What is the meaning of al-ahruf al-sab'a?
The word sab'a means seven, and ahruf is the plural form of harf, which has many meanings, among them 'edge' border, letter, word', etc. In technical language it describes the variety of modes of the Qur'an transmitted to us, also expressed in various forms of writing the text.
Read the two versions of Sura 2:9 given on plates 7 and 8. Disregard the difference in style of writing. The first example is from a Qur'an from North Africa, the second from a Qur'an from Jordan. In the North African version, the word 'yukhadi'una' (they deceive) is used twice, while in the Jordan version, the word occurs as 'yakhda'una' in the second instant. Both are correct and accepted readings, since they have been transmitted to us. Also there is no objection from the viewpoint of grammar or correct language and the writing without vowel signs can carry both readings.
In the time of the Prophet Muhammad when the Qur'an was revealed, the Arab tribes scattered all over the peninsula, spoke a number of dialects, each containing peculiar words and idioms.
The language of the Quraish had developed into a form of 'high Arabic' due to the many influences it absorbed, being spoken at the main centre of trade and pilgrimage in Arabia. Hence this language was obviously the most suitable to carry the messages of revelation which were to reach all peoples and not be restricted to a particular tribe.
The hadith reports tell us that the Qur'an was actually revealed in seven modes (al-ahruf al-sab'a). This has been narrated by more than ten of the Prophet's Companions, among them Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman, Ibn Mas'ud, Ibn 'Abbas and others. [Itqan, I, p. 41.]
The following is the hadith in Bukhari:
"'Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Abbas: Allah's apostle said: Gabriel recited the Qur'an to me in one way. Then I requested him (to read it in another way), and continued asking him to recite it in other ways, and he recited it in several ways till he ultimately recited it in seven different ways'. [Bukhari, VI No. 513.]
On another occasion, 'Umar complained to the Prophet that Hisham had recited Sura al-furqan in a way different from what 'Umar had heard from the Prophet, but the Prophet said: '... this Qur'an has been revealed to be recited in seven different ways, so recite of it whichever is easier for you'. [Bukhari, VI No. 514.]
Salman is reported to have said that he read a passage from 5:82 in the presence of the Prophet in the following two versions, the first of which is now in the Qur'anic text, while the second constitutes a variant reading according to 'Ubay b. Ka'b: [Ibn Abi Dawud., p. 129.]
dhalika bi-anna minhum qissisina wa ruhbana.
dhalika bi-anna minhum siddiqina wa ruhbana. [Ibn Abi Dawud., p. 103.]
Muslim scholars have put forward a number of explanations and benefits for the Muslim umma deriving from the revelation of the Qur'anic message in several modes. Among these the following are most important:
To make the reading, pronunciation and memorisation more easy, as many people were illiterate in the Prophet's time.
To unite the new Muslim community on the basis of one common language, the Arabic of the Quraish, with minor variations accepted, according to spoken language.
To show something of the unique nature of the Qur'an, in the realm of language.
To show something of the unique nature of the Qur'an, in the realm of meaning and legal rulings.
- To explain a legal ruling in more detail.
There is a difference of opinion among classical Muslim scholars on the subject of the 'seven modes', to the extent that one of them was able to say: 'the degree of difference of opinion (ikhtilaf) among the scholars is to the extent of 35 sayings'. [Itqan, I, p.45.]
Some of these different opinions are that the 'seven modes' are:
Different languages (dialects) current among the Arabs at the time of revelation, such as e.g. Quraish, Hudhail, Tamim, etc., who had different ways of pronunciations which could even affect the spelling, e.g.
al-tabuh and al-tabut. (2: 248) [See Kamal, op. cit., p.46.]
or: hiyaka for iyaka (1:5).
or: atta for hatta (12: 35).
It may also be the usage of words from the different languages in the Qur'an (this is considered one of the most sound views).
Usage of synonyms in the Qur'an, i.e. that a variety of expressions describe one and the same concept. A well-known example is Sura 101: 5, which reads as 'Ka-l-'ihni-l-manfush', but in another version 'Ka-s-sufi-l-manfush' both meaning 'like carded wool'. The word arshidna was read in place of ihdina (Sura 1: 6), etc. [Both examples from Ibn Mas'ud. This view is also very close to the Idea of various dialects. and many scholars tend to accept such usage of synonyms, as meaning the seven modes'.]
Different aspects of the revelation, such as e.g. order, prohibitions, promise, narrations, etc.
Seven differences, such as possible ways of reading words and structures in the Qur'an, e.g. the word 'trusts' in 23: 8 which can be read both 'trust' (sg.) or 'trusts' (pl.) according to the plain text without vowels: li-amanatihim or li-amanatihim .
Slightly different wordings of a particular passage, such as e.g. in 9: 100: 'Gardens under which rivers flow' which some read as 'Gardens from under which rivers flow', adding the word 'from' (min) to the text.
Different ways of pronunciation as they have been explained in great detail by the scholars of qira'a (recitation) such as e.g. imala, idgham, etc. [This view has also been favoured by many, because it does not cause much controversy.]
However, even non-Muslim orientalists concede that 'no major differences of doctrines can be constructed on the basis of the parallel readings based on the 'Uthmanic consonantal outline, yet ascribed to mushafs other than his. All the rival readings unquestionably represent one and the same text. They are substantially agreed in what they transmit ... [Burton, J,: The Collection of the Qur’an, Cambridge. 1977, p. 171.]
From these different opinions, of which only some have been listed above, by way of illustration, a generally-accepted conclusion is that the 'seven modes' are at the basis of several distinct ways of reciting the Qur’an, reflecting the different usage at the time of revelation, comprising variations in pronunciation and even minor differences in wording. The 'seven 'ahruf are however, not identical with the well-known 'seven readings'. These came about in a later age. Although much of what the 'seven readings' contain is also found in the seven ahruf, there are some differences, which will be explained when discussing the seven readings.
Only a few examples for 'ahruf have been transmitted to us. They are of importance for Tafsir, rather than qira'a.
While some scholars [e.g. Tabari, Jami' al-bayan 'an ta'wil ayat al-Qur’an, Cairo, 1968. See introduction to this tafsir. Zarkashi, Vol. 1, p.213 says most scholars are of the first view, and that the last double-reading of the Qur'an by Muhammad in the presence of the Angel Gabriel served, among others, the purpose of eliminating the other six modes.] hold that the written Qur'an now includes only one of the 'seven modes', and the others are transmitted orally to us, there is some evidence also for the view that the text of the Qur'an, as we have it in front of us, may include all these 'seven modes' because:
No one would change the Qur'an.
The present text was written upon the basis of the sahaba testimonies, both orally and written, going back directly to the Prophet.
- The Qur'an is protected by Allah.