The following is a Muslim explanation of multiple readings in the Quran (sometimes called variants) taken from Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami, The History of the Quranic Text from Revelation to Compilation, 153-155. 1I have omitted most of Azami’s footnotes.
1. The Need for Multiple Readings: Simplifying Recitation for Unaccustomed Masses
The unity of dialect which the Prophet had been accustomed to in Makkah vanished with his arrival in Madinah. Islam’s spread over the Arabian expanses meant the incorporation of new tribes with new dialects, and for some of them the purity of the Quraishi vernacular proved difficult. In his Sahih, Muslim quotes the following hadith.
Ubayy bin Ka’b reported that the Prophet was near the locale of Banu Ghifar when Jibril came to him and said, “Allah has commanded you to recite the Quran to your people in one dialect.” To this he said, “I ask Allah’s pardon and forgiveness. My people are not capable of this.” He then appeared for the second time and said, “Allah has commanded that you should recite the Quran to your people in two dialects.” The Prophet replied, “I seek pardon and forgiveness from Allah, my people would not be able to do so.” Jibril came for the third time and said, “Allah has commanded you to recite the Quran to your people in three dialects,” and again he responded, “I ask pardon and forgiveness from Allah. My people would not be able to do this.” He then came to him for the fourth time and stated, “Allah has permitted you to recite the Quran to your people in seven dialects, and in whichever dialect they recite, they will be correct.” 2Muslim, Sahih, Kitab as-Salat, hadith no. 1789, as translated into English by A. Siddiqi (with some modifications).
Ubayy (bin Ka’b) also reported,
Over twenty Companions have narrated hadiths confirming that the Quran was revealed in seven dialects. To this we can add that forty scholarly opinions exist as to the meaning of ahruf (literally: letters). Some of these opinions are very far fetched, but most agree that the main objective was to facilitate the Quran’s recitation for those who were unaccustomed to the Quraishi dialect. Such a concession was granted through the grace of Allah.
Earlier we saw how these variant dialects resulted in disputes a few decades later, prompting ‘Uthrnan to prepare a Mushaf in the Quraishi dialect. The end tally for all multiple readings found in the skeletons of five official Mushafs did not exceed forty characters, and all dispatched reciters were obligated to follow this skeletal text and to reveal which authority they had learned their recitations from. Zaid b. Thabit, so central to the collection of the Quran, stated that…”The qira’at is a sunna that is strictly adhered to”. These are details which we covered in previous chapters.
The term ‘variants’ is one that I dislike using in such cases because a variant results, by definition, from uncertainty. If the original author pens a sentence one way, and the sentence is then corrupted due to scribal errors, then we have introduced a principle of uncertainty; a subsequent editor who is unable to distinguish the correct wording from the incorrect will place what he believes to be the correct version in the text, whilst citing the others in margins. Such is the variant reading. But the Quran’s case differs distinctly because the Prophet Muhammad, Allah’s sole vice-gerent for the wahy’s reception and transmission, himself taught certain verses in multiple ways. There is no principle of doubt here, no fog or confusion, and the word ‘variant’ fails to convey this. Multiple is a far more accurate description, and so in that spirit I will refer to them here as multiple readings. One reason behind this phenomenon was the divergence of accents in Arabia and the need to accommodate them in the short term, as discussed above. A second reason may have been an attempt to better elucidate the various shades of meaning within a particular verse by supplying two wordings, each one being sanctioned by Allah. A well-known example of this is in Sura al-Fattha, where the fourth verse can be recited as mālik (Owner) or malik (King) of the Day of Judgement. Both wordings were taught by the Prophet and therefore constitute multiple, rather man variant, readings.
Not surprisingly, Orientalist scholars have rejected the Muslim explanation and sought to cement theories of their own. As a natural extension to his efforts towards a critical edition of the Quran, meant to highlight variations, Arthur Jeff ery agreed in 1926 to collaborate with Prof. Bergstrasser in preparing an archive of materials from which it would some day be possible to write a history of the development of the Quranic text. 13 In his quest he examined roughly 170 volumes — some from reliable, but most from unreliable, sources. His collection of variants takes up some 300 pages in printed form, covering the personal Mushafs of approximately thirty scholars. In this chapter I will limit myself to critical examination of this aspect of Jeffery’s efforts, his work on variants. Other aspects will be tackled later.
Literary Sources and Multiple Readings
Al-Azami’s account raises questions because it does not address literary evidence of variants.
“Literary sources indicate different text traditions from the Companions of Muhammad: Ibn Masud and Ubay ibn Ka’b; however, these rescensions are only known from descriptions in literary sources” (Behnam Sadeghi; Uwe Bergmann, “The Codex of a Companion of the Prophet and the Qur’ān of the Prophet,” Arabica, Volume 57, Number 4, 2010, 344).
“While the classical literature records thousands of textual variants, the task of reconstructing the history of the Qur’an is complicated because the variants are not found in any extant manuscripts known to Western scholars. Several valuable works on the history of the Kur’an were written during the 4th/10th century, but later Muslim scholars, with just a few exceptions, have shown little interest in the problem of reconstructing the history of the canon” (Alford T. Welch, “Al-Kur’an.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. P. Bearman et al. [Leiden: Brill, 1986-2004], CD-ROM version).
Multiple Readings in the Sana Manuscript
Al-Azami’s account raises questions because it does not address manuscript evidence found in the Sana Quran.
Examples of Major Variants in the Sana Quran palimpsest 3Sadeghi, Behnam; Mohsen Goudarzi, “Ṣan’ā’ 1 and the Origins of the Qur’ān,” Der Islam [March 2012], 21.
Talking point with Muslims
Contrary to Al-Azami, the multiple readings (variants) of the Quran can not all be traced back to the qira’at.
This is important because Muslims often dismiss the Christian Scriptures as corrupt because of its variants. But the Quran also has variants in both its literary and textual tradition.