Turning now to the level of content, the second question is: does the Qur’ān include all of the verses that were revealed to the Messenger? We may be sure of one thing, that the size of the Qur’ān we have in our hands is considerably less than the size of the verses that were revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad. 


FOR THIS WE MAY adduce two main textual witnesses: 1) It does not include the abrogated and forgotten verses. Among those verses that abrogated others, or were abrogated, there are verses that were abrogated verbally, both read and written, and there are verses that the Messenger forgot before they were memorised, or before he dictated them or before the amanuenses of the Revelation recorded them. Perhaps everyone forgot about them, never to be revealed again, or at least not revealed again in the same expression. This is confirmed by the verse: Whatever verse We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it (Sūrat Al-Baqara, verse 106).

2) It does not include the various forms of expressions in which some verses were revealed. The Qur’ān was revealed on seven letters as is well known, which means that many verses were revealed more than once, with different words and turns of phrase, and as the Qur’ān came to be collected these were dispensed with.

Having said that, this represents a bare minimum that can be confirmed by the textual evidence. Yet it is actually much more than that. The problem is that this Qur’ān, which since the time of ‘Uthmān bin ʽAffān has turned into a ‘sacred text’ and fixed in the order of its verses and chapters, no longer gives us any opportunity to disassemble and reassemble its parts in a way that differs from the official Qur’ān. The Qur’ānic text has finally turned into a tightly closed text. Consequently, we have lost all the interpretive possibilities that the disparate and dispersed nature of the parts of the Qur’ān – as it was revealed and as the Messenger left it –  could have been made available to us. This has impoverished the possibilities of interpreting the Qur’ān, and has confined it to a narrow circle, a circle further narrowed by the fact that the text originally belonged to the world of antiquity in its language, its style, and its rulings.

This has impoverished the possibilities of interpreting the Qur’ān, and has confined it to a narrow circle

The third question concerning the Qur’ān that we have in our hands today is this: are all its verses and chapters on the same level when it comes to their value and importance? The answer is ‘No’. And this for at least three reasons.

Firstly, as we know, there are ‘decisive’ (muḥkamāt) verses and others that are allegorical (mutashābihāt). While the ‘decisive’ verses are more clear and precise. The Qur’ān says:

He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. [1]

Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī says:

“The Almighty said: He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical. Concerning this Ibn Ḥabīb al-Nīsābūrī made three points: one was that the entire Qur’ān is ‘decisive’ because God Almighty says that it is a Book, whose verses are made decisive;[2] the second is that all of it is allegorical because God Almighty says it is a Book, consistent with itself, (yet) repeating[3]; the third – the correct one – is that it is divided into decisive and allegorical interpretations of the source verse.”[4]

Although the scholars differed in how to define which verses were ‘decisive’ and which ‘allegorical’, they generally agreed that the allegorical verses were the least clear. Al-Suyūṭīi lays out the most important opinions that illustrate this agreement:

“There are differences in how to determine the ‘decisive’ and the ‘allegorical’. So it was said that the ‘decisive’ verse is that whose import was known either literally or though interpretation. He ‘allegorical’ verses are those which Allah claimed exclusive knowledge, such as the time of the Hour, the emergence of the Dajjāl (‘Antichrist’) and the meaning of the broken letters at the beginning of the sūras.[5] And it was said that the ‘decisive’ verse is that which clarifies its own meaning, and the ‘allegorical’ verse is its opposite. It was also said that the ‘decisive’ verse is that which can only be interpreted one way, while the ‘allegorical’ verse is the one whose meanings are only probable.”[6]

Secondly, the process of revelation could bring some verses that are better than others. It was stated in the Qur’ān:

Whatever verse We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things? [7]

This means that there are Qur’ānic verses that may be described as ‘better’ than other Qur’ānic verses.

Thirdly, the Prophet himself admits that some Qur’ānic sūras and verses are to be preferred, such as the Āyat al-Kursī (‘Verse of the Throne’) and Sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ.[8] Rather, he was insisting on considering Al-Fātiḥa (the ‘Opening sūra’) as the mother of the Qur’ān, the sūra known as the  ‘the Seven Recited verses’, or ‘the Great Qur’ān’, in many forms narrated by Al-Bukhārī, Muslim and others. In any case, the ‘favourite’ verses and chapters do not fall into the category of rulings and laws, but rather into the category of verses of sincere, divine devotion.

So the Muṣḥaf that we have in our hands is much less than the size of the Qur’ān that was revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad, and its verses are not all of the same value, importance or degree of perfection. Some are more, and some less, ‘decisive’, i.e. ‘perfect’, and some are more, and some less ‘good’. Therefore, by arranging as an inclusive impermeable text is not something decided upon by God nor the Messenger, but is rather the initiative of Muslims. In which case, in what sense may we say that it is a book ‘authored’ by God?

The Muṣḥaf that we have in our hands is much less than the size of the Qur’ān that was revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad

The Qur’ān was revealed sporadically and in a fragmented way. It was revealed at different times, in different situations, and under different circumstances. It was therefore subject to the dictates of reality to the extent that it did not take the form of a grand, long narrative. It was revealed bearing the stamp of its own time in the way it was constructed and arranged – a disjointed, fragmentary time, full of twists and turns and interruptions. Even its stories and tales often do not proceed according to a linear scheme. Qur’ān time is dream time, a time of the ‘cosmic unconscious’, where all times overlap and clash with each other, right from the beginning of creation to the terminus of eschatological promise. The arrangement of verses and chapters is not along some linear path where events are organized according when they occurred. This is in contrast to the linear structure of time in both the Gospels and the books of the Torah, or even in the ‘Bible’ taken as a whole.

Let us say that the era of the Gospels and the Torah is the era of tales and epics, the era of ‘great narratives’, a time of awareness, meaning and presence. As for the time of the Qur’ān, it is, conversely, the era of poetry, signs, lightning flashes, snatched glimpses, visions and dreams. It is a time of unconsciousness, interruption and absence. The ‘pagination of the Qur’ān’ process did not begin during the life of the Prophet, since the Messenger did not write the Revelation himself. If he had written the Revelation with his own hands, we would have found ourselves right from the first moment before a ‘sacred text’. It was decided that the Messenger was not to write anything of the Revelation himself:

And thou (O Muhammad) wast not a reader of any scripture before it, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand, for then might those have doubted, who follow falsehood. [9]

And when the Messenger resorted to the help of some of the compilers of the Revelation (‘Alī bin Abī Ṭālib, Ubayy ibn Kaʽb al-Ansārī, Zayd ibn Thābit, ‘Abdullah ibn Saʽd ibn Abī Sarḥ, ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān), some of them were often absent from a number of ‘sessions’ for one reason or another, which made the ‘archive’ of each writer differ in some of its parts from what others wrote. What is more, most of the verses that were deleted by command of the Revelation, that is, those subjected to verbal abrogation (reading and writing), nevertheless remained within the ‘archives’ of some of the writers of the Revelation, and indeed remained in the breasts of those who learnt them by heart. The writers of the Revelation wrote on scattered media (boards, skins, palm leaves, stones, bones, or pieces of silk), and piled them up haphazardly in their houses without a clear and agreed arrangement. On the other hand, the Messenger rarely would say to them: ‘Put this verse in such and such a place, or a passage in which such and such is mentioned’. This was because such a request would not have been practical, due to the conditions of writing during that time, and due to indifference as to the importance of writing in an era when oral culture predominated.

In any case, there is nothing to indicate that the Prophet set out to turn the Qur’ān into a ‘sacred text’, or even attempted to do so. He did not wish to confer any sanctity on the Revelation’s recording moment, neither in form nor content. He took no interest in the tools, the media, in the lines and spaces of the writing process. He did not seek to confer any form of sanctity on the earliest written pages. His main concern was for the verses of the rhetorical miracle not to vanish. He was therefore concerned that each should memorize what he could. On the other hand, there is nothing to confirm that the early Muslims dealt with the Qur’ān as a ‘sacred text’, and they were the very ones who had their differences concerning some of the Qur’ānic verses and sūras without there being thereby the slightest sense of ‘desecration’ or guilt. Some of them were entirely unembarrassed to say: “We prayed with this verse, or we read this verse before it was abrogated during the time of the Messenger”, or “before it was deleted from the Qur’ān of ‘Uthmān”. Copying, deleting, and forgetting were ‘natural’ during the formation of the Qur’ānic verses. If today we are embarrassed by just thinking about this, the reason is that we no longer look at the Qur’ān in any way other than as a ‘sacred’ text.

There is nothing to confirm that the early Muslims dealt with the Qur’ān as a ‘sacred text’

The well-known hadith on the authority of ‘Ā’isha concerning the two verses that were said to have been lost from the Qur’ān (the verse of stoning[10] and the verse of breastfeeding an adult male ten times)[11] confirms the fact that no sanctification was conferred upon the text, not so much because of the loss of the two verses, but rather because of the way Muslims, first of all the Prophet, dealt with the written Qur’ānic verses. It was mentioned in Musnad Aḥmad, on the authority of ‘Ā’isha, that “The verse of stoning was revealed, and the breastfeeding of an adult ten times, were on a piece of paper under a bed in my house.” In Sunan Ibn Mājah it is explained that “When the Messenger of God died, and while we were preoccupied with his death, a domesticated animal entered the room and ate it”.[12]  Many have contented themselves by holding that the recitation of these two verses was abrogated, or (in this peculiar fashion!) forgotten. That is to say that the only paper copy on which the two verses were written remained for a certain period under the bed on which the Prophet slept with Ā’isha in her house, before an animal came to devour it. Such an event does not allow for any claim to the sanctity of the ‘text’.

As a result of the process that George Tarabishi termed as the ‘pagination of the Qur’ān’, the Qur’ān became a Text, and the Text became an absolute authority, a sacred reference, and a magic solution to all problems of life, politics and the economy. Perhaps ‘Uthmān’s blood, which mingled with the final version of the Qur’ān had a symbolic meaning, one that increased the feeling of guilt and hence the need for a kind of sanctification, especially when ‘Uthmān became a symbol of the slain imam, stirring up feelings of guilt among the majority of Muslims.[13]

But in all the public competition to display religious piety, we forget the basic fact that the Qur’ān is not an end in itself, but rather it is the aim of the Qur’ān – in origin the Messenger’s interpretation of divine signs – to establish the principle of divine monotheism in the human conscience. As for the details, these are merely no more than secondary or incidental, and are restricted to the circumstances of time and place.

So, based on this definition, our efforts today must be directed towards liberating the Islamic mind from a state of blind loyalty to the authority of the ‘text’, a text that the jurists have turned into a second or third hypostasis for the divinity itself – and aim towards actuating the principle of pure, divine monotheism. This means that our civilization needs to move from a literalist and textual Islam to a divine and moral Islam, in line with the approach of the noble verse:

Be ye faithful servants of the Lord by virtue of your constant teaching of the Scripture and of your constant study thereof. [14]  

[1] Qur’ān III (Āl ‘Imrān) 7.

[2] Qur’ān XI (Hūd) 1.

[3] Qur’ān XXXIX (al-Zumar) 23. The point here is that the phrase ‘consistent with itselfemploys the same word – mutashābihāt – which elsewhere is rendered:  ‘allegorical’. (Ed.)

[4] Jalāl al-Dīn Al-Suyūṭī,, Op. cit., Vol: 2, p.5.

[5] Many sūras begin with a series of letters whose meaning, if they have any, is unknown. Various theories over the centuries have been put forward to explain them, from bearing a mystic significance to representing the initials of scribes (Golius) or the initials of the reciters from whom the compiler Zayd ibn Thābit took the version of the verses (Nöldeke), to indicators of the opening words of the sūras to which they are attached (Loth), or abbreviations of well-known Qur’ānic expressions (Loth). (Ed.)

[6] Jalāl al-Dīn Al-Suyūṭī,, Op. cit, Vol: 2, pp.4 and 5.

[7] Qur’ān II (al-Baqara) 106.

[8] The ‘Verse of the Throne’ is so named since the word ‘throne’ appears in it, and is famous for providing a succinct confiteor of Islamic monotheism. The same goes for Sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ (Ed.)

[9] Qur’ān XXIX (al-ʽAnkabūt) 48.

[10] The context of the ‘stoning hadith’ (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/86/48 is the account of Muḥammad ordering the stoning of a Jewish couple for illegal sexual intercourse. When he asked them what Jewish law stipulated for this crime, the Torah was brought in, and although the accused Jew attempted to hide from the Muslims the passage stipulating the penalty of stoning to death, this was revealed and the Prophet then ordered them to be stoned, with the Jew attempting unsuccessfully to shield the woman from the stones. (Ed.)

[11] The context of the ‘breastfeeding hadith (https://sunnah.com/muslim/17/33 and https://sunnah.com/muslim:1453b) is Sahla bint Suhayl’s  embarrassment at the presence of a male guest in the house, which irritated  Abū Ḥudhayfa, at which the Prophet  joked ‘Suckle him and you would become unlawful for him [i.e. that there would therefore be no suspicion of dalliance], and the rankling which Abū Ḥudhayfa feels in his heart will disappear.’ (Ed.)

[12] Narrated by Aḥmad and Ibn Mājah.

[13] The caliph ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān was murdered in 656 AD.

[14] Qur’ān III (Āl ‘Imrān) 79.

Read Part 1 of the first hypothesis here

The era of the Gospels and the Torah is the era of ‘great narratives’