Can the Qur’an Be Recited in Different Ways? The Meaning and Wisdom of Qira’at
The hadith of the seven aḥruf and the origins of the qirāʾāt
The reality, and the benefit, of the differences among the aḥruf established by the Prophet ﷺ is that they are differences of complementation and harmony, not contradiction or inconsistency. Indeed, [contradiction or inconsistency] cannot possibly exist in the speech of Allah.6
There is no doubt that the [different] tribes would visit the Prophet ﷺ and he used to translate to each in their dialect. He would elongate [the lone vowels up to] one, two, and three vowels for those whose dialect was like that. He would also perform emphatic pronunciation (tafkhīm) for those whose dialect was like that, perform softening (tarqīq) for those whose dialect was like that, and inclination imālah for those whose dialect was like that.13
The canonization of the qirāʾāt
- 1st century: the final compilation of the Qur’an
- 1st-2nd century: ikhtiyār: standardizing the qirāʾāt selection process
- 3rd century: establishing criteria for authentic readings
- 4th century: the standardization of seven readings
- 5th century: the ten qirāʾāt and their transmitters
1st century (622 – 719 CE): The final compilation of the Qur’an
1st-2nd century (719 CE – 816 CE): Ikhtiyār (Standardizing the qirāʾāt selection process)
3rd century (816 CE – 913 CE): Establishing criteria for authentic readings
everyone who adopted a ḥarf, from the recognized imams who are known for their [commitment to the] sunnah and their following of the past sharia scholars, based his ikhtiyār on [those three criteria]… whoever did not abide by any of the three conditions in his ikhtiyār, it was not accepted nor deliberated on by the people of al-Sunnah wal-Jamāʿah.24
4th century (913 CE – 1009 CE): The standardization of seven qirāʾāt
the Qur'anic reading adopted by the people of Medina, Mecca, Kufa, Basra, and Shām is the reading which they orally received from their predecessors. One man from each of these regions, who learnt from the successors, was committed to that reading and all of the public and the elite agreed on his reading, followed his mode of recitation, and abided by his methodology.29
5th century (1009 CE – 1106 CE): The ten qirāʾāt and their transmitters
- Nāfiʿ (Medina – Isfahan Persian descendant: d. 169/785) was a Black public inspector known for his sense of humor. Imam Mālik called him the “Imam of the People” in Qur’anic recitation.32 Nāfiʿ described his method of developing his mode of recitation: “I read the Qur’an to 70 from the tābiʿīn and I scrutinized [them]; what two of them [or more] agreed on, I adopted it, and what was transmitted by only one of them, I abandoned it.”33 While reciting the Qur’an, the smell of musk would reportedly emanate from his mouth. He denied perfuming his mouth and explained that the scent started appearing after a dream in which he saw the Prophet ﷺ reciting into his mouth.34
- Ibn Kathīr (Mecca – Persian descendant: d. 120/737)35 was a tall, brown-skinned apothecary and scholar of hadith and law appointed as a judge in Mecca. According to Ibn Mujāhid (d. 324/936), the people of Mecca agreed on adopting Ibn Kathīr’s reading. Among the Prophet’s companions who Ibn Kathīr met and directly learned from are ʿAbdullāh ibn al-Zubayr, Anas ibn Mālik, and Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī. Imam al-Shāfiʿī adopted Ibn Kathīr’s reading and said, “Whoever seeks perfection [in reciting], let them recite by Ibn Kathīr’s reading.”36 Ibn Kathīr’s teaching style was to prepare students by admonishing them, in order for the Qur’an to have the most effect on them.37
- Abū ʿAmr (Basra – native Arab from Banū Ḥanīfa: d. 154/770) was a leading scholar of hadith and Arabic. He was known among the qurrāʾ as the one who traveled the most with the largest number of diverse teachers. Abū ʿAmr read the Qur’an with another three of the ten qurrāʾ: Ibn Kathīr, ʿĀṣim, and Abū Jaʿfar. Sufyān ibn ʿUyaynah related that he saw the Prophet ﷺ in a dream and asked him as in which reading he should recite and the Prophet ﷺ answered, ‘The reading of Abū ʿAmr.38
- Ibn ʿĀmir (Damascus – native Arab and a descendant of Yaḥṣub: d. 118/736) was known in the Levant as ‘The Imam.’ He was born, arguably, a few years after the Hijrah. Although he did not see or meet with the Prophet ﷺ, he obtained the highest Qur’anic isnād among the ten qurrāʾ, with only one link to the Prophet. He learned directly from the companions including al-Mughīrah ibn Shihāb al-Makhzūmī and Abū al-Dardāʾ. Ibn ʿĀmir ranked highly among Abū al-Dardāʾ’s 1600 students and assumed Abū al-Dardāʾ’s teaching position after his death. As a result, Ibn ʿĀmir became the imam and the chief qārī of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus during the time of ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, who used to pray behind him. Ibn ʿĀmir was also appointed as the judge of the city, then the capital of the Caliphate.
- ʿĀṣim (Kufa – mawlā of the clan of Banū Asad: d. 127/745) was born during the Prophet’s life and had met 24 companions. He was blind and had one of the best voices of recitation. His reading was influenced by the readings of Ibn Masʿūd and ʿAlī, because he would review with a primary student of Ibn Masʿūd, Zirr b. Ḥubaysh, after his session with a primary student of ʿAlī, al-Sulamī.39 ʿĀṣim inherited the teaching position of Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī, the chief qārī of Kufa for 40 years from the time of ʿUthmān to the governorship of al-Ḥajjāj. According to ʿĀṣim’s student Shuʿbah, who witnessed ʿĀṣim on his deathbed, ʿĀṣim kept repeating the verse, “Then all are restored to Allah, their true protector” while fainting and waking.40 Shuʿbah said, “I knew that the recitation of the Qur’an was just a natural quality of his.”41
- Ḥamzah al-Zayyāt (Kufa – mawlā of the clan of Taym: d. 156/722) was a merchant of oil (hence the title al-Zayyāt) and the leading qārī in Kufa after al-Aʿmash and ʿĀṣim. Sufyān al-Thawrī, praising Hamzah’s reading, attested that “he did not read a single ḥarf without depending on transmission.”42 His reading was reportedly the most common reading in the mosques of Kufa. 43 Imām Abū Ḥanīfa, a contemporary of Ḥamzah, testified that he was superior to him in qirāʾāt and inheritance law.44 Ḥamzah never accepted any compensation for Qur’anic teaching, a principle he said was grounded in his pursuit of the firdaws (highest level in Jannah).45 A student once offered him cold water on an extremely hot day, but Ḥamzah rejected it because he was teaching him Qur’an.46
- Al-Kisāʾī (Kufa – Persian descendant and mawlā of the clan of Banū Asad: d. 189/804) was a leading grammarian appointed as the chief qārī of Kufa after Ḥamzah, who was his teacher and with whom he did ʿarḍ of the Qur’an four times. Countless students would attend Al-Kisāʾī’s classes, where he would sit on his chair and read the entire Qur’an while students corrected their reading and pronunciation according to his recitation.47 Al-Kisāʾī was seen in a dream after his death and was asked, “What did Allah do to you?” He replied, “He forgave me for [the sake of] the Qur’an.” Then, he was asked, “What did He do to Ḥamzah?” He said, “He is in ʿilliyyīn [the most exalted places]. We do not see him except as we see the stars.”48
- Abū Jaʿfar (Medina – mawlā of the clan of Makhzūm: d. 130/747) was one of the earliest qurrāʾ and Nāfiʿ’s teacher. He was known as the Imam and chief qārī of Medina who learned Qur’an from Ibn ʿAbbās and Abū Hurayrah. As a child, he reportedly visited Umm Salamah, the Prophet’s wife, who wiped over his head and made duʿāʾ for him to be blessed by Allah.49 Imām Mālik said, “Abū Jaʿfar, the qārī, was a righteous man who gave iftāʾ to the people of Medina.”50 Nāfiʿ related that when Abū Jaʿfar’s body was washed upon his death, his neck and chest appeared as a page of the muṣḥaf. “No witness [of the incident],” recalled Nāfiʿ, “doubted it was [due to] the light of the Qur’an.”51
- Yaʿqūb (Basra – mawlā of the Ḥadramī clan: d. 205/820) became the chief qārī of Basra after Abū ʿAmr. He was one of the experts on aḥruf and its differences, and he authored books on qirāʾāt.52 Among the many qurrāʾ he learnt and transmitted from were Ḥamzah and al-Kisāʾī. The extent of his focus and khushūʿ in prayer is captured by a report that he did not notice his garment being removed from his shoulder and returned to him while praying.53
- Khalaf (Baghdad – native Arab from Banū Asad: d. 229/843) was a seed merchant (bazzār) but disliked that title and preferred to be referred to as a ‘Qur’an teacher’ (muqriʾ). He is one of the ten canonical qurrāʾ and also one of the two canonical transmitters of Ḥamzah. As a qārī of the ten, he is often called ‘Khalaf the tenth.’ His isnād is connected to Ḥamzah and ʿĀṣim, and his reading closely resembles the other Kufan qārīs. So dedicated was he to seeking knowledge that he once spent 80,000 dirhams to fully comprehend a single grammatical inquiry.54
- Ubayy → Nāfiʿ, Ibn Kathīr, Abū ʿAmr, ʿĀṣim, Al-Kisāʾī, Abū Jaʿfar, Yaʿqūb, and Khalaf.
- ʿUthmān → Ibn ʿĀmir, ʿĀṣim, Ḥamzah, Al-Kisāʾī, and Yaʿqūb.
- ʿAlī → Ibn Kathīr, ʿĀṣim, Ḥamzah, Abū ʿAmr, and Yaʿqūb.
- Ibn Masʿūd → ʿĀṣim, Ḥamzah, Al-Kisāʾī, Yaʿqūb, and Khalaf.
- Zayd → Ibn Kathīr, Abū ʿAmr, ʿĀṣim, and Yaʿqūb.
- Abū Mūsā al-Ashʿarī → Abū ʿAmr.
- Abū al-Dardāʾ → Ibn ʿĀmir.
- Nāfiʿ → Qālūn (d. 220/835) & Warsh (d. 197/812)
- Ibn Kathīr → Al-Bazzī (d. 250/864) & Qunbul (d. 291/903)
- Abū ʿAmr → Al-Dūrī (d. 246/861) & Al-Sūsī (d. 261/874)
- Ibn ʿĀmir → Hishām (d. 245/860) Ibn Dhakwān (d. 202/818)
- ʿĀṣim → Shuʿbah (d. 193/809) Ḥafṣ (d. 180/796)
- Ḥamzah → Khalaf (d. 229/843) Khallād (d. 220/835)
- Al-Kisāʾī → Abū l-Ḥārith (d. 240/854) Al-Dūrī (d. 246/861)
- Abū Jaʿfar → Ibn Wardān (d. 160) & Ibn Jammāz (d. 170s)
- Yaʿqūb → Ruways (d. 238) & Rawḥ (d. 254)
- Khalaf → Isḥāq al-Warrāq (d. 286) & Idrīs al-Ḥaddād (d. 292)
every [recital] variation attributed to one of the ten readers qurrāʾ which his students agreed upon is considered a reading (qirāʾah). Every variation attributed to a reader’s transmitter, rāwī, [transmitting it from that reader] is considered a narration; (riwāyah). Every variation attributed to a transmitter’s student, regardless of the length [of the chain of transmitters to the rāwī], is considered a ṭarīq.57
Are they all Qur’an?
Are some readings preferred over others?
The spread of qirāʾāt in the Muslim world throughout history and today
Qirāʾāt as a discipline (ʿIlm al-Qirāʾāt)
- Isnād: scrutinizing the credibility of the chain of authorities preserving the Qur’an, including its authenticity, length, and proximity to the Prophet ﷺ as well as the early qurrāʿ, and the authoritative texts of qirāʿāt. This topic also examines the methods of oral transmission.86
- Linguistics: syntax, phonetics and articulation.87
- Pausal and resuming (waqf and ibtidāʿ) modes and their impact on signified meanings.88
- The number of Qur’anic verses that require an examination of orthographical styles of certain letters and the positioning of a verse (āyah) and its end (fāṣilah).89
- Orthography and the examination of the ras of Qur’anic words according to the ʿUthmānic codex.90
- Istiʿādhah; introducing its textual foundation from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, determining its phrase and explaining how it should be recited, the ḥukm of reading it out loud (jahr) or in secret (isrār), and its pausal modes.91
- Al-Takbīr; explaining the Sunnah of takbīr (saying “Allāhu akbar”) after reciting certain chapters of the Qur’an before commencing the next chapter and their pausal and resuming modes, tracing its isnād to the early qurrāʿ and the Prophet ﷺ, stating its exact phrase.92
the scholar of readings who transmits them orally. If he memorizes the book of al-Taysīr [an authoritative qirāʾāt text by al-Dānī], for instance, he is not allowed to teach it except if he learned it directly from the one who taught him continuously [in a uniform transmission], because part of qirāʾāt cannot be mastered except through direct hearing and oral transmission.96
The wisdom of qirāʾāt: How can qirāʾāt strengthen my connection with the Qur’an?
- Easing Qur’anic recitation and memorization for Muslims who come from different tribal and dialectal backgrounds. This easing may also help non-Arabs by allowing them to recite in a manner befitting their learning capabilities.
- Accommodating the dialectal diversity of historic Arabs to soften their hearts towards accepting the message of Islam.
- Honoring the ummah of the Prophet ﷺ by revealing the Qur’an in different aḥruf and allowing Muslims to recite it accordingly. The Qur’an is the only Divine book that was revealed in this manner.
- Demonstrating that, just as Allah promised, the ummah did not fail to preserve the Qur’an in all its precise forms of pronunciation. No other ummah was granted this blessing.
- Increasing opportunities for reward by diversifying our types of engagement with the Qur’an.
- Showcasing how the Qur’an’s brevity is of such eloquence that it somehow generates a universe of kaleidoscopic meanings. These meanings are conveyed through same-verse variations rather than multiple verses.
- Proving the transcendent nature of the text by facilitating different modes of recitation without contradiction. Qirāʾāt variations complement rather than contest one another, working in tandem to represent one essential form.
- Assisting with legal interpretation of verses by clarifying their meanings, and expanding or restricting their applicability.