The Origins of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾan


The Qurʾān is the literal word of God, the sacred scripture of the Islamic faith, and God’s final revelation to humanity. This single text produced the largest and most diverse civilization ever to exist on Earth, and for one and a half millennia it has been recited, memorized, and practiced by billions of human beings across the globe. Entire libraries of books have been devoted to the study of the text’s revelation, preservation, recitation, and interpretation. Yet, one aspect of the Qurʾān that continues to astound and puzzle researchers has been the fact that Qurʾānic verses are recited in diverse ‘modes of recitation’ (qirāʾāt). These different modes utilize different rules (termed usūl) regarding the prolongation, intonation, and pronunciation of words, in addition to differences in the vowelization or letters of particular words in individual passages in the Qurʾān (termed farsh). Thus, the words of the Qurʾān can be divided into two categories: those words that can only be read one way (which constitute the majority of the Qurʾān),[1] and those words that can be read in multiple ways (which constitute the basis of the qirāʾāt).

The different modes of recitation are named after the most famous early reciter known for teaching that mode, and individuals who master a mode and receive ijāzah (license to teach) in it become part of an unbroken chain of transmission of that mode back to the Prophet ﷺ. While the majority of the Muslim world is accustomed to hearing the Qurʾān recited in the mode of ʿĀṣim ibn Abī Al-Najūd (d. 127 AH) according to his student Ḥafs ibn Sulaymān (d. 180 AH) (frequently referred to simply as Ḥafs ʿan ʿĀṣim), other modes continue to be recited such as that of the Medinan Nāfiʿ (d. 169 AH) (transmitted by his students Qālūn (d. 220 AH) and Warsh (d. 197 AH)), which remains the dominant mode in many regions of North Africa. Specialists in Qur’anic recitation will be familiar with seven or ten canonical modes of recitation.[2] All of these modes of recitation adhere to the mushaf (codex) of the Qurʾān compiled under the supervision of the Caliph ʿUthmān (d. 35 AH) in the year 30 AH (650 CE), which was written without diacritics, thus accommodating the variations. The vast majority of these differences are quite subtle, although in certain cases they add nuances in meaning, complementing one another.

Muslims believe that the Qurʾān was taught in different ways during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, known as different aḥruf (plural of ḥarf)—a concept that will be elucidated further below. The famous ten qirāʾāt studied today represent only a limited assortment of the variations that existed prior to the ʿUthmānic codex. There are a number of reported readings that differ from the ʿUthmānic codex, and were recited by companions of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ, including ʿAbdullah ibn Masʿūd (d. 32 AH), Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 69 AH), ʿAlī ibn Abī Tālib (d. 40 AH), Ubayy ibn Kaʿb (d. 30 AH), ʿĀisha (d. 58 AH), among others رضي الله ﺗﻌﺎﻟﯽ عنهم. These variant readings[3] in a select number of verses have historically been recorded in books of qirāʾāt and classical works of tafsīr (commentary on the Qurʾān) and occasionally works of jurisprudence and typically relate to the presence of additional explanatory words or word substitutions. Perhaps one of the most fascinating discoveries of the past century has been the study of ancient Qur’anic manuscripts that demonstrate wordings that precisely match those wordings attributed to the companions in the classical tradition (see below).

The burning questions for both researchers and laity alike are, of course, why the Qurʾān happens to be recited differently, and where these differences come from. The prevailing Muslim understanding is quite straightforward: these different readings arose from the instruction of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ himself, a unique feature of the Qurʾān that multiplies its eloquence and aesthetic beauty. This traditional narrative shall be elaborated and analyzed in full below. Meanwhile, Western European and American scholarship has experienced considerable debate over the nature of the variant readings and the history of the Qur’anic text. Behnam Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi have categorized the prevailing viewpoints as revisionist, skeptical, and neo-traditionalist.[4] Revisionists, including John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, and David Powers, believe the Qur’anic text itself was only standardized after ʿUthmān; however this required dismissing the entirety of traditional sources except for a handful of convenient statements—an approach that has been rightly critiqued as “marshaling cherry-picked, decontextualized and misinterpreted reports.”[5] Skeptics remain in doubt concerning both traditional and revisionist narratives. Finally, there are Western scholars who believe the evidence supports key aspects of the traditionalist account, including the historian Michael Cook (a former revisionist) and Harald Motzki.[6] Building upon manuscript evidence from Sadeghi and Goudarzi, in addition to critical analysis of arguments offered by revisionists, Nicolai Sinai has concluded that, given the absence of any compelling evidence to challenge the traditional narrative, and given the presence of considerable data in its support, the default presumption remains the ʿUthmānic recension date of 650 CE or earlier.[7]

Contemporary Muslim scholarship (both Western and Eastern) has responded to recent manuscript evidence and the output of writings from orientalists by defending traditional narratives surrounding the variant readings or by elaborating modified narratives.[8] Muslim responses have outlined different perspectives on the nature of pre-ʿUthmānic variant readings (those attributed to different companions), ʿUthmānic variants (differences between the regional codices ʿUthmān sent to different cities), and post-ʿUthmānic readings (differences between the qiraʾāt traditions). The present article aims to elucidate the perspective of the Islamic tradition on pre-ʿUthmānic variant readings reported from companions in light of the latest scholarship and to explore some of the questions surrounding the origins of these variant readings.[9]

The Qurʾān during the Prophet’s time

The revelation of the Qurʾān began over fourteen hundred years ago when the Angel Gabriel (Jibrīl in Arabic) came to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ at the cave of Hirāʾ and commanded him to recite.[10] Angel Gabriel was the Holy Spirit who was trusted by God to deliver the words of revelation to the Prophet ﷺ:

Say (O Muhammad) Rūh-ul-Qudus [The Holy Spirit] has brought it (the Qurʾān) down from your Lord with truth, that it may make firm and strengthen (the faith of) those who believe and as a guidance and glad tidings to those who have submitted (to Allah as Muslims).[11]

The Prophet ﷺ learned the recitation of the Qurʾān directly from Angel Gabriel. Ibn ʿAbbās narrated that Gabriel used to meet with the Prophet every night in the month of Ramadan to revise the Qurʾān with him.[12] Allah commanded the Prophet to recite the Qurʾān to people (29:45, 17:106). The Prophet ﷺ recited the Qurʾān in various ways as he was commanded by Allah. Among the large number of Muslims were those who had memorized the Qurʾān and had learned the recitation of the Qurʾān directly from the Prophet ﷺ. These well-versed reciters (Qurra’) were then instructed by the Prophet to teach others the recitation of the Qurʾān.[13]For instance, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ sent seventy Medinan companions who were reciters of the Qur’an to various tribes in the incident of Bi’r Ma’unah.[14] The sacredness of teaching the Qur’an was captured in the Prophet’s statement, “The best of you are those who learned the Qurʾān and taught it (to others).”[15] This practice of teaching the recitation of the Qurʾānic text became embedded within the culture and the Qurʾān was passed on in the same manner, generation after generation. In addition to the oral transmission, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ had over sixty-five scribes writing down the Qur’an.[16]

We cannot understand the history of the Qur’an during the Prophetic era without an understanding of the centrality of the Qur’anic recitation and memorization in Muslim ritual practice. Perhaps the most critical fallacy of Western academics who enter the arena of Qur’anic scholarship is that they presume that the Qurʾān is like the Old or New Testament and consequently rely solely on manuscripts to construct a picture of its transmission and preservation, neglecting the importance of ritual memorization and oral recitation. Indeed, what percentage of Christians have memorized the entire New Testament in Koine Greek and recite it on a daily basis? Meanwhile, practically every Muslim community in the world boasts plentiful Ḥuffāḍh (singular Ḥāfiḍh): those who have memorized the entire Qurʾān by heart in Arabic. The Qurʾān is recited out loud in daily congregational prayers and from cover to cover during congregational prayers in Ramadan. This unbroken practice of reciting the Qurʾān publicly in daily prayers since the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is one of the reasons why revisionist Western narratives seem so fanciful to Muslim scholars familiar with the lived practice of Islam.

Did the Prophet teach multiple readings?

The Qurʾān was revealed in the Arabic language. Allah said that the Qurʾān was revealed “in the clear Arabic tongue” (26:195). However, the early Muslim community contained people of all backgrounds, young and old, those proficient in Arabic and those unlettered, as well as people from different Arab tribes, with different accents and different dialects. Since learning the Qurʾān was the primary means by which the Islamic message itself was learned, practiced, and transmitted in the Prophet’s time, it was essential that learning the Qurʾān be facilitated for diverse peoples. Thus, the Qur’anic text was recited in different ways (termed aḥruf) during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ. There are several authentic reports that support this fact, transmitted through so many chains from the earliest sources[17] that it reaches the level of mutawātir lafḍhiyy (massively transmitted verbatim).[18]

Ibn ʿAbbās narrated that the Prophet ﷺ said: “Jibrīl recited the Qurʾān to me in one ḥarf. Then I requested him [to read it in another ḥarf] and continued asking him to recite in other aḥruf until he ultimately recited it in seven aḥruf.”[19] In another narration, the Prophet ﷺ says, “‘O Jibreel! I have been sent to an illiterate nation among whom are the elderly woman, the old man, the boy and the girl, and the man who cannot read a book at all.’ He said: ‘O Muhammad! Indeed the Qurʾān was revealed in seven aḥruf (i.e., seven different ways of reciting).’”[20]

The early Muslim scholar Ibn Qutaybah (d. 276 AH) said:

In order for the Muslims to read the Qurʾān easily, the Prophet was commanded to teach the Qurʾān in accordance with people’s dialects…and if everyone was to abandon their dialect and what they were accustomed to speaking as a child, as a youth and in their old age, this would have imposed great difficulty and hardship on them…Thus, Allah intended for them ease by allowing some flexibility in the language in the multiplicity of readings.[21]

Thus, the Qurʾān was inherently a multiform recitation, with multiple diverse equally valid alternate readings of many verses. This phenomenon was explained explicitly by the Prophet ﷺ himself to the companions, as we see in the famous incident where ʿUmar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb and Hishām ibn Hakīm disagreed in their recitation of Surah Al-Furqān. ʿUmar narrates:

I heard Hishām ibn Hakīm reciting Surah Al-Furqān during the lifetime of Allah’s messenger. I listened to his recitation and noticed that he recited in several different ways which the Prophet had not taught me. I was about to jump over him during his prayer, but I was able to contain myself, and when he had completed his prayer, I put his upper garment around his neck and seized him by it and said, “Who taught you this Surah which I heard you reciting?” He replied, “The Prophet taught it to me.” I said, “You are wrong, for the Prophet has taught it to me in a different way from yours.”

So I took him to Allah’s Messenger and said “O Messenger of Allah, I heard this individual reciting Surah Al-Furqān in a way that you did not teach me, and you have taught me Surah Al-Furqān.”

The Prophet said, “O Hishām, recite!” So So he recited in the same way as I heard him recite it before. On that Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “It was revealed to be recited in this way.” Then Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “Recite, O `Umar!” So I recited it as he had taught me. Allah’s Messenger ﷺ then said, “It was revealed to be recited in this way.” Allah’s Apostle added, “This Qurʾān has been revealed to be recited in seven different aḥruf, so recite it whichever way is easier for you.”[22]

This narration provides explicit proof that the two different readings were taught by the Prophet ﷺ and that it was the Prophet himself who instructed each companion to recite it in the precise manner in which they did.

The nature of the aḥruf

Muslim scholars attempted to interpret the meaning of the seven aḥruf.  However, they differed in defining the meaning of these seven aḥruf and whether or not those “seven” were intended to be interpreted metaphorically or literally. The purpose of this article is not to recapitulate the discussion of the diverse opinions, which is already available in numerous works in Arabic[23] and English.[24]

The viewpoint espoused and elaborated in this article is one that enjoys the support of a vast majority of specialists in Qur’anic sciences, and that is that aḥruf can be explained simply as ways of varying. For example, the difference in words manifests in the following ways:

– Singularity, duality, plurality, masculinity, and femininity.

Taṣrīf Al-Afʿāl (Verbal Morphology)—verb tense, form, grammatical person.

Iʿrāb (grammatical case endings).

– Omission, substitution, or addition of words.

– Word order.

Ibdāl (alternation between two consonants or between words).

This list of different types of Qur’anic variants was mentioned by Abū Al-Faḍl Ar-Rāzī (d. 454 AH).[25] Among the many scholars who adopt this opinion are Ibn Qutaybah (d. 276 AH), Az-Zarkashī (d. 794 AH), and Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833 AH). Of course, these scholars differed over the precise categorization of differences and which categories to combine or split in the list of aḥruf. Therefore, it is best not to present such a list as an exclusive or exhaustive categorization but rather to use it simply as potential examples. The proposed examples of variation include phonetic, morphological, grammatical, and semantic variation. Furthermore, one must examine all the qirāʾāt (alternative readings of Qurʾān) including non-canonical (shawādh) qirāʾāt[26] when attempting to explain the exact meaning of the seven aḥruf. Thus, one can say that the seven aḥruf are all the categories of variation to which the differences found within qirāʾāt can be correlated. In other words, they represent a menu of ingredients from which each qirāʾah selects its profile.

Having said that, we can now examine the beginning of Surah Al-Furqān in which ʿUmar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb and Hishām ibn Hakīm disagreed on the reading of certain verses. We know that they both recited the verses differently but we don’t know exactly what those differences were. Although the canonical qirāʾāt contain no significant differences in the first verse of Surah Al-Furqān (Qur’anic chapter 25), there are some non-canonical readings in the first verse which may provide some clues to unveil the mystery of the disagreement between ʿUmar and Hishām in Surah Al-Furqān; these are provided in the table below.[27] In his explanation of this very narration, the scholar Ibn ʿAbdul-Barr (d. 463 AH) also examined different readings of Surah Al-Furqān to provide insight into the nature of the difference between these two companions’ readings.[28] The examples listed below of different readings also help illustrate the different categories of how the aḥruf vary.

No. Word Different readings Categorization of variance
1 Nazzala – نَزَّلَ 1. Nazzala  نَزَّلَ

2. Anzala أنزَل

Verbal Morphology (form II vs form IV of the verb)
2 ʿAbdihi – عَبْدِهِ 1. ʿAbdihi – عَبْدِهِ = singular

2. ʿIbādihi – عِبَادِهِ = plural

3. Abīdihi – عَبِيدِهِ = plural

Singularity and plurality
3 Li-yakūna – ليكون 1. Li-yakūna – لِيَكون

2. Li-takūna – لِتَكون

Verbal Morphology (third-person versus second-person)
4 Li al-ʿĀlamīna – للعالمين 1. Li l-ʿĀlamīna – للعالمين

2. Li l-ʿĀlamīna li l-jinni wa al-ins

للعالمين للجن والإنس

Omission or addition of words

The reading of the sahabah (companions of the Prophet) was not unified during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ. There were differences in the way they recited the Qurʾān. This was due to the license of the seven aḥruf as they were taught different readings by the Prophet himself. When the sahabah disagreed on the reading of certain verses, they sought the guidance of the Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet would listen to each party and he would give his approval of these variants as being divine. This was reported in the previously mentioned incident of ʿUmar with Hishām in addition to several other recorded incidents. The reports of the seven aḥruf clearly indicate that the sahabah read precisely as they were taught by the Prophet ﷺ.

Ibn Masʿūd narrated a similar incident when he had a disagreement with another companion in reading the Qurʾān. The Prophet ﷺ was displeased and he commanded the Muslims to recite the Qurʾān according to the ways they were taught.[29] Ibn ʿAbbās reported that the Prophet ﷺ used to teach them tashahhud as he would teach them a sūrah of the Qurʾān.[30]

ʿUmar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb said that the reading of the Qurʾān is Sunnah and it is transmitted by the first generation to later generations.[31] In other words, one must have learned directly from the Prophet ﷺ or from him through his students and successors. There was nothing left to the discretion of the individual in this regard; it was necessary to recite precisely as one learned.

Codices of companions

The aforementioned diversity in reciting the Qurʾān did not pose a problem during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ as the companions became accustomed to the concept of seven aḥruf and diverse modes of recitation. The Prophet ﷺ sent different companions to teach the Qurʾān to different tribes and communities and the different readings were transmitted. However, as Islam spread to distant lands, disputes began to arise between Muslims reciting according to different modes and dialects, and it was precisely this emerging confusion that led the Caliph ‘Uthmān to compile and distribute a copy of the Qur’an to eliminate such confusion.

Hudhayfah ibn Al-Yamān came to ʿUthmān at the time when the people of Shām and the people of ʿIrāq were waging war to conquer Armenia and Azerbaijan. Hudhayfah was afraid of their (the people of Shām and Irāq) differences in the recitation of the Qurʾān, so he said to ʿUthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qurʾān) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So ʿUthman sent a message to Ḥafṣah saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qurʾān so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Ḥafṣa sent it to ʿUthman. ʿUthman then ordered Zayd ibn Thābit, ʿAbdullah ibn Az-Zubayr, Saʿīd ibn Al-ʿĀṣ and ʿAbdurrahmān ibn Hārith ibn Hishām to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. ʿUthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zayd ibn Thābit on any point in the Qurʾān, then write it in the dialect of Quraysh, the Qurʾān was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had written many copies, ʿUthman returned the original manuscripts to Ḥafṣa. ʿUthman 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.[32]

During the caliphate of Uthman, the codex of the Qurʾān was compiled by a designated committee lead by Zayd ibn Thābit (d. 45 AH), which was subsequently copied and sent throughout the Muslim world. ʿUthmān ordered all other written copies of the Qurʾān to be destroyed or corrected.[33] However, in some regions of the Muslim world, it seems the transition to the ʿUthmānic codex took time, particularly in Kufah owing to the massive influence of ʿAbdullah ibn Masʿūd.[34] The early scholar al-Aʿmash (d. 148 AH) is reported to have said, “I reached Kūfah, and the reading of Zayd was not with them except as the reading of ʿAbdullah is with you today: no one recited it except for one or two people.”[35]

When reading classical works of tafsir, it is common to encounter narrations that mention that a particular verse was recited differently by a companion (most often ʿAbdullah ibn Masʿūd), typically with a word substitution, addition, or omission. A number of these variant readings are readily encountered in the canonical books of Hadith and a few are mentioned in Ṣaḥiḥ al-Bukhārī. For instance, when ʿAlqamah ibn Qays (d. 62 AH) traveled to Greater Syria, he met the companion Abū ad-Dardāʾ, and the latter asked ʿAlqamah about how Ibn Masʿūd recited Sūrah al-Layl; ʿAlqamah responded that Ibn Masʿūd recited verse 3 as “wa adh-dhakari wa al-unthā” (and by the male and the female) instead of “wa mā khalaqa adh-dhakara wa al-unthā” (and by that which created the male and the female), whereupon Abū ad-Dardāʾ testified that he had learned the verse in the same way from the Prophet ﷺ.[36] This variant is said to represent one of the aḥruf in the recitation of the Qurʾān that was no longer recited after the codex of Uthman was established. Similarly, a narration records that Ibn ʿAbbās would recite 18:79-80 as “wa kana amāmahum malikun yaʾkhudhu kulla safīnatin ṣālihatin ghaṣba. Wa ammā al-ghulāmu fa kāna kāfiran” (translation: and there was ahead of them a king seizing every boat in good condition by force; as for the boy, then he was a disbeliever), thus containing three word differences from the ʿUthmānic codex.[37] Another narration records an additional phrase mentioned by Ibn ʿAbbās after 26:214: “wa andhir ʿashīrataka al-aqrabīn, wa rahṭaka minhum al-mukhlaṣīn” (translation: and admonish your nearest kinsmen and your exclusive tribesmen).[38] The understanding of these variants will be elucidated in detail in the following section.

How many variant readings of companions are there that differ from the ʿUthmānic codex?

Many who write on this subject simply cite a few instances of variants without giving any sense of proportion or frequency; a systematic study requires evaluating all the transmitted material. In a comprehensive study of the primary sources undertaken by Muhammad Abdul-Rahman at-Tāsān,[39] the author notes a total of 592 instances where a companion’s reading of a verse has been narrated. Of these narrations, 52 are identical to the ʿUthmānic codex, while the remaining 540 are variant readings which differ from the ʿUthmānic codex, thus termed shādh. However, of those 540 instances, only 177 are found with a chain of transmission (isnād), and of those with a chain, only 20 are classified as authentic by hadith standards.[40] Thus, the actual quantity of variants traceable to the companions is significantly smaller than may initially be supposed.[41]

Of particular interest is that studies of ancient manuscripts of the Qurʾān have demonstrated the incredible precision and accuracy of the Muslim tradition in faithfully transmitting these variants in circulation amongst the earliest Muslim community. The Ṣanʿāʾ palimpsest is a manuscript where the original writing (termed the lower text) was erased and written over (the upper text), although contents from the undertext can be revealed using ultraviolet light, and when studied demonstrates numerous variants ascribed to companions in the Muslim tradition.[42] Thus, the Muslim tradition erred on the side of caution in preserving and documenting a larger volume of reported variants beyond what was established exclusively through authentic chains of transmission.

Did the Ṣahābah have muṣḥafs containing variant readings?

In his famous work entitled Kitāb al-Maṣāḥif, Ibn Abī Dāwud (d. 316 AH) has a chapter on the differences between the codices of companions (bāb ikhtilāf maṣāḥif aṣ-ṣahābah) which he begins by explaining his terminology: “We only say the codex of so-and-so (muṣḥaf fulān) for that which differs from our codex (muṣḥaf) in writing, by addition or subtraction. This is what I have taken from my father,[43] who followed the same practice in his work Kitāb at-Tanzīl.”[44] He then proceeds to list narrations of variant readings from companions under chapter titles, “muṣḥaf ʿUmar,” “muṣḥaf ʿAlī,” “muṣḥaf Ibn Masʿūd,” and so on. This terminology may lead to confusion, as the narrations mention that these companions were simply heard reciting a verse in that reading, not that they possessed a physical codex which had the verse written in that reading. As At-Tāsān demonstrates, these readings attributed to the companions were initially simply referred to as qirā’ah Ibn Masʿūd or ḥarf Ibn Masʿūd, but later came to be referred to as muṣḥaf Ibn Masʿūd.[45] In the case of many companions, there is no evidence that a personal codex with exclusively variant readings ever existed.[46] Moreover, the early bibliographer Ibn an-Nadīm (d. 380 AH) noted that he personally came across many early mushafs attributed to Ibn Masʿūd, but was unable to find any two in agreement (laysa fīhā muṣḥafayn muttafiqayn).[47] Muhammad Mustafa al-Aʿzami comments:

The divergent nature of the many ‘Muāḥafs of Ibn Masʿūd’ that materialised after his death, with no two in agreement, shows that the wholesale ascription of these to him is erroneous, and the scholars who did so neglected to examine their sources well. Sadly the less scrupulous among antique dealers found it profitable, for the weight of a few silver pieces, to add fake Mushafs of Ibn Masʿūd or Ubayy to their wares.[48]

It is essential, therefore, to take the attribution of such readings to the companions and to personal codices with a grain of salt, as there is little that is verifiable in such reports.

Did these codices contain chapter differences?

When it comes to personal codices of the companions, some orientalists erroneously concluded from reports about the absence of Sūrah al-Fātihah and al-Muʿawwidhatayn (chapters 113 and 114) in Ibn Masʿūd’s codex that this implies his “version” of the Qurʾān did not include these surahs, or that he did not believe them to be from the Qurʾān. To an outsider, this may seem like a rational inference. However, anyone with passing familiarity of the Muslim tradition understands why this suggestion is fully preposterous: al-Fatihah is the most recited chapter of the entire Qurʾān, recited in prayer seventeen times a day and any dispute about its Qurʾānic status would have created a massive disruption to daily worship.[49] Ibn Masʿūd himself alluded to this in one narration. When asked why he didn’t write al-Fātihah in his mushaf, he stated that were he to write it, he would have written it with every single chapter of the Qurʾān.[50] Concerning this statement, Abu Bakr ibn al-Anbārī (d. 328 AH) explained, “He means that the way of recitation in every unit of prayer (raka) is to start with al-Fātihah before reciting another surah, so [it is as though Ibn Masʿūd] said ‘For brevity, I have sufficed with omitting it and have entrusted it to the Muslims’ preservation/memorization of it.”[51] Similarly, al-Māzirī (d. 536 AH) explained, “It can be understood from what it is related regarding the omission of al-muʿawwidhatayn from the muṣḥaf of Ibn Masʿūd that he did not consider it required for him to include all the Qurʾān, and he wrote that which was other than these two and left them due to their shuhrah (well-known status) with him and with the people.”[52]

The reality is that the sahabah used their writings of the Qurʾān as memory aids for personal worship and recitation, and consequently never intended them as complete official copies of the Qurʾān.  Thus, al-Zarqānī (d. 1367 AH) writes:

Sometimes the author of a muṣḥaf would leave out a sūrah due to its popularity (shuhra) and not needing to be written down due to this popularity (i.e., it was common knowledge), as has been related about Ibn Masʿūd’s mushaf not containing al-Fātihah. And sometimes the author of the muṣḥaf would write what he saw himself needing to include from other than the Qurʾān in the same muṣḥaf as has preceded regarding al-qunūt al-ḥanafiyyah which it is reported that some of the companions included in their muṣḥaf and named sūrah al-khalʿ wa al-ḥafd.[53]

Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456 AH) not only rejected the reliability of the reports about Ibn Masʿūd’s muṣḥaf missing chapters, but he also argued that what were authentically established from Ibn Masʿūd were canonical qirā’ah like that of ʿĀṣim which contain al-Fātiḥah and al-Muʿāwwidhatayn.[54]

How do we view the variants reported from Companions?

We now arrive at the interesting question of how variant readings from sahabah (i.e., those which differ from the ʿUthmānic codex) are to be understood theologically, from within the Muslim tradition. Did God speak all of these readings and did Jibreel recite all of them to Muhammad ﷺ? Are they all considered ‘Qurʾān’? Do they all exhibit the miraculous Qurʾānic inimitability? Is it permissible to recite them in prayer?

In order to address these questions, let us first distinguish between two concepts: qirāʾah bil-talaqqī (recitation based on direct learning) and qirāʾah bil-maʿnā (recitation based on paraphrasing the meaning). We believe that the companions’ recitation of the Qurʾān was based on the former concept—they took great care to recite the Qurʾān exactly as they heard it from the Prophet ﷺ, and when a reciter erred in doing so, he would be corrected by others. We will return later to the opposing concept of qira’ah bil-ma’na. For now, based on qira’ah bil-talaqqī, there are three possible explanations for a variant reading of a verse authentically established from a companion that differs from what we find in the ʿUthmānic codex:

  1. Abrogated ḥarf
  2. Abandoned ḥarf
  3. Non-Qur’anic tafsīr recital

We will explain these in turn.

Abrogated ḥarf

The concept of Qur’anic abrogation is established in the Qurʾān itself in the verse: “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?” (2:106). Abrogation may pertain to the legal ruling of a verse, whereby an instruction provided in an initial verse is known to no longer be applicable or effective following the revelation of a later abrogating verse (nāsikh).[55] Alternatively, abrogation can pertain to the recitation of a verse, whereby it is no longer recited as part of the Qurʾān, despite being initially revealed by Allah. It was narrated that ʿĀishah said: “One of the things that Allah revealed in the Qurʾān and then abrogated was that nothing makes marriage prohibited except ten breastfeedings or five well-known (breastfeedings).”[56]

Likewise, another companion Al-Barāʾ ibn ʿĀzib mentioned about verse 2:238: “This verse was initially revealed as ‘Guard the prayers and the ʿAsr prayer.’ We recited it thus for as long as Allah willed. Then Allah abrogated it and it was revealed: ‘Guard the prayers and the middle prayer.’”[57]

The earliest Muslim community was thus exposed to some Quranic recitation that Allah in His infinite Divine Wisdom excluded from the composition of the Qurʾān which would be recited until the end of time; i.e., the Qurʾān was revealed with extra passages no longer found in it today. How then was the exact composition of the Qurʾān determined, considering also that verses and surahs were revealed in a different order? Every year, the Angel Jibrīl would review the recitation of the Qurʾān with the Prophet Muhammad during the month of Ramadan—“Gabriel used to meet him every night during Ramadan to revise the Qurʾān with him,”[58] and “Gabriel used to repeat the recitation of the Qurʾān with the Prophet ﷺ once a year, but he repeated it twice with him in the year he died.”[59]

According to many scholars, it was during this ‘final review’ (in Arabic called al-ʿarḍah al-akhīrah) in the last year of the Prophet’s life that the wording of the Qurʾān was finalized and much of the variants in the aḥruf were abrogated and excluded from the final recitation.[60] The companion Samurah (d. 54 AH) said, “The Qurʾān was reviewed with the Prophet several times. So they say that our qirāʾah is al-ʿarḍah al-akhīrah.”[61] The early scholar Muḥammad ibn Sīrīn (d. 110 AH) mentioned the understanding that the ʿUthmānic codex was in conformity with what was recited in al-ʿarḍah al-akhīrah.[62] Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833 AH) stated, “And the maṣāḥif were written according to the wording that was confirmed in the final review from the Messenger of Allah as was explicitly stated from more than one of the Imams of the salaf such as Muḥammad ibn Sīrīn, ʿUbaydah al-Salmānī, and ʿĀmir al-Shaʿbī.”[63] When discussing some of the variant wordings of verses reported from companions, Ibn al-Jazarī states, “The majority of scholars believe in the impermissibility of reciting according to it as these recitations are not established as mutawātir from the Prophet, and if established by transmission then they are abrogated by al-ʿarḍah al-akhīrah.”[64]

How was it known what the Prophet ﷺ recited with Jibrīl? The Prophet would have instructed his companions accordingly after the final review with Jibrīl. Scholars speak of specific companions who ‘attended’ the final review, in the sense that the companion reviewed the entire Qurʾān with the Prophet after he recited with Jibrīl, not that they were physically present while the Prophet was reciting to Jibrīl.[65] Al-Baghawī (d. 516 AH) states:

It is said that Zayd ibn Thābit attended the final review in which it was clarified what was abrogated and what remained.

Abu Abdul-Raḥmān al-Sulamī said, “Zayd recited the Qurʾān twice to the Prophet during the year in which he passed away, and this recitation is called the qirāʾah of Zayd because he transcribed it for the Prophet and recited it to him and witnessed al-ʿarḍah al-akhīrah, and he taught its recitation to people until he passed away. That is why Abū Bakr and ʿUmar relied upon him in its compilation and ʿUthmān appointed him in charge of writing the maṣāḥif—may God be pleased with them all.”[66]

However, there is no definitive proof about who, if anyone, actually attended the final review with the Prophet ﷺ. Other scholars simply stated that the reading of Zaid was the one confirmed by al-ʿarḍah al-akhīrah. Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 AH) wrote, “And the final review is the qirāʾah of Zayd ibn Thābit and others, and it is the one that the rightly-guided caliphs—Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthmān, and ʿAlī—instructed to be written in the maṣāḥif.”[67]

Nonetheless, the idea that the variant readings from Ibn Masʿūd and Ubayy ibn Kaʿb represent a ḥarf that was originally revealed but subsequently abrogated does not seem to square with the fact that Muslims in the subsequent generation continued to recite according to the ḥarf of Ibn Masʿūd at least in Kūfa, as reported by al-Aʿmash and others. Moreover, abrogation is generally considered a matter that must be decisively established by an injunction from God and His Messenger. Proponents of the abrogation view may counter that the knowledge of its abrogation was not widely known and may have escaped some amongst the companions and the subsequent generation.

Abandoned ḥarf

The second explanation for the existence of these diverse variants from companions also sees them as having come from a ḥarf originally revealed as part of the Qurʾān. However, when ʿUthmān compiled the codex it was not necessary for him to include every single ḥarf revealed and so it was left out and eventually became extinct. Indeed, for most reported variants we have no mention that they were abrogated, but simply that they were no longer being recited except by the companion to whom they are attributed. This is seen for instance in the previously discussed example of Ibn Masʿūd’s reading of 92:3.[68] Ibn Jarīr al-Tabarī argues that the ʿUthmānic codex was based on one ḥarf because the diverse readings were a concession (rukhsa) and therefore it wasn’t an obligation for Muslims to learn and transmit them all.[69]

In reality, this view is practically very similar to the previous—it entails that the variant reading was revealed by God, yet because God did not intend for it to be included in the final Qurʾān, it became abandoned as per the Divine Decree (qadar) of God. One can say that here abrogation is seen as effectively taking place by God’s Divine Will (irādah kawniyyah) rather than an explicit revealed instruction (irādah sharʿiyyah). Divine Will has effectively excluded those variant readings from the muṣḥaf of this ummah, and since history is intended by God, then the Qurʾān we have in our hands today is exactly the Qurʾān that God wanted us to have, and the loss of variations that did not make it into the muṣḥaf was also intended by God. What the Muslim ummah would collectively agree upon (ijma’), recite, and practice was included in the foreknowledge of God prior to the creation of the Universe.

With the passage of time, some variant readings were effectively ruled extinct by Allah’s Divine Decree concerning the consensus of the community, just as if such readings were abrogated by legislation—and this is precisely what some scholars said. Makkī ibn Abī Tālib (d. 437 AH) wrote, “As for what it is in our hands of the Qurʾān, it is that with conforms to the script of that (ʿUthmānic) muṣḥaf, from those qirāʾāt with which the Qurʾān was revealed, and upon which the community unanimously agreed. No longer practiced are those qirāʾāt that differ from the script of the mushaf. So it is as if they were abrogated by the consensus upon the script of the muṣḥaf.”[70]

Non-Quranic recital

Many scholars held the view that variant readings reported by companions were often nothing more than a companion’s method of explaining the verse by simplifying the language, adding an explanatory phrase, or substituting a word for a more familiar one. Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī (d. 404 AH) states, “From amongst them (i.e., the companions) were those who would recite interpretation (taʾwīl) alongside revelation (tanzīl).”[71] This has been termed qirāʾāt tafsīriyyah (exegetical recitations). Abu Ḥayyān al-Andalūsī states, “Verily, whatever is reported that conflicts with the script of the muṣḥaf then it is in reality tafsīr, not (Qur’anic) recitation.”[72] Imam al-Tirmidhī comments on a hadith with an added phrase after the verse by saying, “This appears to be a statement of Ibn ʿAbbās (i.e., rather than a variant reading).”[73]

Imam al-Nawawi (d. 676 AH) writes (quoting al-Māziri (d. 536 AH)):

As for Ibn Masʿūd then much has been narrated from him including that which is not reliably established according to the people of transmission. And that which is established which differs from what we say (i.e., recite in our muṣḥaf), then it is interpreted to mean that he wrote in his muṣḥaf some rulings and tafsīr which he believed to not be Qurʾān, and he did not believe that to be impermissible as he saw it as a parchment upon which to write what he willed. While ʿUthmān and the community deemed that to be prohibited lest with the passage of time it be assumed to be Qurʾān. Al-Māzirī said: So the disagreement goes back to a jurisprudential matter (masʾalah fiqhiyyah) and that is whether it is allowed to include commentary interspersed in the muṣḥaf.[74]

Similarly, Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833 AH) writes, “It was possible that they (i.e., the companions) would include tafsīr in the qirāʾāh, as clarification and elucidation (īḍāḥan wa bayānan). This is because they were well-versed in what they had learned directly from the Prophet ﷺ as Qurʾān, so they were secure from confusing between them. And it was possible that some of them would write it (i.e., tafsīr) alongside it (i.e., Qurʾān).”[75]

Many early authorities explicitly considered this to be the explanation for variant readings reported by companions. Abū Bakr ibn al-Anbārī (d. 328 AH) wrote, “As for what is transmitted from the companions or the successors that they recited in this or that manner, that is only from the angle of explanation and clarification (innamā dhālika ʿala jihatil bayān wa at-tafsīr), not that it was Qurʾān being recited.”[76] Abu Jaʿfar al-Naḥḥās (d. 338 AH) wrote, “It is related from Ibn ʿAbbās, ‘And the middle prayer (is) the ʿasr prayer.’ And this recitation is a tafsīr since it is an addition to what is in the muṣḥaf.”[77] Furthermore, it is related that Amr ibn Deenar (d. 126 AH) heard Abdullah ibn az-Zubayr recite 3:104 with an additional phrase “and they seek Allah’s help on that which befalls them”; ʿAmr ibn Dīnār said, “And I do not know whether it was his qirāʾah or he was doing tafsīr.”[78] Thus, sometimes those who heard companions recite on rare occasions with a variant reading may have been unsure whether they were reading a non-ʿUthmānic ḥarf or whether it was tafsīr.

Perhaps one of the strongest evidences in favor of the Qirā’āt tafsīriyyah viewpoint is simply an empirical examination of the wording found in many of the reported variant readings from the companions. In a survey of several readings attributed to ʿAbdullah ibn Masʿūd, one author compared them with vocabulary used in other relevant passages. The Qurʾān uses al-mashy for human movement on the earth, while Ibn Masʿūd’s variant replaces 2:20 with maḍaw fih. Likewise, the variant reading from Ibn Masʿūd of verse 1:6 replaces hidāyah (guidance) with its near-synonym irshād as follows: “arshidnā aṣ-ṣirāt al-mustaqīm” instead of “ihdinā aṣ-ṣirāt al-mustaqīm.” However, the word hidāyah and its derivatives are associated with the path in 23 other places in the Qurʾān and the straight path in 18, while the word rushd is associated with none, and a linguistic analysis of the meanings of the words demonstrates the greater suitability of the word hidāyah. Thus, the author writes, “So it is possible to say that the recitation arshidnā aṣ-ṣirāt al-mustaqīm is not a recitation but rather it is tafsīr, and that is based on an examination of the Qur’anic expressions in its usage of words given that it does not use irshād with the word ṣirāt in contrast to hidāyah.”[79] Thus, Ibn Masʿūd’s variant readings almost invariably seem to substitute Quranic terminology with easier to understand near-synonyms or add additional explanatory words that are at variance with the Qurʾān’s usual style. This seems to represent a strange coincidence but becomes readily explicable when considered to be qirāʾāt tafsīriyyah. The observation that these variant readings serve an exegetical function did not escape the earliest of scholars—one of the most powerful evidences in favor of this viewpoint is the fact that the student of Ibn ʿAbbās, Mujāhid ibn Jabr al-Makhzūmī (d. 103 AH) stated, “Had I read the qirāʾah of Ibn Masʿūd, I would not have needed to ask Ibn ʿAbbās about much of the Qurʾān which I asked about.”[80]

Although this view terms such variant readings as qirā’āt tafsīriyyah, it should be noted that the non-Quranic wording added or substituted by companions in their recital need not always have been strictly for tafsīr. Rather, it would sometimes be word alterations to facilitate pronunciation or memorization. In one incident, Ibn Masʿūd was trying to teach a man to recite verse 44:44, “food of the sinful (ṭaʿāmu al-athīm)” but the man kept repeating “food of the orphan (ṭaʿāmu al-yatīm).” When the man was unable to recite the correct word after multiple attempts, Ibn Masʿūd told him to recite instead using a near-synonym “food of the disobedient (ṭaʿām al-fājir).”[81] If others learned this same “easy version” of the verse, it would be evident that this was not what Ibn Masʿūd believed the actual wording of the Qur’anic verse to be, but rather an alternate reading for the sake of facilitation (taysīr).

Evaluation of the aforementioned explanations

The explanation which single-handedly appears to encompass all the evidence most easily is the second explanation: that non-ʿUthmānic readings were simply abandoned by the overwhelming consensus and practice of the community. However, in comparing the aforementioned three possibilities, it also becomes apparent that there is no reason why they should be considered mutually exclusive. That is, it is certainly possible that some variant readings were simply tafsir (such as the word substitutions from Ibn Masʿūd which clearly differ from Qur’anic style), while other variant readings were revealed Qur’anic aḥruf that subsequently were either abrogated (as al-Barā’ ibn ʿĀzib said for 2:238), or were abandoned following the ʿUthmānic recension (as Abu al-Dardā’ suggested for 92:3). Abrogation of a reading could have occurred at any point in the Prophet’s life, as there is nothing to definitively establish the theory that al-arḍah al-akhīrah itself was a means of abrogating readings. The contemporary scholar Mufti Taqī Uthmanī notes the following five possibilities with respect to shādh qirā’āt:[82]

  1. The reading was an innovation or fabrication.
  2. The reading has not been reliably transmitted.
  3. The reading represents the addition of explanatory words.
  4. The reading was abrogated in the final days of the Prophet’s life and known to be abrogated by the majority of companions, but an individual companion who was unaware may have continued to recite it as he learned it.
  5. The reading was actually a mistake made by a successor in his recitation but the listener thought it was a variant reading and transmitted it as such.

There is overlap between these possibilities and the scenarios discussed in detail above, and each of them appears to plausibly account for at least some of the reported variants. In the estimation of the authors of this paper, this appears to be the most reasonable conclusion on this matter.

Critiquing a different paradigm: Qira’ah bil-ma’na

In discussing the different variant readings attributed to companions, the explanations provided so far all proceed from the paradigm of qira’ah bil-talaqqī—the understanding that it was incumbent upon the capable student to recite the Qurʾān exactly as they learned it from their teacher.[83] There is, however, a different paradigm (elaborated by some classical scholars and contemporary Muslim academics) that argues that the Qurʾān was understood by the companions to be recited based on conveying the same meaning, or qira’ah bil-ma’na. This would entail that a limited degree of paraphrasing or minor variation in wording would still constitute the very same ‘Qurʾān’ and that the early Muslim community’s recitation would naturally result in readings with slight variation. Accordingly, it would be no surprise to the companions to find novel variants without explicit precedent. Yasin Dutton describes this as a generic feature of oral cultures and applies it to the Qurʾān as an oral phenomenon:

[O]ral literature is typically ‘multiform’ (rather than ‘uniform’), that is, what is understood by the singer or poet to be the same song or poem may be performed on different occasions with considerable minor changes, especially of the formulaic expressions of which such literature is full, although the ‘story-line’ remains the same, as does the overall form, and the singer may insist that he is singing exactly the same song or reciting exactly the same poem. In other words, there is a known message, and a known form, but each re-production of it is a fresh one which is not necessarily bound by the one before—until, that is, it is reduced to writing and the pressure builds to conform to the newly written form. But this approach is, of course, very different to that of people used to the fixed outlines of a written text (among whom we must include almost all scholars of the Qurʾān, whether in the past or the present, and whether Muslim or otherwise).

[…]Now the Qurʾān is not poetry, nor can we talk about it as the ‘composition’ or ‘creation’ of an individual poet or singer. It is, nevertheless, very much first and foremost an oral phenomenon which first manifested in a society in which such ‘oral transmission,’ ‘oral composition,’ ‘oral creation,’ and ‘oral performance’ of poetry was very much the norm. So we can expect it to have been experienced, in a cultural sense, rather in the same way that poetry was at that time; meaning, that a limited amount of ‘variation’ was not only accepted but also expected, if it was even noticed; it was, in a sense, built in to the very text.[84]

As a matter of fact, this viewpoint was not entirely unfamiliar to Muslim scholars of the past, and there are even some statements from early and classical scholars that can be interpreted in this light, as well as statements from other scholars who have rejected this view. We will enumerate some such statements before proceeding with an analysis. Perhaps the earliest statement in this regard is the view of Ibn Shihāb al-Zuḥrī (d. 124 AH):

Abu Uways said, “I asked al-Zuḥrī about al-taqdīm wal-taʾkhīr (reversing the order of words or a phrase) in Hadith and he replied, ‘This is permitted with the Qurʾān so how about the Hadith? If the meaning of the Hadith is captured correctly and one does not make the impermissible permissible or make the permissible impermissible, then there is no problem and that is if the meaning is correctly captured.”[85]

Another scholar who upheld qira’ah bil-ma’na in some sense is Abu Ja’far al-Taḥāwī (d. 321 AH) who wrote, “The flexibility given to them in reciting the Qurʾān was to recite according to its meanings (an yatluhu bi-ma’anīhī) even if the wording which they recited differed from the words of their Prophet with which he recited it to them.”[86] However, al-Taḥāwī specified that this was a concession (rukhsah) that was later abrogated as it was no longer needed. A similar idea has been expressed by Abu Bakr al-Bāqillānī (d. 404 AH).[87] On the other hand, Al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538 AH) considered it permissible without having been abrogated.[88]

Abu’l-Layth As-Samarqandī (d. 375 AH) was of the opinion that Muslims were given permission under the license of aḥruf to recite the Qurʾān according to the pronunciation of their own dialects without precedent, while only one reading originated from the Prophet ﷺ. According to Abu’l-Layth, this license to pronounce words differently (e.g., buyūt or bīyūt) was applicable even in farsh as long as the changes did not impact the meaning; he did not extend this to wording alterations.[89]

Abu Shāmah al-Maqdisi (d. 665 AH) linked the seven aḥruf with qira’ah bil-ma’na though he considered them to have not been abrogated but simply no longer applicable after the ʿUthmānic recension. He writes concerning the seven aḥruf hadith:

The meaning of the hadith is that it was a concession given to them to replace words with that which gave the same or nearly the same meaning from one ḥarf to seven aḥruf. And they were not compelled to stick to one ḥarf since it was revealed upon an unlettered nation who were not accustomed to studying, repetition, or memorization of the exact wording of something, taking into consideration those who were elderly as well as those preoccupied with striving in battle and livelihood. So a concession was given to them in that. And some raised with one dialect would find it difficult to switch to another. So the qirā’āt differed as a result of all of that. And this is proven for us by the Hadith which explains [seven ahruf] using the examples of halumma and ta’āl, showing the permissibility of exchanging one word for its synonym. And this is also proven for us by what has been established about substituting ghafura rahima in place of aziza hakima using what conveys the same essential meaning without preserving the exact wording (duna al-muhāfadhati ‘ala al-lafdh). For all of that is praise of Allah, Glorified is He. This is all in regards to what the reciter can naturally pronounce. As for what is not possible for him because it is not from his dialect, then his situation is clear. And nothing of the qirā’āt goes beyond this principle, which is exchanging a word for its synonym or a similar word that conveys the same essential meaning. Then, when the masahif were codified, those qira’at that conflicted with the codified script were abandoned and what remained were those readings to which the script was amenable. Then some readings which conformed to the script become popular while the transmission of others become rare.[90]

A few pages later, Abu Shāmah does quote al-Baghawi who explicitly rejects qira’ah bil-ma’na.[91] Ibn Hajar al-Asqalāni (d. 852 AH) commented on the statement of Abu Shāmah by suggesting that both qira’ah bil-ma’na and qira’ah bil-talaqqī existed in the practice of the companions:

The aforementioned permission (to recite in different ways) was not according to desire, meaning that everyone could exchange a word with its synonym from his dialect, rather it was necessary to adhere to what was directly heard from the Prophet, and this is indicated by the fact that both Umar and Hisham said, “The Prophet recited it to me this way.” However, it is established from more than one companion that he would recite using synonyms without precedent (wa law lam yakun masmu’an lahu). And it is for this reason that Umar critiqued Ibn Masʿūd’s recitation of “atta hīn” to mean “hatta hīn” and he wrote to him, “Verily, the Qur’an was not revealed in the dialect of Hudhayl so teach people the recitation of Quraysh and do not teach them the recitation according to the dialect of Hudhayl.”[92]

Let us pause for a moment and consider what these scholars say and what they do not say. If the Prophet ﷺ gave a concession for some people to recite according to meaning, was that the rare exception while the default remained talaqqī or was the default variation? There is no indication that these scholars considered the default to be anything other than talaqqī even if a concession was made for some to recite by meaning. In fact, most of them reiterate the concept of recitation being a practice to be followed precisely (sunnah muttaba’ah). Moreover, did those companions who recited according to meaning ever consider their variant wording equivalent with Allah’s Divine speech? None of these scholars suggest any such notion; if anything, it would be clear that the wording was a concession in lieu of reciting the precise wording of the Divine speech.[93]

A version of qira’ah bil-ma’na in the writings of the orientalist Ignaz Goldziher entails the claim that the qirā’āt traditions in the Muslim world were invented without precedent or transmission, based on Muslims’ interpretation of the ʿUthmānic script lacking diacritics.[94] However, this view has been convincingly challenged by a detailed study of the nature of variants.[95]

Evaluation of evidences and arguments

Proponents of the theory of qira’ah bil-ma’na generally cite the following evidences (the specific counter-points to which are mentioned in the footnotes while the general counter-arguments are offered later in this section):

  1. The seven aḥruf hadith which convey a degree of fluidity so long as the message is not altered, such as the hadith wherein the Prophet ﷺ states, “Whether you say ‘Samī’an Alīma’ (Most Hearing, Most Knowing) or ‘Azīzan Hakīma’ (Most Mighty, Most Wise) then Allah is like that, so long as you do not conclude a verse of punishment with mercy or a verse of mercy with punishment.”[96]
  2. Reports about the reading or teaching of companions; e.g., the hadith reported from Abu Darda’ and Ibn Masʿūd about teaching a man to recite ta’ām al-fājir instead of ta’ām al-athīm.[97]Anas ibn Malik recited aswabu qīla instead of aqwamu qīla and, when questioned about that, he replied that the meaning was the same.[98]
  3. Reports about the companions seemingly criticizing or denying a Qur’anic reading, which would seem to negate the supposition that they are all equally valid and all from the Prophet.[99] This includes, for instance, an example of Aisha denying one of the readings of 12:110,[100] and Ali denying the ʿUthmānic reading of 56:29.[101]
  4. The existence of shādh readings which do not conform to the ʿUthmānic mushaf.
  5. The examples of reciters performing ijtihād based on the ʿUthmānic text or reciters who selected a reading without precedent.[102]
  6. The argument that the sheer quantity of all readings that would be traced back to the Prophet ﷺ makes it seem implausible that he could have recited them all.

The viewpoint of qira’ah bil-ma’na may seem to have the appeal of elegant simplicity in being able to account for all the variants reported and conveniently side-step the orientalist arguments about multiple “versions” of the Qurʾān that do not originate from the Prophet ﷺ. However, these are not strong reasons to adopt this view given that the well-established traditional explanations easily account for variant readings and the above-mentioned evidences are in fact not very convincing on closer inspection.

First, with respect to the inferences drawn from ahadith implying a degree of flexibility in the wording of a verse so long as one does not conclude a verse of mercy with punishment, these inferences neglect the textual evidence which demonstrates an understanding on the part of the companions that they were to recite precisely as they were taught. For instance, the incident between Umar and Hisham ibn Hakim would never have occurred if there was an expectation that small variations were tolerable (which is the understanding of those who consider the Qurʾān akin to other compositions in oral cultures). It is precisely because the companions expected everything to be recited exactly as taught by the Prophet ﷺ that they were so cautious and a dispute occurred when they suspected a variation in reading that was not taught by the Prophet. When the Prophet ﷺ spoke of the seven aḥruf, he said “the Qurʾān was revealed according to seven aḥruf” or he said about a reading “this is how it was revealed,” and “thus Jibreel recited to me.”

Moreover, in response to these disputes, the Prophet ﷺ did not tell people to read as they pleased but rather told Ali to reiterate to people that each individual was to recite according to how he had learned.[103] Umar ibn al-Khattab said, “Qira’ah of the Qurʾān is a sunnah that one takes from one before him.”[104] Thus, any hadith that seems to imply flexibility in wording is taken to mean that flexibility exists in selecting one of the pre-specified Divinely revealed readings.

Al-Bayhaqi (d. 458 AH) states:

As for those reports which have been transmitted concerning the permissibility of reciting ghafur rahim in place of aleem hakeem, then it is because all of that is from what has been revealed in Wahy (revelation). So if one recites that phrase in other than its correct place so long as he does not conclude a verse of punishment with a verse of mercy or a verse of mercy with a verse of punishment, then it is as if he recited the verse of one surah with the verse of another so he would not be sinful according to that. And the basis is that qira’ah which was confirmed in the year the Prophet passed away after Jibreel reviewed the Qurʾān with him twice that year, and then the companions agreed upon its compilation between the covers of the mushaf.[105]

There is a hadith which is particularly explicit about the necessity of preserving the precise wording of the Qurʾān. It tells of a man from Banu al-Najjar who outwardly converted to Islam and used to write revelation for the Prophet ﷺ but made alterations; he would write samee’ ‘aleem when the Prophet dictated samee’ baseer and vice versa. He later publicly renounced the faith and claimed the Prophet knew nothing other than what he had written. When he died, his tribesmen attempted to bury him several times but would awaken the next day to find his body cast out by the earth. Eventually, they gave up trying to bury him and abandoned his corpse.[106] This would constitute the sternest warning in the Muslim tradition against making any alterations in the Qur’anic recitation or script.

Evidence suggests that the early Muslim community had the understanding of letter-for-letter preservation of the Qurʾān, rather than a notion of preservation and transmission by meaning. A story recounted by Yahya ibn Aktham (d. 242 AH) tells of a man who accepted Islam in the court of al-Ma’mun because of a test the man had invented to confirm the veracity of the faith. He had introduced subtle scribal errors into the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qurʾān and disseminated their copies; the first two went undetected while the copies of the Qurʾān containing errors were detected immediately. When Yahya told this story to Sufyan ibn Uyaynah (d. 198 AH), the latter confirmed that this is one of the unique features of the Qurʾān in contradistinction to previous scriptures which were entrusted to their respective nations to preserve, citing 5:44.[107]

As for the narrations regarding a companion reportedly criticizing a qira’ah, these narrations are readily understood to be based on what they were familiar with from the diverse readings of the Qurʾān. For instance, when Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas criticized a reading of Sa’eed ibn al-Musayyib, he did so because he did not think it came from the Prophet ﷺ.[108] When Uthman compiled the mushaf, when they wanted to record a verse they would specifically ask a person who heard it directly from the Prophet ﷺ, “How did the Prophet recite this verse to you?”[109] Thus, the narrations of criticizing other readings need to be understood in light of the companions’ zeal in establishing with certainty the correct reading and being stringent in accepting the validity of a reading, which is precisely the opposite of the laxity one would expect if the companions adopted qira’ah bil-ma’na. One of the clearest examples of this is an incident in which Umar ibn al-Khattab heard a variant reading from a man who stated he learned it from Ubayy ibn Ka’b. So Umar took the man to Ubayy and questioned Ubayy about whether he heard this verse directly from the Prophet ﷺ in this manner, to which Ubayy replied in the affirmative, “Yes, I learned it directly (talaqqi) from the Prophet.” However, Umar repeated the question multiple times, and on the third time, Ubayy became upset and said, “Yes I swear by Allah! Allah revealed it like this to Jibreel and revealed it to Muhammad, and He did not consult al-Khattab nor his son (i.e., Umar)!” Thereupon Umar left Ubayy, raising his hands in prayer saying, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.”[110]

In light of these narrations, it is clear that any narrations that suggest the substitution of words when a companion was teaching a Qurʾānic verse are to be understood as isolated cases of providing a rukhsa (concession) in circumstances when the student was unable to recite, memorize, or learn the original word. This is most evident in the story of Ibn Masʿūd or Abu al-Darda’ substituting ta’am al-fajir in place of ta’am al-atheem after the student continued to mistakenly recite ta’am al-yateem despite multiple attempts.[111] These incidents do not imply that the concession wording was then considered part of Allah’s Divine speech revealed in the Qurʾān.

Numerous classical scholars rejected the notion of qira’ah bil-ma’na in explicit terms, including al-Baghawi (d. 516 AH), Ibn Salāh al-Shahrazuri (d. 643 AH), Ibn al-Hājib al-Māliki (d. 646 AH), Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728  AH), Ibn al-Jazari (d. 832 AH), and al-Suyuti (d. 911 AH), among many others.[112] The early scholar Abu Bakr ibn al-Anbari (d. 328 AH) wrote concerning the narration from Anas ibn Malik (reciting aswabu qeela):

Some of those astray may resort to such reports to cast doubts and state: whoever recites according to a reading that conforms to the meaning of a ḥarf from the Qurʾān is correct so long as he does not contradict the meaning or bring forth other than what Allah intended and meant, and they use as proof this statement of Anas ibn Malik. And this argument is an empty claim that should not be relied upon nor should the one making it be paid any attention. And that is because if one were to recite according to words that differ with the wording of the Qurʾān despite approximating its meaning and general intent, then it would be permissible to recite in place of “al-hamdu lillāhi rabbil alamīn” the phrase “al-shukru lil-bārī malik al-makhluqīn.” And the flexibility in this regard would continue to increase until the entire wording of the Qurʾān was nullified and replaced with that which would be a fabrication upon God and a lie upon His Messenger.[113]

The quote from Ibn al-Anbarī raises an incredibly profound point about the notion of unrestricted qira’ah bil-ma’na. How can such qira’ah bil-ma’na even work? Why can’t someone recite “al-shukru lil-bārī malik al-makhluqīn”? It is very difficult to understand how the process can take place without any limits or parameters—in essence, it’s a game without rules. If the Qurʾān was being recited on a daily basis by thousands of people of diverse linguistic backgrounds and imperfect recollection, each with the license to alter its wording at will, there would be no consistency in public recitation and prayers, and no one would know whether to correct the imam’s recitation or not. There would be so much variability that the task of even assembling a fixed copy of the Qurʾān would be nigh impossible.[114] In order to even recite, memorize, and record something there must be a high degree of invariance and permanence. Moreover, we don’t have any statement from the Prophet ﷺ or any of the companions ever telling a learner that they had exceeded the limits or gone beyond the scope of what was acceptable variation.

We can learn as much from the places where qirā’āt agree as we can from where they differ. The qirā’āt traditions demonstrate an exceptionally high degree of invariance overall, despite containing multiple near-identical passages with subtle differences (mutashābihāt) that present as tremendously challenging to recall with precision without careful diligent memorization of the differences (e.g., 2:58-60 compared with 7:160-2, or compare 20:10, 27:7, and 28:29, or 26:41-5 versus 7:113-117). If variant readings were based on imperfect recall and transmission based on meaning, we should expect the greatest concentration of reported variants in such near-identical passages given that they are the hardest to remember precisely.

Does the foregoing discussion mean that any conception of qira’ah bil-ma’na is entirely without merit? To the contrary, the concept as it was discussed by the classical scholars raises some interesting questions and does suggest the possibility that, on some occasions, the companions would provide a “rukhsa reading” of sorts that was meant to assist someone unfamiliar with the words in a particular Qur’anic verse, but these readings were only an aid and did not become part of what was considered ‘God’s speech’ (kalām Allah), nor did they become the basis for widely recited qirā’āt in the Muslim world. Taken in this manner, this view becomes no different from the basic idea behind al-qirā’āt tafsīrīyyah.

Were all variations recited by the Prophet Muhammad ?

A final question might arise here as to what did the Prophet himself ﷺ read? Did he actually read all the usul from each of the canonical qirā’āt and the farsh as well?

1. With regard to usul, the Prophet ﷺ could have recited each principle (asl) of these usul in a few surahs or even in one surah, or it could have been that it was read to him and he gave his approval. For example, a companion whose dialect is imālah would naturally read to the Prophet in what he was accustomed to. However, one must have had the approval of the Prophet ﷺ before attempting to recite the Qurʾān according to their own dialect.[115]

2. As for farsh, the Prophet ﷺ would have recited each word in each of its different ways at least at some point in salah or in teaching sessions at least once during the course of his lifetime, as per qira’ah bil-talaqqī. However, different pronunciations of the same word would fall under the same category as usul as mentioned earlier by Abu’l-Layth al-Samarqandī.[116]

Conclusions: The origins of the qira’at

The qirā’āt that Muslims recite today have been transmitted through generations after generations of reciters with uninterrupted chains of transmission tracing back to the Prophet ﷺ, containing within them a mixture of the variation permitted according to the seven aḥruf. All of the accepted qirā’āt follow three basic rules:

1. Conformity to the consonantal skeleton of the ʿUthmānic mushaf.

2. Consistency with Arabic grammar.

3. Authentic chain of transmission.

Those qirā’āt that fall short of these conditions are shaadh (anomalous/irregular). This article has focused on elucidating how the Islamic tradition accounts for authentically established readings that do not meet the first condition above. The variant readings reported from companions that differ from the ʿUthmānic codex may represent either an abrogated or abandoned ḥarf, or they may represent a recitation containing word alterations for commentary or for facilitation for a learner. The vast and astounding detail with which the Islamic tradition discusses the diverse modes of recitation of the Qur’an is without a doubt unparalleled by any other book in the history of human civilization.

Today, Muslims continue to recite multiple canonical recitations that conform to the mushaf and have been transmitted by generations upon generations with unbroken chains of authority tracing to the Prophet ﷺ. To listen to the melodious Qur’ānic recitation in different readings is to experience it in the same mesmerizing manner with which it captured the hearts of its earliest audience.

[1] A rough approximation can be obtained by dividing those 703 places wherein a different reading is listed in the index to Ibn Mujahid’s Kitab al-Saba’ fil qirā’āt from the total number of words in the Qurʾān surpassing 77,400, in order to arrive at 0.9% of words with an alternative reading. For these numbers see Yasin Dutton, Orality, Literacy and the “Seven Aḥruf” Hadith. Journal of Islamic Studies 23:1 (2012), p. 10.

[2] The early scholar from Baghdad, Ibn Mujahid (d. 324 AH) is famous for enumerating seven acceptable modes of recitation in his work Kitab al-Sab’ fil-qirā’āt. He selected those readings that had become widely accepted, picking one reader for every major center of knowledge in the Muslim world (Mecca – Ibn Kathir, Damascus – Ibn Aamir, Basrah – Abu Amr, Madinah – Nafi’) except for Kufa, from which he chose three reciters (Asim, Hamzah, al-Kisa’i). There were many readings that were left out; for instance, Ibn al-Jazari (d. 833 AH) stated that the early scholar Abu Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Sallam (d. 224 AH) compiled 25 qira’at. Some scholars, including Ibn al-Jazari, took the list of seven from Ibn Mujahid and added three other reciters to form the canonical list of ten: Abu Ja’far from Madinah, Ya’qub from Basrah, and Khalaf from Kufa.

[3] Both M. M. Al-A’zami and Yasin Dutton note the inadequacy of the term ‘variant’ for the Qurʾān, given that there is not a singular fixed original, but rather the original itself is “multiformic” to use Dutton’s terminology. See Yasin Dutton, Orality, Literacy and the “Seven Aḥruf” Hadith. Journal of Islamic Studies 23:1 (2012), pp. 1–49; also see M. M. Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation. UK Islamic Academy. (Leicester: 2003), pp. 154-5. Acknowledging this point, the term is used in the present article to signify a reading that does not conform to the Uthmanic recension. Shady Hekmat Nasser terms such readings ‘anomalous’ and uses the term ‘irregular’ for those readings that are deficient in transmission or grammar, while both are referred to as shaadh in Arabic (Nasser, The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾān: The problem of tawatur and the emergence of Shawa’dhdh. Brill Academic Publishers 2003, p. 16).

[4] Sadeghi & Goudarzi, “San’a’ 1 and the Origins of the Qurʾān,” Der Islam 87, No. 1-2 (February 2012) 1-129. For this categorization, pp. 3-4.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Ibid.; see also Motzki, H. Alternative accounts of the Qur’ān’s formation. In J. McAuliffe (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān (Cambridge Companions to Religion). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006, pp. 59-76.

[7] Sinai, Nicolai. “When Did the Consonantal Skeleton of the Quran Reach Closure? Part II.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 77, no. 3, 2014, pp. 509–521.

[8] See for instance: Ameri, Sami. Hunting for the Word of God. Thoughts of Light Publishing, (Minneapolis 2013); M. M. Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation. UK Islamic Academy. (Leicester: 2003); Shalabi, Abd al-Fattah. Rasm al-Mushaf al-Uthmani wa Awham al-Mustashriqin fi Qira’at al-Qur’an al-Karim. Cairo: Maktabah Wahbah 1999; Muhammad Mohar Ali, The Quran and the Orientalists (Norwich: Jamiyat Ihyaa Minhaaj al-Sunnah, 2004). The alternative narrative is discussed below in the section on qira’ah bil-ma’na.

[9] It is anticipated that the present article will form the first in a trilogy with two subsequent articles examining the ʿUthmānic variants and the post-ʿUthmānic readings respectively.

[10] Sahih Bukhari, 3. Online.

[11] Qur’an 16:102.

[12] Sahih Bukhari, 6. Online.

[13] M. M. Al-A’zami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation, pp. 64-65. Al-A’zami lists no fewer than 39 companions by name who memorized the Qur’an directly from the Prophet ﷺ, and this list evidently includes only the most famous who lived to teach others as the names of those who died in Bi’r Ma’unah and Yamamah have not been preserved.

[14] Sahih Bukhari, 4090. Online.

[15] Sahih Bukhari, 5027. Online.

[16] Al-A’zami, p. 68.

[17] In addition to being recorded in almost all the canonical six works (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, al-Nasa’i), the seven aḥruf narrations are found in numerous early works including the Jami’ of Ma’mar ibn Rashid (d. 153 AH), Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas (d. 179 AH), the Musnad of Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi (d. 204 AH), Musnad al-Humaydi (d. 219 AH), Musannaf ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 AH) and the Musnad of Imam Ahmad (d. 241 AH). Given the voluminous transmitted reports from the earliest era, the fact that the earliest Muslim community understood the Qurʾān to be a multiform recitation cannot be logically disputed even by the most skeptical historian.

[18] A comprehensive study of the narrations demonstrates that it was reported by no fewer than 23 companions through numerous diverse chains. See Abdul-Aziz al-Qari’, Hadith al-Aḥruf al-Sab’ – Dirasat Isnadihi wa Matnihi wa Ikhtilaf al-Ulama fi Ma’nahu wa Silatihi bil-qirā’āt al-Qurʾāniyyah. (Beirut 2002). Resalah Publishers.

[19] Sahih Bukhari, 4991, Kitab Fadai’l al-Qurʾān. Hadith of seven aḥruf are cited in no fewer than four books within Sahih Bukhari.

[20] Jami’ al-Tirmidhi Vol. 5, Book 43, Hadith 2944, online.

[21] Ibn Qutaybah, Ta’wīl Mushkil al-Qurʾān, Cairo 1973, pp. 38-40; see also Abu-Shamah, al-Murshid al-Wajeez, 90.

[22] Sahih al-Bukhari, 5041, online.

[23] For further details, see Makki Ibn Abi Talib: al-Ibanah, 71-79; Abu-Shamah: al-Murshid al-Wajeez, 91-111; Az-Zarkashi: al-Burhan, 1:213-227; Ibn al-Jazarī: an-Nashr, 1:21-31; Abdul Aziz Qāri’: Hadith al-Aḥruf As-Sab’ah; Ghanim Al-Hamad: al-Ajwibah al-‘ilmiyyah ‘ala As’ilat Multaqa Ahl At-Tafseer.

[24] Taqi Uthmani, An Approach to the Qur’anic Sciences. Darul Ishaat (Karachi 2007), pp. 105-165; Ahmad Ali Al-Imam. Variant Readings of the Qurʾān. IIIT (London 2006); M. M. Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation. UK Islamic Academy. (Leicester: 2003) 152-164; Abu Ammar Yasir Qadhi, An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’aan. Al-Hidaayah Publications (Birmingham: 1999), pp. 172-202.

[25] See Ibn al-Jazari: An-Nashr, 1:27; As-Suyuti: al-Itqan, 1:313-314.

[26] In our time, shawādh has been used as a designation for all qirā’āt other than the 10 canonical qirā’āt. The formal classical definition is those readings that lack one of three criteria: 1. Authentic transmission; 2. Conformity to the ʿUthmānic skeletal text; 3. Concordance with conventional Arabic grammar.

[27] For a list of these variants see ‘Abdul-Latīf al-Khatīb. Mu’jam al-qirā āt, Damascus; (Dār Sad-ad-Din 2002) vol. 6, p. 315. No. 1 variant 2 is read by Abū Sawwār al-Ghunawī and Abu’l-Jawzā’, no. 2 variant 2 by ʿĀṣim al-Jaḥdarī and Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, no. 2 variant 3 by Mu’ādh Abū Ḥulaymah and Abū Nahik, no. 3 variant 2 by Adham al-Sadūsī, and no. 4 variant 2 by Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr.

[28] Ibn ʿAbdul-Barr, al-Tamhīd li mā fi al-Muwaṭṭa min al-Maʿāni wal-asānīd. Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah. Vol. 8, pp. 301-2. Accessed online. Shady Hekmat Nasser also adopts a similar approach, pp. 29-30.

[29] Sahih Ibn-Hibban, Kitāb al-Raqā’iq, Bāb qirā’āt al-Qur’ān, 747, online.

[30] Sahih Muslim, 403, online.

[31] Ibn Mujahid. Kitab al-Sab’ah fil-Qira’at, p. 51.

[32] Sahih Bukhari 4987, online.

[33] For a discussion on this point, see M. M. Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation,  p. 97.

[34] Abdullah ibn Mas’ud was praised for his recitation by the Prophet ﷺ, being one of the four from whom the Prophet told others to learn the Qurʾān (alongside Salim, Mu’adh, and Ubayy ibn Ka’b – Sahih Bukhari 4999), and being one whose recitation was described “as fresh as it how was revealed” (Sunan ibn Majah 143, online).

[35] Ibn Mujahid, Kitab al-Sab’ah fil-Qira’at. Edited by Shawqi Dayf. Dar al-Ma’arif (Cairo 1972), p. 67. See also Ghanim Qaduri al-Hamad, Rasm al-Mushaf – Dirasah Lughawiyah Tarikhiyyah, (Baghdad 1982), p. 623; and Ramon Harvey, The Legal Epistemology of Qur’anic Variants: The Readings of Ibn Masʿūd in Kufan fiqh and the Ḥanafī madhhab. Journal of Qur’anic Studies 19.1 (2017): 72-101, p. 20, endnote 8.

[36] Sahih Bukhari, 3742, online.

[37] Sahih Bukhari 4727, online.

[38] Sahih Bukhari 4971 online, Sahih Muslim 208a online. Al-Nawawi (d. 671 AH) and al-Qurtubi (d .676 AH) both stated that this was a revealed verse that was abrogated (see Sharh Sahih Muslim 3/82, and Tafsir al-Qurtubi 13/142). Al-Kirmani (d. 796 AH) adds the possibility of it being tafsir (Sharh al-Kirmani ala Sahih al-Bukhari, Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah Beirut 1971, vol. 9, p. 211).

[39] Al-Tāsān, Muḥammad ibn Abdul-Raḥmān. Al-Masāḥif al-Mansuba lil-Saḥābah wal-radd ʿalā shubuhat al-muthārah. Dar al-Tadmuriyyah. Riyadh 2016.

[40] Variant readings that differ from the ʿUthmānic codex must be studied by hadith standards because, unlike the qirā’āt, they have not been transmitted by the ritual practice of one generation of Muslims from the next, but rather only as isolated reports. The successively transmitted uninterrupted living oral tradition has always been the primary factor in establishing the validity of one’s recitation.

[41] While the 540 reported variants likely overestimates the quantity, the 20 variants with an authentic chain of transmission likely underestimates it due to the fact that some of the other variants are demonstrated in manuscripts.

[42] In their 2012 essay studying folios of the lower text, Benham Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi write: “The lower writing of Ṣan‘ā’ 1 clearly falls outside the standard [Uthmanic] text type. It belongs to a different text type, which we call C-1… Ṣan‘ā’ 1 constitutes direct documentary evidence for the reality of the non-‘Uthmānic text types that are usually referred to as “Companion codices…C-1 confirms the reliability of much of what has been reported about the other Companion codices not only because it shares some variants with them, but also because its variants are of the same kinds as those reported for those codices.” (Sadeghi and Goudarzi, pp. 17-20). They also note that since the Uthmanic mushaf always agrees with either C-1 or Ibn Masʿūd’s text (i.e., it is always in the majority) in the case of difference, this suggests either that it was compiled from a critical examination of other textual sources or that it is the most faithful reproduction of the Prophetic prototype (pp. 21-22). Both of these scenarios are entirely consistent with what the Muslim tradition states.

[43] His father is of course none other than the famous Abu Dāwud al-Sijistāni (d. 275 AH) who compiled the Sunan.

[44] Ibn Abi Dāwud, Kitāb al-Masāhif. Edited by Muhib al-Din Wa’iz. Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah (Beirut 2002).  Vol. 2, p. 284.

[45] Al-Tāsān, Al-Masāhif, pp .63-64.

[46] Al-Tāsān, Masahif al-Sahabah. Lecture at Tafsir Centre for Qur’anic studies, Riyadh SA. April 11, 2018. Accessed online.

[47] Ibn al-Nadim, Kitib al-Fihrist, ed. Rida Tajadud (Teheran: 1971), p. 29.

[48] M. M. Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation, p. 215.

[49] Ibid., p. 199.

[50] Al-Qurtubi. Al-Jami li-Ahkam al-Qurʾān. Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah (Beirut 1971) Vol. 1, p. 81. Also online.

[51] Ibid. Amongst Muslim scholars, there are broadly three views with respect to addressing these narrations that Ibn Masʿūd did not include these chapters in his mushaf. The first group of scholars including Ibn Hazm, al-Nawawi, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, and others, rejected these narrations entirely. The second group of scholars accepts the validity of these narrations while interpreting them in a different light, for instance suggesting Ibn Masʿūd had not personally heard the Prophet recite them in salah, as Sufyan Ibn Uyaynah said. The third group of scholars states that he left them out due to their widely known status, as mentioned by al-Baqillani, al-Zarkashi, al-Bayhaqi, Abu’l-Fadl al-Rāzī in addition to the others cited in this article. For a discussion of the subject, see al-Tāsān, al-Masāhif, pp. 390-397.

[52] Cited in Al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim. Dar al-Khayr 1996. Online.

[53] Muhammad Abdul-Adhim al-Zarqani. Manahil al-Irfan fi Ulum al-Qurʾān. Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyyah 2013, Vol. 1, p. 200. See also the discussion of Theodor Nöldeke who argues on the basis of stylistic features that this invocation clearly does not match the Qurʾānic style; Nöldeke, Theodor, Friedrich Schwally, Gotthelf Bergsträsser, O Pretzl, and Wolfgang Behn. The History of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, 2013, pp. 241-2.

[54] Ibn Hazm, al-Muhalla. Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiya. (Beirut 2003), Vol. 1, p. 32. See also Al-Zarkashī, al-Burhān fī ʿUlum al-Qurʾān. Dār al-Turāth.  (Cairo 1984), Vol. 2, p. 128; and M. M. Al-Azamī, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation, p. 201.

[55] See Justin Parrott, Abrogated rulings in the Qur’an – Discerning their Divine wisdom. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.

[56] Sahih Muslim 1452a, online. This narration refers to the extent of infant breastfeeding that is sufficient to establish a familial relationship under Islamic rulings.

[57] Sahih Muslim, 630, online.

[58] Sahih Bukhari, 3554. Online.

[59] Sahih Bukhari, 4998. Online.

[60] For a detailed review see, Nasir ibn Sa’ud al-Qithami, Al-Ardah al-Akheerah: Dalalatuha wa Atharuha, 2013, Mallah Ma’had al-Imam al-Shatibi li-Dirasah al-Qurʾāniyyah, no.15.

[61] Mustadrak al-Hakim, 2959. Online.

[62] Sunan Sa’eed ibn Mansur, Dar al-Samee’ (Riyadh 1993), vol. 1, p. 239.

[63] Ibn al-Jazari, al-Nashr fi’l-Qira’at al-`Ashar, 1/7, as cited in al-Qithami 2013, p. 30.

[64] Ibn al-Jazari, al-Nashr, 1/25, as cited in al-Qithami 2013, p. 30.

[65] Osama Alhaiany. Al-Ardah al-Akheerah lil-Qurʾān al-Kareem wal-Ahadith al-Waridah fiha jam’an wa dirasah. Al-Majallah al-Ulum al-Islamiyyah, no. 10, p. 67.

[66] Al-Baghawi. Sharh al-Sunnah. Beirut: Al-Maktab Al-Islami 1983. vol. 4, pp. 525-6. Witnessing the final review would attest to Zaid’s merit in leading the committee commissioned by Uthman. However, Ibn ʿAbbās has a statement reported from him that states that Abdullah ibn Mas’ud attended al-arḍah al-akhīrah (Musnad Ahmad 5/141). If both Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and Zaid attended, then it doesn’t make sense why Ibn Masʿūd would have variant readings from that which was established by Zaid in the ʿUthmānic codex. And if ʿAbdullah attended and Zaid did not, then why would the sahabah unanimously adopt a codex that did not match al-arḍah al-akhīrah? Abu Ja’far al-Nahhas answers that since the reading of ʿAsim comes from Abdullah ibn Masʿūd, we know that Ibn Masʿūd did not only teach and recite in one ḥarf, rather he also had the same ḥarf as Zaid in addition to one that differed. See Al-Nahhas, al-Nasikh wal-Mansukh, p. 484. On ʿAsim’s transmission, see Al-Tahawi, Tuhfat al-Akhyar bi-Tartib Mushkil al-Athar, ed. Khalid Mahmud al-Rabat, Dar al-Balansiyya, vol. 8, p. 435.

[67] Ibn Taymiyyah, Fatawa al-Kubra, 13/395.

[68] See section ‘Codices of companions’ above. Sahih Bukhari, 3742, online.

[69] Al-Tabarī, Ibn Jarīr, Tafsīr al-Tabarī, ed. Al-Turkī. Dar Hijr, vol. 1, pp. 59-60.

[70] Makki ibn Abi Talib, al-Ibānah. Dar Nahdah Misr, 1977,  p. 42.

[71] Al-Baqillani, al-Intisār 1/153. He mentions as an example the reading “salāt al-asr” in 2:238.

[72] Abu Hayyan, Al-Bahr al-Muhit, 7/25.

[73] Sunan al-Tirmidhi, 3314, online.

[74] Al-Nawawi. Sharh Sahih Muslim. Dar al-Khayr, 1996,  p. 430. Online.

[75] Ibn al-Jazari. Al-Nashr fil-Qira’at al-Ashar. 1/44.

[76] Related in Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qurʾān, Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah (Beirut 1971), vol.1, p. 61. See also, Ghanim Qaduri al-Hamad. Muhadarat fi Ulum al-Qurʾān,  p. 145.

[77] Al-Nahhas, I’rab al-Qurʾān. Vol. 1, p. 321. Online. Note however the previously mentioned narration concerning this being an abrogated reading: Sahih Muslim, 630, online.

[78] Reported in Sunan Sa’eed ibn Mansur (d. 227 AH) according to Al-Suyuti, al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qurʾān. Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi. 1999. Vol, p. 263. Online.

[79] Abdul Jalil. Dhahiratul Ibdal fi Qira’at Abdullah ibn Mas’ud wa qeematuha altafsiryyah. Journal of Qur’anic Studies 15.1 (2013): 168–213, p. 210.

[80] Sunan al-Tirmidhi, online.

[81] Mustadrak al-Hākim, 4/392; also Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qurʾān, Dar al-Fikr, vol. 16, p. 138. Online. The viewpoint adopted by Al-Zarqani is that Ibn Masʿūd selected another revealed ḥarf that was easier for the man to recite (Manahil al-Irfan 1/133).

[82] Taqi Uthmani. An Approach to the Qur’anic Sciences. Darul Ishaat (Karachi 2007), pp. 249-251.

[83] The theories of qira’ah bil-talaqqī and qira’ah bil-ma’na are explanations of how new readings emerged, while the concepts of abandoned ḥarf and abrogated ḥarf are explanations for how readings ceased to exist. On the supposition of qira’ah bil-ma’na, the abandoned ḥarf explanation would naturally be adopted.

[84] Dutton, Orality, pp. 32-4.

[85] Reported by al-Dhahabī in Siyar A’lam al-Nubala 1/347. Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī was known to have permitted transmission of Hadith based on meaning (riwayah bil-ma’na), however he also commented on the famous seven aḥruf hadith by saying, “It has reached me that these seven aḥruf are basically one in meaning, they do not differ about what is permissible or prohibited” (Sahih Muslim 819a, online). Taken together with his previous statement, it may be that he considered the seven aḥruf tradition to essentially be the Prophet’s way of describing qira’ah bil-ma’na. The other possibility is that he was simply referring to the fact that revealed aḥruf use taqdim wal-ta’khir in Divine speech so there is no reason why human speech cannot.

[86] Taḥāwī, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, ed. Shu’ayb al-Arnaut, 16 vols. (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Risalah, 1994), vol 8, p118.

[87] “And it is possible that in the beginning of Islam it was legislated for people to exchange one ḥarf for another for instance instead of aleem qadeer using ghafur raheem, and then it was abrogated after that.” Al-Baqillani, Al-Intisar 1/370.

[88] After quoting the incident of Abu Darda teaching a man to recite ta’am al-faajir, al-Zamakhshari writes, “And this is used to prove the permissibility of exchanging one word for another so long as it gives the same meaning.” He goes on to use this as an explanation for Abu Hanifah permitting recitation in Persian. Al-Zamakhshari, Al-Kashaf, Dar al-Marefah, Beirut 2009, p. 1003.

[89] See Abul-Layth As-Samarqandi. Bustān al-ʿArifīn, chapter 29, concerning revelation of the Qurʾān in 7 aḥruf, manuscript from Thomas Fisher Arabic collection, University of Toronto, accessed online; see also Az-Zarkashi: al-Burhan, 1:326-327.

[90] Abu Shāmah. Al-Murshid al-Wajeez ila Ulum tata’alaq bil-Kitab al-Aziz. Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah. Beirut 2003, p. 105. See also p. 85 where Abu Shāmah states the ʿUthmānic recension was based only on the revealed wording (lafdh al-munazzal) and not the substituted synonym words (lafdh al-muradif).

[91] Abu Shaamah, p. 109. The quote from al-Baghawi reads, “The meaning of these aḥruf is not that every group reads according to what matches their dialect without instruction (min ghayri tawqeef) but rather all of these huruf are mentioned (mansusah) and all of them are the speech of God (kalam Allah) with which the trustworthy spirit (i.e., Jibreel) descended upon the Prophet.” (al-Baghawi, Sharh al-Sunnah, Maktabah Islami, Beirut 1983, vol. 4, p. 509).

[92] Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari. Dar al-Taybah 2005, Vol. 11, p. 191. Commenting on Ibn Hajar’s quote, Dr. Abdul-Haadi Hameetu supports this view and states this concession was present until the unanimous consensus of the companions on the ʿUthmānic codex. Hameetu, Ikhtilaf al-qirā’āt wa Atharuhu fi al-Tafsir wa Istinbat al-Ahkam, p. 40.

[93] In addition to the above questions, there are other matters of uncertainty in the theory of qira’ah bil-ma’na. Did the Prophet ﷺ himself recite according to meaning? Was the primary impetus for reciting according to meaning the fact that a companion had an imperfect recollection of how the verse was recited by the Prophet and, thus, if they had recourse to a written parchment, would they subsequently revert back to the Prophet’s reading?

[94] Arabic translation of Ignaz Goldziher’s work by ‘Abdul-Halim Najjar, Madhahib at-Tafsir al-Islami; Cairo, 1955. In his doctoral dissertation, Shady Hekmat Nasser claims (p. 7) that Ibn Attiyah “openly embraces” this view that the canonical readings are not of Divine or Prophetic origin but rather “the result of the Readers’ interpretation (ijtihad) of the defective Uthmanic consonantal script.” However, in the provided reference, Ibn Atiyyah actually says nothing of the sort. What Ibn Atiyyah actually says is that the seven canonical readers used their ijtihad to select whatever variation from the aḥruf they found would conform to the mushaf, not that the variation itself was invented by ijtihad. Ijtihad was thus in selection, not invention. See Ibn Atiyyah, al-Muharrar al-Wajeez, (Beirut 2001), vol. 1, p. 48.

[95] See, for instance, M. M. Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation. UK Islamic Academy. (Leicester: 2003), pp. 155-159.

[96] Sunan Abi Dawud, 1477, online.

[97] Mustadrak al-Hakim, 4/392.

[98] Musnad Abu Ya’la, 4022. Ibn Jinni (d. 392 AH) discusses this and many other examples. While discussing the variant reading ascribed to Anas ibn Malik for 9:57 and Anas’ statement that yajmahun, yajmazun, and yashtadun mean the same thing, Ibn Jinni states, “And the apparent meaning of this is that the salaf would recite one letter in place of another without a precedent simply on the basis of agreement in meaning. […]However, giving the benefit of the doubt to Anas would entail believing that a reading had already preceded with these three words—yajmahun, yajmazun, yasthadun—so it was said ‘Recite with any that you wish.’ So all of them constitute a reading heard from the Prophet due to his saying, ‘The Qurʾān has been revealed on seven aḥruf, all of them healing and sufficient.’” (Ibn Jinni, al-Muhtasib, vol. 1, p. 296).

[99] For a comprehensive discussion of these reports, refer to Hamzah Awad, Shart Muwafaqah al-Rasm al-Uthmani. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Batna, Algeria, 2014, pp.124-138. If authentic, these reports are simply understood to relate to them expressing a preference for the reading they learned directly from the Prophet ﷺ over a reading they were unfamiliar with.

[100] Sahih Bukhari, 4695, online. Ibn Hajar explains that she was likely unfamiliar with the interpretation of the other reading (Fath al-Bari, Dar al-Rayan li-Turath 1986, p. 218, online).

[101] Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Tafsir, Dar al-Ma’arif, vol. 23, p. 109. Online. Ibn Abdul-Barr (d. 463 AH) comments that Ali considered the ʿUthmānic reading to be a valid revealed reading but was expressing a preference for the reading he had learned (Al-Tamheed, Egypt 1967, vol. 8, p. 297; See also Hamzah Awad, p. 138).

[102] In verse 17:5, it is stated that Abu’l-Sammal al-Adawi recited “fahaasu” with a ح instead of ج and when asked about it stated that they meant the same thing. Ibn Jinni (d. 392 AH) states, “And this indicates that some of the reciters would choose readings without precedent (yatakhayyar bi-la riwayah)” (Ibn Jinni, al-Muhtasib, Cairo 1966, vol. 2, p. 15). However, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606 AH) states about this variant, “It is necessary to understand that as him mentioning it as tafsir of the words of the Qurʾān, not that he actually made it part of the Qurʾān, since if we were to adopt what Ibn Jinni says it would entail no longer relying on the wording of the Qurʾān and it would permit each individual to express a meaning using a word they thought was concordant with that meaning and then either being correct in that belief or erring, and this is an attack on the Qurʾān, so it is evident that we must understand it according to what we have mentioned” (al-Razi, Tafsir al-Fakhr al-Razi, Dar al-Fikr, 1981, vol. 30, p. 177).

[103] Sahih Ibn Hibban, 747.

[104] Ibn Mujahid, Kitab al-Sab’ah fil-qirā’āt, p. 51. Similar statements have been related from Zaid ibn Thabit (Sunan al-Kubra of al-Bayhaqi, 3900 online) and Urwah ibn al-Zubayr (Kitab al-Fada’il, Abu Ubayd, p. 361).

[105] Sunan al-Kubra, 2/539.

[106] The essence of the story is in Sahih Bukhari 3617 online; however, the details of the man substituting words are found in Musnad Ahmad (13312), Sahih Ibn Hibban (751), Musnad Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi (2119),  among other sources.

[107] Al-Qurtubi, al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qurʾān, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah. Beirut, 1971, vol.10, p. 6, online. al-Bayhaqi, Dala’il al-Nubuwwa, vol. 7, p. 159, also online.

[108] Sa’d said, “Verily the Qurʾān was not revealed to ibn al-Musayyib nor his family.” Sunan al-Kubra of al-Nasa’i 10996, Sunan Sa’id ibn Mansur 1/597.

[109] Al-Tahawi, Mushkil al-Athar, 8/132-3.

[110] Mustadrak al-Hakim 5381, online. In another narration, we find that Umar considered some of Ubayy’s variant readings to have been abrogated. Umar said, “Ubayy is the best of us in recitation yet we leave some of what he recites. Ubayy says, ‘I have taken it from the mouth of Allah’s messenger so I will not leave it for anything.’ However, Allah says {We do not abrogate or cause a revelation to be forgotten except that we bring that which is better than it.}” (Sahih Bukhari 5005, online). As Ibn Hajar explains, Umar is implying that Ubayy may not have been aware of a reading’s abrogation (Fath al-Bari, Riyadh, 2001, vol. 8, p. 17).

[111] Mustadrak al-Hakim, 4/392. This is analogous to the Prophet ﷺ permitting one who cannot recite any Qurʾān to simply repeat SubhanAllah (Glory be to God) or Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God) instead. See Sunan Abi Dawud, 832, online.

[112] See Ibn Salah, Fatawa wa Masa’il Ibn al-Salah, vol. 1, p. 233; Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu’ al-Fatawa, Dar El-Wafaa 2005, vol. 13, p. 214; Ibn al-Jazari, al-Nashr fi’l-Qira’at al-Ashar vol. 1, p. 32; al-Suyuti, al-Itqan, Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi 1999,  vol. 1, p. 263; al-Zarkashi, al-Burhan fi Ulum al-Qur’an, vol. 1, pp. 332-3 who cites Ibn al-Hajib.

[113] Al-Qurtubi, Jami li-Ahkam al-Qurʾān. Al-Resalah Publishers, 2006. Vol. 21, pp. 329-330. He also points out that the narration from Anas being used as proof is in fact a weak narration due to a disconnection in the chain.

[114] Adrian Brockett writes, “Thus, if the Qur’an had been transmitted only orally for the first century, sizeable variations between texts such as are seen in the hadith and pre-Islamic poetry would be found and if it had been transmitted only in writing, sizeable variations such as in the different transmissions of the original document of the Constitution of Medina would be found. But neither is the case with the Qur’an.” Brockett, A. “The Value of the Hafs and Warsh Traditions for the Textual History of the Qur’an,” in Andrew Rippin’s (Ed.), Approaches to The History of Interpretation of The Qur’an, 1988, Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 44.

[115] See Ibn-Taymiyyah: Jamai’ al-Masa’il, vol. 1, p. 133.

[116] Discussed under the section ‘Critiquing a different paradigm: Qira’ah bil-Ma’na’.

Disclaimer: The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in these papers and articles are strictly those of the authors. Furthermore, Yaqeen does not endorse any of the personal views of the authors on any platform. Our team is diverse on all fronts, allowing for constant, enriching dialogue that helps us produce high-quality research.

Yaqeen™, used under license by Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Canada

Nazir Khan

GUEST CONTRIBUTOR | Imam Ammar Khatib is a scholar of the Qur'anic sciences and specialist in Arabic linguistics. He has written many treatises on matters related to qira’at and the Qur'anic text, and has collaborated closely with Dr. Ghanim Qaduri al-Hamad, one of the foremost specialists in Qur'anic studies in the Muslim world. He is a volunteer Imam in Winnipeg and consultant for the Manitoba Islamic Association Fiqh Committee.

Ammar Khatib

GUEST CONTRIBUTOR | Imam Ammar Khatib is a scholar of the Qur'anic sciences and specialist in Arabic linguistics. He has written many treatises on matters related to qira’at and the Qur'anic text, and has collaborated closely with Dr. Ghanim Qaduri al-Hamad, one of the foremost specialists in Qur'anic studies in the Muslim world. He is a volunteer Imam in Winnipeg and consultant for the Manitoba Islamic Association Fiqh Committee.