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Uthman’s Collection of the Quran

Muhammad Mustafa Al-Azami

Muhammad Mustafa Al-Azami

The following is a traditional Muslim accounting of Uthman’s collection of the Quran. It was taken from Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami, The History of the Quranic Text from Revelation to Compilation, 87-97.1

Uthman’s Mushaf

During the reign of Uthman, selected by popular pledge as the third Caliph, Muslims engaged in jihad to the reaches of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the north. Hailing from various tribes and provinces, these fighting forces possessed sundry dialects and the Prophet, out of necessity, had taught them to recite the Quran in their own dialects, given the difficulty of having them abandon their native tongues so suddenly. But the resultant differences in pronunciation now began producing breaches and conflict within the community.

1. Disputes in Recitation and Uthman’s Response

Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman went to Uthman directly from the Azerbaijani and Armenian frontier where, having united forces from Iraq with others from Syria, he had observed regional differences over the pronunciation of the Quran — differences which had caused friction. “O Caliph”, he advised, “take this umma [community] in hand before they differ about their Book like the Christians and Jews.”2

Such disagreements were not altogether new, for Umar had anticipated this danger during his caliphate. Having sent Ibn Mad’ud to Iraq, and discovered him teaching in the dialect of Hudhail3 (as Ibn Masud had originally learned it), Umar rebuked him:

Umar's rebuke of Ibn Masud that the Quran was revealed in the dialect of Quraish.

Ibn Hajar’s comments are valuable in this regard. “For a non-Arab Muslim who desires to read the Quran, he says, “the most propitious choice is to read according to the Quraishi dialect. That is indeed best for him [as all Arabic dialects for him will be of equal difficulty].”

Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman’s warning to the Caliph came in 25 A.H., and that very year Uthman resolved to end these disputes. Assembling the people, he explained the problem and sought their opinion on recital in different dialects, keeping in mind that some might claim a particular dialect as superior based on their tribal affiliations. When asked for his own opinion he replied (as narrated by Ali bin Abi Talib),

Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman's opinion about dialects of the Quran and the mushaf.

There are two narrations on how Uthman proceeded with this task. In the first of these (which is the more famous) he made copies relying exclusively on the Suhuf [Suhuf here refers to the loose pieces of writing material that Quran was recorded on. The mushaf is a collection of these loose materials into a single volume.] kept in Hafsa’s custody, who was the Prophet’s widow. A lesser-known narration suggests that he first authorised the compilation of an independent Mushaf, using primary sources, before comparing this with the Suhuf. Both versions concur that the Suhuf of Hafsa played a critical role in the making of Uthman’s Mushaf.

2. Uthman Prepares a Mushaf Directly from the Suhuf 

According to the first report Uthman concluded his deliberations and retrieved the Suhuf from Hafsa, arranging immediately for the scribing of duplicate copies. Al-Bara narrates,

 So Uthman sent Hafsa a message stating, “Send us the Suhuf so that we may make perfect copies and then return the Suhuf back to you.” Hafsa sent it to Uthman, who ordered Zaid bin Thabit, Abdullah bin az-Zubair, Said bin al-As and Abdur-Rahman bin al-Harith bin Hisham to make duplicate copies. He told the three Quraishi men, “Should you disagree with Azid bin Thabit on any point regarding the Quran, write it in the dialect of Quraish as the Quran was revealed in their tongue.” So they did so, and when the had prepared several copies Uthman returned to Suhuf to Hafsa…4

 3. Uthman Makes an Independent Copy of the Mushaf

i. Appointing a Committee of Twelve to Oversee the Task

The second account is somewhat more complex. Ibn Sirin (d. 110 A.H.) reports,

Report of Ibn Sirin about Uthman's collection of the Quran.

The identities of these twelve can be pieced together from various sources. Al-Mu’arrij as-Sadusi states, “The newly-prepared Mushaf was shown to (1) Sa`id b. al-`As b. Sa`id b. al-`As for proofreading; he further adds (2) Nafi`b. Zuraib b. `Amr b. Naufal. Others include (3) Zaid b. Thabit, (4) Ubayya b. Ka`b, (5) `Abdullah b. az-Zubair, (6) `Abdur-Rahman b. Hisham, and (7) Kathir b. Aflah. Ibn Hajar lists a few more: (8) Anas b. Malik, (9) `Abdullah b. `Abbas, and (10) Malik b. Abi `Amir. And al-Baqillani complets the set: (11) `Abdullah b. `Umar, and (12) `Abdullah b. `Amr b. al-`As.

ii. Arranging for an Autonomous Copy

Uthman commissioned these twelve to manage this task by collecting and tabulating all the Quranic parchments written int he Prophet’s presence. The great historian Ibn `Asakir (d. 571 A.H.) reports in his History of Damascus: 

Uthman delivered a sermon and said, “The people have diverged in their recitations, and I am determined that whoever holds any versed dictated by the Prophet himself must bring them to me.” So the people brought their verses, written on parchment and bones and leaves, and anyone contributing to this pile was first questioned by Uthman, “Did you learn these verses [i.e. take dictation] directly from the Prophet himself?” All contributors answered under oath, and all the collected material was individually labelled and then handed to Zaid bin Thabit.

Malik bin Abi `Amir relates,

I was among those upon whom the Mushaf was dictated [from the written sources], and if any controversies arose concerning a particular verse they would say, “Where is the scriber [of this parchment]? Precisely how did the Prophet teach him this verse?” And they would resume scribing, leaving that portion blank and sending for the man in question to clarify his scribing.

Thus an independent copy gradually emerged, with the twelve setting aside all uncertainties in spelling conventions so that Uthaman might attend to these personally. Abu `Ubaid lists a few such cases. One uncertainty 

Report of Hani-al-Barbari, a client of Uthman.

iii. Uthman Retrieves the Suhuf from A’isha for Comparison.

`Umar bin Shabba, narrating through Sawwar bin Shabib, reports:

Going in to see Ibn az-Zubair in a small group, I asked him why Uthman destroyed all the old copies of the Quran…He replied, “During `Umar’s reign, an excessively talkative man approached the Caliph and told him that the people were differing in their pronunciation of the Quran. `Umar resolved therefore to collect all copies of the Quran and standardise their pronunciation, but he suffered that fatal stabbing before he could carry the matter any further. During Uthman’s reign this same man came to remind him of the issue, so Uthman commissioned [his independent] Mushaf. Then he sent me to [the Prophet’s widow] A’isha to retrieve the parchments upon which the Prophet had dictated the Quran in its entirety. The independently-prepared Mushaf was then checked against these parchments, and after the correction of all errors he ordered that all other copies of the Quran be destroyed.

There are some useful details in this narration regarding the acquisition of parchments from A’isha’s custody, though by traditionist standards the narrative chain is weak. The following report however lends strength to the previous one. Ibn Shabba narrates on the authority of Harun bin `Umar, who relates that,

When Uthman wanted to make an official copy, he asked A’isha to send him those parchments which were dictated by the Prophet and which she kept in her house. He then ordered Zaid bin Thabit to correct accordingly, as he himself was not free since he wanted to devote his time to governing the people and judging among them.

Similarly Ibn Ushta (d. 360 A.H./971 C.E.) reports in al-Masahif that Uthman, resolving on an autonomous copy using primary sources, sent to A’isha’s house for the Suhuf. In this account a few differences were found, with Uthman’s copy being corrected as necessary.

Gathering these narratives together gives us the following: Uthman prepared an independent copy relying entirely on primary sources,which included the Companions’ parchments along with additional material held by A’isha.

iv. Uthman Retrieves the Suhuf from Hafsa for Verification.

Ibn Shabba reports,

Ibn Shabba's report about Uthman's independent Mushaf (Arabic).

Ibn Shabba's report about Uthman's independent Mushaf (English).

So this time the independent copy was rechecked against the official Suhuf which resided with Hafsa.

One may wonder why Caliph Uthman took the trouble to compile an autonomous copy when the end product was to be compared with the Suhuf anyway. The likeliest reason is a symbolic one. A decade earlier thousands of Companions, engaged in the battles against apostasy in Yamama and elsewhere, were unable to participate in the Suhuf’s compilation. In drawing from a larger pool of written materials, Uthman’s independent copy provided these surviving Companions with an opportunity to partake of this momentous endeavour.

In the above account no inconsistencies were found between the Suhuf and the independent Mushaf, and from this two broad conclusions emerge: first, the Quranic text was thoroughly stable from the earliest days and not (as some allege) fluid and volatile until the third century; and second, the methods involved in compilation during both reigns were meticulous and accurate.

4. The Sanctioning and Distribution of Uthman’s Mushaf 

1. The Final Copy Read to the Companions

This definitive copy, once verified against the Suhuf, was “read to the Companions in Uthman’s presence.”  ((Ibn Kathir, Fada’il, vii:450.)) With the final recitation over, he dispatched duplicate copies for distribution throughout the many provinces of the Islamic nation. His general injunction that people “write down the Mushafs” suggests that he wanted the Companions to make duplicate copies of the Mushaf for their own personal use.

ii. The Number of Certified Copies Made

How many copies did Uthman distribute? According to some reports, four: Kufa, Basra, and Syria, with the last one being kept in Medinah; another account adds Makkah, Yemen and Bahrain. Ad-Dani favours the first report. Prof. Shauqi believes however that eight were made, because Uthman retained one for himself. In support of this, we know that Khalid bin Iyas made a comparison between the Mushaf kept by Uthman and the one prepared for Madinah, and so the premise of eight copies seems the most logical. Al-Yaqubi, a Shiite historian, says that Uthman sent Mushafs to Kufa Basra, Madinah, Makkah, Egypt, Syria, Behrain, Yemen and al-Jazirah, for a total of nine. There is also evidence that during the process of preparing these copies, some people scribed additional ones for their own personal use…

iii. Uthman Burns All Other Manuscripts

With the task complete,the ink on the final copy dry, and duplicate copies dispatched, there was no need for the numerous fragments of the Quran circulating in people’s hands. So all such fragments were burned. Mus’ab bin Sa’d asserts that the peoples were pleased with Uthman’s decision; at the very least no one voiced any objections. Other reports confirm this unanimous approval, including Ali bin Abi Talib who says,

Ali bin Abi Talib's report of Uthman's disposal of Quran fragments.

iv. Uthman Sends Reciters Along with Mushafs

No copy was sent forth without a qari (reciter). These included Zaid b. Thabit to Madinah, Abdullah b. as-Saib to Makkah, al-Mughira b. Shihab to Syria, Amir b. Abd Qais to Basra and Abu Abdur-Rahman as-Sulami to Kufa. Abdul-Fattah al-Qadi says:

Abdul-Fattah al-Qadi's comments about Uthman sending reciters with Quran Mushafs.

Early copies of Uthman’s Mushaf were largely consonantal, frequently dropping vowels and containing no dots..

These copies could be read erroneously in many different ways. In undertaking this second compilation, Uthman’s main purpose was to eliminate all occasion for disputes in recitation; sending a Mushaf by itself, or with a reciter at liberty to devise any reading, was contrary to the unity Uthman sought to establish within the populace. The existence of total unity in the Qur’anic texts throughout the world for fourteen centuries, between all countries and all divergent Muslims sects, is proof enought of Uthman’s unparalleled success in gathering all Muslims upon a single text.

v. Uthman’s Instructions with the Mushafs He Sent

Uthman decreed that all personal Mushafs differing from his own should be burned, as failure to eliminate these would engender further strife. Anas bin Malik reports,

Report of Anas bin Malik about Uthman burning Quran fragments.

Anas’s statement represents only one possible scenario out of many. According to other narratives, Uthman ordained that all earlier copies were to be torn or burned. In another account, by erasing away the ink. Abu Qilaba states, “Uthman wrote to every centre, ‘I have erased what was in my possession, now erase what is in yours.” Once, a delegation travelled from Iraq to Madinah and visited Ubayy’s son, informing him that they had journeyed with great hardship solely to see Ubayy’s Mushaf. He replied that Uthman had taken it away. Perhaps thinking that he was imply reluctant, they repeated their request and he repeated his answer.

Ibn Hajar says that despite most reports incorporating the word at-tahriq, every possibility must be considered. The fate of each fragment rested with the individual possessing it: whether to erase, tear, or burn. I believe one more possibility exists. Some people may have chosen to compare their personal Mushafs with Uthman’s and, where differences appeared, to amend them. Abdul-Ala bin Hakam al-Kilabi’ statement bears this out:

“Entering the house of Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, I discovered him in the company of Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman and Abdullah bin Mas’ud on the top floor…They were gathered around a Mushaf sent by Uthman, accompanied by an order to correct their own copies in accordance with his. Abu Musa told them, ‘Whatever you find in my Mushaf that is addtional [to Uthman’s], do not remove it, and whatever you find missing, write it down.'”5

2. Uthman’s second injunction was not to recite against the script of the Mushaf. The unanimous agreement to dispose of (or amend) all earlier copies made Uthman’s script and spelling the new standard; from then on every Muslim learning the Quran had to conform with the Uthmani text. Where a person’s previous schooling was at odds with this text, he was not granted leave to recite or teach in that divergent manner. So what could a person do? Attending an official reciter’s circle was the simplest solution, to learn the Book in accordance with the conditions laid and thereby regain the privileges of teaching and recitation. Uthman’s unparalleled success in this regard is proof positive that his actions echoed the voice of the community.

5. Studies on Uthman’s Mushaf 

Assurance in the Quran as the Word of Allah, and as the supreme source of legislation and guidance for all entities, is a cornerstone of every Muslim’s beliefs. This veneration impelled Uthman’s contemporaries to quickly begin scrutinising his Mushaf, trekking to the various locales which had received copies and undertaking a word-by-word (in fact a letter-by-letter) inspection, to uncover any disparities between the copies he had dispatched…

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  1. I have omitted most of Azami’s footnotes. []
  2. Al-Bukhari, Sahih, hadith no.4887; Abu Ubaid, Fada’il, p.282. There are many other reports concerning this problem. []
  3. One of the major tribes int he Arabian Peninsula at the time. []
  4. Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, ix:11, hadith no.4987; Ibn Abi Dawud, al-Mashif, pp.19-20; Abu Ubaid, Fadail, p.282 []
  5. Ibn Abi Dawud, al-Masahif, p.35 []

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