Abstract

When one considers the miracle of the Qur’an, a topic which is often highlighted is that of its preservation and there is very good reason for this. There are three significant reasons as to why the Qur’an should not have been preserved:

  1. There was no one unified Arabic dialect at the time of its revelation.
  2. The Arabs were still developing their orthography.
  3. The Arabs had not published any document for mass public use unifying the Arabs.

“And We have certainly made the Quran easy to remember. So is there anyone who will be mindful?”

Qur’an (54:17)
Raised Image

No Unified Arabic Dialect

In the first case, various Arab tribes at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) spoke differing dialects of the Arabic language. . [1] While this initially may not present itself as a problem, the fact that the Qur’an managed to transcend the literary fluency of all the dialects of the many tribes while retaining the unity of its message, eloquence and theological consistency is a testament to its metaphysical origins. The Qur’an in essence, managed to standardize and unify the language of the Arabs and the Arabs themselves through the mechanisms of the Ahruf and the Qira’at. . [2]

Such a serious and difficult problem is addressed directly in the Qur’an as it says in Qur’an 54:17, “And We have certainly made the Quran easy to remember. So is there anyone who will be mindful?” This easing in one sense refers to the mechanisms of the Ahruf and the Qira’at, as one narration from Ubayy ibn Ka’b states:

Permission to recite the Qur’an in seven styles was given after the hijrah: Ubayy ibn Ka’b reported that the Messenger of Allah was near the Banū Ghifar’s watering place when Jibril came to him and said: “Allah has commanded you to recite to your people the Qur’an in one harf.” Upon [hearing] this, he said: “I ask for Allah’s pardon and forgiveness. My people are not capable of doing it.” He came a second time and said: “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur’an to your people in two ahruf.” Upon [hearing] this, he again said: “I seek Allah’s pardon and forgiveness. My people would not be able to do so.” He (Jibril) came for a third time and said: “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur’an to your people in three ahruf.” Upon [hearing] this, he said: “I ask Allah’s pardon and forgiveness. My people would not be able to do it.” He then came to him for a fourth time and said: “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qur’an to your people in seven ahruf, and in whichever they recite, they will be right.” . [3]

Ubayy ibn Ka’b

Another popular narration from the Prophet (peace be upon him) conveys the idea that the Qur’an was meant to be a transgenerational unifier: “The Prophet (S) met Jibril and told him: “I have been sent to an illiterate people, among them are the old woman, the aged shaykh, the [male] servant and the female servant, and the man who has never read a book.” Jibril said to him: “O Muhammad, the Qur’an has been revealed in seven ahruf.” . [4] The Qur’an as a mechanism itself for the unity and prominence of the Arabs has been recognized by non-Muslim scholars of dialectology as well, Prof. Clive Holes writes:

“Though the Arabian poets of the pre-Islamic ‘Time of Ignorance’ (al-jahiliyya) were and still are celebrated for the magnificence of their mono-rhyming odes (qasa'id ), it was the revelation of the Qur'an, and in Arabic, which, in the popular imagination, moved the language and the people who spoke it to centre stage in world history.” . [5]

Prof. Clive Holes

He proceeds to state that the Qur’an’s repeated references to its use of Arabic and of its message to the Arabs provided a medium to facilitate the development of a newly emerging shared culture through its religious influence:

“This is surprising, but probably not significant, as by this time the generic concept of ‘Arabs’ based on a common language and shared elements of culture (such as the tribal poetry which was then circulating) must have existed at least in embryonic form. More likely than any esoteric meaning, it seems to this writer that the Qur’an’s repeated insistence on the ‘Arab/Arabic’ nature of its message was intended to promote a distinctive linguistic facet of this emerging shared culture, to which it was now adding a new religious dimension.” . [6]

Prof. Clive Holes

That the Qur’an managed this feat is indeed of significant note and this should have been one main reason as to why it should not have been preserved. Had they wished, rival tribes could have merely emended the Qur’an to suit their dialects as opposed to accepting the various Qira’at of the Prophet (peace be upon him), yet in the end it is the opposite which occurred. This is exemplified by the presence of the glottal stop which at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had fallen out of use in the Hijaz. . [7]

The Development of Arabic Orthography

Writing itself played no significant role among the Arabs, as Dr. Alain George writes:

"Poetry was highly valued as the foremost art form and the cement of Arab identity. Writing, on the other hand, was occasionally used for votive or proclamatory inscriptions carved onto rocks in the desert, and also possible for correspondence on such portable documents as papyri. When they did write in those early days, the Arabs did so in a variety of scripts associated with the local language of prestige: for example, South Arabian in some extant inscriptions a Qaryat al-Faw, between the Yeen and the Hijaz; Dadanitic in Dedan; and, at the northern frontier of the peninsula, Nabataen. . [8] "

Dr. Alain George

The primitivity of the Arabic rasm cannot be underscored, Dr. Alain George explains: “At the time of the Qur’anic revelation, the Arabs already had at their disposal a set of well-formed, if primitive letter shapes.” . [9] Yet this primitive-like state of the Arabic rasm did not detract from the transmission and preservation of the Qur’an, but rather expedited it: “The orthography of the copies (maṣaḥif) of the ‘Uthmanic writ (maṣḥaf al-imam) is intended to preserve the soundly transmitted and authentic recitations, not to initiate or create a recitation.” . [10] It would have been easy for the Qur’an to be lost in transmission due to the primitive state of Arabic orthography during Islam’s nascent period in Arabia during the early seventh century. Indeed, such a scenario is not hypothetical but one which impacts modern readers of the Qur’an. In one recent case, a Christian missionary did not understand the fundamentals of Arabic orthography and so the presence of a singular dot above the Arabic letter qaf, . [11] presumably led her to reason that the letter was the Arabic letter fa. . [12] Ignorance of various Arabic rasm styles in this one case led this missionary to misread the word sadaqatin in Qur’an 2:261 (263 in the Qira’ah of Hafs ‘an Aasim) as sadafatin (seashells). . [13]

The verse in the recitation of Hafs ‘an Aasim reads: “Kind words and forgiveness are better than charity followed by injury. And Allah is Self-Sufficient, Most Forbearing.” Their emendation to the passage would have changed it to read: “Kind words and forgiveness are better than seashells followed by injury. And Allah is Self-Sufficient, Most Forbearing.” Therefore, the possibility of a non-standard rasm affecting the transmission of the Qur’an is not only plausible but demonstrable, yet there is not a single instance of a new Qira’ah being conveyed due to an error (lapsus calami) or intentional change (emendation) due to its orthography. The preponderance of the Uthmanic rasm therefore plays a pivotal, if not essential role in the preservation and transmission of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an: The First Public Document Published by the Arabs

As per Dr. George, the Qur’an is the first mass transmitted, publicly proclaimed for public use work of literature conveyed by the Arab peoples. . [14] Not only did the Qur’an have to overcome dialectical challenges and palaeographical challenges, the Arabs also had to develop a system of transmission capable of preserving its recitations without change. So few were those who were even partially literate that the early Muslims even utilized the enemies of Islam to educate them so that they would be able to read the Qur’an. . [15] Here then, was also another possible point of weakness where had the enemies of Islam chosen to negatively impact the transmission of the Qur’an, they could have done so, yet this again was not the case. Today it is easy to convey a message to the public, we can post Tweets, send mass emails, text, print sheets of paper in a matter of seconds, yet none of these were options available to the Muslims in 7th century Arabia. They were not a literate people, they did not have scriptoria as the Graeco-Romans possessed centuries earlier, they did not have a developed orthography, they did not have systems for the mass proclamation of information, and in despite of all these challenges the Qur’an overcame them all.

Conclusion

There can only be one reason for the Qur’an’s success given the challenges it faced. As Dr. Altikulaç writes:

"Apparently, the Holy Qur’an was protected not only by the Hafizuns [sic] (people who have memorized the complete Qur’an) reading and memorizing but also thanks to its script and spelling. It exists in the same way that it was revealed and recorded fourteen centuries ago. These written documents are the actual and material manifestations of the divine revelation to the effect that “Behold, it is We Ourselves who have bestowed from on high, step by step, this reminder: and, behold, it is We who shall truly guard it [from all corruption]”. . [16]"

Dr. Altikulaç

Notes

  • . [1] “In the Hijaz, most of the population lived a pastoral life centred on nomadic tribes, which spoke a multiplicity of related dialects. The main urban centres were oasis towns of modest size, such as Mecca, Medina (then known as Yathrib), Dedan or Ḥegra.” See page 21 in Dr. George’s work. George, Alain. The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy. London: Saqi, 2010. “Many commentators point out that the Arabs, who in most cases were illiterate and had various ways of pronounciation [sic] or dialects, found it very hard to abandon their dialects and ways of recitation all at once. As a result, they tried to cling strongly to their dialects.” See page 23 in Dr. Al Imam’s work. Al Imam, Ahmed Ali. Variant Readings of The Quran: A Critical Study of Their Historical And Linguistic Origins. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), 2006.
  • . [2] See pages 115 to 116 in Dr. Taqi Usmani’s work which defines what the Ahruf are and their relation to the Qira’at of the one Qur’an. Usmani, Muhammad Taqi, M. S. Siddiqui, and Rafiq Abdur Rehman. An Approach to the Quranic Sciences. New Delhi: Adam Publishers & Distributors, 2010.
  • . [3] See page 23 in Dr. Al Imam’s work. Al Imam, Ahmed Ali. Variant Readings of The Quran: A Critical Study of Their Historical And Linguistic Origins. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), 2006.
  • . [4] See page 23 in Dr. Al Imam’s work. Al Imam, Ahmed Ali. Variant Readings of The Quran: A Critical Study of Their Historical And Linguistic Origins. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), 2006.
  • . [5] See page 2 in Prof. Clive Hole’s work. Holes, Clive. Arabic Historical Dialectology: Linguistic and Sociolinguistic Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • . [6] See page 4 in Prof. Clive Hole’s work. Holes, Clive. Arabic Historical Dialectology: Linguistic and Sociolinguistic Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • . [7] “But this can mean no more than the fact the Qur’an is mainly in the Qurayshī dialect, for it contains features from other dialects, such as the retention of hamzah, which generally disappears in the Ḥijazī dialect.” See page 30 in Dr. al Imam’s work. Al Imam, Ahmed Ali. Variant Readings of The Quran: A Critical Study of Their Historical And Linguistic Origins. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), 2006.
  • . [8] George, Alain. "On the Rise and Meaning of Islamic Calligraphy." Hadeeth Ad-Dar 33 (2011): 10. http://islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/articles/Hadith-Dar-33-2011/Hadith-33-George-2011-Calligraphy.pdf.
  • . [9] See page 21 in Dr. George’s work. George, Alain. The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy. London: Saqi, 2010.
  • . [10] See page 19 in Dr. Al Imam’s work. Al Imam, Ahmed Ali. Variant Readings of The Quran: A Critical Study of Their Historical And Linguistic Origins. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), 2006.
  • . [11] “Sea-shells? Debunking differences in Warsh Quran Mansur vs Christan | Speakers Corner,” Youtube video, 20:50, “SCDawah,” May 20, 2018, https://youtu.be/SfUde_0wudQ?t=1201
  • . [12] Fa meaning the Arabic letter ف and Qaf meaning the Arabic letter ق.
  • . [13] Sadaqatin meaning the Arabic word صدقة, and Sadafatin meaning the Arabic word صدفة.
  • . [14] “Until the Qur’anic revelation, the Arabs had had a predominantly oral culture, with poetry as its main artistic expression. Within decades of the rise of Islam, a new empire emerged which placed script at the heart of its identity, creating an art profoundly distinct from the age of old iconographies of Byzantium and Sasanian Iran, yet able to stand on a part with them.” “Before Islam, the cultural sphere of the Arabs extended far to the north of the Arabian Peninsula, into the desert areas between Syria and Iraq. In the peninsula itself, most of the population lived a nomadic life based on tribal allegiances, although there were also cities of modest size, such as Makkah and Yathrib (later known as Madinah). Poetry was highly valued as the foremost art form and the cement of Arab identity. Writing, on the other hand, was only occasionally used for votive or proclamatory inscriptions carved onto rocks in the desert, and also possibly for correspondence on such portable documents as papyri.” George, Alain. "On the Rise and Meaning of Islamic Calligraphy." Hadeeth Ad-Dar 33 (2011): 10. http://islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/articles/Hadith-Dar-33-2011/Hadith-33-George-2011-Calligraphy.pdf .
  • . [15] See page 56 in Dr. Azami’s work. Al Azami, Muhammad Mustafa. The History of the Quranic Text: From Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments. Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, 2011.
  • . [16] See pages 82-83 in Dr Altikulaç’s work. Altikulaç, Tayyar, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and Salih Sadawi. Al-Mushaf Al-Sharif Attributed to Uthman Bin Affan (the Copy at The Topkapi Palace Museum). Istanbul: Organisation of the Islamic Conference/Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, 2007.

Bibliography

  1. Al Azami, Muhammad Mustafa. The History of the Quranic Text: From Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments. Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, 2011.
  2. Al Imam, Ahmed Ali. Variant Readings Of The Quran: A Critical Study of Their Historical And Linguistic Origins. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), 2006.
  3. Altikulaç, Tayyar, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and Salih Sadawi. Al-Mushaf Al-Sharif Attributed to Uthman Bin Affan (the Copy at The Topkapi Palace Museum). Istanbul: Organisation of the Islamic Conference/Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, 2007.
  4. George, Alain. The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy. London: Saqi, 2010.
  5. George, Alain. "On the Rise and Meaning of Islamic Calligraphy." Hadeeth Ad-Dar 33 (2011): 10 . http://islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/articles/Hadith-Dar-33-2011/Hadith-33-George-2011-Calligraphy.pdf .
  6. Holes, Clive. Arabic Historical Dialectology: Linguistic and Sociolinguistic Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  7. “Sea-shells? Debunking differences in Warsh Quran Mansur vs Christan | Speakers Corner,” Youtube video, 20:50, “SCDawah,” May 20, 2018, https://youtu.be/SfUde_0wudQ?t=1201
  8. Usmani, Muhammad Taqi, M. S. Siddiqui, and Rafiq Abdur Rehman. An Approach to the Quranic Sciences. New Delhi: Adam Publishers & Distributors, 2010.

Ijaz Ahmad

Ijaz Ahmad has studied the Qur'an and the Bible for more than a decade.