THE RECENSIONS OF ABU-BAKR AND ‘UTHMAN
From the third chapter of the Mishkat we learn that for some time after the death of the prophet, the Qur’an continued to be preserved in the memories of the people, and was still recited in various conflicting ways; but in the famous battle of Yamamah a great number of the Qur’an reciters were slain. Then ‘Umar, fearing lest another battle should still further reduce the number of those able to recite the Qur’an, so that much of it might be lost, came to Abu-Bakr and importuned him to order the Qur’an to be collected into one book. At first Abu-Bakr objected. “How can I do a thing which the prophet has not done?” he asked; but at last, yielding to the entreaties of ‘Umar, the Khalif gave orders to Zaid-ibn-Thabit, who had been an amanuensis of the prophet, to search out the Qur’an and bring it all together. This the latter did, “collecting it from leaves of the date, white stones, and the hearts of men. 4 This copy of the Qur’an was given to the Khalif Abu -Bakr, after whose death it passed into the possession of the Khalif ‘Umar, who in turn gave it into the keeping of his daughter Hafsa, one of the widows of Muhammad. 5
This valuable tradition of Al-Bukhari makes it clear that Abu-Bakr, for the first time, collected the whole Qur’an into one book; but he apparently made no critical study of the text with a view to reducing the various readings to one uniform standard. On the contrary we learn from Al-Bukhari that within a short period the discrepancies and contradictions which existed in the various readings of the Qur’an became of a still graver nature; until at last the Khalif ‘Uthman took steps to allay the doubts which began to arise in the minds of the people. The means which ‘Uthman adopted were drastic in the extreme, and simply consisted in transcribing one complete copy of the Qur’an, and then burning all other copies! 6 For this purpose the Khalif appointed a committee, with Zaid at its head, to do the work. In the case of any difference of opinion Zaid, who was a native of Medina, had to give way, and the final decision lay with the Quraish members of the revision committee, or with the Khalif himself. A significant illustration of the latter’s interference is given in one of the traditions. It was the Khalif’s expressed desire to preserve the Qur’an in the Quraish dialect, the dialect of the prophet himself. 7 It is recorded that ‘Ali wished to write تابوة with ة; the others preferred تas تابوت; but ‘Uthman decided in favour of the latter as being according to the Quraish dialect. But it so happens that the word تابوت is not an Arabic word at all, but was borrowed by Muhammad with many other words from the Rabbinical Hebrew! 8 It is simply the Hebrew word for ‘ark,’ and is so introduced into the story of Moses in Qur’an Ta-Ha 20:39. This little incident will serve to show how far the compilers of the Qur’an were successful in preserving the book in the Meccan dialect, the language of Gabriel and of Muhammad.
We now give below the tradition concerning ‘Uthman’s recension of the Qur’an as recorded by Al-Bukhari, so that the reader may see for himself the serious condition of the Qur’anic text at that time, and may judge of the extraordinary and arbitrary methods adopted by ‘Uthman for its rectification.
«وعن أَنَسَ بْنَ مَالِكٍ أَنَّ حُذَيْفَةَ بْنَ الْيَمَانِ قَدِمَ عَلَى عُثْمَانَ وَكَانَ يُغَازِي أَهْلَ الشَّأْمِ فِي فَتْحِ إِرْمِينِيَةَ وَأَذْرَبِيجَانَ مَعَ أَهْلِ الْعِرَاقِ فَأَفْزَعَ حُذَيْفَةَ اخْتِلَافُهُمْ فِي الْقِرَاءَةِ فَقَالَ حُذَيْفَةُ لِعُثْمَانَ يَا أَمِيرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَدْرِكْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةَ قَبْلَ أَنْ يَخْتَلِفُوا فِي الْكِتَابِ اخْتِلَافَ الْيَهُودِ وَالنَّصَارَى فَأَرْسَلَ عُثْمَانُ إِلَى حَفْصَةَ أَنْ أَرْسِلِي إِلَيْنَا بِالصُّحُفِ نَنْسَخُهَا فِي الْمَصَاحِفِ ثُمَّ نَرُدُّهَا إِلَيْكِ فَأَرْسَلَتْ بِهَا حَفْصَةُ إِلَى عُثْمَانَ فَأَمَرَ زَيْدَ بْنَ ثَابِتٍ وَعَبْدَ اللَّهِ بْنَ الزُّبَيْرِ وَسَعِيدَ بْنَ الْعَاصِ وَعَبْدَ الرَّحْمَنِ بْنَ الْحَارِثِ بْنِ هِشَامٍ فَنَسَخُوهَا فِي الْمَصَاحِفِ وَقَالَ عُثْمَانُ لِلرَّهْطِ الْقُرَشِيِّينَ الثَّلَاثَةِ إِذَا اخْتَلَفْتُمْ أَنْتُمْ وَزَيْدُ بْنُ ثَابِتٍ فِي شَيْءٍ مِنْ الْقُرْآنِ فَاكْتُبُوهُ بِلِسَانِ قُرَيْشٍ فَإِنَّمَا نَزَلَ بِلِسَانِهِمْ فَفَعَلُوا حَتَّى إِذَا نَسَخُوا الصُّحُفَ فِي الْمَصَاحِفِ رَدَّ عُثْمَانُ الصُّحُفَ إِلَى حَفْصَةَ وَأَرْسَلَ إِلَى كُلِّ أُفُقٍ بِمُصْحَفٍ مِمَّا نَسَخُوا وَأَمَرَ بِمَا سِوَاهُ مِنْ الْقُرْآنِ فِي كُلِّ صَحِيفَةٍ أَوْ مُصْحَفٍ أَنْ يُحْرَقَ قَالَ ابْنُ شِهَابٍ وَأَخْبَرَنِي خَارِجَةُ بْنُ زَيْدِ بْنِ ثَابِتٍ سَمِعَ زَيْدَ بْنَ ثَابِتٍ قَالَ فَقَدْتُ آيَةً مِنْ الْأَحْزَابِ حِينَ نَسَخْنَا الْمُصْحَفَ قَدْ كُنْتُ أَسْمَعُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَقْرَأُ بِهَا فَالْتَمَسْنَاهَا فَوَجَدْنَاهَا مَعَ خُزَيْمَةَ بْنِ ثَابِتٍ الْأَنْصَارِيِّ مِنْ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ رِجَالٌ صَدَقُوا مَا عَاهَدُوا اللَّهَ عَلَيْهِ فَأَلْحَقْنَاهَا فِي سُورَتِهَا فِي الْمُصْحَفِ».
“Anas-ibn-Malik relates: ‘Huzaifah came to ‘Uthman, and he had fought with the people of Syria in the conquest of Armenia; and had fought in Azurbaijan with the people of ‘Iraq, and he was shocked at the different ways of people reading the Qur’an, and Huzaifab said to ‘Uthman, “O ‘Uthman, assist this people before they differ in the Book of God, just as the Jews and Christians differ in their books.” Then ‘Uthman sent a person to Hafsa, ordering her to send those portions which she had, and saying, “I shall have a number of copies taken, and will then return them to you.” And Hafsa sent the portions to ‘Uthman, and ‘Uthman ordered Zaid-ibn-Thabit, Abdullah-ibn-al-Zubair, Sa’id-ibn-al-As and Abdur Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham; and he said to the three Quraishites, “When you and Zaid-ibn-Thabit differ about any part of the reading of the Qur’an, then do ye write it in the Quraish dialect, because it came not down in the language of any tribe but theirs.” Then they did as ‘Uthman had ordered; and when a number of copies had been taken, ‘Uthman returned the leaves to Hafsa. And ‘Uthman sent a copy to every quarter of the countries of Islam, and ordered all other leaves to be burnt. 9 And Az-Zuhri said, “Kharijah-bin-Zaid narrated to me that Zaid-ibn-Thabit said, ‘I could not find one verse when I was writing the Qur’an, which I had heard from the prophet; then I looked for it, and found it with Khuzaimah bin Thabit, and I entered it into Surah Al-Ahzab 33:23’.” 10
From this tradition, recorded by Bukhari, we learn several important facts. Thus it is clear that when ‘Uthman perceived with dismay that the differences in the reading of the Qur’an were becoming more and more serious day by day, he ordered Zaid and three others to again compile an authoritative edition of the Qur’an. The fact that these scholars had to consider a variety of readings, to weigh their authority, and, if necessary, discard them in favour of the Meccan readings shows to what an extent corruptions had crept into the text. Having completed his recension, ‘Uthman then collected all the copies of the older editions he could find, and burnt them. He then ordered a number of copies to be made from the new edition, and distributed them throughout the Muhammadan world. From this narrative it is clear that the Qur’an compiled under the direction of ‘Uthman, and still current, differed very materially from the readings which were current in different parts of Arabia at that time: otherwise it is inconceivable that the Khalif should have taken the trouble to collect and burn them in the manner recorded by Bukhari. The result is that Muslims to-day are shut up to the arbitrary edition circulated by ‘Uthman, and are quite unable by critical study to arrive at any satisfactory decision as to how far ‘Uthman’s recension agreed with that compiled under the direction of Abu-Bakr, or with the various Qur’anic readings current in Arabia. This at least we know, that the Shiahs have constantly charged ‘Uthman with suppressing and altering various passages of the Qur’an favourable to ‘Ali and his family. Thus in the book ‘Faniki-kitab-Debistan’ it is written, “‘Uthman burnt the Qur’an, and excised from it all those passages in which was related the greatness of ‘Ali and his family.” Shiah books quote numerous passages which have been altered in this way, but for which this little book contains no room. 11 The reader may find them in the writings of Ali-ibn-Ibrahim-ul-Qumi, 12 Muhammad-Ya’qub-ul-Kulaini, 13 Shaikh-Ahmad-ibn-’Ali-Lalit-ul-Tabrasi and Shaikh-Abu-Ali-ul-Tabasi. 14 This two-fold witness of the Shiahs on the one hand, and of Bukhari on the other, leaves no room for doubt that the Qur’an which we possess to-day is far indeed from being free from corruptions and omissions.
Further, from the significant fact that ‘Uthman burnt all the copies of the Qur’an which he could find, and circulated only the one copy compiled by himself, 15 we learn that he, at any rate, did not accept the story of the ‘seven readings,’ nor credit the prophet with having called seven mutually conflicting readings of the Qur’an equally correct. The fact is, any unbiased study of the whole story makes it clear that, not Muhammad, but his immediate followers circulated the story which attributed to him such a foolish statement in order that Muslims should not stumble at the astounding sight of a Qur’an, sent down from God, appearing in different contradictory texts.
Additional light is shed upon this subject by a tradition of ‘Ali, which runs thus, “At the time that Abu-Bakr became Khalif, ‘Ali was sitting in his house. When the former came to visit him, ‘Ali addressed him thus, ‘I saw that people were adding to the word of God, and I resolved in my mind that I would never wear my outer cloth again, except at the time of Namaz, until I had collected the word of God’.” 16 These various traditions make it perfectly clear that the differences in the reading of the Qur’an were by no means confined to pronunciation, but that certain persons were in the habit of ‘adding’ words of their own at the time of reciting the Qur’an. From Islamic history we learn that ‘Ali did actually carry out his intention of making a collection of the Qur’an; 17 and it is a matter for sincere regret that ‘Ali’s compilation is not to be found to-day. 18 That it would have differed materially from the present Qur’an is practically certain; for it is recorded that when ‘Umar asked him to lend his copy in order that other copies might be compared with it, he refused, saying that the Qur’an he possessed was the most accurate and perfect, and could not be submitted to any changes and alterations which might be found necessary in the other copies. He further said that he intended to hand down his copy to his descendants to be kept until the advent of the Imam Mahdi.
4. See, Al-Hadis, An English Translation and Commentary of Mishkat-Ul-Masabih With Arabic Text, Al-Haj Maulana Fazul Karim, Vol 3, Chapter 37 (Qur’an), Sec 3 (The Collection of the Qur’an), No 82 (Zaid-b-Sabet reported:), page 706-707.
8. Is there a reference for this story of ‘Ali?
11. See also, I. P. Petrushevskii, Islam in Iran, 1985, p. 88. “Second, there was sharp criticism from the Shi’ites who accused Zayd — and, it would appear, not without cause — of trying to please ‘Uthman and the Umayyads by removing all verses that spoke of ‘Ali and the Prophet’s bias in his favour, and of his right to the succession. To prove their case they maintained that in a number of passages the text of the authorized version was disconnected and seemed to be intentionally obscure; there were dark hints, in these places, at certain goings-on inside the Medina community, and also threats directed against the enemies of Islam, albeit without any names being given as a rule. It was to be supposed that the text had been tampered with in these passages and the names in them removed?’ Mas`ud and the Shiites combined in repudiating Suras CXIII and CXIV, and the Kharijites rejected Sura XII.”
16. See also, “Ismail Ibn Ibrahim informed us on the authority of Ayyub and Ibn 'Awn; they on the authority of Muhammad; he said: I have been informed that 'Ali delayed offering bay'ah to Abu Bakr. Consequently Abu Bakr met him and said: Do you dislike my rule (إمارة). He replied: No ! but I had taken an oath not to put on my sheet (رداء) till I had collected the Qur'an except for the prayers. He (Muhammad) said: They think that he had collected it in accordance with the order of the revelation (of the verses). Muhammad said: If that manuscript (كتاب) had been available it would have been a source of information. Ibn 'Awn said: Subsequently I asked 'Ikrimah about this manuscript but he did not know it.” Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir, English Translation by S. Moinul Haq, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi, India, Volume II, Part II, Section ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, ISBN 81-7151-129-5, p. 437.