Muslims believe that its verses were systematically recorded by special nominated scribes, and that it has been preserved in its original form in which it was revealed, without any loss or distortion.
The Holy Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over the course of several years, with the first revelations beginning in the month of Ramadan in 610 AD, during what is known as the Nights of Destiny.
But how did the Qur’an reach us today in its final form? In what order was the Qur’an revealed, and who compiled it, and why?
The Prophet Muhammad is described in the Qur’an as ummi, which some Muslims interpret as illiterate, and others as one who was not formally taught literacy. He received his first revelation while isolating in a cave in Mount Hira, nearby Mecca. The verses revealed to him were:
Read! in the name of your Lord who created
Man from a clinging substance.
Read: Your Lord is most Generous,–
He who taught by the pen–
Taught man that which he knew not.
(Holy Qur’an: 96:1-5)
Since the Holy Qur’an was the cornerstone of the Prophet’s divine mission and his declared miracle, Muslims believe that its verses were systematically recorded by special nominated scribes, and that it has been preserved in its original form in which it was revealed, without any loss or distortion.
Allah states in Surah Al-Shura that He communicates to human beings only in three methods: through revelation, meaning without any intermediary, behind a veil, meaning as a voice heard from behind an object, as the Prophet experienced on his ascension to the Heavens, or through indirect revelation, meaning through an angel.
Receiving revelation was a very difficult experience for the Prophet – he would sometimes faint, sweat profusely and feel like his soul was leaving his body.
After receiving revelations, Muhammad would recite the verses to his companions, who would memorise the verses or write them down. Reciting verses from memory was common practice in the early days of Islam, as they had strong memories and prided themselves on a very strong oral tradition. However, out of the small pool of people who could read and write, the Prophet appointed scribes, known as kuttāb al-waḥy, to note down the verses as they were revealed. He also told them exactly where the verse was to be fixed in a chapter, as the understanding was always there that this was to be ‘a Book’ just like previous scriptures.
The Prophet was so committed to encouraging writing that the number of literate Muslims gradually increased. He did this through various means.
Firstly, he got prisoners of war to teach the Muslims how to read and write in exchange for their freedom. Secondly, he called upon scribes for writing letters, contracts, war records and treaties, in addition to revelation. Thirdly, he encouraged reciting from written text, in addition to memorization. As a result, there were many scattered extracts and complete copies of the Qur’an in individuals’ possession by the time of the Prophet’s death, and there is disagreement among Muslims as to who compiled it into one coherent whole text.
Regarding the time of his death, Ibn Abbas states that:
The prophet recited the book before Gabriel every year in the month of Ramadan, and in the month in which he died he recited it before him twice.
(Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, Book 61, Hadith 520)
Some believe that “reciting the Quran twice” refers to the Quranic revelations being compiled into a complete and final version, and the process termed al-ʿarḍ al-ākhira: the Final Presentation.
According to a hadith in Sahih Bukhari, Abu Bakr ordered the written pieces and parchments of the Qur’an to be collected into one book after over 400 memorisers of the Quran were killed in two battles. According to the hadith, Abu Bakr said to Zaid ibn Thabit:
You should search for the fragmentary scripts of the Qur’an and collect it (in one Book).
So I started compiling the Qur’an by collecting it from the leafless stalks of the date-palm tree and from the pieces of leather and hides and from the stones, and from the chests of men (who had memorized the Qur’an)… The manuscripts of the Qur’an remained with Abu Bakr till Allah took him unto Him. Then it remained with `Umar till Allah took him unto Him, and then with Hafsa bint `Umar.
(Sahih Bukhari Book 93, Hadith 53)
Despite the collation, there was no immediate rush by the Muslims to avail themselves of this codex, as it is understood that copies of the Quran were available among the Muslims.
During the Caliphate of Uthman, twenty years after the death of Prophet Muhammad, the Caliphate had grown considerably into Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Iran, with a variety of languages and dialects being spoken across the region, creating a perceived need for the clarification for the recitation of the Holy Quran.
According to Sahih Al-Bukhari, Hudhayfah ibn Yaman was concerned about how the people of Iraq and Sham differed in their recitation of the Quran. Uthman therefore requested the manuscripts of the Quran from Hafsa so he could order it to be compiled into one unified codex. He appointed a committee of four people: Zaid ibn Thabit, Abdullah ibn Zubair, Said bin Al-Aas and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. al-Ḥārith to transcribe a master copy of the Qur’an. More people were recruited into the committee, to make twelve in total, with Ubayy in charge.
When the book was compiled, Uthman sent copies to Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and kept one in Medina. According to the majority of historians and scholars, this is the Quran that is with us today, with the 114 surahs in the same order, though it is debatable whether the present order was directed by the Prophet before his passing, or decided by his companions later. ʿUthmān also sent an expert qārī with every muṣḥaf so that he could serve as a teacher.
Shia tradition differs slightly. Ayatollah Al-Khoei, for example, believed that the Quran was complete during the time of the Prophet. He first cites the numerous uses of the word “book” in the Holy Quran, which is not used for something retained in memory or scattered on parchments, as well as the Prophet declaring that he is leaving the book behind after his death, saying:
I leave among you two valuable things, the book of Allah and my progeny.
(Sahih Muslim Book 44, Hadith 55)
Furthermore, in an incident mentioned in Sahih Bukhari, when the Prophet Muhammad was on his deathbed and asked for a pen to write something that would prevent people from going astray, Umar ibn Khattab told the Prophet that the Book of God was enough for the Muslims (Sahih Bukhari Book 70, Number 573). This alludes to the fact that there already was a book present.
Secondly, the Qur’an states that the Prophet recites from a written text, when it says:
A messenger from God, reciting pure pages.
(Holy Quran, 98:2)
Lastly, the Quran challenges the disbelievers to produce something like the Quran, be it ten surahs or one surah – alluding to the fact that the Surahs were in public hands. This challenge could only be serious if they had access to the Qur’an. Khoei concluded that rather than compiling the Quran, Uthman effected a consensus on one unified recitation.
There are many accounts in both Shi’i and Sunni hadith books that Ali ibn Abi Talib possessed a personal transcript of the Qur’an, which he collected after the death of the Prophet, whereby he did not leave his house until he had completed this task within six months of the passing of the Prophet. This was the first compilation of the Quran, with his version collecting the surahs in order of revelation, accompanied by a complete interpretation of the verses in the margins.
In any case, in 25 A.H., five master copies were prepared under the guidance of Uthman and all the main existing fragmentary codices were burnt, erased or melted down. ʿUthman was criticised by some for destroying the fragments, but his actions were after prior consultation with senior companions. Ali ibn Abu Talib said about this:
By Allah! ʿUthmān did not do anything in the matter of the muṣḥaf except that it was with our unanimous approval.
(Ibn Abi Dawood, Kitab Al-Masahif, p. 30)
While the discussion on the compilation of the Holy Qu’ran is certainly a fascinating one, it is important to also deepen our own personal relationships with the Holy book through recitation, study and contemplation.
Allah says in Surah al-Baqarah:
This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah.