بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم
The Variant Readings of the Qurʾān
By Quran and Bible Blog Contributor Mohammed al-Firas (abusafiyah1)
According to the Islamic tradition, the Qurʾānic text was written down during the lifetime of the Prophet Muḥammad (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam). It was compiled in the form of a muṣḥaf during the time of Abū Bakr and standardized during the time of ʿUthmān due to disagreements concerning the recitation of the text. This article discusses the origins and significance of the variant readings of the Qurʾān.
The Revelation of the Qurʾān in Seven Aḥruf
According to several widespread traditions, the Prophet Muḥammad (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) stated: The Qurʾān was revealed in seven aḥruf. There are several versions of traditions concerning the revelation of the Qurʾān in seven aḥruf, transmitted on the authority of several Companions of the Prophet. al-Suyūṭī, for instance, names 21 Companions who are transmitters of the seven aḥruf traditions. I have listed a few of these versions below:
- Aḥmad > Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd > Ḥumayd al-Ṭawīl > Anas b. Mālik > Ubayy said: Confusion had not entered my mind since I had accepted Islam except when I read a verse and someone else read it differently. I said: The Messenger of God taught me to recite it, and the other person said: The Messenger of God taught me to recite it. So, we approached the Prophet, and I said: O Prophet of God, you taught me to recite this way. He said: Yes. And the other person said: Did you not teach me to recite this way? He said: Yes. And he said: Yes, Jibrīl and Mīkāʾīl came to me, and Jibrīl sat to my right and Mīkāʾīl to my left. And Jibrīl said: Recite the Qurʾān according to one ḥarf, and Mīkāʾīl said: Increase it. So, Jibril said to me: Recite the Qur’an according to two ḥarfs. Mīkāʾīl said: Increase it, until it reached seven aḥruf, all of them are acceptable.
- Mālik > al-Zuhrī > ʿUrwa >ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAbd al-Qārī and/or al-Miswar b. Makhrama > I heard ʿUmar b. al Khaṭṭāb say: I heard Hishām b. Ḥakīm reciting sura al-Furqān differently from how I recited it, and the Messenger of God had taught me to recite it. I was about rush up to him, but I waited until he finished his prayer. Then, I grabbed him by his cloak and took him to the Messenger of God, and said: O Messenger of God, I have heard this man reciting sura al-Furqān differently from how you had taught me to recite. So, the Messenger of God said to him: Recite. So, he recited the reading which I had heard, and the Messenger of God said: This was how it was revealed (hakadhā unzilat). Then, he said to me: Recite. So, I recited, and he said: This was how it was revealed. Then, he said: Indeed, this Qurʾān was revealed in seven aḥruf, so recite from it whatever is easy (fa-qraʾū ma tayassara minhu).
- ʿAbd al-Razzāq > Maʿmar > al-Zuhrī > ʿUbayd Allāh > Ibn ʿAbbās that the Prophet said: Jibrīl taught me to recite according to one ḥarf. I asked him to read it again differently. I kept asking him to increase it, and he increased it until he reached seven aḥruf.
- Aḥmad > ʿAbd al-Raḥmān > Hammām > Qatāda > Yaḥyā > Sulaymān b. Ṣurad > Ubayy said: I recited a verse, and Ibn Masʿūd recited it differently. So, I went to the Prophet and said: Did you not recite this verse to me this way? He said: Yes. And Ibn Masʿūd said: Did you not recite this verse to me this way? He said: Yes, both of you have done well. O Ubayy, I was asked to recite the Qurʾān, and it was said to me: in one ḥarf or two? So, the angel who was with me said: Say: in two ḥarfs. So, I said: in two ḥarfs. It was said to me: in two ḥarfs or three? So, the angel who was with me said: Say: in three ḥarfs. So, I said: in three ḥarfs. This happened until it became seven aḥruf. Nothing is from it except that it is acceptable. If you said ghafūran raḥīman or if you said samīʿan ʿalīman.
- Aḥmad > Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar > Shuʿba > al-Ḥakam > Mujāhid > Ibn Abī Laylā > Ubayy: that the Prophet was at the well of Banu Ghifār, and Jibrīl approached him and said: God orders you to teach your people to recite according to one ḥarf. He said: I ask God for his forgiveness and his pardon, for my people do not have the strength for that. Then he came to him a second time and said: God commands you to teach your people to recite according to two ḥarfs … Then he came to him a fourth time and said: God commands you to teach your people to recite according to seven aḥruf, and whichever ḥarf they read, it is correct.
- Aḥmad > Ḥusayn > Zāʾida > ʿĀṣim > Zirr > Ubayy said: The Messenger of God met Jibrīl at the Mirā stones, and said: O Jibrīl, I have been sent to an illiterate people, among whom are the elderly and the boy. He said: So, recite the Qurʾān in seven aḥruf.
- al-Ṭabarī > Ismaʿīl b. Mūsā > Sharīk > Abū Isḥāq > Sulaymān b. Ṣurad > Ubayy that the Prophet said: Two angels came to me. One of them said: Recite to him. He said: According to how many (ḥarfs)? He said: One ḥarf. He said: Increase it. Until it reached seven aḥruf.
- Aḥmad > Muḥammad b. Bishr > Muḥammad b. ʿAmr > Abū Salama > Abū Hurayra said: The Messenger of God said: The Qurʾān was revealed in seven aḥruf, ʿalīman ḥakīman, ghafūran raḥīman.
Variant Readings in the Canonical Qirāʾāt
The qirāʾāt are different ways of reading the Uthmanic rasm. Differences among these readers can be divided into two categories – farsh (specific variants) and uṣūl (principles that can be applied throughout the Qurʾān). These readers studied under various teachers. For example, Abū ʿAmr states that he learnt from Mujāhid b. Jabr, Saʿīd b. Jubayr and others. Mujāhid had studied under Ibn ʿAbbās, who learnt from Ubayy b. Kaʿb and Zayd b. Thābit, who learnt from the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam).
Some examples of disagreements in terms of farsh among the ten canonical readers are given below:
- At Q6:100, Nāfiʿ and Abū Jaʿfar read: wa-kharraqū, while the remaining readers read: wa-kharaqū.
- At Q20:96, Ḥamza, al-Kisāʾī and Khalaf read: bi-mā lam tabṣurū (what you did not perceive), while the remaining readers read: bi-ma lam yabṣurū (what they did not perceive).
- At Q43:19, Nāfiʿ, Abū Jaʿfar, Ibn Kathīr and Ibn ʿĀmir read: ʿinda l-raḥmān (with the Most Merciful), while the remaining six readers read: ʿibādu l-raḥmān (servants of the Most Merciful). The latter reading was reportedly read by Ibn ʿAbbā The Uthmanic rasm accommodates both readings. The picture from a muṣḥaf (Figure 1) below attests the former reading in the red vocalization, and the latter reading in the green vocalization.
- At Q71:23, Nāfiʿ and Abū Jaʿfar read: wa-lā tadharunna wuddan, while the remaining readers read: wa-lā tadharunna waddan.
The Readings of Companions and Non-canonical Readers
There are several examples of variant readings reported to have been recited by some Companions of the Prophet Muḥammad (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam), such as Ibn Masʿūd, Ubayy b. Kaʿb and Ibn ʿAbbās or non-canonical readers such as al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī or Abū Ḥaywa. Some of these readings agree with those of the canonical readers (such as the reading at Q43:19 above), while many others do not. Most of such readings are classified as shādhdh, especially if they lack an authentic isnād (chain of narration). I have provided some examples of these readings below:
- At Q24:35, Ibn ʿAbbās as well as al-Ḥasan read: yamsas-hu. While this reading agrees with the Uthmanic rasm (Figure 2), the canonical readers read: tamsas-hu.
- At Q32:17, Abū Hurayra reportedly read: min qurrāti aʿyun in plural, while the canonical readers read it as: min qurrati aʿyun.
- At Q36:30, Ibn ʿAbbās reportedly read: yā-ḥasrata-l-ʿibād. The Uthmanic text reads: yā-ḥasratan ʿalā l-ʿibā
- At Q51:58, Ibn Masʿūd is reported to have read: innī ana l-razzāqu (Verily I am the Provider). While this reading diverges from the Uthmanic text which reads inna llāha huwa l-razzāqu (Verily Allāh is the Provider), Ibn Masʿūd is authentically reported to have stated that the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) himself had recited it to him.
The lower text of the Ṣanʿāʾ Palimpsest is the only known early manuscript that has several minor variants compared to the Uthmanic text. Sadeghi and Goudarzi have argued that it represents a copy of a Companion muṣḥaf. It has the same verses, in the same order as it appears in the Uthmanic text. Some of the variants present in the lower text agree with a reading that is reported in the traditional literature. For instance, at Q89:28, the lower text reads: ītī rabbaki instead of the standard reading irjiʿī ilā rabbiki. This reading is attributed to Ubayy b. Kaʿb. Several other variants, however, are not reported in the traditional literature. Some examples are provided below:
- At Q2:88, the lower text reads: bal tabaʿa allāhu ʿalayhā bi-ẓulmihim (Rather, God has sealed them due to their wrongdoing), instead of the standard reading: bal laʿanahum allāhu bi-kufrihim (Rather, God has cursed them due to their disbelief). The first underlined phrase occurs elsewhere in the Uthmanic text at Q4:155. In both verses, these phrases are preceded by the words qulūbunā ghulf.
- At Q15:24, the lower text reads: wa-innā la-naʿlamu l-mustaqdimīna minkum wa naʿlamu l-mustaʾkhirīn. The standard text, however, reads: wa-laqad ʿalimnā l-mustaqdimīna minkum wa laqad ʿalimnā l-mustaʾkhirīn.
- At Q19:31, the lower text reads: wa-amaranī bi-l-ṣalāti (and commanded me with prayer), instead of the standard text wa-awṣānī bi-l-ṣalāti (and enjoined upon me prayer)
It is likely that some of the variants present in the lower text were the result of scribal/copying errors or a person incorrectly hearing or remembering the text that was recited to him. However, this is unlikely to be the case for all of them. Instead, some of them may have been considered as acceptable variation that falls within the seven aḥruf – either the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) himself had recited some of these variants, or he had allowed a limited degree of flexibility in recitation that encompasses these variants. The latter understanding seems to contradict the following traditions, according to which the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) told his Companions to recite the way they were taught.
- Abū Hishām al-Rifāʿī related to us, he said: Abū Bakr b. ʿAyyāsh related to us, he said: ʿĀṣim related to us, from Zirr, from Ibn Masʿūd that he said: I said to a man: Recite to me thirty verses from Sūrah al-Aḥqāf. And he recited to me differently from how the Messenger of God recited to me. And I said to another person: Recite to me thirty verses from Sūrah al-Aḥqāf. And he recited to me differently from the way the first person recited. So, I went to the Prophet, and ʿAlī was sitting with him, and ʿAlī said: “The Messenger of God said to recite the way you were taught (ka-mā ʿullimtum)”
- Abū ʿUbayd > Abū Muʿāwiyah > al-Aʿmash > Abu Wāʾil > Ibn Masʿūd said: “Indeed, I have heard the reciters and have found them close to one another. So, recite as you were taught. It is like your saying: halumma & taʿāl.”
However, some other traditions possibly indicate that some Companions or early Muslims considered it acceptable to recite using synonyms or paraphrased wordings.
Mūsā b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān > ʿAbd al-Ḥāmīd al-Ḥimānī > al-Aʿmash said: Anas b. Mālik recited wa-aṣwabu qīlā, and it was said to him: Abā Ḥamza, indeed it is wa-aqwamu, Anas said: aṣwabu and wa-aqwamu (and wa-ahyaʾu) are the same.
al-Thawrī > al-Aʿmash > al-Nakhaʿī > Ibn Masʿūd said: It is not wrong to recite part of the Qurʾān in another part, or to end a verse ending with ghafūrun raḥīmun with ʿalīmun ḥakīmun, or with ʿazīzun ḥakīmun but it is wrong to recite what is not from it or to end a verse of mercy with a verse of punishment.
It is possible that the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) had allowed a limited degree of flexibility for those who found it difficult to recite or memorize the Qurʾān. However, they were told to recite the way they were taught as far as possible.
The Origins of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾān
While scholars disagreed regarding the exact interpretation of the seven aḥruf, the traditions clearly indicate that the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) himself had recited the Qurʾān in different ways. We had also seen that some traditions seem to indicate that some early Muslims considered it permissible to recite using synonyms, or paraphrased wordings. Other origins of variant readings include the following:
- Abrogated Recitations: This refers to readings that were once considered part of the Qurʾān but were abrogated during the lifetime of the Prophet. One possible example is the reading at Q2:238, ḥāfiẓū ʿalā l-ṣalawāti wa-l-ṣalāti l-wusṭā (wa-ṣalāti l-aṣr) (Maintain with care the prayers, and [in particular] the middle prayer, [and] the Aṣr prayer) which ʿĀʾisha states that she had heard the Prophet recite. According to another tradition, the verse was initially revealed as ḥāfiẓū ʿalā l-ṣalawāti wa-ṣalāti l-aṣr but was abrogated by: ḥāfiẓū ʿalā l-ṣalawāti wa-l-ṣalāti l-wusṭā.
Another possible example of this is the reading of Ibn ʿAbbās at Q4:24: fa-mā-stamtaʿtum bi-hī minhunna ilā ajalin-musammā (So whatever you enjoy from them for a prescribed period). Since according to several traditions, the temporary marriage was abrogated, this phrase was likely abrogated in recitation as well.
- Exegetical Readings: This refers to readings that were not considered as part of the Qurʾān but were instead simply the explanations of verses. Possible examples of this include:
- The reading of Ibn ʿAbbās at Q2:198: faḍlan min rabbikum fī mawāsim l-ḥajj (bounty from your lord in the seasons of Ḥajj).
- The reading of Ibn Zubayr at Q3:104: wa yanhawna ani l-munkari wa yastaʿīnuna billāhi ʿalā mā asābahum. One of the narrators of this reading (ʿAmr) states: And I do not know: Is this his reading or his explanation?
- Scribal errors or errors in transmission: This refers to variant readings that resulted due to scribal errors when copying from manuscripts or errors that occurred orally when transmitting a certain reading. One possible example occurs at Q2:271, where Ibn Masʿūd reportedly read: huwa khayrun lakum yukaffiru, omitting the word wāw (and) after lakum.
There are several traditions in which the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) states that the Qurʾān was revealed according to seven aḥruf. While scholars disagreed regarding the exact meaning of the term, it is clear that the Prophet had taught his Companions to recite the Qurʾān in different ways. The seven aḥruf are not to be confused with the seven canonical readings of the Qurʾān. Instead, the seven or ten canonical readings represent a portion of the variation that falls within the seven aḥruf. This article has also explored the possible reasons for the existence of variant readings, namely: the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) himself reciting the Qurʾān differently, him allowing a limited degree of flexibility in recitation, abrogated recitations, exegetical recitations as well as scribal or transmission errors. The dominant view of Muslim scholars is that the variants within the ten canonical readings generally fall under the first category – that the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) himself had recited these variants.
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 al-Suyūṭī, al-Itqān fī ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān, pg. 72.
 Abū ʿUbayd, Faḍāʾil al- Qurʾān, 336, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, 10/47, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 35/69-70, al-Nasāʾī, Sunan al-Kubrā, 1/485-486 & 7/245, al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān, 1/30 – 31, al-Shāshī, Musnad, 3/320-321, al-Ṭahāwī, Mushkil al-Āthār, 8/121.
 Abū ʿUbayd, Faḍāʾil, 334-335, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, 10/47, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 1/378-379, al-Nasāʾī, Sunan, 1/483 al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/24 –25, al-Ṭahāwī, Mushkil, 8/118-120, ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muṣannaf, 11/218-219, al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, 583, 1276, 1286, 1716, al-Ṭayālisī, Musnad, 1/44.
 Abū ʿUbayd, Faḍāʾil, 338, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 4/450, 5/52, al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, 796, 1276, al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/28, ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muṣannaf, 11/219, Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 1/366, al-Ṭahāwī, Mushkil, 8/124
 Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 35/84-86, al-Ṭahāwī, Mushkil, 8/122, Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, 2/602
 Abū ʿUbayd, Faḍāʾil, 337, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, 10/46, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 35/103-104, al-Nasāʾī, Sunan, 1/484, al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/35, al-Shāshī, Musnad, 3/343-344, al-Ṭahāwī, Mushkil, 8/126, Ṭayālisī, Musnad, 1/452-3, Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 1/367, Ṭayālisī, Musnad, 1/452, Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, 2/603
 Abū ʿUbayd, Faḍāʾil, 338, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, 10/47-48, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 35/132, al-Tirmidhī, Sunan, 5/60, al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/31, al-Shāshī, Musnad, 3/362, al-Ṭahāwī, Mushkil, 8/110, al-Bazzār, Musnad, 7/310-311, al-Ṭayālisī, Musnad, 1/439
 Abū ʿUbayd, Faḍāʾil, 336, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 35/86-87, Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/28, al-Shāshī, Musnad, 3/330-331, al-Nasāʾī, Sunan, 9/249. The version of Sharīk > Abū Isḥāq is much shorter than the remaining versions.
 Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, 10/46, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 15/424, al-Nasāʾī, Sunan, 7/289, al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/21, al-Bazzār, Musnad, 15/193.
 al-Dānī, Jāmiʿ, pg. 78
 Ibn al-Jazarī, al-Nashr fi Qirā’āt al- ʿAshr, 2/261
 Ibid, 2/322
 Ibid, 2/368
 Ibid, 2/391
 Khaṭīb, Muʿjam al-Qirāʾāt, 6/273
 Ibid, 7/230
 Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-Maṣāḥif, 1/347
 al-Tirmidhī, Sunan, 5/56
 Sadeghi and Goudarzi, Ṣanʿāʾ 1 and the Origins of the Qurʾān, pp. 18-20.
 Abū Yaʿlā, Musnad, 1/408, 8/470 al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/23
 Abū ʿUbayd, Faḍāʾil, 346-347, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, 6/127
 al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 23/373. Some scholars had pointed out that al-Aʿmash did not hear from Anas, thus the report is disconnected.
 ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muṣannaf, 3/364
 al-Tirmidhī, Sunan, 5/90.
 Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 283
 Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-Maṣāḥif, 1/357-358
 See, for instance, Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 634-635
 al-Suyūṭī, Itqān, pg. 311.
 Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-Maṣāḥif, 1/306