1. The Qur’ān is not the Muṣḥaf

There are some preliminary questions that we encounter here, so we must decide on them putting to one side the ideological, political, or authoritarian employment of religious faith. The first question we have to ask is this: does the Qur’ān that we have in our hands now have the same form the trustworthy Messenger left it before his death? Of course it does not. Why? Well, it is an unfortunate fact that the reasons known to the ancients concerning this we have become inclined to deny, due to an inflated sacralisation of the Text. That, and the fact that the discussion on this, which until recently remained open, has been closed off by Muslims. There is therefore nothing wrong with revisiting that which was circulating in the tradition before the contemporary religious priesthood made it taboo, and touched upon only by “those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down”.[1]


LET US TAKE A LOOK at this on the level of the how the sūras were arranged, as well as the arrangement of many verses within the sūras. The decision to arrange the order of the sūras and most of the verses was merely a suggested idea, which no one came up with until the time of Abū Bakr Al-Ṣiddīq’s caliphate, and was not carried out in full until the time of the caliph ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān, or even the Umayyad period.[2] Originally, the verses of the Qur’ān were revealed holistically, that is, in a scattered form, and on his death the Prophet had not left them arranged to form any collected text. As for the decision to collect the Qur’ān, meaning to convert it from ‘scattered’ verses predominantly orally delivered, into a unified text and a defined book, this was a view and an initiative validated by the Companions and carried out by Muslims after a long period of hesitation, and certainly many years after the death of the Messenger. This process is termed by my teacher, George Tarabishi, as ‘the pagination of the Qur’ān’ (maṣḥafat al-Qur’ān).[3]

The Qur’ān is not the Qur’ān

The concept of the ‘the pagination of the Qur’ān’ becomes clearer if we look at Paul Ricoeur’s definition of what a text is: “We should call ‘a text’ every discourse that is confirmed by writing”.[4] According to this simple and preliminary definition, establishment by writing (maṣḥafa) may be seen as the founding act of the Qur’ānic text. That is, the Qur’ān did not become a text until after it had been subjected to ‘recording’ – thus initiating the actual chain of transmission for the Islamic mind. This is in contrast to Al-Jabrī’s postulate that was contradicted by Tarabishi.[5] In this way the Qur’ān became a codified muṣḥaf with a specific order of sūras and verses, in accordance with  generally accepted rules for writing. To put it more clearly, we may say that: Before its pagination the Qur’ān was not a text, but rather a revelation, and then a discourse. This remained the case until the Messenger of Islam’s death.

Before its pagination the Qur’ān was not a text, but rather a revelation, and then a discourse

In this way, we can see that the pagination of the Qur’ān was simply a human endeavour with all the margin of error that that entails no matter how intently carried out. But what is also meant here, from a purely technical point of view, is the fact that the process was accompanied by a complex linguistic development of “pointing, nūnation, and division into sections and ḥizbs[6]. ‘Abd al-Majīd al-Sharafī emphasised the importance of an awareness of the ‘formational’ difference between the Muṣḥaf and the Qur’ān:

“The word Qur’ān cannot really be applied except to the oral message conveyed by the Messenger to his contemporaries. As for what was collected and recorded after his death in a particular arrangement ‘between two covers’, we know that the Companions themselves were not initially in agreement about the legitimacy of this grouping, something which the Prophet did not undertake or command himself. ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, for example, opposed Abū Bakr’s view in this regard, before God reconciled him to the caliph’s initiative, and they even hesitated as to what name they should use for this phenomenon, before the matter was settled by calling it ‘the Qur’ān’ following the example, as the reports say, of some who knew of such a term among the Abyssinians”.[7]

The historian Al-Qurṭubī wrote the following:

“During the time of the Prophet the Qur’ān was dispersed among the breasts of men, and people wrote it on sheets, palm branches likhāf (thin white stones), flint stones, pottery shards and so on. When on the day of al-Yamāma in the time of Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq seven hundred reciters were killed, ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭab indicated to Abū Bakr that the Qur’ān should be collected for fear of the elderly reciters like Ubayy, Ibn Masūd and Zayd dying off. So Zayd was entrusted with this task, and after much toil he collected it together but without giving any order to the sūras”.[8]

In the Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī, the following hadith is recorded that:

“Zayd bin Thābit, may God be pleased with him, said: Abū Bakr sent for me when the people of Yamāma had been killed and found `Umar ibn Al- Khaṭṭāb sitting with him. Abu Bakr then said: ‘`Umar has come to me and said: ‘Casualties were heavy among the reciters of the on the day of the Battle of Yamāma, and I am afraid that more heavy casualties may take place among the reciters on other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur’ān may be lost. Therefore I suggest, you order that the Qur’ān be collected.’ I said to `Umar, ‘How can you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do?’ `Umar said, ‘By Allah, that is a good project.’ `Umar kept on urging me to accept his proposal till Allah opened my mind to it and I began to realize the good in the idea which `Umar had realized.’ Then Abū Bakr said: ‘You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Messenger. So you should search for the Qur’ān and collect it in one book.’ By Allah If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur’ān. Then I said to Abū Bakr: ‘How will you do something which Allah’s Messenger did not do?’ Abu Bakr replied: ‘By Allah, it is a good project.’ Abū Bakr kept on urging me to accept his idea until Allah opened my mind for what He had opened the minds of Abū Bakr and `Umar. So I started looking for the Qur’ān and collecting it from palm stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart”.[9]

Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī explains this by saying:

“It was mentioned in the hadith of Zayd that he collected the Qur’ān from ‘usub (palm branches) and likhāf and, according to one narration, fragments, and in another narration, pieces of skin, and in another, from animal shoulder blades, and in another, from ribs, and in another, from staves. For the word ‘usub is the plural of ‘asīb which is a palm branch stripped of leaves and where they would write on the flattest part, while likhāf is the plural of lakhfa a thin stone. Al-Khaṭṭābī said it was ‘stone flakes’; riqā‘ is the plural of raq‘a (‘patch’) and may be of leather, leaf, or paper, and aktāf is the plural of katf  (‘shoulder blade’, ‘scapula’) the bone of a camel or a sheep.”[10]

However, the process of paginating the Qur’ān was not completed until the time of the third caliph, ‘Uthman bin ‘Affān. On this there is a narration, told by many, in which the following is said:

“Ibn Shihāb said, as Anas ibn Mālik al-Anṣārī told me, that for the raid on Azerbaijan and Armenia he assembled the Syrians and Iraqīs, he said: ‘When Ḥudhayfa ibn al-Yamān saw their differences concerning the Qur’ān, he rode to ‘Uthmān and said: ‘People have differed on the Qur’ān and, by God, I am even afraid that they suffer the disagreements that afflicted the Jews and Christians!’ ‘Uthmān was deeply shocked by this and sent for Ḥafṣa and sought out the codex that Abū Bakr ordered Zayd to collect together (for it had remained with Abū Bakr, then ‘Umar who entrusted it to Ḥafṣa), and made copies from it and distributed these far and wide”.[11]

So then, this Muṣḥaf that we have in our hands, with its arrangement of its sūras and verses as a comprehensive text, was not some finalised act, as many think, but simply an endeavour and an innovation that Muslims carried out some time after the death of the Messenger. It is a well known fact that an endeavour of this sort has its successes and failings, and it is no secret that the arrangement of some sūras was carried out at times in a coincidental manner. An example of this is what Abū Bakr bin Abī Dāwūd al-Sijistānī mentioned in his narration:

“ ‘Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb wanted to collect the Qur’ān, so he stood among the people and said: ‘Whoever received something from the Messenger of God from the Qur’ān, let him bring it to us’. For they had written it down on leaves, on stones and palm branches, and he did not accept anything from anyone until two witnesses testified to it. He was slain while he was engaged in this, so ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān – may God be pleased with him – rose and said: ‘Whoever has anything from the Book of God, let him bring it to us’, and again he did not accept anything until two witnesses had testified to it. Then Ḥuzayma ibn Thābit came and said: ‘I have seen that you left out two verses’, to which he replied: ‘What are they?’ He said: ‘I received the following from the Messenger of God:  

Certainly a Messenger has come to you from among yourselves; grievous to him is your falling into distress, excessively solicitous respecting you; to the believers (he is) compassionate, But if they turn back, say: Allah is sufficient for me, there is no god but He; on Him do I rely, and He is the Lord of mighty power.[12]

‘Uthmān said: ‘I bear witness that these two are from Allah, so where do you propose that we should put them?’ He replied: ‘Put them as the last two verses of the Qur’ān’. And he put them at the end of sūrat al-Barā’a (al-Tawba).”[13]

However, this account on which most heritage books agree, raises a very serious question: even if we allow that the condition of two witnesses for confirming the authenticity of any verse before it was written down may have ensured that non-Qur’ānic verses did not slip through the Qur’ānic text – and this allowance is made irrespective of the fact that the two witnesses as humans could err and forget – this condition does not guarantee for us two very important matters:

Firstly, it does not guarantee that there were no spelling or grammatical errors in the words and sentences remembered;

Secondly, it does not guarantee that verses were left out that may indeed be from the Qur’ān but for which two witnesses, or even one, could be found. Perhaps the previous two verses that Ḥuzayma ibn Thābit brought up before it was agreed to put them at the end of Sūrat al-Barā’a would have been neglected if ‘Uthmān had not volunteered to testify that they were from God. Note that he said: ‘I bear witness that these are from God’, and did not say, ‘I bear witness that I heard it from the Messenger of God’, as is the custom in such a situation.

[1] The author is referencing the first sūra of the Qur’ān: Keep us on the right path, the path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favours. Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray, (i.e. the Christians and the Jews, here in the sense of Orientalist scholars). (Ed.)

[2] ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān was caliph from 644-656, and the Umayyad period commenced in 661 (Ed.)

[3] George Tarabishi, إشكاليات العقل العربي (Problems of the Arab Mind), Dar Al-Saqi, Beirut-London, fourth edition 2011, p.63.

[4] Paul Ricoeur, من النص إلى الفعل (From Text to Action), translated by Mohamed Barrada and Hassan Bourqia, Dar Al-Aman, Rabat, 1st  ed. 2004, p.95.

[5] George Tarabishi, Op. cit., Chapter One.

[6] George Tarabishi, Op. cit., p.63. ‘Nūnation’ (tanwīn) refers to the process of indicating in script the case ending of Arabic nouns (‘-un’, ‘-an, ‘-in’) according to whether they are the subject case, object case or genitive/prepositional case; the ḥizb is one of 60 divisions of the Text. (Ed.)

[7] ‘Abd al-Majīd al-Sharafī, الإسلام بين الرسالة والتاريخ (Islam between the message and history), Dar al-Tali`ah, Beirut, 2001, p.49.

[8] Al-Qurṭubī, الجامع لأحكام القرآن Ed. Muḥammad Ibrāhīm Al-Ḥafnāwī, Dar Al-Hadith, Cairo, 2nd ed., 1996, p.67.

[9] Narrated by Al-Bukhārī, (Sahih al-Bukhari 4986 ) and referenced by Al-Suyūṭī in الإتقان في علوم القرآن  Ed. Saeed Al-Mandoub, Dar Al-Fikr, Lebanon, 1st ed., 1996, p.1/161.

[10] Jalāl al-Dīn Al-Suyūṭī, الإتقان في علوم القرآن Ed. Saeed Al-Mandoub, Dar Al-Fikr, Lebanon, 1st ed., 1996, Vol: 1, pp.163, 164.

[11] Abū Bakr bin Abī Dāwūd al-Sijistānī, كتاب المصاحف Ed. Dr. Muḥibb al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Subḥān Wāʽiẓ, Dar al-Bashaer al-Islamiyyah, Beirut, 2nd ed. 2002, Vol. 1, pg.: 202.

[12] Qur’ān IX (al-Tawba) 128-9.

[13] Abū Bakr bin Abī Dāwūd al-Sijistānī,  Op cit., Vol. 2, pp. 224 and 225.

Read the Introduction to the Five Hypotheses here

Texts dispersed on stones: a pre-4th century AD example from Dumat al-Jandal, north Arabia