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 the intellectual and moral stagnation which defines the Muslim world today. In this article, we will 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 the Prophet 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. Here is one example:
We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it from corruption. (15.9)
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. However, despite Uthman’s order to destroy all texts other than his own, it is evident that the older codices survived. In the words of historian Charles J. 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 – 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, 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 disguise any codices that differ from the Uthmanic text as “modes of recitation” – or indeed, conceal them outright. Arthur Jeffery describes just such an attempt at concealment:
[Gotthelf 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 by Robert Morey, page 121)
The Sana’a Manuscripts
The doctrine of Qur’anic immutability was put in serious question in 1972 by the discovery of an ancient palimpsest known as ‘DAM 01-27.1’. A palimpsest is a manuscript from which a text has been scraped or washed to make room for another one, in order to reuse the expensive parchment; such a process would normally only be done after several centuries. In the case of DAM 01-27.1, however, it took place within the first century of the hijrah, shortly after the composition of the standard Uthmanic text.
The manuscript was discovered at the ancient Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen. According to the latest academic studies, aided by the use of ultraviolet photography, this manuscript – composed of at least 38 Qur’an leaves – contains many differences when compared with today’s Arabic Qur’an. In the following three examples, select verses from the manuscript are compared with the Standard Text (StT). These changes represent only a small part of the analysis conducted by Dr. Elisabeth Puin, titled ‘Ein früher Koranpalimpsest aus San’ā (DAM 01-27.1)’.
Surah 9, verse 74, reads as follows in today’s standard text of the Qur’an:
And now, here is how this same verse appears in the DAM 01-27.1 manuscript:
In the first word, yatawal-lau (they turn away), the finishing letter, alif (ا), found in today’s Qur’an, is missing in the early manuscript, as indicated by the first empty box above (reading from right to left).
Moreover, after yu’adhib-humul-lahu (Allah will punish them) in the Standard Text, we find athaaban aleeman (with a painful punishment); however, the latter is entirely absent in the Sana’a manuscript, as the second box indicates.
Furthermore, after fid-dunya (in this world) in today’s Qur’an, we find wal-aakhirati (and in the hereafter); this is missing in the early manuscript, which simply reads “in this world”, indicated by the third box.
Surah 9, verse 73, reads as follows today:
The same verse in the DAM 01-27.1 manuscript:
The word jahannamu (hell), featured in the Standard Text, is not there in the early manuscript: instead, we find al-naar (the fire) in its place, as indicated by the box with the interrupted frame.
Surah 9, verse 74, reads as follows in the Standard Text:
Its counterpart in the DAM 01-27.1 manuscript:
The word yaqsimuna (they swear) in the old manuscript, found in the box with the interrupted frame directly above, has been replaced by the different, yet synonymous, yahlifuna in today’s Qur’an. The words that follow, crossed with horizontal lines, have been reconstructed with certainty. After kalimat (the word), the remaining words are unclear.
The grey, shaded area indicates uncertainty about the original word. The room left on the parchment allows only for kalimata’l kufri (the word of disbelief); the next line in the manuscript starts with wahammu bima lam yanalu. However, in today’s Standard Text, kalimata’l kufri is followed by wa kafaru ba’da islaamihim (and disbelieved after their pretence of Islam).
“Why should we listen to Western Orientalist scholars who are known to be against Islam?”
Sadly, there are not many Eastern scholars who dare to approach this subject in an objective manner. A notable exception was Dr. Nasr Abu Zaid, formerly a lecturer in Qur’anic Studies at Cairo University (died in 2011). He argued that the Qur’an is a literary text which needs to be examined through a literary approach. However, in June 1995, the highest court in Egypt ruled that Dr. Zaid was an apostate, causing his marriage to be annulled.
Due to this state of affairs, no Arab scholar has dared to conduct anything close to the detailed study of Dr. Elisabeth Puin on the palimpsest DAM 01-27.1. There are, however, many other eminent Western scholars who have examined different manuscripts and reached the same conclusion: that the Qur’an has a history of textual development. One prominent example would be ‘Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts’ by Dr. Keith Small.
“Was it just a bad copy used by those whom the Uthmanic text had not yet reached?”
This objection is made by Muslims who accept that the manuscripts arose after the Uthmanic text was compiled. Rather than simply admit that the Qur’an in our possession today has changed from the original Uthmanic text, they insist that whoever wrote these manuscripts must not have had access to the ‘perfect’ Uthmanic text. There are, however, several problems with this assumption:
1. The Great Mosque of Sana’a, where the manuscripts were found, was built in the 6th year of the hijrah by some of Muhammad’s companions. It was a centre of Islamic learning; as such, it must have been supplied with the Uthmanic text as soon as it was completed.
2. The palimpsest DAM 01-27.1 actually contains four different Qur’ans: a complete primary and secondary text, both showing later corrections. If the Uthmanic text had not yet reached the mosque, then on what basis were the corrections of the two texts made?
3. The corrected secondary text does not perfectly resemble the Qur’an we have today. Given that these corrections were made on the basis of the Uthmanic text, we must conclude that the Uthmanic text in our possession is different from what it used to be.
Lost Verses and Alterations
Alongside the existence of variant readings of the Qur’an, many verses appear to have been added or lost entirely. At a glance, we can point to ten instances where certain verses and even entire surahs have seemingly been lost altogether.
There is a tradition from Ayesha, the wife of the Prophet, that there once existed a “verse of stoning”, where stoning was prescribed as punishment for fornication – a verse that originally formed a part of the Qur’an, but is now lost. The verse is said to have read as follows:
If the old man and old woman fornicate, stone them to death, as a punishment from God, and God is powerful and wise! (De Prémare, Prophétisme, page 108)
In order to certify the authenticity of this verse, tradition reports this speech attributed to Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Sunni caliph:
God sent Muhammad and revealed the Book to him; and among what he revealed to him there is the verse on stoning. We have recited it, learned and understood it. And God’s Messenger has stoned, and we have stoned after him. (De Prémare, Prophétisme, pages 107 to 108)
The early caliphs carried out such a punishment for adulterers, despite the fact that the Qur’an, as we know it today, only prescribes a hundred lashes. Even in the absence of the verse, however, Islamic law still decrees stoning as the appropriate punishment.
Ayesha is also said to have declared:
Surah 33 of the Confederate Tribes (Al-Ahzab) was read in the time of the Prophet with two hundred verses. But when Uthman wrote the masahif [codex], he was able to assemble only what it contains nowadays [i.e. seventy-three verses]. (As-Suyuti, Itqan III: 66, hadith 4118)
We note, then, that Uthman was unable to find two-thirds of the surah in question.
Similarly, surah 9 (At-Tawba) was supposed to have been as long as surah 2 (Al-Baqara), i.e. 286 verses, whereas now it only has 129. According to certain chroniclers, this major amputation of more than half the original content would explain why this surah does not contain the liturgical formula bismil’lah, and why it is the only one without it. (Abi Muhammad Al-Qaysi, Kitab al-Kashf’an wujuh al-Qira’at al-Sab, page 21).
There is another verse that Umar ibn al-Khattab was said to have been in the habit of reciting during Muhammad’s lifetime:
Do not turn away from the customs of your fathers; this would be impious on your part. (As-Suyuti, Itqan III: 68, hadith 4126)
The following dialogue is reported between Umar and a companion on the subject of a misplaced verse:
Umar said to Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf: “Did you not find among what was revealed to us this verse: “May you fight like you fought the first time!”? For I could not find it!” And he replied: “It has disappeared from the Qur’an.” (As-Suyuti, Itqan III: 68, hadith 4127)
During the battle of Bi’r Ma’una, there was said to have been revealed a verse that Anas ibn Malik, a companion of the Prophet, had the habit of reciting as part of the Qur’an:
Make known to those close to us that we have met our Lord who was satisfied with us and who satisfied us. (As-Suyuti, Itqan, III: 68, hadith 4130)
Anas concludes that this verse ended up “returning to heaven”.
Another seemingly lost verse reads as follows:
We have made riches descend [on men] in order that they might make prayers and offer the zakat. And if the son of Adam had a river [of silver], he would want another one, and if he had two of them, he would want a third. But the belly of the son of Adam will only be filled with earth, and God only pardons he who mends his ways. (As-Suyuti, Itqan, III: 68, hadith 4122)
Attributed to Abu Musa al-Ash’ari is a verse from the non-canonical Qur’an that he is said to have preserved from oblivion. It reads as follows:
O you who believe! Do not say that which you do not do, to avoid a testimony being written against you and having to answer for it at the Day of Judgement. (As-Suyuti, Itqan, III: 68, hadith 4125)
(9) + (10)
Among the characteristics of the codex of Ubayy ibn Ka’b is the presence of two surahs absent from the canon of Uthman. The first bears the title ‘The Denial’ (Al-Khal) and reads as follows:
In the name of Allah, the merciful Benefactor!
O, my God, from You we implore aid and pardon!
We praise you. We are not unfaithful to you.
We renounce and leave those who scandalise you.
Ubayy’s second non-canonical surah, ‘The Race’ (Al-Hafd), reads as follows:
In the name of Allah, the merciful Benefactor!
O, my God, it is you we adore.
In your honour, we pray and bow down.
Toward you we go running.
We await your mercy.
We fear your punishment.
In truth, Your punishment must strike the Infidels.
The ex-Muslim scholar Ibn Warraq agrees with Blachere’s opinion that these apocryphal surahs are distinguished from the first surah (Al-Fatiha) only through “some nuances in the language and by the slightly clumsy style.” He also thinks that they might have been removed from the Uthmanic codex because they duplicated Al-Fatiha.
What are we to make of all this? Well, the Prophet himself may have forgotten some verses, the companions’ memory may have equally failed them, and the collectors may also have mislaid some verses.
We also have the notorious incident of the Satanic Verses, which clearly shows that Muhammad himself suppressed some verses. The story goes that during his days in Mecca, before the flight to Medina, Muhammad was sitting with some eminent men of Mecca next to the Ka’ba when he began to recite surah 53, which describes Gabriel’s first visit to Muhammad and then goes on to the second visit:
He also saw him [Gabriel] another time
By the Lote tree at the furthest boundary
Near to which is the Paradise of rest.
When the Lote tree covered that which it covered,
His sight turned not aside, neither did it wander
And verily he beheld some of the greatest Signs of his Lord.
What do you think of Lat and Uzza
And Manat the third beside?
At this point, we are told that Satan put into his mouth words of reconciliation and compromise:
These are exalted Females
Whose intercession verily is to be sought after.
Of course, the Meccans were delighted at this recognition of their deities and are said to have prayed with the Muslims, according to Al-Tabari and Waqidi. But Muhammad himself was visited by Gabriel who reprimanded him and told him that the true ending to the verse should have been:
What! Shall there be male progeny unto you, and female unto Him?
That were indeed an unjust partition!
They are naught but names, which ye and your fathers have invented.
Muslims have always been uncomfortable with this story, unwilling to believe that the Prophet could have made such a concession to idolatry, and that he could be so easily misled by Satan. Nonetheless, it explains why many of those who fled to Abyssinia eventually returned: they had heard that the Meccans had converted. It seems that this was no sudden lapse on the part of Muhammad, but a carefully orchestrated manoeuvre designed to win the support of the Meccans.
Furthermore, the unevenness of the Qur’anic style – by which we mean abrupt changes of style, breaks in grammatical construction, and so on – is evidence for a great many alterations in the Qur’an. To quote the Christian scholar Al-Kindi, writing around 830 AD:
The result of all this [process by which the Qur’an came into being] is patent to you who have read the scriptures and see how, in your book, histories are jumbled together and intermingled; an evidence that many different hands have been at work therein, and caused discrepancies, adding or cutting out whatever they liked or disliked. Are such, now, the conditions of a revelation sent down from heaven? (Quoted in Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices by A. Rippin, page 26)
It might be appropriate to provide some examples. Verse 15 of surah 20 is totally out of place: the rhyme (in Arabic, obviously) is different from the rest of the surah. Verses 1 to 5 of surah 78 have been added on artificially, as both the rhyme and the tone of the rest of the surah changes. In the same surah, verses 33 and 34 have been inserted between verses 32 and 35, thus breaking the obvious connection between 32 and 35. The surah should read like this:
Gardens and vineyards; they shall not hear therein any vain words nor lying.
Instead, it reads like this:
Gardens and vineyards; And voluptuous women of equal age; And a pure cup. They shall not hear therein any vain words nor lying.
In addition, to explain certain unusual words or phrases, the formula “What will explain to thee what this is?” or “What will convey unto thee what this is?” is added to a passage, after which a short explanatory description follows. It is clear that these explanatory glosses – twelve, in total – have been added on at a later time, as in many instances, they do not correspond to the original meaning of the word or phrase. A prominent example can be seen in Surat al-Qari’ah. Verse 9 refers to the plight of a mother who has lost her son, describing her as “hawi’ah”, meaning bereft or lonely. However, verses 10-11 redefine hawi’ah as hellfire:
A bereft and hungry one will be his mother. And what will convey unto thee what this is? A raging fire.
We also have the story of Abd Allah bin Sa’d abi Sarh, the former scribe of the Prophet, who renounced Islam after witnessing how readily the Qur’an could be altered with Muhammad’s approval. In the words of Ali Dashti:
[Abd Allah] had for some time been one of the scribes employed at Medina to write down the revelations. On a number of occasions he had, with the Prophet’s consent, changed the closing words of verses. When the Prophet had said “And God is mighty and wise,” Abd Allah suggested writing down “knowing and wise” and the Prophet answered that there was no objection. Having observed a succession of changes of this type, Abd Allah renounced Islam on the grounds that the revelations, if from God, could not be changed at the prompting of a scribe such as himself. After his apostasy he went to Mecca and joined the Qurayshites. (Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad, page 98)
Qur’anic Variants Today
In the above YouTube video, two young sceptics attempt to exhibit twenty-six different Arabic Qur’ans to the British public. Jay Smith and Hatun Tash take to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park 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, ripping open one of their bags, and pursue Jay and Hatun after the conclusion of the talk. An abridged description of the video reads as follows:
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 DAM 01-27.1 palimpsest.