Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Seven Ahruf and Multiple Qiraat – A Quranic Perspective

Sam Shamoun

In this earlier article, we took a look at the assertion of some of the ahadith that the Quran was “revealed” to Muhammad in seven ahruf, and saw some of the major chaos and problems that this created for the Muslim community. We cited sources showing that the differences between these different renditions of the Quran shocked and greatly disturbed Muhammad’s companions:

Ubayy b. Ka'b reported: I was in the mosque when a man entered and prayed and recited (the Qur'an) in a style to which I objected. Then another man entered (the mosque) and recited in a style different from that of his companion. When we had finished the prayer, we all went to Allah's Messenger and said to him: This man recited in a style to which I objected, and the other entered and recited in a style different from that of his companion. The Messenger of Allah asked them to recite and so they recited, and the Apostle of Allah expressed approval of their affairs (their modes of recitation). And there occurred in my mind a sort of denial which did not occur even during the Days of Ignorance. When the Messenger of Allah saw how I was affected (by a wrong idea), he struck my chest, whereupon I broke into sweating and felt as though I were looking at Allah with fear. He (the Holy Prophet) said to me: Ubayy, a message was sent to me to recite the Qur'an in one dialect, and I replied: Make (things) easy for my people. It was conveyed to me for the second time that it should be recited in two dialects. I again replied to him: Make affairs easy for my people. It was again conveyed to me for the third time to recite in seven dialects. And (I was further told): You have got a seeking for every reply that I sent you, which you should seek from Me. I said: O Allah! forgive my people, forgive my people, and I have deferred the third one for the day on which the entire creation will turn to me, including even Ibrahim (for intercession). (Sahih Muslim, Book 004, Number 1787)

We are even told that in one particular instance, Umar violently manhandled another Muslim due to the difference in his reading of a particular surah which he had personally learned from Muhammad:

Narrated by Umar bin Al Khattab: I heard Hisham bin Hakim bin Hizam reciting Surat-al-Furqan in a way different to that of mine. Allah's Apostle had taught it to me (in a different way). So, I was about to quarrel with him (during the prayer) but I waited till he finished, then I tied his garment round his neck and seized him by it and brought him to Allah's Apostle and said, “I have heard him reciting Surat-al-Furqan in a way different to the way you taught it to me.” The Prophet ordered me to release him and asked Hisham to recite it. When he recited it, Allah's Apostle said, "It was revealed in this way." He then asked me to recite it. When I recited it, he said, "It was revealed in this way. The Qur'an has been revealed in seven ahruf, so recite it in the way that is easier for you." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 041, Number 601)


Narrated 'Umar bin Al-Khattab: I heard Hisham bin Hakim reciting Surat Al-Furqan during the lifetime of Allah's Apostle and I listened to his recitation and noticed that he recited in several different ways which Allah's Apostle had not taught me. I was about to jump over him during his prayer, but I controlled my temper, and when he had completed his prayer, I put his upper garment around his neck and seized him by it and said, "Who taught you this Sura which I heard you reciting?" He replied, "Allah's Apostle taught it to me." I said, "You have told a lie, for Allah's Apostle has taught it to me in a different way from yours." So I dragged him to Allah's Apostle and said (to Allah's Apostle), "I heard this person reciting Surat Al-Furqan in a way which you haven't taught me!" On that Allah's Apostle said, "release him, (O 'Umar!) Recite, O Hisham!" Then he recited in the same way as I heard him reciting. Then Allah's Apostle said, "It was revealed in this way," and added, "Recite, O 'Umar!" I recited it as he had taught me. Allah's Apostle then said, "It was revealed in this way. This Qur'an has been revealed to be recited in seven different ways, so recite of it whichever (way) is easier for you (or read as much of it as may be easy for you)." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 61, Number 514)

We further cited sources to show that Muslims themselves did not (and still don’t!) know what these seven ahruf actually were, with some opining that these were dialectal differences, an opinion which we showed could not correct since, in the case of Umar and Hisham, their differences must have been something else since they both spoke the same dialect, namely Quraishi. In fact, we referenced hadiths which expressly stated that the Quran was supposedly “revealed” in that particular dialect:

Narrated Anas bin Malik: (The Caliph 'Uthman ordered Zaid bin Thabit, Said bin Al-As, 'Abdullah bin Az-Zubair and 'Abdur-Rahman bin Al-Harith bin Hisham to write the Quran in the form of a book (Mushafs) and said to them. “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit (Al-Ansari) regarding any dialectic Arabic utterance of the Quran, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, for the Quran was revealed in this dialect.” So they did it. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 61, Number 507)


Narrated Anas bin Malik: Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur'an, so he said to 'Uthman, "O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Quran) as Jews and the Christians did before." So 'Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, "Send us the manuscripts of the Qur'an so that we may compile the Qur'anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you." Hafsa sent it to 'Uthman. 'Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, 'Abdullah bin AzZubair, Said bin Al-As and 'AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. 'Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, "In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur'an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur'an was revealed in their tongue." They did so, and when they had written many copies, 'Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. 'Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur'anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. Said bin Thabit added, "A Verse from Surat Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur'an and I used to hear Allah's Apostle reciting it. So we searched for it and found it with Khuzaima bin Thabit Al-Ansari. (That Verse was): ‘Among the Believers are men who have been true in their covenant with Allah.’ (33.23)”(Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 61, Number 510)

As such, these could not be differences among the various Arabic dialects.

Suffice it to say, such narratives have proven to be a major source of embarrassment to even modern Muslims, causing them to reject such reports. For instance, the following Muslim provides reasons which he deems to be sufficient to call into question the report concerning Umar’s shock at Hisham’s recitation of Q. 25:

On the following grounds, this Hadith cannot be accepted:

Firstly, the very meaning of this Hadith has baffled everyone, and no one has ever been able to present a convincing explanation of it. Suyuti has cited forty different interpretations of it in his treatise Al-Itqan fi ‘Ulumi’l-Qur’an and after realizing their weakness has admitted in Tanwiru’l-Hawalik, a commentary on the Mu’atta of Imam Malik, that this Hadith should be regarded among the Mutashabihat (i.e. something whose meaning is not known):

To me the best opinion in this regard is that of the people who say that this Hadith is from among matters of Mutashabihat, the meaning of which cannot be understood. (Suyuti, Tanwiru’l-Hawalik, 2nd ed., [Beirut: Daru’l-Jayl, 1993], p. 199)

Secondly, even if the most plausible meaning that the word Ahruf means the various accents and pronunciations which existed in the various tribes of Arabia is taken, the text of the Hadith itself negates this meaning. It is known that both ‘Umar and Hisham belonged to the same tribe: the Quraysh.

Thirdly, even if it is accepted that this difference was of accent and pronunciation between various tribes, the verb unzila (was revealed) is certainly very inappropriate. The Qur’an has specified that it was revealed in the language of the Prophet’s tribe: the Quraysh (See for example: 19:97, 44:58). How can it be accepted that the Almighty Himself revealed the various accents and pronunciations?

Fourthly, it is known that Hisham had accepted Islam on the day Makkah was conquered. If this Hadith is accepted, it would mean that for almost twenty years even the closest companions of the Prophet like ‘Umar was unaware of the Qur’an being revealed in some other reading. This clandestine teaching of course directly contradicts many verses of the Qur’an which direct the Prophet to convey and communicate each and every verse of the Qur’an. See for example 5:67. (Shezad Saleem, Collection and Transmission of the Quran; *; bold emphasis ours)

This leads us to the other major difficulty with the claim that the Quran was “sent down” in seven ahruf. The Muslim scripture claims to be a completely detailed “revelation,” one in which all of its verses are fully explained:

It is He Who has created you from a single person (Adam), and has given you a place of residing (on the earth or in your mother's wombs) and a place of storage [in the earth (in your graves) or in your father's loins]. Indeed, We have explained in detail Our revelations (this Qur'an) for people who understand. S. 6:98 Hilali-Khan

[Say (O Muhammad)] "Shall I seek a judge other than Allah while it is He Who has sent down unto you the Book (The Qur'an), explained in detail." Those unto whom We gave the Scripture [the Taurat (Torah) and the Injeel (Gospel)] know that it is revealed from your Lord in truth. So be not you of those who doubt. S. 6:114 Hilali-Khan

A Book whereof the Verses are explained in detail; A Qur'an in Arabic for people who know. S. 41:3 Hilali-Khan

In light of such assertions, we would expect to find an explicit mention of the fact that Allah would be “sending down” the Quran in seven ahruf or ways. What we, instead, find is the Muslim scripture referring to itself as the recitation (singular), not recitations (plural), which Allah “revealed” to and through Muhammad:

Do not move your tongue with IT (bihi) to make haste with IT (bihi), Surely on Us (devolves) the collecting of IT (jam’ahu) and the reciting of IT (wa’quranahu). Therefore when We have recited IT (qaranahu), follow ITS recitation (qur-anahu). Again on Us (devolves) the explaining of IT (bayanahu). S. 75:16-19 Shakir

Here is another translation of this passage:

MOVE NOT thy tongue in haste, [repeating the words of the revelation:] for, behold, it is for Us to gather IT [in thy heart,] and to cause IT to be read [as it ought to be read]. Thus, when We recite IT, follow thou ITS wording [with all thy mind]: and then, behold, it will be for Us to make ITS meaning clear. Muhammad Asad

In Arabic, the word bihi is a 3rd person masculine singular personal pronoun, qaranahu is a 3rd person masculine singular object pronoun, whereas bihi, jam’ahu and quranahu are all 3rd person masculine singular possessive pronouns. As such, this citation is emphatically testifying to the fact that the Quran has been “revealed” in a single recitation, not several, which therefore conflicts with the traditions that say the Islamic scripture was “sent down” in seven differing readings/recitations/ ways etc.

Nor will it help the Muslims to say that the reason why the Quran speaks of itself as a singular recitation is because all of its various renderings are essentially one, since all of the ahruf are part of the one Quran that Allah “sent down”. The reason why this explanation won’t work is because, as we noted above, the Muslim scripture claims to be a fully detailed revelation which provides a thorough explanation of all of its verses. As such, the Muslim scripture would have had to mention the fact that the Quran is actually a plurality of renderings in one, or that Allah “revealed” it to Muhammad in seven varying ones, all of which make up the one and only Quran which was “sent down”.

Unfortunately for the Muslims, the Quran fails to provide such details which either means that it is not a fully detailed scripture, or that the seven ahruf are a later tradition created to explain all of the variations and contradictions which existed among the various and competing Quranic codices which were in circulation.

So much for the Quran being a perspicuous scripture that has been perfectly preserved.

Related Articles

Textual Variants of the Qur'an
The Compilation and Textual Veracity of the Quran
Challenge to the Muslims Concerning the Quran [Part 1], [Part 3], [Excursus]
The Irreparable Loss of Much of the Quran
The Quran Testifies To Its Own Textual Corruption