A Problem Regarding the Text and Transmission of the Qur'an

Many Muslims assume that the Qur'an is superior to all other Scriptures. They say that since the Qur'an is the Word of God, therefore God has preserved it perfectly from the time of Muhammad to the present. Or, they may also suggest, since God has perfectly preserved the Qur'an without the slightest blemish, therefore God demonstrates that the Qur'an is the Word of God. Wonderfully, they may continue, even though God has allowed the previous Scriptures like the Bible to be corrupted, He has perfectly safeguarded the purity of the Quranic text by enabling the early Muslim community both to write it and memorize it as soon as Gabriel conveyed it to Muhammad. And He will safeguard it always. Previous Scriptures, now corrupted and superseded by the Qur'an, have become irrelevant. The Qur'an alone judges all other Scriptures and cannot be judged by them.

Generally Muslims have accepted that the Qur'an, perfectly edited by Muhammad and Gabriel prior to Muhammad's death, was transmitted perfectly through the mediation of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, the first three successors of Muhammad. When in the reign of Uthman, Arabic dialectical differences increased as the Muslim empire expanded, Uthman had a new recension of the Qur'an prepared by Muhammad's secretary, Zaid ibn Thabit, in the Quraish dialect, the dialect of Muhammad, and sent it to the Islamic Empire's centers of Kufah, Basrah, Damascus and Mecca. At the same time, he ordered the destruction of all other existing copies. All copies today depend on this standard official text of Uthman.

The problem with this version of many Muslims regarding the collection and transmission of the Qur'an is the vast amount of evidence from good Muslim sources that conflicts with it. Here we limit our discussion to one segment of the evidence, namely, the fact that prior to the recension of Uthman, other Qur'an collectors and reciters had engaged in preparing their own Qur'an codices. Of these we refer to two individuals: Abdullah ibn Mas`ud and Ubai ibn Ka`b.

1. Before Uthman's Qur'an was sent to Kufah, the people of Kufah used a Qur'an prepared by Abdullah ibn Mas`ud, a servant and Companion of Muhammad, one of the earliest reciters of the Qur'an, and one of the four persons to whom Muhammad guided his followers to learn the Qur'an. He claimed that he had learned about 70 surahs directly from Muhammad. Since he was considered an authority on the Qur'an and lived in Kufah, it is not surprising that he refused to give up his copy of the Qur'an in favour of Uthman's copy and that the Kufans supported his decision.

Islamic source materials reveal significant differences between Uthman's text and text of Ibn Mas`ud. Ibn Mas`ud's text even omits Surahs 1, 113 and 114.1 Jeffery's collection of his variant readings occupies 89 pages of his book!2

2. A second of the four reciters of the Qur'an singled out by Muhammad as the best teachers of the Qur'an was Ubai ibn Ka`b. He served as a secretary for Muhammad in Medina and eventually compiled his own pre-Uthmanic text of the Qur'an which spread especially in Syria. Many of his variant readings agree with those in Ibn Mas`ud's text. His compilation is especially distinguished by the addition of two extra surahs, a distinction which was shared also by the codex of Ibn Abbas, the renowned Quranic commentator. These surahs in translation read:

O Allah, we seek your help and ask your forgiveness,
and we praise you and do not disbelieve in you.
We separate from and leave who sin against you. (al-Khal', `Separation')

O Allah, we worship you and to you we pray and prostrate
and to you we run and hasten to serve you.
We hope for your mercy and we fear your punishment.
Your punishment will certainly reach the unbelievers (al-Hafd, `Haste')3

From the above evidence alone, it is obvious that many variant readings from pre-Uthmanic collections of the Qur'an continue to exist even after Uthman's order that they be destroyed.

Would it surprise the reader of Yusuf Ali's Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur'an, as it did this reader, that Yusuf Ali refers to a variant reading in Ubai ibn Ka`b's codex of the Qur'an which reads: "... and he is a father to them"? With this addition, Qur'an 33:6 would read:

The Prophet is closer
To the believers than
Their own selves,
And he is a father to them
And his wives are
Their mothers...

Why does Yusuf Ali cite this variant? Is it possible that he sees this variant as an improvement? Moreover, why does he refer to different Qur'an readings, however small, in Notes 2666 and 2948?4

In fairness to Yusuf Ali's edition of the Qur'an, references should be made to Abul Ala' Mawdudi's "Introduction" to this edition (pp. 21-43), particularly to the sections "Compilation" and "Differences and Dialects", which include a discussion on variant readings in the Qur'an. After reading this, however, one is still left with the difficulty of resolving the tension between this text's acknowledged existence of Quranic variations vs. this same text's assertion that

none can have any doubt whatsoever regarding its authenticity and immunity and purity from any and every kind of addition or omission or alteration, for there is nothing so authentic in the whole human history as this fact about the Qur'an that it is the same Qur'an that was presented by the Holy Prophet to the world.5

Finally, the point is simply this: A Muslim who insists that the text of the Qur'an has been perfectly and flawlessly transmitted during and from the time of Muhammad to the present, with no shadow of doubt regarding the purity of its text, is obviously free to do so, if he so chooses. If he has decided to ignore or casually dismiss evidence to the contrary, who is to stop him! Yet, in such a case, could at least his better informed fellow Muslims help him see the problems connected with the compilation and transmission of the Quranic text as Islamic source materials reveal them? And, further, could they encourage him to avoid proving the superiority of the Qur'an over other Scriptures on the basis of the perfection of the Quranic text and its transmission vs. the defects of the text and the transmission of other Scriptures? The histories of both the Bible and the Qur'an reflect problems of text and transmission. The sooner both Muslims and Christians realize this, the better their opportunity for more honest communication on issues of faith between them.


1 Ali Dashti, Twenty Three Years, tr. F.R C. Bagley, Allen and Unwin, London, discusses the reason on pp. 148-149.

2 Arthur Jeffery, Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur'an, Brill, Leiden, 1937.

3 Ahmed von Denffer, `Ulum al Qur'an, The Islamic Foundation, Leicester, 1985, p. 48.

4 A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'an, 2nd edition, American Trust Publications, 1977, pp. 1104, 822, 893.

5 Ibid., p. xxxv. The recent English translation (The Holy Qur'an, King Fahd Holy Qur'an Printing Complex), much dependent upon Yusuf Ali's English edition, omits Yusuf Ali's references to the variant readings and Mawdudi's "Introduction". Why??

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