The Variant Readings of the Qurʾān

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

The Variant Readings of the Qurʾān

By Quran and Bible Blog Contributor Mohammed al-Firas (abusafiyah1)

Read as PDF

            According to the Islamic tradition, the Qurʾānic text was written down during the lifetime of the Prophet Muḥammad (allallāhu 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 Aruf

            According to several widespread traditions, the Prophet Muḥammad (allallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) stated: The Qurʾān was revealed in seven aruf. There are several versions of traditions concerning the revelation of the Qurʾān in seven aruf, transmitted on the authority of several Companions of the Prophet. al-Suyūṭī, for instance, names 21 Companions who are transmitters of the seven aruf traditions.[1] 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 arf, and Mīkāʾīl said: Increase it. So, Jibril said to me: Recite the Qur’an according to two arfs. Mīkāʾīl said: Increase it, until it reached seven aruf, all of them are acceptable.[2]
  • 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 aruf, so recite from it whatever is easy (fa-qraʾū ma tayassara minhu).[3]
  • ʿAbd al-Razzāq > Maʿmar > al-Zuhrī > ʿUbayd Allāh > Ibn ʿAbbās that the Prophet said: Jibrīl taught me to recite according to one arf. I asked him to read it again differently. I kept asking him to increase it, and he increased it until he reached seven aruf.[4]
  • 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 arf or two? So, the angel who was with me said: Say: in two arfs. So, I said: in two arfs. It was said to me: in two arfs or three? So, the angel who was with me said: Say: in three arfs. So, I said: in three arfs. This happened until it became seven aruf. Nothing is from it except that it is acceptable. If you said ghafūran raīman or if you said samīʿan ʿalīman.[5]
  • 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 arf. 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 arfs … Then he came to him a fourth time and said: God commands you to teach your people to recite according to seven aruf, and whichever arf they read, it is correct.[6]
  • 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 aruf.[7]
  • 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 (arfs)? He said: One arf. He said: Increase it. Until it reached seven aruf.[8]
  • Aḥmad > Muḥammad b. Bishr > Muḥammad b. ʿAmr > Abū Salama > Abū Hurayra said: The Messenger of God said: The Qurʾān was revealed in seven aruf, ʿalīman akīman, ghafūran raīman.[9]

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 uūl (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 (allallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam).[10]

            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.[11]
  • At Q20:96, Ḥamza, al-Kisāʾī and Khalaf read: bi-mā lam taburū (what you did not perceive), while the remaining readers read: bi-ma lam yaburū (what they did not perceive).[12]
  • At Q43:19, Nāfiʿ, Abū Jaʿfar, Ibn Kathīr and Ibn ʿĀmir read: ʿinda l-ramān (with the Most Merciful), while the remaining six readers read: ʿibādu l-ramān (servants of the Most Merciful).[13] 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.

Al-Firas Variant Article Pic 1
Figure 1: Both variants of Surah 43:19 are accomodated by the Uthmanic rasm.
  • At Q71:23, Nāfiʿ and Abū Jaʿfar read: wa-lā tadharunna wuddan, while the remaining readers read: wa-lā tadharunna waddan.[14]

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 (allallāhu 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.[15]
Al-Firas Variant Article Pic 2
Figure 2: The variant of Surah 24:35 agrees with the Uthmanic rasm but is not a canonical reading.

 

  • At Q32:17, Abū Hurayra reportedly read: min qurrāti aʿyun in plural, while the canonical readers read it as: min qurrati aʿyun.[16]
  • At Q36:30, Ibn ʿAbbās reportedly read: yā-asrata-l-ʿibād. The Uthmanic text reads: yā-asratan ʿalā l-ʿibā[17]
  • 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 (allallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) himself had recited it to him.[18]

            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.[19] 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-ulmihim (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-alāti (and commanded me with prayer), instead of the standard text wa-awānī bi-l-alāti (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 aruf – either the Prophet (allallāhu 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 (allallāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) told his Companions to recite the way they were taught.

  1. Abū Hishām al-Rifāʿī related to us, he said: Abū Bakr b. ʿAyyāsh related to us, he said: ʿĀim 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)”[20]
  2. 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.”[21]

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-awabu qīlā, and it was said to him: Abā Ḥamza, indeed it is wa-aqwamu, Anas said: awabu and wa-aqwamu (and wa-ahyaʾu) are the same.[22]

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.[23]

It is possible that the Prophet (allallāhu 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 aruf, the traditions clearly indicate that the Prophet (allallāhu 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, āfiū ʿalā l-alawāti wa-l-alāti l-wusā (wa-alāti l-ar) (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.[24] According to another tradition, the verse was initially revealed as āfiū ʿalā l-alawāti wa-alāti l-ar but was abrogated by: āfiū ʿalā l-alawāti wa-l-alāti l-wusā.[25]

Another possible example of this is the reading of Ibn ʿAbbās[26] 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[27], 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[28] of this include:
    1. The reading of Ibn ʿAbbās at Q2:198: falan min rabbikum fī mawāsim l-ajj (bounty from your lord in the seasons of Ḥajj).
    2. 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.[29]

Conclusions

There are several traditions in which the Prophet (allallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) states that the Qurʾān was revealed according to seven aruf. 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 aruf 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 aruf. This article has also explored the possible reasons for the existence of variant readings, namely: the Prophet (allallāhu 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 (allallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) himself had recited these variants.

Bibliography

ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muannaf, ed. Ḥabīb al-Raḥmān al-Aʿẓamī, 11 vols, Beirut: al-Majlis al-ʿIlmī, 1983

Abū ʿUbayd, Kitāb Faāʾil al-Qurʾān, ed. Marwan al-ʿAtiyyah, Muḥsin Kharābah and Wafāʾ Taqī al-Dīn, Damascus: Dār Ibn Kathīr, 1995

Abū Yaʿlā, Musnad, ed. Ḥusayn Salīm Asad, 16 vols, Damascus: Dār al-Maʾmūn, 1989

al-Bazzār, al-Bar al-Zakhkhār al-Maʿrūf bi-Musnad al-Bazzār, ed. Maḥfūẓ al- Raḥmān Zayn Allāh, ʿAdil b. Saʿd and ʿAbd al-Khaliq al-Shāfiʿī, 18 vols, Medina: Maktabat al- ʿUlūm wa l-Ḥikam, 1988-2009 

al-Bukhārī, al- Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaḥīḥ, Damascus: Dār Ibn Kathīr, 2002

al-Dānī, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān fī qirāʾāt al-sabʿ, ed. Muḥammad Saduq, Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 2005

al-Nasāʾī, Sunan al-Kubrā, ed. Hasan al-Munʿim, Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 2001

al-Shāshī, al-Haytham b. Kulayb, Musnad, ed. Maḥfūẓ al- Raḥmān Zayn Allah, 3 vols, Medina: Maktabat al- ʿUlūm wa l-Ḥikam, 1994

al-Suyūṭī, al-Itqān fi ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān, ed. Mohammed Salem Hashem, Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 2018

al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān., ed. ʿAbd Allāh Ibn ʿAbd al-Muḥsin al-Turki, Cairo: Dār Hajar, 2001

al-Ṭaḥāwī, Shar Mushkil al Athār, ed. Shuʿayb al-Arnāʾūṭ, 16 vols, Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risālah, 1994

al-Ṭayālisī, Musnad Abī Dāwūd al-ayālisī, ed. Muḥammad al-Turki, 4 vols, Cairo: Dār Hajar, 1999

al-Tirmidhī, Sunan, Bashshār ʿAwwād Maʿrūf, 6 vols, Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1996

Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-Maāif, ed. Muḥib al-Dīn Wāʿiẓ, 2 vols, Beirut: Dar al-Bashāʾir al-Islāmiyyah, 2002

Ibn Abī Shayba, Muannaf, ed. Usāma b. Ibrahim b. Muḥammad, Cairo: al-Fārūq al-Ḥāditha, 2008

Ibn al-Jazarī, al-Nashr fi Qirā’āt al-ʿAshr, ed. ʿAlī Muḥammad al-Dabbāʿ, 2 vols

Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, ed. Shuʿayb al-Arnaut, Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 50 vols, 1421

Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj, al-Musnad al- Ṣaḥīḥ, ed. Abū Qutaybah al-Fārayābī, Riyadh: Dar Ṭībah, 2006


[1] al-Suyūṭī, al-Itqān fī ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān, pg. 72.

[2] Abū ʿUbayd, Faāʾil al- Qurʾān, 336, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muannaf, 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.

[3] Abū ʿUbayd, Faāʾil, 334-335, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muannaf, 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, Muannaf, 11/218-219, al-Bukhārī, aī, 583, 1276, 1286, 1716, al-Ṭayālisī, Musnad, 1/44.

[4] Abū ʿUbayd, Faāʾil, 338, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 4/450, 5/52, al-Bukhārī, aī, 796, 1276, al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/28, ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muannaf, 11/219, Muslim, aī, 1/366, al-Ṭahāwī, Mushkil, 8/124

[5] Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 35/84-86, al-Ṭahāwī, Mushkil, 8/122, Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, 2/602

[6] Abū ʿUbayd, Faāʾil, 337, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muannaf, 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, aī, 1/367, Ṭayālisī, Musnad, 1/452, Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, 2/603

[7] Abū ʿUbayd, Faāʾil, 338, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muannaf, 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

[8] Abū ʿUbayd, Faāʾil, 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.

[9] Ibn Abī Shayba, Muannaf, 10/46, Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 15/424, al-Nasāʾī, Sunan, 7/289, al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/21, al-Bazzār, Musnad, 15/193.

[10] al-Dānī, Jāmiʿ, pg. 78

[11] Ibn al-Jazarī, al-Nashr fi Qirā’āt al- ʿAshr, 2/261

[12] Ibid, 2/322

[13] Ibid, 2/368

[14] Ibid, 2/391

[15] Khaṭīb, Muʿjam al-Qirāʾāt, 6/273

[16] Ibid, 7/230

[17] Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-Maāif, 1/347

[18] al-Tirmidhī, Sunan, 5/56

[19] Sadeghi and Goudarzi, anʿāʾ 1 and the Origins of the Qurʾān, pp. 18-20.

[20] Abū Yaʿlā, Musnad, 1/408, 8/470 al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 1/23

[21] Abū ʿUbayd, Faāʾil, 346-347, Ibn Abī Shayba, Muannaf, 6/127

[22] al-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ, 23/373. Some scholars had pointed out that al-Aʿmash did not hear from Anas, thus the report is disconnected.

[23] ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Muannaf, 3/364

[24] al-Tirmidhī, Sunan, 5/90.

[25] Muslim, aī, 283

[26] Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-Maāif, 1/357-358

[27] See, for instance, Muslim, aī, 634-635

[28] al-Suyūṭī, Itqān, pg. 311.

[29] Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-Maāif, 1/306

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s