The Uthmanic recension

December 2020

Disputes as to the correct standard text of the Quran

About nineteen years after the death of Muhammad, when Uthman had succeeded Abu Bakr and Umar as the third Caliph of Islam, a major new development took place in the standardising of the Quran text. The Muslim general Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman led an expedition into northern Syria, drawing his troops partly from Syria and partly from Iraq.

It was not long before disputes arose between them as to the correct reading of the Quran. They had come from Damascus and Homs, from Kufa and Basra, and in each centre the local Muslims had their own codex of the Quran. The codex of Abdullah ibn Mas’ud became the standard text for the Muslims at Kufa in Iraq while the codex of Ubayy ibn Ka’b became revered in Syria. Hudhayfah was disturbed by this and after consulting Sa’id ibn al-As, he reported the matter to Uthman. What followed is described in the following hadith:

Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sha’m and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Quran, so he said to Uthman,’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 Quran so that we may compile the Quranic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you'. Hafsa sent it to Uthman. Uthman then ordered Zaid ibn Thabit, Abdullah bin az  Zubair, Sa’id bin al-As, and Abdur-Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. Uthman said to the three Qurraishi men,’ In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Quran, then write it in the dialect of the Qurraish as the Quran 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 Quranic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, P. 479).

For the first time in the official works of the Hadith literature we read of other codices that were being compiled, in addition to the one done by Zaid for Abu Bakr, and that these were widely accepted and well-known, certainly far more so than the codex of Zaid which by this time was in the private possession of Hafsah. While some of those texts consisted only of a selection of portions, it is clearly stated that others were complete codices of the whole Quran.

The motive for destroying variant codices

What was the motive for Uthman’s order that these other codices should be destroyed and that the codex of Zaid alone should be preserved and copied out to be sent in replacement of the other texts to the various provinces? Was it because there were serious errors in these texts and that Zaid’s alone could be considered a perfect redaction of the original text? There is nothing in the original records to suggest that this was the motive. The following tradition gives a more balanced picture of the circumstances and causes which prompted Uthman’s action and why he chose Zaid’s codex as the basis on which the Quran text was to be standardised for the Muslim community. Ali is reported to have said of Uthman:

By Allah, he did not act or do anything in respect of the manuscripts except in full consultation with us, for he said, ‘ What is your opinion in this matter of qira’at (reading)? It has been reported to me that some are saying ‘ My reading is superior to your reading’. That is a perversion of the truth‘ We asked him, ‘ What is your view (on this) ” He answered,’ My view is that we should unite the people on a single text then there will be no further division or disagreement’. We replied, ‘ What a wonderful idea ! Someone from the gathering there asked, ‘ Whose is the purest (Arabic) among the people and whose reading (is the best)? ‘They said the purest (Arabic) among the people was that of Sa’id ibn al-‘As and the (best) reader among them was Zaid ibn Thabit. He (Uthman) said,’ Let the one write and the other dictate’. Thereafter they performed their task and he united the people on a (single) text. (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahf p. 22).

The motive is twice stated in this extract to simply be the desire to bring consensus among the Muslims on the basis of a single Quran text. It was not to destroy the other manuscripts because they were considered unreliable but rather to prevent future dissension among the inhabitants of the different provinces. Some Muslim apologists who agree that these other codices were authentic texts of the Quran, state that they were destroyed purely to obtain uniformity in the text. They reason that Zaid’s codex was the “official” text and that the others were unofficially transcribed, but they do not regard the variant readings in them as evidence of corruption of the text but rather as illustrative of the fact that, according to a hadith text, the Quran was revealed in seven different ways and that the simplest and safest way to ensure the prevalence of the standardized copy was to eliminate all other copies.

It was this objective alone – the “prevalence of a standardized copy”, based on a single text that had motivated Uthman’s action. After all, this was the reason why Hudhayfah had approached him the first place. “It was Hudhayfah who impressed upon Uthman the need to assemble the texts into a single text” (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al- Masahif p. 35). Just as Abu Bakr, at the time of the first recension of the Quran, had sought to obtain a complete record of the text from all the diverse sources whence it could be obtained, so now Uthman sought to standardise the text as against the varying codices that were gaining authority in the different centres.

The Standardiizing of the Quran

Why, then, did he choose Zaid’s codex as the basis for this purpose? The tradition quoted above once again underlines the authority that Zaid enjoyed in respect of the text of the Quran and the overall authenticity of his codex can not be disputed. It was also done under official supervision but cannot be regarded as having become the official text, while the other codices are considered to have been “compiled unofficially”. Its almost immediate concealment from public view and the lack of publicity given to it are proofs that it was never intended to be regarded as the standard text of the Quran. Unlike the codices which were gaining fame and widespread acceptance in the provinces, Zaid’s text was conveniently close at hand and, not being known among the Muslims in those provinces, it was not regarded as a rival text.

The standardising of a Medinan text at the seat of Uthman’s government also enabled him to suppress the popularity and authority of other reciters in areas where Uthman’s rule had become unpopular because he was placing members of his own family, the descendants of Umayya who had opposed Muhammad for many years, in positions of authority over and above many more well-known companions who had been faithful to him throughout his mission. Zaid’s text was, therefore, not chosen because it was believed to be superior to the others but because it conveniently suited Uthman’s purposes in standardising the text of the Quran.

Uthman called for this text and it became promptly transformed from a private text shielded for many years in almost complete public obscurity into the official codex of the Quran for the whole Muslim community. It was Uthman who standardised Zaid’s codex as the official text and gave it widespread prominence, not Abu Bakr. While Zaid was clearly one of the foremost authorities on the Quran his text as compiled under Abu Bakr cannot be regarded as having been more authentic than the others. The “official” supervision of its compilation was only that of the elected successor to Muhammad. Had it been the Prophet of Islam himself who had authorised and supervised the codification of the text it could well have laid claim to being the official text of the Quran, but it was only the product of a well-meaning successor compiled by but one of the most approved authorities on the text. We are not dealing here with a compilation ordered and supervised by the Prophet of Islam with a divine guarantee of its absolutely perfect preservation but rather with an honest attempt by a young man, ultimately at his own discretion as to what should be included or excluded, and that only under the eye of a subsequent leader, to produce as accurate a text as he possibly could.

Once again it must be borne in mind that, once compiled, Abu Bakr did not impose it upon the Muslim community as Uthman later did, so it cannot be regarded as having become the official codex of the Quran before Uthman’s time. Uthman’s action was drastic, to say the least. No one of the other codices was exempted from the order that they be destroyed. It can only be assumed that the differences in reading between the various texts were so vast that the Caliph saw no alternative to an order for the standardising of one of the texts and the annihilation of the rest. The fact that none of the other texts was spared shows that none of the codices, Zaid’s included, agreed with any of the others in its entirety. There must have been serious textual variants between the texts to warrant such action. One cannot assume that Zaid’s text, hidden from public view, just happened to be the perfect text and that, wherever it differed from the others, they must have been in error. Such a convenient shielding of this codex from the disputes about the reading of the Quran is unacceptable when the matter is considered objectively.

Zaid’s text was simply one of a number of codices done by the companions of Muhammad after his death and shared in the variant readings found between them all. In its favour is the consideration that it had been compiled under Abu Bakr by one of the foremost authorities of the Our’an. Its preference also depended, however, on the fact that, not being widely known, it had been sheltered from the disputes surrounding the others and it was, of course, conveniently close at hand.

Furthermore, it was not an official text as we have seen but a compilation done by just one man, Zaid ibn Thabit, in the same way as those of Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and the others had been compiled. It was not the authorised text of Muhammad himself but simply one form of it among many then in existence and uncorroborated in every single point by the others in circulation. It was compiled under the discretion of only one man and came to official prominence purely because Uthman chose it as the appropriate one to represent the single codex he wanted to establish for the whole Muslim community.

Modern Muslim writers who make bold claims for the absolute perfection of the Quran text as it stands today are aware that evidences of a host of different readings in the earliest manuscripts will make such claims sound hollow indeed, so they argue that the differences were not in the texts themselves but only in the pronunciation of the Quran as it was recited.

Siddique states this argument in the following way : “Usman was not standardising one out of several texts. There never was more than one text. r’Usman was standardizing the recitation of the Quran and making sure that it would remain in the dialect of the Quraish in which it was originally revealed. He was concerned at points of difference in intonation between Iraqi and Syrian troops in the Islamic army ” (Al-Balaagh, op. cit. p. 2). The claim is that, if there were any differences in reading, they were only in pronunciation, in “the recitation” and “intonation” of the text. This argument is based entirely on faulty premises. Pronunciation, recitation and intonation relate only to a verbal recital of the text and such differences would never have appeared in the written texts. Yet it was the destruction of these written texts that Uthman ordered.

We need. to consider further that, in the earliest days of the codification of the Quran in writing, there were no vowel points in the texts. Thus differences in recitation would never have appeared in the written codices. Why, then, did Uthman burn them? There can only be one conclusion – the differences must have existed in the texts themselves. Uthman was standardising one text at the expense of the others and it was not little niceties in the finer points of recitation that occasioned his extreme action against the other codices but the prevalence of a vast number of variant readings in the text itself.

The challenge for modern Muslims

Muslims need to consider and ponder Uthman’s action seriously. The Quran was believed to be the revealed Word of God and the codices then in existence were written out by the very closest companions of Muhammad himself. What value would be placed on those Quran manuscripts if they were still in existence today? These were hand written codices carefully copied out, some as complete records of the whole Quran text by the most prominent of Muhammad’s companions who were regarded as authorities on the text. It was these codices that Uthman eliminated. Uthman burnt and destroyed complete manuscripts of the whole Quran copied out by Muhammad’s immediate companions.

If there had not been serious differences between them, why would he thus have destroyed such cherished copies of what all Muslims believe to be the revealed Word of God? One cannot understand the casualness with which modern Muslim writers justify his action especially if, as Siddique claims, there had never been any differences in the texts. What would Muslims think if anyone had a ceremony today such as Uthman had then, and consigned a number of Qurans to the flames, especially if these were cherished hand – written texts of great antiquity? Uthman burnt such Quran texts and destroyed them. Only one explanation can account for this – there must have been so many serious variant readings between the texts themselves that the Caliph saw only one solution – the establishment of one of these as the official text for the whole Muslim community and the elimination of the others.

So it became expedient to eliminate six authorised forms of Qira’at and retain just one and although the most meticulous effort must have gone into writing and completing the other codices of the Quran, the reading of these texts would have been too much like hard work for the Caliph. One can only marvel at the manner in which such Muslims can unemotionally reason favourably about the wholesale destruction of what are said to have been authentic codices of the book they cherish so dearly. It would be interesting to see what the maulana’s reaction would be if someone today ordered a similar destruction of such highly – prized hand – written texts of the Quran for such expedient reasons as he gives in these quotes, or if someone decided to do a film of the events surrounding Uthman’s decree.

The order to consign all but one of the Qurans in existence to the flames at such a crucial time cannot be explained away so lightly. Muslim writers are not seriously assessing the gravity of Uthman’s decree. Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reacted very strongly to Uthman’s order and we are also informed that when Uthman enquired into the grievances among the Muslims who were rising in opposition to him, one of their complaints against him was his destruction of the other Quran codices, that he had “obliterated the Book of Allah (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif p. 36). They significantly did not just say it was the musahif (manuscripts), the usual word used for the Quran codices compiled before Uthman’s decree, but the kitabullah, the “Scripture of Allah”, to emphasise their severe antagonism to his wanton extermination of such important manuscripts of the Quran.

Uthman succeeded in his immediate objective, namely to impose a single text of the Quran on the Muslim world with the simultaneous destruction of all the other codices in existence. To the extent that the Muslim world today indeed has a single text of its revered scripture, it cannot be said that this text is a precise record of the Quran as Muhammad delivered it or that its claim to be inerrant was unchallenged by others which were brought to codification at the same time. It was not Allah who arranged the text exactly in the form in which it is laid down but rather the young man Zaid and that only to the best of his ability and according to his own discretion, nor was it Muhammad who codified it for the Muslim ummah (community) but Uthman ibn Affan, and that only after a complete revision had taken place with the simultaneous destruction of other codices which differed from it and which, nevertheless, were compiled by other companions of Muhammad whose knowledge of the Quran was in no degree inferior to that of Zaid ibn Thabit.

The Uthmanic recension of the Quran may well have established only one text as the authorised text for the whole Muslim world, but it simultaneously eliminated a wealth of codices which were widely accepted in the various provinces and which had as much right as Zaid’s to be recognised as authentic copies. At-Tabari records (1.6.2952) that the people said to Uthman ” The Quran was in many books, and you have now discredited them all but one,” indicating that Zaid’s text was not considered to enjoy any preference over them in authenticity or authority. Nevertheless, even though the codices were eliminated, the variant readings between them were recorded and well-known c/f Abdullah ibn Mas’ud and Ubayy ibn Ka’b.