4. The Qur'an is not God's style

The problem we have is that we not only sanctified the Qur’an in terms of its verses, but we have also applied this sanctification to the ‘Uthmanic Qur’an by codifying it, arranging it, fixing its pronunciation, the form of the letters, and even the calligraphic form of its dead and sacred alphabet at one and the same time. 


ONCE AGAIN, the problem is not that ‘Uthman set about fixing an official Qur’an – that is what his predecessors Abu Bakr and ‘Umar also tried to do. The dilemma, rather, is that he burned all the other Qur’ans, which amount to over twenty mushafs according to most historical sources (the mushafs of Ubayy ibn Ka’b, Zayd ibn Thabit and Abdullah ibn Mas’ud) which may suggest an intent to conceal some documents.

Whatever the case may be, the burning of the rest of the Qur’ans means that the amount of differences between them was sizeable. But regardless of the political intentions, which we know nothing about for certain, the point is that we thereby lost various possibilities for interpreting the Holy Qur’an and finding reasonable explanations for some grammatical infelicities and stylistic ambiguities. I can give two simple examples for this:

Firstly, among the Qur’ans that were burnt were those that arranged the order of the verses and suras according to the date of the revelation. These include, as it was said, the Qur’an of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, and these could have given us a more accurate and less ambiguous view of the issue of the abrogating and abrogated verses, whereby the abrogating verse cannot possibly precede the abrogated verse in the sequence of its revelation.

The burning of the rest of the Qur’ans means that the amount of differences between them was sizeable

Secondly, some grammatical ambiguities, or the ‘letters of error’ as it used to be said, in ‘Uthman’s Qur’an – whose parsing puzzled the interpreters – do not exist in some other copies of the Qur’an. For example, in their interpretation of the verse The unjust do not obtain my covenant (Surat al-Baqara, verse 124) al-Tabari and al-Zamakhshari confirm that, as opposed to the now standard al-zalimin (‘the unjust’), in some other Qur’ans – which ‘Uthman burned – the form of the word was al-zalimun.[1]

The problem is that when we sanctify the Holy Qur’an in the way that we sanctify the divine being, when we consider it to be an absolute, eternally existent and eternally lasting speech that approaches, and at times exceeds the divine being, we become confused as to how to understand the phenomenon of abrogation and omission of verses. And when we consider the Qur’anic text as a source for legislating laws for all times and every place, and make it a sacred reference for all social and human relations, or some magic solution to all problems – even after the best efforts at interpretation – we face many of its explicit rulings with a sense of distress and embarrassment.

And when we consider the Text the eternal ‘word of God’ preserved on ‘The Guarded Tablet’, we are embarrassed by such grammatical ambiguities. For they suggest to us a stage that predates the fixing of Arabic grammar, such as in The unjust do not obtain my covenantin the above Surat Al-Baqara, verse 124, where the subject of the verb (the unjust) is given in the accusative (object) case al-zalimin, or where the phrase Lo! We have prepared for the unbelievers chains and shackles and a burning fire (Surat al-Insan, verse 4), where the indeclinable noun form salasil (‘chains’) is given an accusative declension ending. [2]

The problem is that sanctifying the Qur’anic text and considering it to be the same as ‘God’s word’ entirely and completely, led in the end to preserving such grammatical ‘inaccuracies’, even though God does not make mistakes, and the Qur’an does not accept the possibility of distortion. All this means that, with all the efforts of the interpreters, the Qur’anic phrases only increased their ambiguity and confusion. For example, regarding that verse The unjust do not obtain my covenant, Ibn Kathir in his commentary preferred not to mention the syntax of the verse at all, while al-Tabari thought to make my covenant the subject of the phrase and the unjust the object!

Sanctifying the Qur’anic text and considering it to be the same as ‘God’s word’ led to preserving grammatical ‘inaccuracies’ 

It may well be that al-Tabari’s suggestion may satisfy the heart, but it is certainly not convincing to the mind for as long as it violates the accepted grammatical norm. For it is broadly accepted and self-evident that it is the man who obtains the covenant, and not the covenant that obtains the man.

In any case, had we not sanctified the Qur’an of ‘Uthman, we could easily and seamlessly assume that the expression corresponding most closely to the correct one is the expression that the commentators themselves (al-Tabari and al-Zamakhshari) admitted existing in the other Qur’ans: The unjust do not obtain my covenant.

Setting aside the logic of holiness, there are some more reasonable perceptions that do not contradict the vision of faith, on condition that we remove the stamp of infallibility and holiness from the written Qur’an. This, as previously stated, is my conclusion.

One should not, for instance, in any way forget that those writing down the Revelation were doing this decades before the emergence of systematic Arabic grammar. Even if the codification of Arabic grammar relied heavily on the language of the Qur’an, this Holy Qur’an employed ‘political’ concepts that hail from a pre-state stage, as we have indicated before and will show again, and it also used a ‘language’ that belonged to a stage that predated codified Arabic grammar. This explains the oddities and imperfections in the written Text. In addition to all of this, and as is well known, the Qur’an made use of the accumulated oral linguistic stock, at times as diverse and incompatible as the different Arab tribes that spoke it.

It is also no secret that what may seem grammatical to some may appear ungrammatical to others, and what may seem erroneous from the perspective of a literate era may not necessarily be a mistake from the perspective of an oral stage in a language’s development. Again, all of this will seem reasonable and acceptable if we free the religious Text from the magic of sanctity. Perhaps ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan expressed the situation most accurately, as narrated by Abu Bakr bin Abi Dawud Al-Sijistani, when he said: 

When the Qur’an was finished, ‘Uthman brought a copy, looked at it and said: “You have carried this out well and with euphony. I can see a number of errors, but the Arabs may correct these themselves on their tongues”.[3]

Indeed, there were those who said things by their names, and openly spoke of errors in the written Qur’an:

It was reported by Hisham ibn ‘Urwa, on the authority of his father: “I asked ‘A’isha about the following mistakes in the Qur’an: These are most surely two magicians, and the diligent in prayer and those who pay the poor-due and those who are Jews and the Sabians,  and she said: ‘Dear nephew, this is the work of the writers, they made mistakes in the Book’ “[4]

Then Sa‘id ibn Jubayr said: “In the Qur’an there are four letters of error: the Sabeans, the diligent, then I would give alms and be among the righteous, and these are most surely two magicians[5]  What is meant by this are the following verses:

Surely those who believe and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians whoever believes in Allah and the last day (Surat Al-Ma’ida, verse 69) [6] ;

But those of them who are firm in knowledge and the believers believe in that which is revealed unto thee, and that which was revealed before thee, especially the diligent in prayer and those who pay the poor-due, the believers in Allah and the Last Day(Surat Al-Nisa, verse 16);

And spend of that wherewith We have provided you before death cometh unto one of you and he saith: My Lord! If only thou wouldst reprieve me for a little while, then I would give alms and be among the righteous (Surat Al-Munafiqun, verse 10);

They said: These are most surely two magicians who wish (Surat Taha, verse 63).

It would in no way be overstating it to say that during the period of the ‘mushafisation’ (‘pagination’) of the Qur’an, Arabic writing was still in its infancy and was still groping towards independence from the influence of Aramaic and Syriac writing.

During the Prophet’s time there was a great deal of latitude, and expressive variation in the reading of many verses. It is actually not inconceivable that the Messenger sometimes left to the writers of the Revelation some ‘rights’ towards their own verbal expression if that did not affect the essence of the meaning.

This interactive openness benefited Muslims in their relationship to the Revelation during the period that the Text was being revealed. However, after the death of the Prophet, the open format of the verses gradually began to take on a closed form, until the completion of the process of compiling the Qur’an.

Thus, the Qur’an that we read out and recite in the end expresses not only the personality of the Messenger, but also the grammar and writing tendencies familiar to the Book of Revelation, and reflect the ‘haphazard method’ of compiling and arranging verses and chapters, and the selection of the ‘appropriate’ letters, and the punctuation and vocalisation tendencies that Muslims attempted to agree upon before, during and after the drafting of the official Qur’an.

This means that the Holy Qur’an, though divine in signs, is human in expression.

[1]  The example is interesting, in that the meaning, according to Arabic grammar, would thus change from The unjust do not obtain my covenant to My covenant obtains the unjust (Ed.)

[2]  The Qur’anic text today runs إِنَّا أَعْتَدْنَا لِلْكَافِرِينَ سَلَاسِلَ وَأَغْلَالًا وَسَعِيرًا  where the form is given a declination salasila (Ed.)

[3] Abu Bakr bin Abi Dawud Al-Sijistani,  كتاب المصاحف, Vol II, p.228. تحقيق د. محب الدين عبد السبحان واعظ، دار البشائر الإسلامية، بيروت، الطبعة الثانية 2002 .

[4]  Al-Sijistani,  كتاب المصاحف, Vol II, p.235.

[5] Al-Sijistani, كتاب المصاحف , Vol II, p.232.

[6] Scholars from the earliest periods noted how the same phrase featuring ‘the Sabaeans’ occurs elsewhere in the Qur’an, but with the correct grammatical ending: see Qur’an V (al-Ma’ida) 69: إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالصَّابِئُونَ وَالنَّصَارَىٰ  where the word is written Sabi’un and compare: Qur’an XXII (al-Hajj) 17: إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالصَّابِئِينَ وَالنَّصَارَىٰ  where the word is written Sabi’in (Ed.)

Main image: ‘Al-Sabi’un’ in Qur’an V (al-Ma’ida) 69, from an illuminated Qur’ān commissioned by the Mamluk sultan Rukn al-Dīn Baybars (1223-1277). British Library Add MS 22407 – folio 58v.

Read Introduction to the Five Hypotheses here

Read Hypothesis 1  here

Read Hypothesis 2  here

Read Hypothesis 3  here