The Preservation of the Quran

By Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani

Since the Quran was not revealed all at once but rather in piecemeal according to the needs and circumstances of the time it was not possible to preserve it as a written book during the lifetime of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). Allah, however, had granted the Quran a distinction amongst all other divine scriptures. Its preservation would be accomplished more through memory than the pen. According to a narration in Sahih Muslim, Allah assured the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) that He would “reveal to you a Book which water cannot wash.” Meaning thereby that other books in the world would perish through worldly calamities, as happened in the case of the Torah and other divine scriptures, but the Quran would be so preserved in the hearts (memory) of men that there would be no danger of it getting perished. Hence, greater emphasis was placed on memory for Quranic preservation in the early period of Islam.

In the beginning, when the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) received revelation he would immediately repeat its words so that they would be retained in his heart. Thereupon, Allah Almighty directed him through verses in Surat al-Qiyamah that he need not hurriedly repeat the words as revelation came to him. The verse reads:

[O Prophet], move not your tongue therewith to make haste with it. Surely, upon Us rests the collecting thereof, and the reciting thereof. (Surat al-Qiyamah, 75:16-17)

Allah Almighty would Himself endow him with a memory that would make him incapable of forgetting the words of revelation even after hearing it once. So it was that the moment the Quranic verses would come to him they would be instantaneously committed to his memory. Thus the blessed chest of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) was the most protected repository of the Noble Quran wherein there was not the slightest chance of error or alteration.

As a matter of additional precaution, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) would review the Quran with the angel Jibra’il once every year during the month of Ramadan and twice during the final year of his life on this earth. This final, cumulative review of the Quran with Jibra’il (upon him be peace) is called the ‘ardah akhirah. (Sahih al-Bukhari with Fath al-Bari 9:36)

Further, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) did not restrict his instruction of the Companions to just the meanings of the Quran but also had them memorize its words. The Companions were themselves so enamored with a desire to learn and memorize the Quran that every one of them sought to surpass the other in their learning. In fact, one female Companion claimed no mahr (dowry) from her husband except that he teach her the Quran.

Hundreds of Companions, freeing themselves from all other concerns, had devoted their lives to the study of the Quran. Not only did they memorize it but they also repeated it in their nightly prayers. According to Sayyiduna ‘Ubadah ibn Samit (may Allah be pleased with him), when someone migrated from Makkah al-Mukarramah and arrived in Madinah, the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) would entrust him to one of the Ansar so that he could teach Quran to the newcomer. The Masjid of the Prophet would reverberate so much with the voices of students and teachers of the Quran that the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) would have to ask them to lower their voices so that mistakes could be avoided. (Manahil al-‘Irfan 1:234)

Arabs were distinguished all over the world for their amazing power of retention and after groping for centuries in the darkness of ignorance they had received the guidance of divine revelation, a revelation so dear to them that they considered it the most cherished possession of their lives. Anybody with an understanding of their character and bent of mind can imagine what pains they must have taken to commit it to memory. Hence, within a fairly short time, a large group of the Companions had flawlessly committed the Quran to memory. Included in this group were Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, Talhah, Sa‘d, Ibn Ma ‘ud, Hudhayfah ibn Yaman, Salim Mawla Abi Hudhayfah, Abu Hurayrah, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, Mu‘awiyah, ‘Abdullah ibn Zubayr, ‘Abdullah ibn al-Sa’ib, ‘A’ishah, Hafsah, and Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with them all). (al-Nashr fi ’l-Qira’at al-‘Ashr 1:6, al-Itqan 1:73-74, Tarikh al-Qur’an 60)

In short, the preservation of the Quran in the early days of Islam was based on memory. This was the safest and most reliable method in view of the circumstances of that time, since the number of literate persons in those days was extremely small and the printing press (or other means of mass publication) did not yet exist. Had the preservation of the Quran been reliant on writing it would have been neither possible to disseminate the Quran on an extensive scale nor to protect it reliably. Instead, Allah Almighty blessed the denizens of Arabia with such a prodigious memory that even many common Arabs were said to have been able to commit thousands of poetic lines to memory and recite them at will. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill men would remember by heart the extensive genealogies of their families, tribes, and even horses by heart. Their incredible power of recollection was put to full use by Allah for the conservation and protection of the Noble Quran, and it was through such extraordinary intellectual faculties that the Quran was able to reach the farthest corners of Arabia.

The Written Compilation of Revelation

Although the preservation of the Quran depended mainly on the memory of the Companions the Prophet (uponhim blessings and peace) had made special arrangements to have the Quran committed to writing as well. Sayyiduna Zayd ibn Thabit (may Allah be pleased with him) relates:

I used to write down the words of revelation for the Prophet. When revelation came to him, he would feel intense heat and drops of perspiration would start rolling down his body like pearls. When this state would cease, I would present him with a shoulder-bone or a piece of cloth and begin to write what he would dictate to me. I would not finish writing before feeling that my leg was about to break from (the weight) of copying down the Quran, to the extent that I would tell myself that I would never be able to walk on my leg again. When I was finished, he would say: ‘Read’. I would read it back to him. If there was a shortcoming, he would rectify it. Then he would present it to the people. (Majma‘ al-Zawa’id from Tabarani 1:156)

Besides Zayd ibn Thabit (may Allah be pleased with him), there were also numerous other Companions who carried out the duty of committing wahi to writing. Some of them who deserve special mention are Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, ‘Ubayy ibn Ka‘b, Zubayr ibn al-‘Awwam, Mu‘awiyah, Mughirah ibn Shu‘bah, Khalid ibn al-Walid, Thabit ibn al-Qays, and Aban ibn Sa‘id. (Fath al-Bari 9:18, Zad al-Ma‘ad 1:30)

Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) reports that it was the blessed practice of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) that soon after the revelation of a certain portion of the Quran he would pointedly instruct the scribe to write it in a specific surah after a specific verse. (Ibid.)

Since paper was a scarce commodity in Arabia, the Quranic verses were primarily written down on stone slabs, parchments of leather, date branches, pieces of bamboo, tree leaves, and animal bones. However, at times, pieces of paper were also used. (Fath al-Bari 9:11, ‘Umdat al-Qari 20:17)

During the time of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace), a copy of the Quran had been arranged to be written under his supervision, although not in the form of a book but in separate parchments. It was also the practice of some Companions to make copies of Quranic verses and keep them for personal recollection. This practice was common from the very early prophetic period. For example, even before Sayyiduna ‘Umar, an early Muslim, had embraced Islam, his sister and brother-in-law had in their possession verses of the Quran which they had written and kept in manuscript form. (Daraqutni, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id, Zad al-Ma‘ad 1:186-187)

Preservation in the Era of Abu Bakr

The copies of Quran prepared during the time of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) were written on different kinds of materials. Some verses were written on leather, some on leaves of trees, some on bones etc… Copies of the whole Quran were very few in number. Some Companions possessed only one surah whilesome had five or ten surahs and some had only a few verses. Some had verses with explanatory notes also written with them.

It was for this reason that Sayyiduna Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) thought it necessary during his period of caliphate that all the scattered portions of the Holy Quran should be collected and preserved. The motives and methods behind the great task have been described by Zayd ibn Thabit as such:

One day, soon after the battle of Yamamah, Abu Bakr sent for me. When I came to meet him, ‘Umar was present there. Abu Bakr said to me, “Umar has just informed me that a large number of huffaz (those who had learnt the Quran by heart) have been martyred in the Battle of Yamamah. If the huffaz continue to meet martyrdom in this manner I am afraid a large portion of the Quran may become extinct. Hence, I propose that you undertake the task of the collection of the Quran from different places. I told ‘Umar, ‘How can I do what the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace)himself did not do?’ ‘Umar replied, ‘By Allah! It is for nothing but good,’ and he continued to repeat this statement until the light of its truth dawned upon me as well, and now my opinion is the same as ‘Umar’s.”

After that Abu Bakr said to me, “You are young and sensible. We have no lack of trust in you. You had also been a regular scribe of revelationduring the time of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). So search then for all the verses of the Quran and collect them together.”

By Allah! Carrying a mountain on their orders would have been a lighter burden for me than collecting the Quran. I asked him, “How is it that you have undertaken a task that was not done by the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) himself?” Abu Bakr said, “By Allah! It is but good,” and he kept on repeating these words until Allah gave me insight to adopt the same opinion held by Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. Consequently, I started searching for the verses of the Quran and it was from the branches of date-palms, slabs of stones, and the memory of the people that I finally collected the Quran.”(Sahih al-Bukhari with Fath al-Bari 9:8-11)

At this point, while we are dealing with the process of the collection of the Quran, we should have a clear perception of the method used by Sayyiduna Zayd ibn Thabit (may Allah be pleased with him). As mentioned earlier, he was himself a hafiz of the Quran. Therefore, he could have written down the whole Quran from memory. Additionally, there were hundreds of huffaz present at that time. The Quran could have still been inscribed by entrusting the duty to a select group from them.

Also, the copies of the Quran committed to writing during the times of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) could have been used by Sayyiduna Zayd to make his copy of the Quran. But he, guided by his caution and concern, did not limit himself to any one of these many methods. On the contrary, by using all these methods simultaneously, he did not allow any verse to be included in his master copy of the Quran unless he received written and verbal testimonies proving its uninterrupted succession.

The verses that the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) had arranged to be written under his supervision were preserved by the Companions. Sayyiduna Zayd collected them together so that the new copy could be made from them. Consequently, a public proclamation was made to the effect that anyone possessing any number of written verses of the Quran should bring them over to him. When a written verse was brought to him, he would verify its authenticity by first testing its reliability against his own memory. Then, Sayyiduna ‘Umar who was also a hafiz of the Quran and is proven through reliable narrations to have been assigned by Abu Bakr to work with Zayd on the project, would test it against his own memory (Fath al-Bari 9:11). No written verse was accepted until such time that two trustworthy witnesses had testified to the fact that the particular verse was written in the presence of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). (al-Itqan 1:10) Lastly, the verses in writing were collated with collections that different Companions had prepared for themselves. (al-Burhan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an of Zarkashi 1:238)

If this functional methodology behind the collection of the Quran during the period of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) is kept in mind, it becomes perfectly simple to understand what Zayd ibn Thabit meant when he said, “I found the last verses of Surat al-Bara’ah starting from ‘certainly there has come to you a messenger from among yourselves…’ with only Abu Khudhaymah. They were not found with anyone else except him.”

This should not be misunderstood to imply that no person other than Abu Khuzaymah remembered these verses or that no one else had them in writing, or even that no one other than him knew of them being part of the Quran. Rather, it implies simply that with the exception of Abu Khuzayamah, these particular verses were not found with those who had come with different written verses as they were dictated by the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). Otherwise, as far as the fact of these verses being part of the Quran is concerned, it was known to every one through uninterrupted succession. There were hundreds of Companions who knew the whole Quran by heart and, hence, they also knew these verses. Furthermore, they were also present in written form in the complete collections of Quranic verses preserved by various Companions. Because he had taken the foregoing precautions he waited for confirmation through the third method. As for the other verses, they were verified through all the methods set by Sayyiduna Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him)and were found written with many Companions, many of whom brought each verse to him. But, among those written separately under the supervision of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace), these verses were found only with Sayyiduna Abu Khuzaymah (may Allah be pleased with him) and no one else. (al-Burhan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an l:234-235)

In every way possible, therefore, it was with utmost care that Zayd ibn Thabit collected the Quranic verses and transcribed them in proper order on sheets of paper. (al-Itqan 1:60)However, every surahwas written in separate folios. Hence, it consisted of a number of folios and in the terminology of Quranic Studies this copy was called the Umm (literally, “the mother”, meaning “the original copy”).

In this master copy, the Quranic verses were arranged in accordance with the order fixed by the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). The surahswere not arranged, however, and so every surahwas written and kept separately. (al-Itqan 1:60) Additionally, all of the seven valid recitations were incorporated in this copy. (Manahil al-‘Irfan l:246-247, Tarikh al-Qur’an by Kurdi 28) The copy was also written in the Hiri script. (Tarikh al-Qur’an of ‘Abd al-Samad Sarim 43) Only those verses were included whose recitation was not abrogated. The purpose of this transcription was to prepare an organized document with the collective endorsement of the entire Ummahso that reference could be made to it when required.

These folios, committed to writing on the orders of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him), remained with him during his lifetime. Then they remained with ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him). After the martyrdom of ‘Umar they were transferred to the custody of Umm al-Mu’minin Sayyidah Hafsah (may Allah be pleased with her). After the death of Hafsah, Marwan ibn al-Hakam had them burnt since the copies of Quran ordered by Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) were ready at that time and a consensus of the Ummah had already been reached to the effect that following these ‘Uthmani copies of the Quran, in script and arrangement of surahs, was now obligatory. Marwan ibn al-Hakam thought it inadvisable to let any copy which was contrary to this script and arrangement to remain in existence. (Fath al-Bari 9:16)

Preservation in the Era of ‘Uthman

When Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him)became the Khalifah, Islam had already spread to the far-flung lands of Byzantine and Iran. People embracing Islam in the new areas would learn the Quran from Muslim soldiers or from traders from whom they had found the blessing of Islam. Also, the Quran was revealed with “Seven Recitations” and different Companions had learnt it from the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) according to different modes of recitation. Hence, every Companion taught the Quran to his disciples in accordance with the particular reading he had learnt from the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). In this manner, variations in recitation reached distant countries. As long as the people were aware that the Quran was revealed with “Seven Recitations” these variations caused no harm. But when these variations reached far-out countries and the fact that the Quran was revealed with “Seven Recitations” could not gain due publicity, disputes among people started to occur. Some people insisted that their own reading was correct and that of others incorrect. These disputes gave rise to the danger on one hand that people might fall into the grave error of declaring recitations of the Quran that had been transmitted through uninterrupted succession as incorrect.

On the other hand, there was no standard copy of the Quran anywhere in the world that could be the rallying authority for the entire Muslim nation except the one in Madinah that had been transcribed by Zayd ibn Thabit (may Allah be pleased with him). Since other copies were written individually and there was no provision to incorporate all the seven versions of recitation in them, the only reliable method to resolve these disputes was to disseminate transcripts incorporating all the valid recitations throughout the Islamic world. Through them, Muslims could then gauge the authenticity and validity of each recitation. Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) accomplished this remarkable feat during the period of his caliphate.

The details of this achievement have been transmitted to us through the account of Hudhayfah ibn Yaman (may Allah be pleased with him)who was engaged in a military campaign on the Armenian-Azerbaijan front. He noticed that differences were arising among people about the correct recitation of the Quran. So, upon his return to Madinah he went straight to ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) and said: “O Leader of the Believers! Before this nation falls prey to dissension about the Book of Allah, like the Jews and Christians, you must do something.” ‘Uthman asked, “What is the matter?” He replied, “I was on a military mission on the Armenian front where I saw that the recitation of the people of Syria, who follow that of Ubayy ibn Ka‘ab, was not known to the people of Iraq. Similarly, the people of Iraq, who follow the recitation of ‘Abdullah ibn Mas‘ud, had not heard of the recitation made by the people of Syria. As a result, they call each other unbelievers.”

Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) had himself sensed this danger much earlier. He was informed that even in Madinah such incidents had occurred wherein someone taught the Quran according to one recitation while another teacher taught it according to a second. When the students of different teachers met together, differences would arise amongst them and sometimes it embroiled the teachers as well to the extent that they too declared each other’s readings to be incorrect.

When Huzayfah ibn Yaman (may Allah be pleased with him)drew his attention to this danger, ‘Uthman convened a meeting of esteemed Companions and consulted with them. He said, “I have been informed that there are people who say to each other: ‘My recitation is better than yours,’ and this may be carried to the limits of blasphemy (disbelieft). What is your opinion on this matter?” The Companions first asked ‘Uthman as to his thoughts. He said, “My opinion is that we should unite every one on   one transcription so that no difference or division may occur.” The Companions approved and supported his view.

Consequently, Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) gathered the people together and addressed them by saying,

You all live so close to me in Madinah and yet repudiate each other and differ with one another in respect of the recitations of the Quran. It is obvious, therefore, that those who are far away from me must be falsifying and disapproving each other much more vehemently. Therefore, let everyone join together to prepare a copy of the Quran to follow which should be obligatory for all.

For this purpose, ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) sent a message to Sayyidah Hafsah (may Allah be pleased with her) requesting her for the manuscripts of the Quranic text prepared during the time of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) and which she had in her custody. He promised that they would be returned to her after they had been copied down. She agreed and sent them to him. He then formed a group of four Companions comprising of Zayd ibn Thabit, ‘Abdullah ibn Zubayr, Sa‘id ibn al-‘Aas, and ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Harith ibn Hisham. The group was entrusted with the task of making several transcripts from the original copy compiled by Sayyiduna Abu Bakr with the surahsalso arranged in sequence. Of the four, Zayd was from the Ansar while the other three were from Quraysh. Therefore, Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him)said to them:

If you and Zayd differ anywhere in the Quran (that is, differ as to how a certain letter should be written) write it in the language of the Quraysh because the Quran has been revealed in their language.

This task was essentially entrusted to the abovementioned four distinguished persons, but subsequently other Companions also were called upon to assist them so that, according to Ibn Abi Dawud, their number rose to twelve. These included Ubayy ibn Ka‘b, Kathir ibn Aflah, Malik ibn Abi ‘Amir, Sayyiduna Anas ibn Malik and ‘Abdullah ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with them all). This group of Companions performed the following functions in connection with the transcription of Holy Quran:

First, in the transcript prepared during the period of Abu Bakr the surahswere not arranged in sequence. Rather, each surah was compiled separately. This group of Companions proceeded to arrange them in their proper sequence as part of a single transcript.

Second, the verses of the Quran were written to accommodate all the successive un-interrupted recitations in the script. Therefore, no dots or diacritical marks were placed on them so that they could be read in accordance with all the valid recitations. For instance, they wrote ننسرها so that it could be read as both ننشرها (nanshuruha) and ننشزها (nunshizuha) because both the recitations are correct. (Manahil al-‘Irfan 1:253-254)

Third, until that time only one copy of the Holy Quran existed that was complete, authentic, standard, and collectively attested-to by the entire Ummah. They prepared several transcripts of this newly-written copy of the Quran. It is generally believed that Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) had five transcripts prepared, but Abu Hatim al-Sijistani has stated that a total of seven transcripts were prepared. Of those, one was sent to Makkah and one each to Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Basra and Kufah, while one was preserved in Madinah. (Sahih al-Bukhari from Fath al-Bari 9:17)

Fourth, in order for them to accomplish the task cited above, these eminent Companions kept the transcripts that were written during the time of Sayyiduna Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) before them. But, as an added precaution, they adopted the same method of preservation that was employed during the time of Sayyiduna Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him). Consequently, individual transcripts preserved by different Companions were once again brought together and through a collation with these individual manuscripts that the new transcripts were prepared. This time a verse of Surat al-Ahzab, “Among the believers are men…” (33:23) was found separately written only with Khuzaymah ibn Thabit al-Ansari. As we have explained earlier, this does not imply that no one else had the verse memorized.  Sayyiduna Zayd ibn Thabit (may Allah be pleased with him) states:

While compiling the manuscript I did not find the verse of Surat al-Ahzabwhich I had heard from the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). When we searched for it we found it with Khuzaymah ibn Thabit al-Ansari.

As is apparent from the above narration, the verse was well recognized by the Companions, especially Sayyiduna Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him). Additionally, the narration does not imply that the verse was not written anywhere else since it was present in the manuscripts compiled in the era of Sayyiduna Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) and was also included in the individual manuscripts preserved by various Companions.

But as was done in the era of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him), this time also all the scattered documents that had been written by the Companions individually were collected together. Therefore, Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him) and his associates did not transcribe any verse until they found it in those manuscripts as well. As such, other verses were found written separately with several Companions, but this verse from Surat al-Ahzabcould not be obtained as a separate manuscript from anyone except Khuzaymah ibn Thabit.

After having several of these standard transcripts of the Holy Quran prepared, Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) had all the other manuscripts that were individually prepared by Companions burnt so that all transcripts of the Quran could become uniform in terms of script, incorporation of accepted recitations, and the sequence of surahsandleave no room for differences.

The entire Ummahacknowledged this achievement of ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) with great admiration and all the Companions extended their full support for the venture. Only Sayyiduna ‘Abdullah ibn Mas‘ud was somewhat displeased, the reasons for which have been mentioned in the discussion on the “Seven Recitations”. Sayyiduna ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him) once remarked:

Say nothing about ‘Uthman except good. By Allah! Whatever he did in connection with the transcription of the Quran was done in the presence of all of us and with our advice and counsel. (Fath al-Bari 9:15)

Steps Taken to Facilitate Recitation

After the aforementioned achievement of Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him), the Ummahreached a consensus that it is not permissible to write the text of the Holy Quran in any manner other than the one adopted by him. Consequently, from then on all transcripts of the Quran were written in accordance with this ‘Uthmani script, and the Companions and their Successors prepared and circulated copies of the Quran on a vast scale using it.

But the script of these Quranic transcriptions was still free of dots and diacritical marks that made it difficult for non-Arabs to recite them freely. As Islam spread far and wide in non-Arab countries, it was felt that dots and diacritical marks should be included so that people could recite the text easily. Several steps were taken to achieve this purpose, a short history of which is given below.

Inclusion of Dots

It was not customary amongst early Arabs to place dots on letters. Scribes simply wrote words without any markings. Readers were so accustomed to this style that they experienced no difficulty in reading the dot-less writings and could easily distinguish between doubtful letters by reference to the context. In fact, it was often considered to be an insult to include dots in writing. The renowned historian Mada’ini has quoted someone as saying, “To include numerous dots in writing should amount to suspicion about (the comprehension of) the addressee.” ( Subh al-A‘sha by Qalqashandi 3:154)

Hence the transcripts of Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) were devoid of any dots, and apart from prevalent custom, this exclusion’s primary purpose was also to incorporate all the mass-transmitted recitals in the script. Later, however, dots were placed on letters for the convenience of non-Arabs and less educated Muslims.

Reports differ as to who was the first to place dots on the Quranic manuscript. Some reports claim that the feat was first accomplished by Abu ’l-Aswad al-Du’ali (al-Burhan 1:250, al-Itqan 2:171). Some say that he did it on the instructions of Sayyiduna ‘Ali (may Allah be pleased with him). Still others say that the Governor of Kufah, Ziyad bin Abi Sufyan requested him to do so (Subh al-A‘sha 3:155). There are also reports that state that ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan asked him to do it (al-Itqan 2:171). There is yet another report that Hajjaj bin Yusuforder it done with the help of Hasan al-Basri, Yahya bin Ya‘mur, and Nasr ibn ‘Asim al-Laythi (Tafsir al-Qurtubi 1:63)

Some scholars believe that no concept of dots existed before the compilation of the Quranic script. But ‘Allamah Qalqashandi (arguably the most renowned researcher in the art of script and writings) refuted this claim and proved that dots had been invented long beforehand. According to one report, the inventors of the Arabic writing script were Muramar ibn Murrah, Aslam ibn Sidrah, and ‘Amir ibn Jadarah of the tribe of Bulan. Muramar invented the shapes of the letters, Aslam laid down the methods for breaking and combining the words and letters, and ‘Amir founded the dots. (Subh al-A‘sha 3:12) Yet another report claims that credit for the first utilization of dots goes to Abu Sufyan ibn Umayyah, the grandfather of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, who had learnt them from the people of Ambar (Ibid). Thus, dots were invented much earlier than the compilation of the Quranic transcripts but they were kept free of them for various reasons. Whoever placed dots on the Quranic letters was not the inventor of dots. He was simply the first person to use them in the Quranic script.

Diacritical Marks

In the beginning, like dots, the Quran was also free of diacritical marks (fathah, kasrah, and dammah). Historical reports differ as to who was the first to use them. Some claim they were first utilized by Abu ’l-Aswad al-Du’ali. Others give credit to Hajjaj ibn Yusuf who they say had appointed the task to Yahya bin Ya‘mur and Nasr bin ‘Asim al-Laythi (Tafsir al-Qurtubi 1:63). Keeping in view all the reports in this connection, it appears that diacritical marks were first invented by Abu ’l-Aswad al-Du’ali but these diacritical marks were different from how they exist today. Instead of the short vowel “a” (fathah), he would place a dot over the letter. For the short vowel “i” (kasrah) he would place a dot under the letter, and for the short vowel “u” (dammah) he would place a dot in front of the letter. To represent nunnation (tanwin) he would use two dots (Subh al-A‘sha 3:160). Later on, Khalil ibn Ahmad founded signs for the glottal stop (hamzah) and doubling (tashdid) (al-Itqan 2:171, Subh al-A‘sha 3:161). Afterwards, Hajjaj bin Yusuf requested Yahya bin Ya‘mur, Nasr bin ‘Asim al-Laythi, and Hasan al-Basri to place both the dots and diacritical marks on the Quranic letters. On this occasion the present forms of diacritical marks were chosen rather than the use of dots so that they would not be confused with the intrinsic dots of the letters. And Allah knows best.

Ahzab and Manazil

It was customary amongst the Companions and Successors to complete the recital of the entire Quran in one week. For this purpose they had fixed portions for their daily recitation. Each such portion is known as hizb or manzil (stages). In this way, the Quran was divided into seven stages, or manzils, of recitation. Sayyiduna Aws ibn Hudhayfah states that he once asked the Companions as to how the manzils of recital had been divided. They replied that the first hizb consisted of three surahs,the second of five, the third of seven, the fourth of nine, the fifth of eleven, the sixth of thirteen, and the final hizb from Surah Qaf tothe end of the Quran. (al-Burhan 1:250)

Ajza’ or Parts

Today, the Quran is divided into thirty parts, or ajza’ (plural of juz’). This division in parts has no relationship with the meaning of the Quran. Rather, the division into thirty equal parts was meant to serve as a teaching aid for children. We may notice, therefore, that there are places where a juz’ ends with an unfinished statement. It is difficult to say with certainty as to who first introduced this division. Some people believe that during the second transcription of the Quran, ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) had it written into thirty folios and, therefore, the division dates back to his time. I have not been able to find any proof for this theory in the works of earlier scholars, however. Still, ‘Allamah Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi notes that the thirty parts of the Quran have been in popular use for a long time and that they have customarily appeared in Quranic manuscripts used in schools. It would appear that the division was introduced after the era of the Companions in order to facilitate teaching. (al-Burhan 1:250, Manahil al-‘Irfan 1:402)

Akhmas and A‘shar (Sets of Fives and Tens)

Another sign used in Quranic transcriptions during the early centuries was the placing of the sign خ or خمس after every five verses and the sign ع or عشر after every ten versesin the margins of the manuscript. The former category of signs were called akhmas and the latter a‘shar. Holding divergent views, some of the early scholars considered these signs permissible while others held them to be reprehensible. It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty as to who introduced these signs. According to one view, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf was its inventor. Another report claims that the ‘Abbasi Khalifah Ma‘mun first ordered that they be marked (al-Burhan 1:251). Neither of these views seem to be sound, however, since the idea of a‘shar appears to have been present in the days of the Companions as well. Ibn Abi Shaybah narrates in his Musannaf that Masruq said that ‘Abdullah ibn Mas‘ud considered the placing of a‘shar signs in the Quranic script to be detestable. (Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah 2:497)

Ruku‘ or Section

Another sign that came into use later on and is still prevalent today is the sign of the ruku‘. It is identified by the sign ع which is placed in the margin at the conclusion of a verse. Despite all my efforts, I have not been able to locate anything authentic to help identify the originator of the ruku‘ nor what period it was invented in. Some people believe that the ruku‘s were fixed during the era of Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him), yet no authentic proof to this claim can be found in the traditions.

It can be said for certain, however, that the purpose of the ruku‘ is to determine the average number of verses which should be recited in one unit (rak‘ah) of salat. This is why it is termed a ruku‘ (lit. to bow), since it indicates the time that one should bow from the standing position during salat. In al-Fatawa al-Hindiyyah (1:94) it is mentioned:

The scholars have divided the Quran into 540 ruku‘ (sections) and placed its signs on manuscripts so that the Quran can be completed on the 27th night of Ramadan in the tarawih prayer.

Rumuz al-Awqaf or Stop Signs

Another useful step taken to facilitate recitation and phonetically correct pronunciation (tilawah and tajwid) was to provide verses with signs to indicate pauses. These signs are known as the rumuz (signs) or ‘alamat (symbols) of awqaf (stops). Their purpose is to help a person who does not know Arabic to stop at the correct spot during recitation and thus avoid incorrectly changing the meaning of the verse. Most of these signs were first invented by ‘Allamah Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Tayfur al-Sajawandi (al-Nashr fi ’l-Qira’at al-‘Ashr 1:225). The details of these signs are as follows:

ط : An abbreviation of the word waqf mutlaq (universal stop). It implies that the statement stands completed at this point. Therefore, it is better to stop here.

ج : An abbreviation of the word waqf ja’iz (permissible stop) and it implies that it is permissible to stop here.

ز : An abbreviation of waqf mujawwaz (permitted stop), which implies that stopping here is permissible but that it is better not to.

ص : An abbreviation of waqf murakhkhas (dispensation stop), which implies that the statement has not yet been completed but that, because the sentence has become long, this is the place to breathe and stop rather than elsewhere. (al-Minh al-Fikriyyah 63)

م: An abbreviation of waqf lazim (mandatory stop), which means that if a stop is not made an outrageous distortion in the meaning of the verse is possible. Some phoneticians of the Quran have also called this type of stop a waqf wajib (obligatory stop). Note that wajib here is not a legal term and therefore does not entail sin if it is abandoned. The purpose of the term is to stress that stopping here is the most preferable of all stops. (al-Nashr 1:231)

لا: An abbreviation of la taqif (lit. do not stop). It indicates that one should not stop at this sign but does not imply that stopping is completely impermissible, since there are certain places bearing this sign where stopping entails no harm and resuming from the following word is also permissible. Therefore, the correct meaning of this sign is: “If a stop is made here, it is better to go back and read over again. Initiation from the next word is not preferred. (al-Nashr 1:233)

As far as the origin of these signs is concerned, it stands proven beyond doubt that they were invented by ‘Allamah Sajawandi. In addition to these, however, there are also other signs that appear in Quranic manuscripts. For instance:

مع: An abbreviation of the word mu‘anaqah. This symbol is inserted at a place where a single verse has two possible explanations. According to one explanation, the stop will be made at one given place while according to another explanation the stop will be made at another place. Therefore, a stop can be made at either one of the two places, but once a stop has been made at one place it is not correct to stop at the other. However, if a stop is not made at both places it will be correct. This is also known as muqabalah. It was first pointed out by Imam Abu ’l-Fadl al-Razi. (al-Nashr, 1:237, al-Itqan 1:88)

سكتة : This is a symbol for saktah (pause), which means that one should stop here by breaking the sound but not the breath. This is generally inserted at a place where assimilated reading is likely to cause an erroneous projection of meaning.

وقفة : At this sign, called a waqfah, one must stop a little longer than at a saktah (pause) but ones breath should not break here as well.

ق : An abbreviation of qīla ‘alayhi ’l-waqf. It means that some phoneticians of the Quran identify a stop here while others do not.

قف : This symbol is the word qif which means “stop” (the imperative word-form) and is inserted where the reader may possibly think that a stop was not correct.

صلى : This is an abbreviation of al-waslu awla, which means that “it is better to recite here in assimilated continuity”.

صل  : This is an abbreviation of qad yusalu which means that “some stop here” while others like to recite on in assimilated continuity.

وقف النبي : This is marked at places where a hadith proves that the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) stopped here while reciting.

Printing the Holy Quran

Before the advent of the printing press, all copies of the Quran were transcribed by hand. For this purpose, in every age there has been a large group of calligraphers whose sole purpose in life was to transcribe the Quran. The amount of hard work exerted by Muslims in writing the words of the Quran in ever better styles and the way they demonstrated their intense emotional involvement with the Great Book has a long and interesting history of its own which requires a separate work.

Upon the invention of the printing press, the Quran was first printed at Hamburg in 1113 AH, a copy of which is still present in Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyyah. Later, several orientalists arranged for the publication of copies of the Quran but they were not received with much approval from the Muslim world. Mawlay ‘Uthman was the first Muslim to have a manuscript of the Quran printed in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1787 AD. Similarly, another manuscript was printed in Qazan. In 1828 AD, the Quran was printed by lithography on stone slabs in the Iranian city of Tehran. Afterwards, printed copies of the Quran became common throughout the world. (Tarikh al-Quran by Kurdi 186, ‘Ulum al-Quran by Dr. Subhi Salih with Urdu translation by Ghulam Ahmad Hariri 142)

This essay was translated by both Dr. Swaleh Siddiqui & Dr. Muhammad Shamim as parts of Mufti Taqi Usmani’s An Approach to the Quranic Sciences and Mufti Shafi‘ Usmani’s Ma‘ariful Qur’an. The two translations were significantly edited and then reproduced as a separate article by Bilal Ali.


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