The Transmission of the Kur'an

NOT many sacred books are better known than the Kur'an, and only a few of them have more obscure origins. The outcome of early Kur'anic researches was summarised in Hammer's well-known verdict: "We hold the Kur'an to be as truly Muhammad's word as the Muhammadans hold it to be the word of God." This, however, has not been found in the last few years to be irrefragable. Scholars who like Nöldeke had believed that the Kur'an was wholly authentic, without any interpolation - "Keine Fälschung; der Korân enthält nur echte Stücke"1 - were obliged to revise their opinion and admit without restriction the possibility of interpolations ("Ich stimme aber mit Fischer darin überein, dass die Möglichkeit von Interpolationen im Qoran unbedingt zugegeben werden muss").2

In England, where the views of Nöldeke had gathered considerable weight, no serious attempt was made for some years to study the subject afresh. It is, therefore, with warm welcome that one receives original and well-considered opinions such as those found in Hirschfeld's "New Researches," in St. Clair Tisdall's "Original Sources," and in D. S. Margoliouth's masterly publications.3 The first writer has suggested that the four verses in which the name "Muhammad" occurs were spurious.4 In the same sense many good works have lately appeared in France, the gist of which is embodied in Lammens' studies in the series Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, and in the interesting book of Casanova who has demonstrated convincingly the existence of many interpolated passages.5

We do not intend to offer in the present essay an exhaustive investigation of the sacred book of Islam, nor to dilate on minutiæ regarding a given verse in particular; we propose to write on something more essential and more general, on the all-important question of how the book called al-Kur'an, which most of us read in a more scientific and comparative way than a Zamakhshari or a Baidawi ever knew, has come to be fixed in the form in which we read it in our days.


The first historical data about the collection of the Kur'an have come down to us by the way of oral Hadith, and not of history. This is very unfortunate; because a critic is thrown into that medley and compact body of legends, true or false, genuine or spurious, which began to receive unchallenged credit at the time of the recrudescence of Islamic orthodoxy which gave birth to the intolerant Caliph Mutawakkil (A.D. 847-861). The reader is thus astonished to find that the earliest record about the compilation of the Kur'an is transmitted by Ibn Sa'd (A.D. 844) and by the traditionists Bukhari (A.D. 870) and Muslim (A.D. 874). Before their time nothing is known with certainty, not even with tolerable probability, and the imposing enumeration of early commentators dwindles in face of the fact that two thirds of their authority and at least one third of their historicity are thrust back into the mist of the prehistoric; at the most they could have been some of those oral "Kurra's" of whom L. Caetani has spoken in his "Annali dell' Islam."6

The most ancient writer, Ibn Sa'ad, has devoted in his tabakat7 a long chapter to an account of those of the "Companions" who had "collected" the Kur'an in the time of the Prophet. He has preserved ten somewhat contradictory traditions, in which he enumerates ten different persons, each with a list more or less numerous of traditions in his favour;8 these persons are: 'Ubayy ibn Ka'b (with eleven traditions); Mu'adh (with ten traditions); Zaid ibn Thabit (with eight traditions); Abu Zaid (with seven traditions); Abud-Darda (with six traditions); Tamimud-Dari (with three traditions); Sa'ad ibn 'Ubaid (with two traditions); 'Ubadah ibnus Samit (with two traditions); Abu Ayyub (with two traditions); 'Uthman ibn 'Affan (with two traditions).

On page 113 another curious addition informs us that it was 'Uthman ibn 'Affan who collected the Kur'an under the Caliphate of 'Umar, and, therefore, not in the time of the Prophet. Another tradition reported by the same author, already noticed by Nöldeke,9 attributes the collection of the Kur'an in suhufs to the caliph 'Umar himself.

The second in date, but the most important, Muslim traditionist; Bukhari, has a very different account in connection with the collectors of the Kur'an in the time of the Prophet.10 According to one tradition which he reports, these collectors were four Helpers: 'Ubayy ibn Ka'b, Mu'adh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, Abu Zaid.11 According to another tradition they were: Abud-Darda, Mu' adh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, Abu Zaid.

On page 392 is found the famous tradition endorsed by many historians, and recently by the present writer also,12 on the authority of Nöldeke; it states that the Kur'an was collected in the time of Abu Bakr, and not in the time of the Prophet:

"We have been told by Musa b. Isma'il, who heard it from Ibrahim b. Sa'd, who heard it from ibn Shihab, who said that Zaid b. Thabit said: 'At the massacre of Yamamah, Abu Bakr summoned me,13 while 'Umar ibnul-Khattab was with him'; and Abu Bakr said: 'Slaughter has waxed hot among the readers of the Kur'an, in the day of Yamamah, and I fear that it may again wax hot among the readers in other countries as well; and that much may be lost from the Kur'an. Now, therefore, I deem that thou shouldest give orders for the collection of the Kur'an.' I said to 'Umar, 'How doest thou something that the Apostle of God - may God pray on him and give him peace - has not done?' And 'Umar said: 'By Allah, this is good.' And 'Umar did not cease to renew it repeatedly to me, until God set my breast at ease towards it, and I considered it as 'Umar had considered it. Zaid added and said: 'Abu Bakr then said "Thou art a young man and wise, against whom no man can cast an imputation, and thou wast writing down the Revelation for the Apostle of God - may God pray on him and give him peace - search out then the Kur'an and collect it." By Allah, if I were ordered to transfer a mountain it would not have been more difficult for me than this order to collect the Kur'an; and I said: 'How canst thou do something that the Apostle of God - may God pray on him and give him peace - has not done'; and (Abu Bakr) said: 'By Allah, this is good'; and he did not cease to renew it repeatedly to me, until God set my heart at ease towards it, as He has done for 'Umar and Abu Bakr - may God be pleased with both of them - and I sought out the Kur'an, collecting it from palm-branches, white-stones, and breasts of men. . . . And the Suhufs (scrolls) were with Abu Bakr until God took him to Himself, then with 'Umar, in all his life-time, then with Hafsah, the daughter of 'Umar - may God be pleased with him."14 This tradition proves that the Kur'an was all collected (a) under the caliphate of Abu Bakr, and (b) exclusively by Zaid ibn Thabit.

The tradition is immediately followed by another which runs thus:

"We have been told by Musa b. Isma'il, who took it from Ibrahim, who said that he had been told by Ibn Shihab, who said that Anas b. Malik told him as follows: 'Hudaifah b. Yaman went to 'Uthman, and he had fought with the inhabitants of Syria for the conquest of Armenia and had fought in Adhurbaijan with the inhabitants of 'Irak; and because their divergencies in the recital of the Kur'an had terrified him, Hudaifah said to 'Uthmaan "O, Commander of the Faithful, overtake this nation before they have discrepancies about the Book as the Jews and the Christians have."' 'Uthman, therefore, sent to Hafsah saying: 'Send us the Suhufs in order that we may transcribe them in the masahifs; and then we will send them back to thee.' And Hafsah sent them to 'Uthman, who ordered Zaid ibn Thabit, and 'Abdallah b. Zubair, and Sa'id b. 'As, and 'Abdur-Rahman b. Harith b. Hisham, to transcribe them in the masahifs. And 'Uthman said to the company of the three Kuraishites: 'If there is divergence between you and Zaid b. Thabit about anything from the Kur'an, write it down in the dialect of the Kuraishs, because it has been revealed in their dialect';15 and they did it, and when they transcribed the suhufs in the masahifs, 'Uthman gave back the suhufs to Hafsah, and sent to every country a mishaf of what they had transcribed, and ordered that everything else from the Kur'an (found) in (the form of) Sahijah or mishaf should be burnt."16

This is the oral record which, appearing 238 years after the Prophet's death, was accepted as true and authentic, to the exclusion of any other, by the most eminent Orientalists of the last century, led by Nöldeke. Why we should prefer these two traditions to the great number of the above traditions sanctioned by Ibn Sa'd, an author anterior by twenty-six years to Bukhari, and by Bukhari himself, I do not know. Professor Casanova remarks: "Quant à admettre une seule des traditions comme vraie au détriment de l'autre, c'est ce qui me paraît impossible sans tomber dans l'arbitraire."17 Nöldeke, however, believes that Bukhari is right and Ibn Sa'd wrong, because if the Kur'an was collected in the time of the Prophet, why should people have taken such trouble to collect it after his death? ("Wenn sie aber den ganzen Qorân gesammelt hatten, warum bedurfte es denn später so grosser Mühe, denselben zusammenzubringen?").18 But the question is, Why should we prefer at all the story of Bukhari to that of Ibn Sa'd who is at least credited with priority of time? What should we do then with the other two traditions of Bukhari which are in harmony with Ibn Sa'd in assigning the collection of the Kur'an to the lifetime of the Prophet? What, too, should we make of the tradition reported by Ibn Sa'd to the effect that the Kur'an was collected by 'Uthman b. 'Affan alone, under the caliphate of 'Umar? What, finally, should we say about the numerous persons who in the traditions reported above alternate so confusedly in this "collection"? Which of them has effectively collected and which of them has not?

In examining carefully all these oral traditions coming into play more than 230 years after the events, at the time of those numerous polemics in which the Muslim writers were obliged to use the same weapons as those handled by the People of the Book, we are tempted to say that the same credence ought to be attributed to them as that which has long ago been attributed to the other Isnadic lucubrations of which only those who read the detailed oral compilations of Bukhari and his imitators have a true idea. "La (critique) a mis en pleine lumière la faible valeur documentaire, sinon de la primitive littérature islamique, du moms du riche développement ultérieur, représenté notamment par le recucil de Bokhari."19 Another authorised writer20 has justly pointed out: "Les détails qui entourent cette figure principale (de Muhammad) sont vraiment bien estompés et finissent même par s'effacer dans la brume de l'incertitude. Not many years ago similar honours of genuineness were conferred upon the imposing list of the so-called "early Arabian poems," but the last nail for the coffin of the majority of them has lately been provided by Professor D. S. Margoliouth;21 and it is to be hoped that, until fuller light dawns, they will never rise again.

We quote, with some reserve, the ironical phrases of an able French scholar: "Nous l'avons noté précédemment: à côté des poètes, nous possédons la Sira, les Maghazi, les Sahih, les Mosnad, les Sonan, bibliothèque historique unique en son genre, comme étendue et variété. A leur témoignage concordant qui oserait dénier toute valeur?"22

We can dispense with traditional compilers of a later date who throw more confusion than light on the theme, and who for the most part only quote their masters Bukhari, Muslim, and Tirmidhi; Nöldeke has already referred to the majority of them,23 and the critic who has time to spare, can easily examine them in his book. We must mention, however, the account of the author of the Fihrist who, although writing several years after the above traditionists, is nevertheless credited with a considerable amount of encyclopædic learning which many a writer could not possess in his time. After giving the tradition of Bukhari which we have translated, he devotes a special paragraph to the "Collectors of the Kur'an in the time of the Prophet,"24 and then proceeds to name them without any Isnad. They are according to him: - 'Ali b. Abi Talib, Sa'd b. 'Ubaid, Abud-Darda, Mu'adh b. Jabal, Abu Zaid, 'Ubayy b. Ka'b, 'Ubaid b. Mu'awiah. These names occur in the list of Ibn Sa'd and that of Bukhari combined; but the Fihrist adds two new factors: 'Ali b. Abi Talib, and 'Ubaid b. Mu'awiah.

The historian Tabari has another account:25 "'Ali b. Abi Talib, and 'Uthman b. 'Affan wrote the Revelation to the Prophet; but in their absence it was 'Ubayy b. Ka'b and Zaid b. Thabit who wrote it." He informs us, too, that people said to 'Uthman: "The Kur'an was in many books, and thou discreditedst them all but one";26 and after the Prophet's death, "People gave him as successor Abu Bakr, who in his turn was succeeded by 'Umar; and both of them acted according to the Book and the Sunnah of the Apostle of God - and praise be to God the Lord of the worlds; then people elected 'Uthman b. 'Affan who ... tore up the Book."27

A more ancient historian, Wakidi,28 has the following sentence in which it is suggested that 'Abdallah b. Sa'd, b. Abi Sarh, and a Christian slave, ibn Qumta, had something to do with the Kur'an. And ibn Abi Sarh came back and said to Kuraish: "It was only a Christian slave who was teaching him (Muhammad); I used to write to him and change whatever I wanted." And the pseudo-Wakidi (printed by Nassau Lees29) brings forward a certain Sharahbil b. Hasanah as the amanuensis of the Prophet.

A second series of traditions attributes a kind of collection (Jam') of the Kur'an to the Umayyad Caliph 'Abdul Malik b. Marwan (A.D. 684-704) and to his famous lieutenant Hajjaj b. Yusuf. Barhebræus30 has preserved the interesting and important Tradition: "'Abdul-Malik b. Marwan used to say, 'I fear death in the month of Ramadan - in it I was born, in it I was weaned, in it I have collected the Kur'an (Jama'tul-Kur-ana), and in it I was elected Caliph.'" This is also reported by Jalalud-Din as Suyuti,31 as derived from Tha'alibi.

Ibn Dukmak in his Description of Egypt,32 and Makrizi in his Khitat,33 say about the Kur'an of Asma: "The reason why this Kur'an was written is that Hajjaj b. Yusuf Thakafi wrote Kur'ans and sent them to the head-provinces. One of them was sent to Egypt. 'Abdu1-'Aziz b. Marwan, who was then governor of Egypt in the name of his brother 'Abdul-Malik, was irritated and said: "How could he send a Kur'an to a district of which I am the chief?" Ibnul-Athir34 relates that al-Hajjaj proscribed the Kur'an according to the reading of Ibn Mas'ud. Ibn Khallikan35 reports that owing to some orthographical difficulties such various readings had crept into the recitation of the Kur'an in the time of al-Hajjaj that he was obliged to ask some writers to put an end to them, but without success, because the only way to recite rightly the Kur'an was to learn it orally from teachers, each word in its right place.

At the end of this first part of our inquiry, it is well to state that not a single trace of the work of the above collectors has come down to posterity, except in the case of 'Ubayy ibn Ka'b and Ibn Mas'ud. The Kashshaf of Zamakhshari and in a lesser degree the Anwarut-Tanzil of Baidawi record many Kur'anic variants derived from the scraps of the Kur'an edited by the above named companions of the Prophet. The fact is known to all Arabists and does not need explanation. We need only translate a typical passage from the newly published Dictionary of learned men of Yakut36: "Isma'il b. 'Ali al-Khatbi has recorded in the "Book of History" and said: "The story of a man called b. Shanbudh became famous in Baghdad; he used to read and to teach the reading (of the Kur'an) with letters in which he contradicted the mishaf; he read according to 'Abdallah b. Mas'ud and 'Ubayy b. Ka'b and others; and used the readings employed before the mishaf was collected by 'Uthman b. 'Affan, and followed anomalies; he read and proved them in discussions, until his affair became important and ominous; people did not tolerate him any more, and the Sultan sent emissaries to seize him, in the year 323; he was brought to the house of the vizier Muhammad b. Muklah who summoned judges, lawyers, and Readers of the Kur'an. The vizier charged him in his presence with what he had done, and he did not desist from it, but corroborated it; the vizier then tried to make him discredit it, and cease to read with these disgraceful anomalies, which were an addition to the mishaf of 'Uthman, but he refused. Those who were present disapproved of this and hinted that he should be punished in such a way as to compel him to desist. (The vizier) then ordered that he should be stripped of his clothes and struck with a staff on his back. He received about ten hard strokes, and could not endure any more; he cried out for mercy, and agreed to yield and repent. He was then released and given his clothes ... and Sheikh Abu Muhammad Yusuf b. Sairafi told me that he (b. Shanbudh) had recorded many readings."

A study of Shi' ah books reveals also some variants derived from the recension of 'Ali's disciples. They will be discussed in a subsequent article.



1 "Orientalische Skizzen," p. 56.

2 "Geschichte des Qorans," 2nd edit. by Schwally, 1909, p. 99, No. 1.

3 The accusation very recently directed against the Arabists of this country by a well-known writer, that they are still living on Muir, is a meagre tribute to the leading Arabist of Oxford and his colleagues of Cambridge; to take as examples some second-hand authors and scientifically worthless Islamisers is highly unjust.

4 "New Researches into the Composition and Exegesis of the Qoran," p. 189;

5 "Mohammed et la fin du monde," 2ème fascicule, "Notes Complémentaires," pp. 149-156.

6 Cf. THE MOSLEM WORLD, 1915, p. 380.

7 Edit. Schwally, II, pp. 113-114.

8 Cf. Casanova, Ibid., p. 109.

9 "Geschichte des Qorans," 1800, p. 193.

10 Bukhari, III, p. 397 (edit. Krehl).

11 The same tradition is copied by "Muslim," II, p. 494 (edit. Dehli) and by "Tirmidhi," II, p. 309 (edit. Bulark).

12 "Leaves from three Ancient Kur'ans," 1914.

13 The speaker is Zaid ibn Thabit mentioned in the foregoing traditions.

14 This same tradition is reported in III and in IV 398.

15 This information has been copied by another traditionist ("Tirmidhi;" II, 187) and by many subsequent writers.

16 Var. "torn up."

17 Ibid., II, 105.

18 "Geschichte des Qorans", 1860, p. 160

19 R. Dussaud, in Journal des Savants, 1913. p. 133.

20 Huary, in Journal Asiatique, 1913, p. 215.

21 J.R.A.S., 1916, p. 397.

22 Lammens "Le berceau de l'Islam," p. 130.

23 "Geschicte des Qorans," p. 189, sq.

24 p. 27 (edit. Flügel).

25 2, 2, 836.

26 Ibid. I, 6, 2952

27 Ibid. II, 1, 516.

28 "History of Muhammad's Campaigns," 1856, p. 68 (edit. Kremer).

29 Vol. I, p. 14.

30 "Chron. Arab," p. 194 (edit. Beirut).

31 pp. 227

32 Pt. I, 72-74.

33 II, 454 (noticed by Casanova, p. 124).

34 IV, 463 (noticed by Périer, "vie d' al-Hadjdjadj," p. 257).

35 Vol. I, p. 183 (edit. Baron de Slane).

36 Cf. "Fihrist," pp. 26-27.

37 VI, pp. 301-302 (edit. D.S. Margoliouth).

The Journal of the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society, 1916.

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