Variant Readings of the Qur'an

The variant readings of the Qur'an (in Arabic qira'at or huruf) is a subject which is very poorly known by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. And yet it is essential to try to get a grasp of this subject if there is ever going to be a meaningful discussion of the challenges of ancient manuscripts which Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Qur'an share.

A fine scholar to lead into this difficult and very specialized topic is Frederik Leemhuis, who provided two helpful articles in the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an: "Codices of the Qur'an" (Vol. I, 2001), and "Readings of the Qur'an" (Vol. IV, 2004).

One strength of Leemhuis' treatment of this theme is his familiarity with the earliest Muslim commentaries on the Qur'an. He notes, for example, that the grammarian al-Farra' (d. 822) and traditionist 'Abd al-Razzaq al-San'ani (d. 827) commonly cited variant readings associated with the name Ibn Mas'ud.

These variants departed not only from the various possible pointings and pronunciations of the rasm (unmarked consonantal skeleton) attributed by Muslims to 'Uthman. Some variants departed from that rasm altogether. Leemhuis writes that from this evidence, variant readings with a different rasm were still freely discussed in the second Islamic century.

The proscription of the many possible variant readings circulating in the Muslim Empire seems to have been a gradual process taking several centuries and involving, at a number of points, political power. In the third Islamic century Muslim scholars began to limit the variants to what was possible with the rasm which Muslims attributed to 'Uthman.

In the fourth Islamic century the prohibition of rival rasms, especially the popular rasm of Ibn Mas'ud, seems to have come from the activities of Ibn Mujahid (d. 936), enforced by the 'Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqla. Ibn Mujahid limited the permissible readings to seven, and his first criterion was whether a reading was in accordance with one of the codices which--according to Muslim tradition--'Uthman sent to five cities. Even among these traditional codices some 50 differences in the rasm were acknowledged by Ibn Abi Dawud al-Sijistani (d. 929) in his Kitab al-Masahif.

Leemhuis suggests that the "combination of the power of the 'Abbasid state and Ibn Mujahid's authority" proved quite effective in establishing the seven canonical readings. However, Muslim scholars later made arguments for three other readings, which were accepted, and then four more readings, for a total of 14 acceptable readings, each in two transmissions or riwayas.

For centuries, readings tended to be associated with the regions in which they traditionally originated. "The great unifying change came in the tenth/sixteenth century, as the Ottoman empire adopted the Hafs 'an 'Asim reading." (RQ 361) Under the empire this reading became widespread, and when the Egyptian government printed an edition of the Qur'an in 1923, they also chose the Hafs 'an 'Asim reading from among the possible 14. This particular reading is the one we see in printed Qur'ans around the world today.

Let's save the analysis of this material for next week. In the meantime, read Leemhuis' articles if possible to check whether the description above is accurate.