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 version of this book; it has always varied from region to region. In this article, we will take a sledgehammer to the doctrine of Qur’anic immutability, drawing upon a variety of sources.
The Composition of the Qur’an
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, and Ali ibn Abi Talib. As Islam spread, we eventually had what became known as the Metropolitan Codices in the centres of Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Kufa and Basrah.
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 Encyclopaedia of Religion (1987), Charles J. Adams comments on the Qur’an as follows:
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.
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 Basrah (died 770 AD);
5. Aasim of Kufa (died 744 AD);
6. Hamzah 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 Qunbul and Al-Bazzi;
3. Ibn Amir of Damascus according to Ibn Dhakwan and Hisham;
4. Abu Amr of Basrah according to Al-Duri and Al-Susi;
5. Aasim of Kufa according to Hafs and Shu’bah;
6. Hamzah of Kufa according to Khallad and Khalaf;
7. Al-Kisai of Kufa according to Al-Layth and Al-Duri.
In the end, for some reason, three systems prevailed: those of Warsh from Nafi of Medina, Hafs from Aasim of Kufa, and Al-Duri from Abu Amr of Basrah. 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.
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. In his seminal work Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur’an, Arthur Jeffery describes just such an attempt at concealment:
An interesting modern example occurred during the last visit of the late Professor Bergstrasser to Cairo. He 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.
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 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 by scholars 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. 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 by Dr. Elisabeth Puin of DAM 01-27.1. There are, however, many other eminent Western scholars who have examined different manuscripts and reached the same conclusion: the Qur’an has a history of textual development. One 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. In the future, we may expand this section into a separate article.
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. However, when Muhammad died, the Muslims were so preoccupied that this verse was eaten by a sheep. To quote Ayesha from Sunan ibn Majah (Volume 3, Hadith 1944):
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.
In Sahih Muslim (Book 17, Hadith 4194), Abdullah bin Abbas narrates a speech by Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Sunni caliph, in which he confirms that the Qur’an used to contain this verse. Umar’s words are as follows:
Verily Allah sent Muhammad (ﷺ) 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. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) awarded the punishment of stoning to death (to the married adulterer and adulteress) and, after him, we also awarded the punishment of stoning. I am afraid that with the lapse of time, the people (may forget it) and may say: “We do not find the punishment of stoning in the Book of Allah”, and thus go astray by abandoning this duty prescribed by Allah. Stoning is a duty laid down in Allah’s Book for married men and women who commit adultery when proof is established, or if there is pregnancy, or a confession.
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.
In Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an, As-Suyuti relates a narration from Ayesha, in which she states that Surah al-Ahzab used to be substantially longer:
During the time of the Prophet, two hundred verses of the chapter Al-Ahzab were recited, but when compiling the Qur’an, Uthman was only able to collect what now exists.
We note, then, that Uthman was unable to find two-thirds of the surah in question.
Sticking with Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an, As-Suyuti relates a narration from Abu Ubaid, in which Umar ibn al-Khattab recalls a verse which the Muslims used to recite during Muhammad’s lifetime. Umar’s words are as follows:
We used to recite: “Do not loath your parents for this on your part, it is a form of disbelief.”
As-Suyuti relates a second narration from Abu Ubaid, describing an exchange between Umar and Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf on the subject of a missing verse:
Umar said to Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf: “I have been unable to find a verse revealed to us, (reading) ‘Strive now, as you have in the past.’ Do you know of its whereabouts?” He replied: “It was effaced, along with everything else that was effaced from the Qur’an.”
As-Suyuti relates a third narration from Abu Ubaid, in which a companion of the Prophet challenges his fellows to recite some missing verses:
Maslama ibn Mukhallad al-Ansari one day said: “Inform me of the two verses of the Qur’an that do not form part of the present text.” Those present, including Abu al-Kunud Sa’d ibn Malik, were unable to inform him. Maslama then recited: “Those who believe, migrate, and strive in the path of God with their possessions and their lives: Be ye joyful, you are the successful ones. As for those who protected and assisted them, and on their behalf, confronted those people who earned God’s wrath, for them is a gratifying reward about which no soul knows a thing. This is a reward for the way they acted.”
As-Suyuti relates a fourth narration from Abu Ubaid, in which Abu Waqid al-Laithi recalls a lost verse which the Prophet shared with him and his fellows:
The Prophet as a rule would teach us any revelation he received. One day he came to us and said: “God says: ‘We have sent down provisions for the establishment of prayer and the institution of zakat. The son of Adam, however, if given one valley’s worth of wealth, would lust for a second, and if given a second, he would lust for a third; nothing would fill his belly (to his satisfaction) except the dust of the grave. But God does forgive all who turn to him.'”
In Sahih Muslim (Book 4, Hadith 1433), Anas ibn Malik, a close companion of the Prophet, recites a verse honouring those who died in the Expedition of Bir Ma’una, but ended up being removed from the Qur’an. Anas’ words are as follows:
Allah the Exalted and Great revealed (a verse) regarding those who were killed at Bir Ma’una, and we recited it, till it was abrogated later on (and the verse was like this): “Convey to our people the tidings that we have met our Lord, and He was pleased with us and we were pleased with Him.”
Returning to Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an, As-Suyuti relates a narration from Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, in which he recalls an entire chapter that the Muslims were told to forget, except for one verse:
We used to recite a chapter that we compared to the musabbihat, but we were made to forget it, except for one verse which I memorised: “O ye who believe! Speak not of that upon which you act not, lest it be recorded against you, and you be asked about it on the Day of Resurrection.”
(9) and (10)
Among the characteristics of the codex of Ubayy ibn Ka’b – revered by the early Muslims as Sayyidul-Qurra, “the Master of the Readers” – is the presence of two surahs absent from the canon of Uthman. The first bears the title Al-Hafd (The Race), and reads as follows:
You (alone) we worship,
and to You (alone) we pray and lie prostrate,
and to You (alone) we proceed and have descendants.
We fear Your torture and hope for Your mercy.
Truly Your torture will overtake the infidels.
Ubayy’s second non-canonical surah, Al-Khal (The Denial), reads as follows:
O Allah, You (alone) we ask for help and forgiveness.
We speak appreciatingly of Your goodness.
Never do we disbelieve You.
We repudiate and disbelieve anyone who follows immorality.
The Ex-Muslim scholar Ibn Warraq concurs with Régis Blachère 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 emigration to Medina, Muhammad was struggling to win people over to Islam. One day, while he was sitting with some eminent men of Mecca by the Ka’ba, he began to recite Surat an-Najm, which describes Gabriel’s visits to Muhammad. When he reached verse 19, which refers to the gods of the Meccan polytheists, Satan intervened to make Muhammad speak positively of them. Here is how Ibn Ishaq describes the affair in his Sirat Rasul Allah:
When the apostle saw that his people turned their backs on him and he was pained by their estrangement from what he brought them from God, he longed that there should come to him from God a message that would reconcile his people to him. Because of his love for his people and his anxiety over them, it would delight him if the obstacle that made his task so difficult could be removed; so he meditated on the project and longed for it and it was dear to him. Then God sent down “By the star when it sets, your comrade errs not and is not deceived, he speaks not from his own desire”, and when he reached His words “Have you thought of Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzza and Manat the third, the other?”, Satan, when he was meditating upon it, and desiring to bring it (reconciliation) to his people, put upon his tongue, “These are the exalted Gharaniq, whose intercession is approved.” When the Quraysh heard that, they were delighted and greatly pleased at the way in which he spoke of their gods and they listened to him.
Indeed, the Meccans were so delighted at this recognition of their gods that they are said to have prayed with the Muslims, as Ibn Ishaq goes on to describe. However, Muhammad was soon 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 Meccan polytheists.
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 Abu Yusuf 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?
It might be appropriate to provide some examples. Verses 1 to 5 of Surat an-Naba 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” in this context. 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 Abdullah 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. To quote the Iranian philosopher Ali Dashti from his magnum opus Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad:
[Abdullah] 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. For example, when the Prophet had said “And God is mighty and wise” (‘aziz, hakim), ‘Abdullah suggested writing down “knowing and wise” (‘alim, hakim), and the Prophet answered that there was no objection. Having observed a succession of changes of this type, Abdullah renounced Islam on the ground 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.
Qur’anic Variants Today
In the YouTube video below, two British 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.