The rival codices of the Quran

December 2020

The Codice of Ibn Mas’ud: Abullah Ibn Mas’ud; an authority on the Quran text

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, was one of the most prominent of Muhammad’s companions. He was one of his earliest disciples and we are told that he was ” the first man to speak the Quran loudly in Mecca after the apostle” (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p. 141). Throughout Muhammad’s twelve years of mission at Mecca and until his death at Medina some ten years later Ibn Mas’ud applied himself very diligently to learning the Quran by heart. There is much evidence to show that he was regarded by Muhammad himself as one of the foremost authorities on the Quran, if not the foremost, as appears from the following hadith, Narrated Masruq: Abdullah bin Mas’ud was mentioned before Abdullah bin Amr, who said, “That is a man I still love, as I heard the Prophet  saying, “Learn the recitation of the Quran from four from Abdullah bin Mas’ud – he started with him – Salim, the freed slave of Abu Hudhaifa, Mu’adh bin Jabal and Ubai bin Ka’b”. (Sahih al – Bukhari, Vol. 5, p. 96).

The same tradition in the other great work of hadith also specifically mentions that Muhammad “started from him” (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 4, p. 1312), showing that he was deliberately mentioned first, indicating that Muhammad regarded him as the foremost authority on the Quran. Among the others mentioned is Ubayy ibn Ka’b who also compiled a separate codex of the Quran before it was destroyed by Uthman.

It is significant to find no mention of Zaid ibn Thabit in this list which shows quite conclusively that Muhammad regarded Ibn Mas’ud and Ubayy ibn Ka’b as far better read in the Quran than him. In another hadith we find further evidence of Ibn Mas’ud’s prominence in respect of his knowledge of the Quran: Narrated Abdullah (bin Mas’ud):By Allah other than whom none has the right to be worshipped! There is no Sura revealed in Allah’s Book but I know at what place it was revealed; and there is no verse revealed in Allah’s Book but I know about whom it was revealed. And if I know that there is somebody who knows Allah’s Book better than I, and he is at a place that camels can reach, I would go to him. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 488).

In a similar tradition we read that he added to this that he had recited more than seventy surahs of the Quran in Muhammad’s presence, alleging that all of Muhammad’s companions were aware that no one knew the Quran better than he did, to which Shaqiq, sitting by, added “I sat in the company of the Companions of Muhammad (may peace be upon him) but I did not hear anyone having rejected that (that is, his recitation) or finding fault with it” (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 4, p. 1312).

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud obviously had an exceptional knowledge of the Quran and, as Muhammad himself singled him out as the first person to whom anyone should go who wished to learn the Quran, we must accept that any codex compiled by him would have as much claim to accuracy and completeness as any other. That he was one of the companions who did in fact collect the Quran apart from Zaid ibn Thabit cannot be disputed. Ibn Abi Dawud devotes no less than nineteen pages of his work on the compilation of the Quran manuscripts to the variant readings found between his text and that of Zaid which was ultimately the one standardised by Uthman (Kitab al-Masahif, pp. 54 -73).

Having become a Muslim before even Umar, the second Caliph of Islam, Ibn Mas’ud had been on the hijrahs to both Abyssinia and Medina and had followed Muhammad from Mecca. He participated in both the Battles of Badr and Uhud and his close association with the Prophet of Islam and prestige in the knowledge of the Quran resulted in his codex of the Quran being accepted as the standard text of the Muslims at Kufa before the recension done by Uthman. His reaction to Uthman’s order that all codices of the Quran other than Zaid’s should be burnt is most informative.

Ibn Mas’ud’s Reaction to Uthman’s Decree

When Uthman sent out the order that all codices of the Quran other than the codex of Zaid ibn Thabit should be destroyed, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud refused to hand over his copy.  Why should he have raised any objection to Zaid’s codex at that time? His own codex had become well-established at Kufa while Zaid’s had receded into relative obscurity, simply being retained by the Caliph without any attempt whatsoever to establish it as the standard text for the Muslim community.

It was only when this codex suddenly came into prominence and was decreed to be the official text during Uthman’s reign that Ibn Mas’ud found his codex being threatened. He immediately refused to hand it over for destruction and we are told by Ibn al-Athir in his Kamil (III, 86-87) that when the copy of Zaid’s text arrived for promulgation at Kufa as the standard text, the majority of Muslims there still adhered to Ibn Mas’ud’s text. It must be quite obvious to any objective scholar that, just as Zaid had copied out a codex for Abu Bakr so Ibn Mas’ud simultaneously compiled a similar codex and, given the latter’s exceptional knowledge of the Ouran, his text must be considered to be as accurate and reliable as that of Zaid. The two codices were of probable equal authority and reliability. Because there are a wealth of evidences of differences between the two, however, and as it was Zaid’s text that became the standardised text after Uthman’s recension and the only one used to this day in the Muslim world, it is intriguing to find Muslim writers trying to play down and minimise the importance of Ibn Mas’ud’s codex.

Some Muslim writers claims that his copy contained notes and explanations as well. His copy was for his personal use, not for the use of the Ummah at large, no evidence is given for this claim. In fact it is well known that Ibn Mas’ud’s codex, far from being for his personal use only, was widely used in the region where he was based and, just as Ubayy Ibn Ka’b’s codex became the standard text in Syria before Uthman’s recension, so Ibn Mas’ud’s likewise became the standard text for the Muslim ummah in and around Kufa in Iraq (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab, p. 13). It is virtually impossible to understand how whole manuscripts of the Quran carefully transcribed and widely used in the various provinces, can be reduced to the status of “personal notebooks” least of all how such codices could have become “obsolete” at any time.

Muslim writers resort to such reasoning’s solely because they are determined to maintain the declared textual perfection of the Quran as it stands today to the last dot and letter. As this text is only a revision and reproduction of the codex of just one man, Zaid Ibn Thabit, they have to circumvent the fact that other equally authoritative codices of single companions existed and that all of them, Zaid’s included, differed in many key respects. Thus the text of Zaid has become elevated to “official” status right from the time of its compilation, the other texts have been downgraded to the status of “personal notebooks”, and the argument runs that they were destroyed because they differed from one another without any consideration for the fact that Zaid’s own codex likewise differed from each of them in turn.

We find, in fact, that the reason why he refused to hand over his copy was  because the great companion of Muhammad considered his own text to be superior to and more authentic than Zaid’s and that he was angered at Uthman’s decree. Before Hudhayfah had ever gone to Uthman to call upon him to standardise a single text of the Quran, Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud had some sharp words with him and reacted to his proposal that the different readings in the various provinces should be suppressed. Hudhaifah said “It is said by the people of Kufa,’ the reading of Abdullah (Ibn Mas’ud), and it is said by the people of Basra, ‘the reading of Abu Musa‘. By Allah! If I come to the Commander of the Faithful (Uthman), I will demand that they be drowned”. Abdullah said to him, “Do so, and by Allah you will also be drowned, but not in water”. (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p. 13)

Hudhaifah went on to say, “Abdullah Ibn Qais, you were sent to the people of Basra as their governor (amir) and teacher and they have submitted to your rules, your idioms and your reading”. He continued, “Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud, you were sent to the people of Kufa as their teacher who have also submitted to your rules, idioms and reading.” Abdullah said to him, “In that case I have not led them astray. There is no verse in the Book of Allah that I do not know where it was revealed and why it was revealed, and if I knew anyone more learned in the Book of Allah and I could be conveyed there, I would set out to him”. (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p. 14).

Modern writers  maintain that the only differences between the recitations of the text and the reading of each companion (qira’at) were in pronunciations and dialectical expressions, yet it is once again obvious that what Hudhayfah had in mind was the elimination of the actual written codices being used by Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud and the others – you cannot drown a verbal recitation – and it was this proposal which so angered Ibn Mas’ud and which proves that the differences in readings were in the texts themselves.

In other traditions we find clear evidences that he regarded Zaid’s knowledge of the Quran and therefore his written codex of the text, as inferior to his. After all, Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud had become a Muslim at Mecca before Zaid was even born and he had enjoyed years of direct acquaintance with Muhammad while the early portions of the Quran were being delivered before Zaid ever accepted Islam. Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud said “I recited from the messenger of Allah (saw) seventy surahs which I had perfected before Zaid Ibn Thabit had embraced Islam. Abi Dawud, (Ibn Kitab al-asahif, p 17).” I acquired directly from the messenger of Allah (saw) seventy surahs when Zaid was still a childish youth – must I now forsake what I acquired directly from the messenger of Allah?” (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, p 15 )

In another source we find that, when Uthman’s order came for the destruction of the other codices and the uniform reading of the Quran according to Zaid’s codex alone, Ibn Mas’ud gave a Khutbah (sermon) in Kufa and declared : “The people have been guilty of deceit in the reading of the Quran. I like it better to read according to the recitation of him (Prophet) whom I love more than that of Zayd Ibn Thabit. By Him besides Whom there is no god! I learnt more than seventy surahs from the lips of the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, while Zayd Ibn Thabit was a youth, having two locks and playing with the youth“. (Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab al- Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol 2, p 444.)

The authenticity of Ibn Mas’ud’s text

In the light of all these traditions, which can hardly be discounted, the evasive explanations of modern Muslim writers cannot be accepted. Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud clearly resisted Uthman’s order, not because of sentiment but clearly because he sincerely believed that his text of the Quran gained first-hand from Muhammad himself, was more authentic than the text of Zaid. This conclusion cannot be seriously be resisted by a sincere student of the history of the Quran text and its initial compilation.

There are hundreds of variant readings between the texts of Ibn Mas‘ud and Zaid which show the differences that existed between their codices. They show that the differences in their readings were not purely dialectal or confined to the pronunciation of the text as is conveniently suggested by writers some Muslim writers who are bound to the popular dogma “one text, no variants”, but rather the differences radically affected the contents of the text itself. The extent of the variant readings between all the codices in existence at the time of Uthman before he singled out that of Zaid to be the preferred text at the expense of the others is so great – they fill up no less than three hundred and fifty pages of Jeffery’s ‘Materials for the History of the Text of the Quran’ that one can understand why the others were ordained to be destroyed.

Far from the Quran being universally accepted in a standard form there were, on the contrary, vast differences in the texts distributed in the various provinces. Uthman’s action brought about the standardisation of a single text for the whole of the Muslim world – it was not a perpetuation of an already existing unity – and Zaid’s codex, which from the evidences we have considered had no greater claim to authenticity than Ibn Mas’ud’s, was simply arbitrarily chosen as the standard text because it was close at hand in Medina, had been compiled under the official supervision, and had not become the accepted or rival text of any one province like some of the others before Uthman’s decree.

Ubayy Ibn Ka’b – Master of the Quran reciters

Among the authorities on the Quran other than Abdullah ibn Mas’ud the most well known was Ubayy ibn Ka’b. There are two very interesting hadith relating to his prominence as an expert on the Quran text, the first reading as follows:

  1. Affan ibn Muslim informed us….. On the authority of Anas ibn Malik, he on the authority of the Prophet, may Allah bless him ; he said:The best reader (of the Quran) among my people is Ubayy ibn Ka’b. (Ibn Sa’d. Kitab al- Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 2, p 441). In consequence he became known as Sayyidul-Qurra “the Master of the readers”. Umar himself, the second Caliph of Islam, confirmed that he was in fact the best of all the Muslims in the recitation of the Quran (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol 6, p 489).
  2. Anas b. Malik reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said to Ubayy b. Ka’b: I have been commanded to recite to you the Sura (al-Bayinah), which opens with these words Lam yakunal-lathiina kafaruu. He said: has he mentioned to you my name? He said: Yes, thereupon he shed tears of joy. (Sahih Muslim, Vol 4, p 1313).

Many variant readings between Zaid’s text and the codices of Ibn Mas’ud and Ubayy ibn Ka’b

We are not informed as to why Muhammad considered himself especially obliged to commit parts of the Quran to Ubayy but these two traditions do serve to show how highly regarded he was as an authority on the Quran. Nonetheless his codex also contained a vast number of readings which varied from Zaid’s text and often agreed with Ibn Mas’ud’s text instead.  His order of Suras, in some ways was similar to Zaid’s nonetheless they were different at many points (as-Suyuti, Al – Itqan fii Ulum al-Quran, p. 150).

Detailed studies can show how vastly Ubayy’s text, like Ibn Mas’ud’s and all others, is said to have differed from Zaid’s text which ultimately became standardised as the official reading of the Quran and these examples can serve to show that the variant readings were in the contents of the text itself and not just niceties of pronunciation and recitations many modern Muslim writers choose to assume. There is a very interesting record of a whole verse which was found in Ubayy’s text which was not found in Zaid’s and Ubayy included two extra surahs al-Hafd (the Haste) and al-Khal‘ (the Separation) (as-Suyuti, Al-Itqan, p 152-153).

It is intriguing to consider that, in their likeness to the Surat ul-Fatihah (which extends to their length also – the Fatihah has seven verses while the other two have been set out in three and six verses respectively (Noldeke, Geschichte 2. 35), they were regarded as equal authority from different standpoints by Ibn Mas’ud and Ubayy respectively. The former had none of them in his codex, the latter all three! It seems that Muhammad himself used them interchangeably and that some of his companions were uncertain whether they should be recorded as part of the written kitabullah, especially as each one constitutes a prayer of supplication in the words of the believers and worshippers in contrast to the rest of the Quran where Allah is always made to be the speaker.

We have, given above some consideration to the codices of the two most prominent authorities on the Quran to show how considerably they differed from the codex of Zaid ibn Thabit and how uncertain much of the Quran text was when it was first compiled after the death of Muhammad. We could also go on to consider the numerous other codices that are recorded as having been transcribed before Uthman’s decree that they should be burnt, but let it suffice to say that in each of these as well there were large numbers of variant readings which have been preserved. (Uthman was able to blot out the written codices in which they were recorded, he was unable to erase them from the memories of those who had recorded them).

In fact one should not speak so much of the readings in Zaid’s text as the “standard” readings and of the others as “variant” readings as though the latter were the exception. The truth is that, between all the codices that existed in the early days of Islam – Ibn Mas’ud’s, Zaid’s, Ubayy’s, Abu Musa’d’s, etc. – there were a wealth of differences and Zaid’s readings qualify just as readily as the others do. In his case his qira’at became standardised as the only readings allowable in the Muslim world and copies of his codex were distributed to replace the others in popular use purely to establish a uniform reading of the Quran text.

The eventual compilation of the Quran into a single text

The Quran as it has come down through the centuries is not a single text without any variants that has been divinely preserved without so much as a dispute regarding even one letter as Muslim writers conveniently choose to believe. Rather it is simply but one form of it as it existed during the first two decades after Muhammad’s death, the compilation of but one man, Zaid ibn Thabit, and commissioned for the Muslim world as the only text to be accepted, not by divine decree, but by the arbitrary discretion of yet another single individual, Uthman ibn Affan.

The popular sentiment of the Muslims that the Quran has, right from the beginning, been preserved without the slightest variation in a single text would carry weight if it could be shown that this was the only text accepted by the whole Muslim community from the time of Muhammad himself. The records of the Quran’s compilation in the heritage of Islam, however, show convincingly that there was a whole number of different codices in vogue during the first generation after Muhammad’s demise and that these all varied considerably from one another. The adoption of a single text came only twenty years after his death and only through the unilateral choice of one of the varying codices as the standard text at the expense of the others. The universally accepted text of the Quran in the Muslim world is not so much the mushaf of Muhammad but rather them mushaf of Zaid ibn Thabit, and its unchallenged authority today has come about, not through divine decree or preservation, but by the imposition of one man acting on his own initiative against the many other codices of equal authority which he summarily consigned to the flames.