T.H. Huxley once said that wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, ignorance and cruelty have accompanied it. Indeed, Qur’anic bibliolatry lies at the heart of Muslim antagonism towards freedom of thought and scientific investigation. In this article, we will briefly examine the doctrine of Qur’anic immutability, which posits that the Qur’an hasn’t changed since the time of its alleged revelation.
Among Muslims, it is universally held that the Qur’an hasn’t changed since the time of Muhammad. This is integral to the book being a divine revelation: for in multiple instances, God promises the faithful that he will protect it against corruption, e.g. in Surah al-Hijr, verse 9:
We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption).
In reality, of course, there is no such thing as the Qur’an; there has never been a definitive physical text of this holy book. Indeed, when a Muslim dogmatically asserts that the Qur’an is the word of God, we need only ask “Which Qur’an?” to undermine his certainty.
After Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, there was no collection of his revelations. Consequently, many of his followers tried to gather all the known verses and write them down in codex form. Soon we had the codices of several scholars such as Ibn Mas’ud, Al-Ash’ari, Al-Aswad, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and others. As Islam spread, we eventually had what became known as the Metropolitan Codices in the centres of Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Kufa and Basra. The third Sunni caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, tried to bring order to this chaotic situation by canonising the Medinan Codex, copies of which were sent to all the metropolitan centres, with orders to destroy all the other codices.
Despite Uthman’s order to destroy all texts other than his own, it is evident that the older codices survived. In the words of Charles Adams:
It must be emphasized that far from there being a single text passed down inviolate from the time of Uthman’s commission, literally thousands of variant readings of particular verses were known… These variants affected even the Uthmanic codex, making it difficult to know what its true original form may have been. (Encyclopaedia of Religion, ‘Qur’an’)
Some Muslims preferred codices other than the Uthmanic, e.g. those of Ibn Mas’ud, Ubayy ibn Ka’b and Abu Musa. Eventually, under the influence of the Qur’anic scholar Ibn Mujahid (died 935 AD), there was a definite canonisation of one system of consonants and a limit placed on the variations of vowels used in the text, resulting in acceptance of the Systems of the Seven:
1. Nafi of Medina (died 785 AD)
2. Ibn Kathir of Mecca (died 737 AD)
3. Ibn Amir of Damascus (died 736 AD)
4. Abu Amr of Basra (died 770 AD)
5. Asim of Kufa (died 744 AD)
6. Hamza of Kufa (died 772 AD)
7. Al-Kisai of Kufa (died 804 AD)
These systems, in turn, provided fourteen possibilities in total, since each of the seven was traced through two different transmitters:
1. Nafi of Medina according to Warsh and Qalun
2. Ibn Kathir of Mecca according to Al-Bazzi and Qunbul
3. Ibn Amir of Damascus according to Hisham and Ibn Dhakwan
4. Abu Amr of Basra according to Al-Duri and Al-Susi
5. Asim of Kufa according to Hafs and Abu Bakr
6. Hamza of Kufa according to Khalaf and Khallad
7. Al-Kisai of Kufa according to Al-Duri and Abul Harith
In the end, for some reason, three systems prevailed: those of Warsh from Nafi of Medina, Hafs from Asim of Kufa, and Al-Duri from Abu Amr of Basra. At present, two of these systems preponderate: that of Hafs from Asim of Kufa – which was given a sort of official seal of approval by being adopted in the Egyptian edition of the Qur’an in 1924 – and that of Warsh from Nafi of Medina, which is used in parts of Africa other than Egypt. To quote Adams again:
It is of some importance to call attention to a possible source of misunderstanding with regard to the variant readings of the Quran. The seven [systems] refer to actual differences in the written and oral text, to distinct versions of Qur’anic verses, whose differences, though they may not be great, are nonetheless real and substantial. Since the very existence of variant readings and versions of the Quran goes against the doctrinal position toward the Holy Book held by many modern Muslims, it is not uncommon in an apologetic context to hear the seven [systems] explained as modes of recitation. In fact, the manner and technique of recitation are an entirely different matter. (Encyclopaedia of Religion, ‘Qur’an’)
Any variant version or reading poses serious problems for the average, unconsidered Muslim of today; thus, it is not surprising that they should attempt to conceal any codices that differ from the Uthmanic text. Arthur Jeffery describes just such an attempt at concealment:
[Bergstrasser] was engaged in taking photographs for the Archive and had photographed a number of the early Kufic Codices in the Egyptian Library when I drew his attention to one in the Azhar Library that possessed certain curious features. He sought permission to photograph that also, but permission was refused and the Codex withdrawn from access, as it was not consistent with orthodoxy to allow a Western scholar to have knowledge of such a text… With regard to such variants as did survive, there were definite efforts at suppression in the interests of orthodoxy. (Quoted in The Islamic Invasion, Robert Morey, page 121)
In this spirit, it is worth mentioning two examples of the grammatical errors contained in the Qur’an. The first concerns Surah al-Hujurat, verse 9:
If two parties of believers have started to fight each other, make peace between them.
Here, the verb meaning “have started to fight” is in the plural, whereas it ought to be in the dual, like its subject “two parties”. The second example concerns Surah Taha, verse 63, where Pharaoh’s people say of Moses and his brother Aaron, “These two are magicians.” Here, the word for “these two” (hadhane) is in the nominative case, whereas it ought to be in the accusative case (hadhayne), because it comes after an introductory particle of emphasis. Ali Dashti concludes this example with the following:
Uthman and Ayesha are reported to have read the word as hadhayne. The comment of a Muslim scholar illustrates the fanaticism and intellectual ossification of later times: “Since in the unanimous opinion of the Muslims the pages bound in this volume and called the Qur’an are God’s word, and since there can be no error in God’s word, the report that Uthman and Ayesha read hadhayne instead of hadhane is wicked and false.” (Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad, pages 49, 50)
Qur’anic Variants Today
In the above video, two young sceptics attempt to exhibit 26 different Arabic Qur’ans to the British public. Jay Smith and Hatun Tash take to Speakers’ Corner to go through just a fraction of the 45,377 differences uncovered by Arabic scholars. As is to be expected, the Muslims in attendance react with outrage and disbelief. They attempt to grab the various Qur’ans, and decide to pursue Jay and Hatun after the conclusion of the talk. The YouTube description of the video reads as follows (abridged):
About a year ago, Jay Smith and Hatun Tash attempted to show 26 different Arabic Qur’ans to the world. They didn’t have enough time to show all 26, so they decided to bring the Qur’ans back to Speakers’ Corner to go through just some of the differences. To date, Arabic scholars have found 45,377 differences between the 26 Qur’ans.
The crowd was the largest one there on the day. The Muslims did not stay to listen, as they heard what was being discussed. Once Jay and Hatun had finished, a group of Muslim men surrounded them, asking to be given the Qur’ans. When Jay and Hatun refused, they became physical: they tried to grab the Qur’ans from them, ripping open one of the bags.
The Muslims followed Jay and Hatun, harassing them as they were trying to leave. It wasn’t until they crossed the two streets beyond Speakers’ Corner that they were able to escape. At this point, Jay made a video pointing out just how desperate these Muslims were to keep the Qur’ans concealed.
Muslims will never again be able to claim that the Qur’an is pure and unchanged, nor that it came from Allah, nor that it came from Muhammad, nor that it even came from Uthman.
The doctrine of Qur’anic immutability has been put in serious question by the discovery in 1972 of an ancient manuscript in Sana’a, Yemen (DAM 01-27.1). Using ultraviolet photography and other techniques, researchers have discovered many differences between this manuscript, composed of at least 38 Qur’an leaves, and today’s ‘standard’ Arabic Qur’an. The manuscript actually contains four different Qur’ans: a complete primary and secondary text, both showing later corrections.