Transmission of the Written Text

Transmission of the Written Text

 

The Written Text at the Time of the Prophet Muhammad

What is meant by Jam' al-Qur'an?

The general meaning of jam' al-qur'an is to 'bring together the Qur'an'. This was done and has to be understood in two ways:

Jam' al-qura'n therefore, in the classical literature, has various meanings:

How was the Qur'an Collected?

In Suyuti’s Itqan it is said that the Qur'an had been written down in its entirety in the time of the Prophet but had not been brought together in one single place, and that therefore these written records or documents had not been arranged in order.' [Itqan, I, p. 41]

However, this statement does not preclude that the ordering of the Qur'an and the arrangement of the suras, was fixed by the Prophet himself and safeguarded through oral transmission.

Stages of Collection

As far as the written text is concerned, one may distinguish three stages:

Why was no Book left by the Prophet?

The Prophet Muhammad did not present to his Companions the revelation collected and arranged in a single written volume. There are a number of good reasons for this:

Writing down the Revelation

While writing was not widespread among the people in Arabia at the time of the Prophet there were persons of whom it is reported that they did write. It is said for example of Waraqa, Khadija's cousin, that he had been converted to Christianity in the pre-Islamic period 'and used to write Arabic and write of the Gospel in Arabic as much as Allah wished him to write'. [Bukhari. VI. No. 478.]

The Prophet himself did much to encourage the Muslims to learn to write. It is related that some of the Quraish, who were taken prisoners at the battle of Badr, regained their freedom after they had taught some of the Muslims the art of writing.' [Tabaqat Ibn Sa'd, II(2), p. 19] 

Did the Prophet himself write?

Although it is not clear whether the Prophet Muhammad knew how to write, there is unanimous agreement among scholars that Muhammad himself did not write down the revelation. The Qur'an clearly states:

'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' (29:48)

The Qur'an also refers to Muhammad on several occasions as the 'unlettered prophet' which some scholars have interpreted in the sense that he did not read or write:

'Those who follow the apostle, the unlettered prophet ...' (8: 157)

His community too has been described as 'unlettered':

'It is he who has sent amongst the unlettered an apostle from among themselves ...' (62:2)

The Qur'an written during the Prophet's Lifetime

There is no doubt that the Qur'an was not only transmitted orally by many Muslims who had learned parts or the whole of it, but that it was also written down during the lifetime of the Prophet.

The well-known report about 'Umar's conversion shows that large passages of the revelation had already been written down even at a very early time, in Makka, long before the hijra, when the Prophet was still in the house of Arqam. 'Umar had set out to kill the Prophet Muhammad, when somebody informed him that Islam had already spread into his own family and pointed out to him that his brother-in-law, his nephew and his sister had all become Muslims. 'Umar went to the house of his sister and found her together with her husband and another Muslim. A dispute arose and 'Umar violently attacked both his brother-in-law and his own sister. 'When he did that they said to him "Yes, we are Muslims and we believe in God and His apostle and you can do what you like". When 'Umar saw the blood on his sister, he was sorry for what he had done and turned back and said to his sister, 'Give me this sheet which I heard you reading just now so that I may see just what it is which Muhammad has brought', for 'Umar could write. When he said that, his sister replied that she was afraid to trust him with it. 'Do not be afraid', he said and he swore by his gods that he would return it when he had read it. When he said that, she had hopes that he would become a Muslim and said to him, 'My brother, you are unclean in your polytheism and only the clean may touch it'. So 'Umar rose and washed himself and she gave him the page in which was Taha and when he had read the beginning he said 'How fine and noble is this speech ..." [Ibn Hisham, pp. 156-7.]

The Qur'an Dictated by the Prophet

The Qur'an was not only written down by those Companions who did so on their own initiative. Indeed, the Prophet, when a revelation came, called for the scribe and dictated to him. The Prophet while in Madina had several such scribes, [M. M. A'zami, in his book Kuttab al-Nabi (Beirut, 1393/1974) mentions 48 persons who used to write for the Prophet.] among whom Zaid bin Thabit was very prominent.

Narrated al-Bara': There was revealed 'Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah' (4: 95). The Prophet said: 'Call Zaid for me and let him bring the board, the ink pot and the scapula bone (or the scapula bone and the ink pot).' Then he said: 'Write: Not equal are those believers ... [Bukhari, VI, No. 512; also VI, No. 116-18.]

It is also reported that material upon which the revelation had been written down was kept in the house of the Prophet. [Suyuti, Itqan, I, p. 58.]

Written during the Prophet's Lifetime

Another report informs us that when people came to Madina to learn about Islam, they were provided with 'copies of the chapters of the Qur'an, to read and learn them by heart'. [Hamidullah, M.: Sahifa Hammam ibn Munabbih, Paris, 1979, p. 64.]

Further evidence for the existence of the Qur'an as a written document during the lifetime of the Prophet comes from the following account:

'Abd Allah b. Abu Bakr b. Hazm reported: The book written by the apostle of Allah for 'Amr b. Hazm con- tained also this that no man should touch the Qur'an without ablution.' [Muwatta', No. 462.]

The book, which Allah's messenger wrote for 'Amr b. Hazm that no one should touch the Qur'an except the purified one:

Malik said: And no one should carry the mushaf by its strap, nor on a pillow, unless he is clean. And even if this be allowed to carry it in its cover, it is not disliked, if there is not in the two hands which carry it, something polluting the mushaf, but it is disliked for the one who carries it, and he is not clean, in honour to the Qur'an and respect to it. Malik said: The best I heard about this is the verse 'None shall touch it but those who are clean' (56: 79).' [Muwatta', Arabic, p. 204.]

The commentary to the muwatta' explains that the book referred to as written by the Prophet (which means of course written upon his instruction) was sent with some Muslims for instruction in Islam of the people of Yemen. [Muwatta', Arabic, p. 204.]

In fact the Qur'anic verse 56: 79, read in context, clearly explains that the Qur'an is available to those who receive instruction by revelation, in the form of a book or a piece of writing:

'... this is indeed a Qur'an most honourable, in a book (kitab) well guarded, which none shall touch but those who are clean: a revelation from the Lord of the worlds' (56: 77-80).

The same fact, i.e. that the Qur'an did exist as a written document in the lifetime of the Prophet is proved by the following ahadith:

From Ibn 'Umar: ... 'The messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: "Do not take the Qur'an on a journey with you, for I am afraid lest it should fall into the hands of the enemy". [Muslim, III, No. 4609, also 4607, 4608; Bukhari, IV, No. 233.]

The correctness of the assumption that the reference is to a written document is supported by one of the transmitters: Ayyub (i. e. one of the narrators in the chain of transmission of this report) said: The enemy may seize it and may quarrel with you over it. [Muslim, III, No. 4609.]

Furthermore, the chapter-heading used by Bukhan for the section, (which usually contains additional information,) explains:

'Ibn 'Umar said: No doubt the Prophet and his Com- panions travelled in the land of the enemy and they knew the Qur'an then.' [i.e. they knew that the Quran was carried - as a scripture - by the Muslims. Bukhan, IV, p. 146, Ch. 129.]

Collection of Revelation during the Prophet's Lifetime

During his last pilgrimage, at the sermon which he gave to the large gathering of Muslims, the Prophet said: 'I have left with you something which if you will hold fast to it you will never fall into error- a plain indication, the book of God and the practice of his prophet. [Ibn Hisham, p. 651.]

This advice from the Prophet to the Muslims implies that the revelation was available as kitab (writing) before his death, for otherwise he would have referred to it in some other term.

From other reports also, we can conclude that the Prophet himself took care of the actual arrangement of the revelation, when it was written down.

Zaid is reported to have said:

'We used to compile the Qur'an from small scraps in the presence of the Apostle.' [Itqan, I, p. 99; Salih, p.69.]

'Uthman said, that in later days, the Prophet 'used to, when something was revealed to him, call someone from among those who used to write for him and said: Place these ayat in the sura, in which this and this is mentioned, and when (only) one aya was revealed to him, he said: Place this aya in the sura in which this and this is mentioned'. [Jeffery, A.: Materials for the history of the text of the qura'n, (incl. Kitab al-masahif by Ibn Abi Dawud (abbr. as Ibn Abi Dawud, masahif) Leiden, 1937, p. 31.]

This indicates that not only was the revelation written down during the lifetime of the Prophet, but that he himself gave instructions for the arrangement of the material. According to some other reports, it is also clear, that this proper arrangement and order of the ayat was well known to the Companions of the Prophet, and they were not prepared to tamper with it.

'Narrated Ibn Az-Zubair: I said to 'Uthman "This verse which is in Sura al-Baqara: 'those of you who die and leave wives behind ... without turning them out' has been abrogated by another verse. Why then do you write it in the Qur'an?" 'Uthman said: Leave it (where it is) O son of my brother, for I will not shift anything of it (i . e. the Qur'an) from its original position.' [Bukhari, VI. No. 60.]

Similarly quite a number of reports mention the various Suras by their names or beginnings. Two examples may suffice to make this point:

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet used to recite the following in the Fajr prayer of Friday: Alif Lam Mim Tanzil (Sajda) (32) and Hal-ata 'ala-l-Insani (al-dahr) (76). [Bukhari, II, No. 16.]

Abu Huraira said: God's messenger recited in both rak'as of the dawn prayer: "Say O unbelievers (99) and Say, He is God, one God (112).' [Robson, J. (transl.): Mishkat al Masabih, Lahore, 1963, I, pp. 172-3 - Tabrizi: Mishkatal-masabih, Beirut, 1961, I, No. 842.]

The order and arrangement was of course well known to the Muslims due to the daily recitation of the Qur'an in the prayers at the mosque of the Prophet and at other places. Finally there are three ahadith in Sahih Bukhari, informing us that the Angel Gabriel used to recite the Qur'an with the Prophet once a year, but he recited it twice with him in the year he died. The Prophet used to stay in i'tikaf for ten days every year (in the month of Ramad. an), but in the year of his death, he stayed in i'tikaf for twenty days. [Bukhari, VI, No. 520; see also Nos. 518, 519.]

We can therefore distinguish the following measures which ensured the collection of the revelation in writing during the lifetime of the Prophet:

  • Revelation used to be written down even in the very early days of the Prophet's call.
  • In Madina, the Prophet had several persons who wrote down revelation when it was revealed.
  • The Prophet himself instructed his scribes as to where the different revealed verses should be placed, and thus determined the order and arrangement.
  • This order and arrangement was well known to the Muslims and strictly observed by them.
  • The Angel Gabriel went through all the revelation with Muhammad each year in Ramadan, and went through it twice in the year the Prophet died.
  • There are numerous reports about the existence of the written Qur'an - in the form of a book or piece of writing (kitab) during the lifetime of the Prophet.

What did the Prophet leave behind?

The way the material of revelation was left by the Prophet at his death was the most suitable for the Companions in that:

  • All parts of the revelation were available both in written form and memorised by the Companions.
  • All pieces were available on loose writing material, making it easy to arrange them in the proper order.
  • The order already fixed of the ayat within the suras, in the written form, as well as in the memory of the Companions, and of the suras in the memory of the Companions.

What arrangement could have been better than to have everything to hand in written form, as well as memorised by the Muslims, and to have the order and arrangement already determined, partially in the written form and completely in the memories of the people?

It is for these reasons that a later scholar, al-Harith al-Muhasibi in his book kitab fahm al-Sunan, summarised the first phase of the written collection of the Qur'anic material in the following words:

'Writing of the Qur'an was no novelty, for the Prophet used to order that it be written down, but it was in separate pieces, on scraps of leather, shoulder blades and palm risp, and when (Abu Bakr) al-Siddiq ordered that it be copied from the (various) places to a common place, which was in the shape of sheets, these (materials) were found in the house of the Prophet in which the Qur'an was spread out, and he gathered it all together and tied it with a string so that nothing of it was lost. [Suyuti, Itqan, I, p. 58.]

It is obvious that the history of the Qur'anic text (Textgeschichte) cannot be compared with that of other Holy Scriptures. While the books of the Old and New Testaments, for example, were written, edited and compiled over long periods, sometimes centuries, the text of the Qur'an, once revelation had ceased, has remained the same to this day.

Suhuf and Mushaf

Both words are derived from the same root Sahafa 'to write'. The word suhuf also occurs in the Qur'an (87:19) meaning scripture or written sheets.

Suhuf (sg. sahifa) means loose pieces of writing material, such as paper, skin, papyrus, etc.

Mushaf (pl. masahif) means the collected suhuf, brought together into a fixed order, such as between two covers, into a volume.

In the history of the written text of the Qur'an, suhuf stands for the sheets on which the Qur'an was collected in the time of Abu Bakr. In these suhuf the order of the ayat within each sura was fixed, but the sheets with the suras on them were still in a loose arrangement, i.e. not bound into a volume.

Mushaf in the present context means the sheets on which the Qur'an was collected in the time of 'Uthman. Here both the order of the ayat within each sura as well as the order of the sheets were fixed.

Today we also call any copy of the Qur'an, which has both order of ayat and suras fixed, a mushaf.

How the suhuf were made

Tradition informs us that at the Battle of Yamama (11/633), in the time of Abu Bakr, a number of Muslims, who had memorised the Qur'an were killed. Hence it was feared that unless a written copy of the Qur'an were prepared, a large part of the revelation might be lost.

The following is the account in the Sahih Bukhari

Narrated Zaid bin Thabit Al-Ansari, one of the scribes of the Revelation: Abu Bakr sent for me after the casualties among the warriors (of the battle) of Yamama (where a great number of Qurra were killed). 'Umar was present with Abu Bakr who said: "Umar has come to me and said, the People have suffered heavy casualties on the day of (the battle of) Yamama, and I am afraid that there will be some casualties among the Qurra (those who know the Qur'an by heart) at other places, whereby a large part of the Qur'an may be lost, unless you collect it. And I am of the opinion that you should collect the Qur'an.' Abu Bakr added, 'I said to 'Umar, "How can I do something which Allah's Apostle has not done?" 'Umar said (to me) "By Allah, it is (really) a good thing". So 'Umar kept on pressing trying to persuade me to accept his proposal, till Allah opened my bosom for it and I had the same opinion as 'Umar'. (Zaid bin Thabit added:) 'Umar was sitting with him (Abu Bakr) and was not speaking. Abu Bakr said (to me), 'You are a wise young man and we do not suspect you (of telling lies or of forgetfulness); and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah's Apostle. Therefore, look for the Qur'an and collect it (in one manuscript)'. By Allah, if he (Abu Bakr) had ordered me to shift one of the mountains (from its place) it would not have been harder for me than what he had ordered me concerning the collection of the Qur'an. I said to both of them, 'How dare you do a thing which the Prophet has not done?' Abu Bakr said, 'By Allah, it is (really) a good thing. So I kept on arguing with him about it till Allah opened my bosom for that which He had opened the bosoms of Abu Bakr and 'Umar. So I started locating the Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leafstalks of date palms and from the memories of men (who knew it by heart). I found with Khuzaima two verses of Suras at-Tauba which I had not found with anybody else (and they were):

'Verily there has come to you an Apostle (Muhammad) from among yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty. He (Muhammad) is ardently anxious over you (to be rightly guided)' (9:128).

The manuscript on which the Qur'an was collected, re- mained with Abu Bakr till Allah took him unto Him, and then with 'Umar till Allah took him unto Him, and finally it remained with Hafsa, 'Umar's daughter. [Bukhari, VI, No. 201.]

Here we can distinguish the following steps, which led to the preparation of the suhuf:

  • Zaid was instructed by Abu Bakr to collect the Qur'an.
  • Zaid collected it from various written materials and the memories of people.
  • The sheets thus prepared were kept with Abu Bakr, then 'Umar, then Hafsa.