Changes in the Quran: Manuscripts and Muslim tradition

It is common among Muslims to assert (typically without any reference to actual manuscripts) that the Quran has been preserved with miraculous perfection and without the slightest variation or error. It is orthodox Islamic doctrine to believe that the Quran was written on heavenly tablets for all eternity past and was dictated, word for word, to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. According to Islam, the Quran is, therefore, unchanging and unchangeable. Mazhar Kazi writes:

“Over the last fourteen centuries, this authentic word of God has been preserved without slightest alterations, admixture or adulterations, whatsoever.”

And again:

“It is a miracle of the Qur’an that no change has occurred in a single word, a single [letter of the] alphabet, a single punctuation mark, or a single diacritical mark in the text of the Qur’an during the last fourteen centuries.”

Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi likewise claims:

“The original texts of most of the former Divine Books were lost altogether, and only their translations exist today. The Qur’an, on the other hand, exists exactly as it had been revealed to the Prophet; not a word – nay, not a dot of it – has been changed. It is available in its original text and the Word of God has been preserved for all times to come.”

and Dr. Zakir Naik asserts:

“Since there was to be no messenger after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the Book revealed to him (i.e. the Glorious Quran) was preserved word for word so that it should be the same source of guidance for all times.”

and according to I. A. Ibrahim:

“Not one letter of the Qur’an has been changed over the centuries.”

Of course, some Muslim scholars would temper this claim a little, insisting only that the Quran is “substantially unchanged.” For a vast number of believing Muslims, however, it is a tenet of their faith that the printed Qurans of today match the original down to the tiniest dot and stroke of the pen. The Quran, so it is said, is utterly and completely unchanged in even the most minute of details.

Minor variations in the manuscripts

This extreme claim is rather easy to refute. For example, in 2011, Dr. Keith Small published a thorough comparison of the popular modern Quranic text to 22 other copies of the Quran, including many of the earliest manuscripts we possess as well as several medieval manuscripts and one modern edition of the Warsh text used by many Muslims in North Africa and Yemen. He focused his work specifically on Surah 14:35-41. In just these seven verses, he found nearly 350 variants among all the manuscripts he examined. The vast majority of these variants were mere matters of spelling conventions and lettering systems that have absolutely no effect on the meaning whatsoever. 21 variants, or about 6% of the total, were plainly copyist mistakes in the particular manuscript in question. There were 17 variants (or 5% of the total) that did, in fact, affect the meaning of the text but even here the impact on the meaning was typically rather minor.

The point here is not that Small’s work on these manuscripts discovered some grand change in the Quran that would overthrow all of the historic Muslim doctrine. It did nothing of the sort. What it did show, however, is that the Quran is certainly full of all kinds of minor changes one would expect to see in a hand-copied document coming down from late antiquity. It has not been miraculously preserved down to the tiniest dot as the above quotes proclaim.

Notable variations in the manuscripts

Some variants, however, raise rather meaningful questions. To list just a few, the “Great Paris Manuscript,” one of the earliest manuscripts of the Quran, has a small but rather significant variant in Surah 3:158. The standard text today reads, “And if ye die, or are slain, Lo! It is unto Allah that ye are brought together.” However, in the Paris Manuscript, there is a single additional letter not found in the modern text that reverses the meaning entirely. The verse then reads that if you die or are slain, you are NOT brought together unto Allah.

A 10th-century manuscript known as BNF Arabe 370a has several places where the original text has been erased and replaced with the text matching the modern reading in different handwriting. The interesting thing is that, in each of these places, the modern text is too long to fit into the erased space and must be crammed in with smaller print. This seems to indicate that the manuscript originally preserved a text that was in several places shorter (and therefore obviously different) than the text we have today. These kinds of examples show that, while the overall text of the Quran appears to be rather stable for most of its history, in the past there were certainly readings substantively different than what we have today.

While examples such as these are uncommon among the surviving manuscripts, they do exist, particularly in the earliest manuscripts, and must be considered when discussing the history and transmission of the text.

Variations mentioned in early sources

There are a variety of variations in the text of the Quran mentioned in early sources. Some of the smaller examples of these have been confirmed in the manuscript record which provides evidence that these sources might be trustworthy when it comes to the larger, more substantial variants as well. It is also important to note that most of these sources are Muslim sources, not the words of outsiders (though occasionally there are writings by Christians living in early Muslim lands that seem to confirm what the early Muslim sources are saying). The material on this subject is vast, and I will give here only a few key examples:

The Added Verse

The very story of the Quran’s collection given in official and authoritative Muslim sources reports the addition of at least one verse. In Sahih Al-Bukhari (the most trusted collection of the Hadith) Volume 6, book 61, number 509, it is said that after Muhammad’s death there was a battle in which many people who had memorized the Quran had died. The close companions of Muhammad who were leading the Muslim community were concerned that portions of the Quran could be entirely lost if they didn’t collect all of the Quran into one written volume. Abu Bakr (the first Caliph, Muhammad’s first successor as leader of the Muslim community) sent a man to gather all of the Quran together, saying:

“you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’an and collect it in one book.” He began the project of “collecting it from (what was written on) palmed stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last Verse of Surat At-Tauba (Repentance) with Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him.”

From this work, one official copy of the Quran was produced and remained with Abu Bakr until he died. The very next Hadith in the collection (Volume 6, Book 61, Number 510) explains that by the time of the third Caliph, Uthman, Muslims were reciting the Quran differently from one another so significantly that it threatened to tear the Muslim community apart. Uthman sent for the full copy of the Quran that Abu Bakr had made, and also sent for all the written fragments of Quranic material throughout the land and commissioned yet another project of collecting the Quran. He ordered the production of a new authoritative edition of the Quran, a copy of which was sent to each province. All the other Quranic material was burned. The hadith ends by noting that a verse had been left out of Abu Bakr’s edition that was found and added to Uthman’s collection. Once again, this verse was found only with Khuzaima bin Al-Ansari, the same person who had remembered a verse no one else knew the first time the Quran was collected. This official account of the Quran’s collection tells us a lot of interesting information, not the least of which is the fact that at least one verse was added to the official written edition of the Quran between the first and second collections. It also tells us that any early version that might have disagreed with this official edition was destroyed.

The Missing Verse

The second Caliph, Umar, is said to have remembered a Quranic verse about stoning adulterers that were once recited by Muslims but were no longer in the Quran. In Sahih Muslim, Book 017, Number 4194, Umar is quoted as saying:

“Verily Allah sent Muhammad (may peace be upon him) with truth and He sent down the Book upon him, and the verse of stoning was included in what was sent down to him. We recited it, retained it in our memory, and understood it.”

Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 8, Book 82, Number 816 reports Umar lamenting the absence of the verse in the written Quran:

“I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, ‘We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,’ and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed.”

A 9th century Christian named Al-Kindi also reports this story, saying that:

“Umar speaking from the pulpit said: ‘Let no man say that the verse about stoning is not in the sacred book, for I have myself read it. The man and woman who have committed adultery, stone them both. And if it were not that men would say that ’Umar had added to the Qur’an what was not in it, I would restore it with my own hands!’ In another address he said: ‘I do not know how anyone can say that the ordinance of al-Mut’a is not in God’s word; we have ourselves read it there, but it dropped out. God will not reward with blessing him who has omitted it. It was committed to him as a charge, but he was not faithful to the trust nor loyal to God and His Prophet.’”

Muhammad’s youngest wife, A’isha, is also said to have reported:

“The Verse of stoning and of breastfeeding an adult ten times was revealed, and the paper was with me under my pillow. When the Messenger of Allah died, we were preoccupied with his death, and a tame sheep came in and ate it,” (Sunan Ibn Majah, Volume 3, Book 9, Number 1944).

Many Muslim jurists in Sharia still believe this teaching is binding based on these Hadith. To avoid the conflict, they commonly use the formula that “the recitation is abrogated but the ruling remains.” In other words, it has been removed from the Quran but you still have to obey it. They conclude that God must have intended it to no longer be a part of the written/recited Quran (though the Quran is eternal and unchanging) and yet its legal authority is still binding on Muslims even though it is no longer in their scriptures.

Differing Versions Among the Early Reciters

Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 5, Book 57, Number 103 reads:

“Abdullah (bin Mas’ud) was mentioned before ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr. The latter said, ‘That is a man I continue to love because I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, ‘ Learn the recitation of the Qur’an from (any of these) four persons: ‘Abdullah bin Masud, Salim the freed slave of Abu Hudhaifa, Ubai bin Kab, and Muadh bin Jabal.’ I do not remember whether he mentioned Ubai first or Muadh.”

This same Abdullah bin Masud is also reported in Sahih Al-Bukhari as having said:

“By Allah other than Whom none has the right to be worshiped! There is no Surah revealed in Allah’s Book but I know at what place it was revealed, and there is no Verse revealed in Allah’s Book but I know about whom.”

We cannot question, then, that Muslim tradition holds Masud as a particularly complete and trustworthy source for the Quran. Yet Muslim tradition is filled with hosts of examples of where Masud’s readings were different from the standard text. In regard to the official version of the Quran sanctioned by Uthman and gathered by Zayd ibn Thabit, Masud is said to have proclaimed:

“The people have been guilty of deceit in the reading of the Qur’an. I like it better to read according to the recitation of him (Prophet) whom I love more than that of Zayd Ibn Thabit,” (Ibn Sa’d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 2, p.444).

Ubai bin Kab is listed above alongside Masud as one of the great reciters of the Quran commended by Muhammad himself. Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 6, Book 61, Number 527 records about Ubai bin Kab:

“Umar said Ubai was the best of us in the recitation (of the Qur’an) yet we leave some of what he recites.”

So we see an admission that the official version differed noticeably from other versions of the time that seemed to also have an authoritative claim to being the original.

Conclusion: Manuscripts and Muslim sources both show change

While I could multiply examples, these are sufficient to show that the Quran has experienced a variety of changes in its text, a reality that early generations of Muslims were clearly much more open about. Often these changes are minor, affecting the meaning little or even not at all, though there is evidence in the earliest manuscripts and especially in early Islamic writings of some far more substantial changes. Even the minor changes, however, demonstrate that the Quran is not perfectly preserved down to the very dot and stroke of the pen the way many Muslims claim. The Quran has a human history of hand copying, like any document preserved from ancient times. If Muslims truly want to take the Quran seriously, they need to be honest with themselves about its history and its changes, lay aside their unrealistic claims about it, and take an honest look at the Quran for what it really is.

Changes in the Quran: Manuscripts and Muslim tradition

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