakr) and was not speaking. me). “You are a wise young man and we do not suspect you (of telling lies or of forgetfulness): and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Apostle. Therefore, look for the Qur’an and collect it (in one manuscript). ” By Allah, if he (Abu Bakr) had ordered me to shift one of the mountains (from its place) it would not have been harder for me than what he had ordered me concerning the collection of the Qur’an. I said to both of them, “How dare you do a thing which the Prophet has not done?” Abu Bakr said, “By Allah, it is (really) a good thing. So I kept on arguing with him about it till Allah opened my bosom for that which He had opened the bosoms of Abu Bakr and Umar. So I started locating Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leaf-stalks of date palms and from the memories of men (who knew it by heart). I found with Khuzaima two Verses of Surat-at-Tauba which I had not found with anybody else, (and they were): “Verily there has come to you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty He (Muhammad) is ardently anxious over you (to be rightly guided)” (9.128) The manuscript on which the Quran was collected, remained with Abu Bakr till Allah took him unto Him, and then with ‘Umar till Allah took him unto Him, and finally it remained with Hafsa, Umar’s daughter.

This is hadith # 201 in Book 60 of the 6th Volume of Sahih al-Bukhari, which is one of the six major hadith collection. A number of points come to my mind after reading this hadith and assuming that the hadith is true.

1) The Qur’an was not compiled during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad.

2) There were no instructions left by Prophet Muhammad on how to compile and order the verses of the Qur’an.

3) There is a possibility that some verses of the Qur’an may have been lost.

The first and second point are more than evident. With regards to the third point, I’d say the following. Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari was the only one who remembered the last two verses of Surat At-Tauba. Now, since Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, was the only person who remembered these last two verses, how can one be sure that he did not err? I am not questioning the sincerity and honesty of Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari here. I am rather questioning the imperfection of the human mind, which tends to forget with the passage of time and also muddles up events of the past. I don’t think that there can be a definite resolution of this issue.

Given that Verse 128 of Surat At-Tauba is included in the Qur’an, we are only left to speculate whether this verse is indeed part of the Qur’an that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. We also do not know if there were any other verses of Surat At-Tauba or any other Surah that were forgotten.

Moving on, we find another hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari about the process of canonization of the Qur’an. Narrated by Anas bin Malik, it is hadith # 510 in Book 61, Volume 6 and is as follows:

Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were Waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to ‘Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Quran) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So ‘Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to ‘Uthman. ‘Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, ‘Abdullah bin AzZubair, Said bin Al-As and ‘AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. ‘Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had written many copies, ‘Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. ‘Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. Said bin Thabit added, “A Verse from Surat Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur’an and I used to hear Allah’s Apostle reciting it. So we searched for it and found it with Khuzaima bin Thabit Al-Ansari. (That Verse was): ‘Among the Believers are men who have been true in their covenant with Allah.’ (33.23)

As evident from the two ahadith I have shared, the collection and canonization of the Qur’an was an extremely arduous task. This clearly leads to the fundamental problem, as stated on Wikipedia, in determining if the ‘Uthmanic text comprehends the entire body of material that was revealed to Muhammad, or if there has been material that is missing from the Uthmanic text.’

There are Muslim counter-arguments of course. According to Wikipedia:

Al-Khoei brings up in favor of the Qur’an is that by the time ‘Uthman became caliph, Islam had spread to such an extent that it was impossible for him, or even for anyone more powerful than him, to remove anything from the Qur’an. The value and importance the Qur’an during this time protected it from being altered. In the oral culture at this time, people paid great attention to memorizing pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, it is hard to imagine that they did not pay similar attention to the preservation of the Book of the Almighty, especially since they believed they would be rewarded in the hereafter for memorizing it. Uthman could have altered the text, but he would have been unable to remove the Qur’an from the hearts of the Muslims who had memorized it.

I would argue that even though the Arabs may have paid utmost attention to memorizing the verses of the Qur’an, Arabs are, at the end of the day, humans, who tend to forget and make errors. The two ahadith I have shared illustrate the point that only one person remembered certain supposed verses of the Qur’an, which no one else remembered! This does, according my understanding, makes the possibility of completely forgetting some of the verses of Qur’an as extremely real.

Another possible question is: what if these ahadith are not true? In that case, we are still left with the problem of historically determining and subsequently validating on how the Qur’an was compiled during the life and after the death of Prophet Muhammad. If these ahadith are not true, we cannot know whether there were any reliable media, apart from the faulty human memory, to effectively store and transmit the verses of the Qur’an.

Summing up, I would say that the belief that Qur’an has been preserved in its entirety since the time of Prophet Muhammad needs re-examination. It’s about time that Muslims start looking into this matter seriously.

One thought on “Forgetting the Qur’an

  1. Interesting post. I’ve just come across your blog by chance (or maybe fate :p, no homo btw).
    I’m not sure if I’ll ever be back here again but have a look at another book called “seeing Islam as others saw it”. It’s another compilation of historical accounts from people who lived around Islamic culture around the 7th century and beyond.

    Too many of my Muslim friends sincerely believe the Quran is the direct word of God and it actually makes me sad because they try to force it on me and are blind and very ignorant of history and research. The Sana’a manuscript which is one of the oldest Quran manuscripts shows that there were changes or differences in the text which affects the meaning. The problem with saying the Quran is unaltered, perfectly preserved and unchanging is that if there is an error or change in manuscripts at just one point which affects the meaning of the text, it is disqualified.

    Plus I’ve never heard of any Jew who ever believed Ezra was the son of Allah (Surah 9:30).

    Liked by 1 person

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