Qur’an 101: the Uthmanic Revision

   Sometimes just having a small number of specific vocabularly terms mastered will help you feel more at home in a conversation or discussion. This is especially the case when it comes to Islam. For regular readers of this blog, you have undoubtedly heard me make reference to the “Uthmanic Revision.” It is best to give you the direct statement from “official” Muslim sources. Here is the relevant material from the Hadith literature as recorded in Sahih Al-Bukhari, 6.507, 509-510:

   (The Caliph ‘Uthman ordered Zaid bin Thabit, Said bin Al-As, ‘Abdullah bin Az-Zubair and ‘Abdur-Rahman bin Al-Harith bin Hisham to write the Qur’an in the form of a book (Mushafs) and said to them, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit (Al-Ansari) regarding any dialectic Arabic utterance of the Quran, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, for the Qur’an was revealed in this dialect.” So they did it.
   Abu Bakr As-Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed (i.e., a number of the Prophet’s Companions who fought against Musailama). (I went to him) and found ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab sitting with him. Abu Bakr then said (to me), “Umar has come to me and said: ‘Casualties were heavy among the Qurra’ of the Qur’an (i.e. those who knew the Quran by heart) on the day of the Battle of Yalmama, and I am afraid that more heavy casualties may take place among the Qurra’ on other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur’an may be lost. Therefore I suggest, you (Abu Bakr) order that the Qur’an be collected.” I said to ‘Umar, “How can you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do?” ‘Umar said, “By Allah, that is a good project.” ‘Umar kept on urging me to accept his proposal till Allah opened my chest for it and I began to realize the good in the idea which ‘Umar had realized.” Then Abu Bakr said (to me). ‘You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Apostle. So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’an and collect it in one book).” By Allah If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur’an. Then I said to Abu Bakr, “How will you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do?” Abu Bakr replied, “By Allah, it is a good project.” Abu Bakr kept on urging me to accept his idea until Allah opened my chest for what He had opened the chests of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. So I started looking for the Qur’an and collecting it from (what was written on) palmed stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last Verse of Surat At-Tauba (Repentance) with Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him. The Verse is:
   “Verily there has come unto you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty…(till the end of Surat-Baraa’ (At-Tauba). (9.128-129) Then the complete manuscripts (copy) of the Qur’an remained with Abu Bakr till he died, then with ‘Umar till the end of his life, and then with Hafsa, the daughter of ‘Umar.
   Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to ‘Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So ‘Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to ‘Uthman. ‘Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, ‘Abdullah bin AzZubair, Said bin Al-As and ‘Abdur-Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. ‘Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had
written many copies, ‘Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. ‘Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. Said bin Thabit added, “A Verse from Surat Ahzab was missed by me when we copied the Qur’an and I used to hear Allah’s Apostle reciting it. So we searched for it and found it with Khuzaima bin Thabit Al-Ansari. (That Verse was): ‘Among the Believers are men who have been true in their covenant with Allah.’ ” (33.23)


   Here we have the traditional Islamic statement of the Uthmanic Revision, that point in time where Uthman, prompted, according to this form of the tradition, by others, and by the death of a number of the Qurra (those who knew the Quran by heart), gathered up the Qur’an from various sources and compiled an “authoritative” version. Note that part of the concern was so that the Muslims would not argue over the text of the Qur’an “as Jews and the Christians did before.” This is vitally important (I have often made reference to the same concept in KJV Onlyism: exchanging truth for certainty, an issue I will address in the upcoming series on textual criticism). But note especially the destruction by fire of “all other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies.” Given the reference to differing recitations based, clearly, upon different readings in the collections that had already come into existence, we have here evidence of textual variation in the pre-Uthmanic Qur’anic manuscripts. Uthman’s action, then, destroys the very means that could have been used to arrive at a far clearer picture of the original compilation and reading of the Qur’an.
   However, in 1972, fragments of what may well be a pre-Uthmanic compilation of the Qur’an were found in Sana’a, Yemen. The picture above comes from the same manuscript find, specifically, from what is today Surah 5, with part of ayah 60, 61, and part of 62.
   So when you hear someone speaking of the “Uthmanic Revision,” this is what they are referring to. Of course, there is much discussion concerning just how accurate this tradition itself is, and what truly prompted Uthman’s actions, etc. But even from the most conservative Islamic perspective, there is clear evidence of pre-Uthmanic textual variation in the text of the Qur’an.