THE DIFFERENT ARABIC VERSIONS OF THE QUR'AN
(Formerly entitled, "The Seven Readings of the Qur'an")

By Samuel Green

Most of the Muslims I have spoken to boast about the Qur'an. One of the common boasts that I have been told is that all the Qur'ans in the world are identical, and that it is perfectly preserved and free from any variation. This idea about the Qur'an is often said as a way of attacking the Bible and trying to show that the Qur'an is superior to the Bible. Consider the following quote from a Muslim publication widely used in Australia.

No other book in the world can match the Qur'an ... The astonishing fact about this book of ALLAH is that it has remained unchanged, even to a dot, over the last fourteen hundred years. ... No variation of text can be found in it. You can check this for yourself by listening to the recitation of Muslims from different parts of the world. (Basic Principles of Islam, Abu Dhabi, UAE: The Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahayan Charitable & Humanitarian Foundation, 1996, p. 4, bold added)

The above claim is that all Qur'ans around the world are identical and that "no variation of text can be found". In fact the author issues a challenge saying, "You can check this for yourself by listening to the recitation of Muslims from different parts of the world". In this short article we take up this challenge to see if all Qur'ans are in fact identical.

As God wills our investigation will be in three parts:

  1. We will briefly examine some history related to the recitation of the Qur'an.
  2. Then we will compare two Arabic Qur'ans from different parts of the world.
  3. Finally, we will look at a Qur'an that has variant readings listed in its margin.

To start off our investigation let us begin by reading the introduction to a translation of the Qur'an. N.J. Dawood is an Arabic scholar who has translated the Qur'an, he writes:

... owing to the fact that the kufic script in which the Koran was originally written contained no indication of vowels or diacritical points, variant readings are recognized by Muslims as of equal authority. (N.J. Dawood, The Koran, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983, p. 10, bold added)

According to this Arabic scholar there are variant readings of the Qur'an. But what is the nature of these variant readings? To begin to answer this question we need to realise that the Qur'an has been passed down to us from men called "The Readers". They were famous reciters of the Qur'an in the early centuries of Islam. The way in which the Qur'an was recited by each of these Readers was formerly recorded in textual form by other men called "Transmitters". The text made by a Transmitter is called a "transmission" of the Qur'an. Thus a transmission is the Qur'an according to a particular authoritative Reader. Any modern Qur'an will be written according to one of these transmissions. You cannot read the Arabic Qur'an except according to one of these transmissions. Each of these transmissions has its own chain of narrators (isnad) like a hadith. It is of interest to our investigation to note that different transmissions are currently used around the world today.

The following quote is from a Muslim scholar and explains in a little more detail what I have said above:

(C)ertain variant readings existed and, indeed, persisted and increased as the Companions who had memorised the text died, and because the inchoate (basic) Arabic script, lacking vowel signs and even necessary diacriticals to distinguish between certain consonants, was inadequate. ... In the 4th Islamic century, it was decided to have recourse (to return) to "readings" (qira'at) handed down from seven authoritative "readers" (qurra'); in order, moreover, to ensure accuracy of transmission, two "transmitters" (rawi, pl. ruwah) were accorded to each. There resulted from this seven basic texts (al-qira'at as-sab', "the seven readings"), each having two transmitted versions (riwayatan) with only minor variations in phrasing, but all containing meticulous vowel-points and other necessary diacritical marks. ... The authoritative "readers" are:

Nafi` (from Medina; d. 169/785)
Ibn Kathir (from Mecca; d. 119/737)
Abu `Amr al-`Ala' (from Damascus; d. 153/770)
Ibn `Amir (from Basra; d. 118/736)
Hamzah (from Kufah; d. 156/772)
al-Qisa'i [sic] (from Kufah; d. 189/804)
Abu Bakr `Asim (from Kufah; d. 158/778)

(Cyril Glassť, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989, p. 324, bold added)

There are in fact many more Readers and Transmitters than those listed above. The table below lists the commonly accepted Readers and their transmitted versions and their current area of use.

The Reader The Transmitter Current Area of Use
"The Seven"
Nafi` The Qur'an according 
to the Warsh transmissionWarsh Algeria, Morocco, parts of Tunisia, West Africa and Sudan
The Qur'an according 
to the Qalun transmissionQalun Libya, Tunisia and parts of Qatar
Ibn Kathir al-Bazzi
Qunbul
Abu `Amr al-'Ala' The Qur'an according 
to the al-Duri transmissional-Duri Parts of Sudan and West Africa
al-Suri
Ibn `Amir Hisham Parts of Yemen
Ibn Dhakwan
Hamzah Khalaf
Khallad
al-Kisa'i al-Duri
Abu'l-Harith
Abu Bakr `Asim The Qur'an according 
to the Hafs transmissionHafs Muslim world in general
Ibn `Ayyash
"The Three"
Abu Ja`far Ibn Wardan
Ibn Jamaz
Ya`qub al-Hashimi Ruways
Rawh
Khalaf al-Bazzar Ishaq
Idris al-Haddad
There are even more Readers than these but these are considered the most authoritative. The information regarding the current area of use comes from Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi, An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'aan, United Kingdom: Al-Hidaayah, 1999, p. 199.

What the above means is that the Qur'an has come to us through many transmitted versions. Not all of these versions are printed or used today but several are.

All these facts can be a bit confusing when you first read about it. If you are feeling that way don't worry; it's normal. To make things simple we will now look at two Qur'ans from different parts of the world which are printed according to two different transmissions. We will compare two Qur'ans to see whether or not they are identical as the Muslim quote referred to at the beginning of this article claimed. The Qur'an on the left is the most commonly used Qur'an and is according to the Hafs' transmission. The Qur'an on the right is according to the Warsh' transmission and is mainly used in North Africa.

The Qur'an according 
to the Hafs transmission

When you compare these Qur'ans it becomes obvious that they are not identical. There are three main types of differences between them.

  1. Graphical/Basic letter differences
  2. Diacritical differences
  3. Vowel differences
The Qur'an according 
to the Warsh transmission

Let us now look at examples of these differences. The following examples are from the same word in the same verse, however, you will notice that on some occasions the verse number differs between the two Qur'ans. This is because the two Qur'ans number their verses differently. Thus surah 2:132 in the Hafs Qur'an is the same verse as surah 2:131 in the Warsh Qur'an.

GRAPHICAL/BASIC LETTER DIFFERENCES - There are differences between the basic printed letters of these two Qur'ans. It was these letters that Uthman standardized in his recension of the Qur'an [1].

THE QUR'AN ACCORDING TO THE TRANSMISSION OF IMAM HAFS THE QUR'AN ACCORDING TO THE TRANSMISSION OF IMAM WARSH

surah 2:132 (wawassaa)

surah 2:131 (wa'awsaa)

surah 91:15 (wa laa yakhaafu)

surah 91:15 (fa laa yakhaafu)

surah 2:132 (himu)

surah 2:131 (hiimu)

surah 3:133 (wasaari'uu)

surah 3:133 (saari'uu)

surah 5:54 (yartadda)

surah 5:56 (yartadid)

The above examples show that there are differences between the basic letters of these two Qur'ans.

DIACRITICAL DIFFERENCES - Arabic uses dots to distinguish between certain letters that are written the same way. For instance the basic symbol represents five different letters in the Arabic language depending upon where the diacritical dots are placed. For the above example, the five letters with their diacritical dots are as follows: baa', taa', thaa', nuun, yaa'. However these dots were a later development of the Arabic script and were not in use when Uthman standardized the text of the Qur'an. Thus the Uthman' Qur'an did not have any dots to record the exact letter and pronunciation. The text could be read in several ways and was in this way ambiguous in places. It served as a guide for the different Readers of the Qur'an, but not as a complete guide because the diacritical dots were not yet in use. The two Qur'ans that we are examining come from two different Readers and so have two different oral traditions. These traditions have their own unique system of where the dots (and vowels) should go. Here we see another difference between these two Qur'ans for they do not have the dots in the same place. We see that for the same word these two Qur'ans have the dots in different positions thus making different letters. (Remember that verse/aya numbering differs between these two Qur'ans.)

THE QUR'AN ACCORDING TO THE TRANSMISSION OF IMAM HAFS THE QUR'AN ACCORDING TO THE TRANSMISSION OF IMAM WARSH

surah 2:140 (taquluna)

surah 2:139 (yaquluna)

surah 3:81 (ataytukum)

surah 3:80 (ataynakum)

surah 2:259 (nunshizuhaa)

surah 2:258 (nunshiruhaa)

From the above examples we can see that there are many dots that are different between these two Qur'ans. The oral traditions are not the same.

VOWEL DIFFERENCES - In the Arabic script of the modern Qur'an the vowels are indicated by small symbols above or below the basic printed letters. Like the diacritical dots, these vowel symbols were a later development in the Arabic script and were not in use when Uthman standardized the text of the Qur'an. Thus the vowels too were not written in the Uthman' Qu'ran. With the vowels we see another difference between these two Qur'ans, for on many occasions they do not have the same vowels used for the same word. Consider the following examples of how the vowels differ between these two Qur'ans.

THE QUR'AN ACCORDING TO THE TRANSMISSION OF IMAM HAFS THE QUR'AN ACCORDING TO THE TRANSMISSION OF IMAM WARSH

surah 2:214 (yaquula)

surah 2:212 (yaquulu)

surah 2:10 (yakdhibuuna)

surah 2:9 (yukadhdhibuuna)

surah 2:184 (ta'aamu miskiinin)

surah 2:183 (ta'aami masakiina)

surah 28:48 (sihraani)

surah 28:48 (saahiraani)

Some Muslims claim that the differences between the diacritical dots and the vowels are not the result of the ambiguity of the Uthman' text but that the "accepted variants" are all part of the revelation of the Qur'an. Thus there is not one way to recite the Qur'an but many ways - many different oral traditions. Other Muslims though disagree with this; they say there is only one way to recite the Qur'an and that the variants come from The Readers [2]. Regardless of the answer to this question the fact remains that there are real differences between these two Qur'ans and that is what we are considering in this article. There are differences in the basic letters, diacritical dots, and vowels. These differences are small, but they do have some effect on the meaning.

The following is a summary from a scholar who has done a more comprehensive study of this than I have. Again he is only comparing two of the many transmissions:

Lists of the differences between the two transmissions are long, ... (however) The simple fact is that none of the differences, whether vocal (vowel and diacritical points) or graphic (basic letter), between the transmission of Hafs and the transmission of Warsh has any great effect on the meaning. Many are differences which do not change the meaning at all, and the rest are differences with an effect on meaning in the immediate context of the text itself, but without any significant wider influence on Muslim thought. One difference (Q. 2/184) has an effect on the meaning that might conceivably be argued to have wider ramifications. (Adrian Brockett, `The Value of the Hafs and Warsh transmissions for the Textual History of the Qur'an', Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'an, ed. Andrew Rippin; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, pp. 34 and 37, bold added)

Our investigation so far has only considered two transmissions of the Qur'an but as we saw at the beginning of this article there are many more transmissions that could also be examined for variants. The book below has done just that. It is a collection of variant readings from The Ten Accepted Readers.

Translation

Making Easy the Readings of What Has Been Sent Down

Author
Muhammad Fahd Khaaruun
The Collector of the 10 Readings
From al-Shaatebeiah and al-Dorraah and al-Taiabah

Revised by
Muhammad Kareem Ragheh
The Chief Reader of Damascus

Daar Beirut

In this edition of the Qur'an Muhammad Fahd Khaaruun has collected variant readings from among The Ten Accepted Readers and included them in the margin of the Qur'an (Hafs' transmission). These are not all the known variants. There are other variants that could have also been included but the author has limited himself to the variants of The 10 Accepted Readers. As the title of his book suggests this makes it easy to know what the variant readings are because they are clearly listed with the text of the Qur'an.

Below is a copy of a random page from this Qur'an. You can see the variant readings listed in the margin. About two thirds of the ayat (verses) of the Qur'an have some type of variant.

I am often told by Muslims that the differences between the different Qur'ans are only a matter of pronunciation. However this is not the case. Subhii al-Saalih is an Islamic scholar in this area. He summarizes the differences into seven categories [3].

  1. Differences in grammatical indicator (i`raab).
  2. Differences in consonants.
  3. Differences in nouns as to whether they are singular, dual, plural, masculine or feminine. Differences in which there is a substitution of one word for another.
  4. Differences due to reversal of word order in expressions where the reversal is meaningful in the Arabic language in general or in the structure of the expression in particular.
  5. Differences due to some small addition or deletion in accordance with the custom of the Arabs.
  6. Differences due to dialectical peculiarities.

What is clear from this list is that the differences are more than just differences in pronunciation.

CONCLUSION. We began this article by considering the following quote from a Muslim organisation about the Qur'an:

No other book in the world can match the Qur'an ... The astonishing fact about this book of ALLAH is that it has remained unchanged, even to a dot, over the last fourteen hundred years. ... No variation of text can be found in it. You can check this for yourself by listening to the recitation of Muslims from different parts of the world. (Basic Principles of Islam, Abu Dhabi, UAE: The Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahayan Charitable & Humanitarian Foundation, 1996, p. 4, bold added)

I have checked this claim for myself by obtaining Qur'ans from different parts of the world and comparing them to see if they are absolutely identical. What my research has revealed is that the above claim about the Qur'an is wrong. The Qur'ans of the world are not absolutely identical. There are small differences in the basic letters, diacritical dots, and vowels. In fact there are Qur'ans which list these variants in their margin. This means that how the Qur'an is recited in different parts of the world is also not absolutely identical. Since the Qur'an has variation within its text and oral tradition it is not superior to the Bible. Please do not make or believe such exaggerated claims about the Qur'an.


Endnotes:
[1] How and Why Uthman Standardized the Qur'an.
[2] The Origin of the Different Readings of the Qur'an.
[3] Subhii al-Saalih, Muhaahith fii `Ulum al-Qur'aan, Beirut: Daar al-`Ilm li al-Malaayiin, 1967, pp. 109ff.


Related Reading:
Qur'anic textual criticism - A comparison between the Samarqand MSS and the modern version of the Qur'an.
Grammatical errors in the Hafs transmission of the Qur'an.


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