Sir William Muir on the Uncorrupted Qur'an

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is taken from Sir William Muir on the ‘Uncorrupted’ Qur'an.  This is in turn extracted from his book, The Life of Mahomet.

We select a passage by Sir William Muir from his book, The Life of Mahomet, in the hope that those who claim that the Qur’an has been forged or altered will realise wherein they have erred, to the detriment of both the truth and their own scholarship.  It should be remembered that our author, Muir, is a Christian, as well as a missionary who never missed the occasion to criticise the Prophet of Islam (s.a.w.) or its scripture.  When he came to speak of the Qur’an and the veracity and precision of its text, he wrote:

The Power of the Arab Memory:

“The Divine Revelation was the cornerstone of Islam.  The recital of a passage from it formed an essential part of daily prayer public and private; and its perusal and repetition were enforced as a duty and a privilege fraught with religious merit.  This is the universal voice of early tradition, and may be gathered also from the revelation itself.  The Qur’an was accordingly committed to memory more or less by every adherent of Islam, and the extent to which it could be recited was one of the chief distinctions of nobility in the early Muslim empire.  The custom of Arabia favoured the task.

Passionately fond of poetry, yet possessed of but limited means and skill in committing to writing the effusions of their bards, the Arabs had long been habituated to imprint these, as well as the tradition of genealogical and other tribal events, on the living tablets of their hearts.  The recollective faculty was thus cultivated to the highest pitch; and it was applied, with all the ardour of an awakened spirit, to the Qur’an.  Such was the tenacity of their memory, and so great their power of application, that several of Muhammad’s followers, according to early tradition, could, during his life-time, repeat with scrupulous accuracy the entire revelation.”

Was the Qur’an Written during the Life of Muhammad (s.a.w.)?

“However retentive the Arab memory, we should still have regarded with distrust a transcript made entirely from that source.  But there is good reason for believing that many fragmentary copies, embracing amongst them the whole Qur’an, or nearly the whole, were made by Muhammad’s followers during his life.  Writing was without doubt generally known at Makkah long before Muhammad assumed the prophetical office.  Many of his followers are expressly mentioned as employed by the Prophet at Madina in writing his letters or dispatches…  Some of the poorer Makkan captives taken at Badr were offered their release on condition that they would teach a certain number of the ignorant citizens of Madina to write.  And although the people of Madina were not so generally educated as those of Makkah, yet many are distinctly noticed as having been able to write before Islam.  The ability thus existing, it may be safely inferred that the verses which were so indefatigably committed to memory, would be likewise committed carefully to writing.

We also know that when a tribe first joined Islam, Muhammad was in the habit of deputing one or more of his followers to teach them the Qur’an and the requirements of the faith.  We are frequently informed that they carried written instructions with them on the latter point, and they would naturally provide themselves also with transcripts of the more important parts of the Revelation, especially those upon which the ceremonies of Islam were founded, and such as were usually recited at the public prayers.

Besides the reference in the Qur’an to its own existence in a written form, we have express mention made in the authentic traditions of ‘Umar’s conversion, of a copy of the 20th Surah being used by his sister’s family for social and private devotional reading.  This refers to a period preceding, by three or four years, the emigration to Madina.  If transcripts of the Revelations were made, and in common use, at that early time when the followers of Islam were few and oppressed, it is certain that they must have multiplied exceedingly when the Prophet came to power, and his Book formed the law of the greater part of Arabia.

Such was the condition of the text of the Qur’an during Muhammad’s life-time, and such it remained for about a year after his death, imprinted upon the hearts of his people, and fragmentary transcripts increasing daily.  The two sources would correspond closely with each other; for the Qur’an, even while the Prophet was yet alive, was regarded with a superstitious awe as containing the very Words of God; so that any variations would be reconciled by a direct reference to Muhammad himself, and after his death to the originals where they existed, or copies from the same, and to the memory of the Prophet’s confidential friends and amanuenses.”

Why & When was the Qur’an put into Book Form?

“It was not until the overthrow of Musaylimah, when a great carnage took place amongst the Moslems at Yamamah, and large numbers of the best reciters of the Qur’an were slain, that a misgiving arose in ‘Umar’s mind as to the uncertainty which would be experienced regarding the text, when all those who had received it from the original source, and thence stored it in their memories, should have passed away.  `I fear,’ said he, addressing the Caliph Abu Bakr, `that slaughter may again wax hot amongst the reciters of the Qur’an, in other fields of battle; and that much may be lost therefrom.  Now, therefore, my advice is, that thou shouldest give speedy orders for the collection of the Qur’an.‘

Abu Bakr agreed, and thus made known his wishes to Zayd ibn Tsabit, a citizen of Madina, and the Prophet’s chief amanuensis: ‘Thou art a young man, and wise; against whom no one amongst us can cast an imputation; and thou wert wont to write down the inspired Revelations of the Prophet of the Lord.  Wherefore now search out the Qur’an, and bring it together.‘  So new and unexpected was the enterprise that Zayd at first shrank from it, and doubted the propriety, or even lawfulness, of attempting that which Muhammad had neither himself done nor commanded to be done.  At last he yielded to the joint entreaties of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, and seeking out the fragments of the Qur’an from every quarter, ‘gathered it together, from date leaves, and tablets of white stone, and from the breasts of men.‘  By the labours of Zayd, these scattered and confused materials were reduced to the order and sequence in which we now find them, and in which it is said that Zayd used to repeat the Qur’an in the presence of Muhammad.

The original copy prepared by Zayd was probably kept by Abu Bakr during the short remainder of his reign.  It then came into the possession of ‘Umar who committed it to the custody of his daughter Hafswa, the Prophet’s widow.  The compilation of Zayd, as embodied in this exemplar, continued during ‘Umar’s ten years’ Caliphate to be the standard and authoritative text.”

Why Did Utsman (r.a.) Burn Non-State Authorised Copies of the Qur’an?

“But variety of expression either prevailed in the previous transcripts and modes of recitation, or soon crept into the copies which were made from Zayd’s edition.  Muslims were scandalised.  The Qur’an Sent down from heaven was one, but where was now its unity?  Hudzayfah, who had warred both in Armenia and Azerbaijan and had observed the different readings of the Syrians and of the men of Iraq, alarmed at the number and extent of the variations, warned ‘Utsman to interpose, and ‘stop the people, before they should differ regarding their Scripture, as did the Jews and Christians.‘

The Caliph was persuaded, and to remedy the evil had recourse again to Zayd, with whom he associated a syndicate of three Quraysh.  The original copy of the first edition was obtained from Hafswa’s depository, the various readings were sought out from the different provinces, and a careful recension of the whole set on foot.  In case of difference between Zayd and his coadjutors, the voice of the latter, as conclusive of the Qurayshite idiom, was to preponderate; and the new collation was thus assimilated exclusively to the Makkan dialect, in which the Prophet had given utterance to his inspiration.  Transcripts were multiplied and forwarded to the chief cities in the empire, and the previously existing copies were all, by the Caliph’s command, committed to the flames.  The old original was returned to Hafswa’s custody.”

Was ‘Utsman’s (r.a.) Text Faithful to Abu Bakr’s (r.a.) Version?

“The recension of ‘Utsman had been handed down to us unaltered.  So carefully, indeed, has it been preserved, that there are no variations of importance-we might almost say no variations at all-among the innumerable copies of the Qur’an scattered throughout the vast bounds of the empire of Islam.  Contending and embittered factions, taking their rise in the murder of ‘Utsman himself within a quarter of a century from the death of Muhammad, have ever since rent the Muslim world.  Yet but one Qur’an has been current amongst them; and the consentaneous use by them all in every age up to the present day of the same Scripture, is an irrefragable proof that we have now before us the very text prepared by command of the unfortunate Caliph.  There is probably in the world no other work which has remained twelve centuries with so pure a text.  The various readings are wonderfully few in number, and are chiefly confined to differences in the vowel points and diacritical signs.  But these marks were invented at a later date.  They did not exist at all in the early copies, and can hardly be said to affect the text of ‘Utsman.

Since, then, we possess the undoubted text of ‘Utsman’s recension, it remains to be inquired whether that text was an honest reproduction of Abu Bakr’s edition, with the simple reconcilement of unimportant variations.  There is the fullest ground for believing that it was so.  No early or trustworthy traditions throw suspicion upon ‘Utsman of tampering with the Qur’an in order to support his own claims.  The Shi’ite of later times, indeed, pretend that ‘Utsman left out certain surah or passages which favoured ‘Ali.  But this is incredible.

When ‘Utsman’s edition was prepared, no open breach had taken place between the Umayyads and the Shi'ite.  The unity of Islam was still complete and unthreatened.  ‘Ali’s pretensions were as yet undeveloped.  No sufficient object can, therefore, be assigned for the perpetration by ‘Utsman of an offence which Muslims regard as one of the blackest dye.  At the time of the recension, there were still multitudes alive who had the Qur’an, as originally delivered, by heart; and of the supposed passages favouring ‘Ali -had any ever existed -there would have been numerous transcripts in the hands of his family and followers.  Both of these sources must have proved an effectual check upon any attempt at suppression.

Fourth: The party of ‘Ali shortly after assumed an independent attitude, and he himself succeeded to the Caliphate.  Is it conceivable that either ‘Ali, or his party, when thus arrived at power, would have tolerated a mutilated Qur’an -mutilated expressly to destroy his claims?  Yet we find that they used the same Qur’an as their opponents, and raised no shadow of an objection against it.  The insurgents are indeed said to have made it one of their complaints against ‘Utsman that he had caused a new edition to be made, and had committed the old copies of the sacred volume to the flames; but these proceedings were objected to simply as unauthorised and sacrilegious.  No hint was dropped of alteration or omission.  Such a supposition, palpably absurd at the time, is altogether an after-thought of the modern Shi’ite.”

Was Abu Bakr’s (r.a.) Recesions of the Qur’an a Faithful Representation of Muhammad’s (s.a.w.)?

“We may then safely conclude that ‘Utsman’s recension was, what it professed to be, namely, the reproduction of Abu Bakr’s edition, with a more perfect conformity to the dialect of Makkah, and possibly a more uniform arrangement of the component parts-but still a faithful reproduction.  The most important question yet remains: Whether Abu Bakr’s edition was itself an authentic and complete collection of Muhammad’s Revelations.  The following considerations warrant the belief that it was authentic and in the main as complete as at the time was possible:

First: We have no reason to doubt that Abu Bakr was a sincere follower of Muhammad, and an earnest believer in the Divine Origin of the Qur’an.  His faithful attachment to the Prophet’s person, conspicuous for the last twenty years of his life, and his simple, consistent, and unambitious deportment as caliph, admit no other supposition.  Firmly believing the Revelations of his friend to be the Revelations of God Himself, his first object would be to secure a pure and complete transcript of them.  A similar argument applies with almost equal force to ‘Umar and the other agents in the revision.  The great mass of Muslims were undoubtedly sincere in their belief.  From the scribes themselves, employed in the compilation, down to the humblest believer who brought his little store of writing on stones or palm-leaves, all would be influenced by the same earnest desire to reproduce the very words which their Prophet had declared as his message from the Lord.

And a similar guarantee existed in the feelings of the people at large, in whose soul no principle was more deeply rooted than an awful reverence for the supposed Word of God.  The Qur’an itself contains frequent denunciations against those who should presume to `fabricate anything in the name of the Lord,’ or conceal any part of that which He had Revealed.  Such an action, represented as the very worst description of crime, we cannot believe that the first Muslims, in the early ardour of their faith and love, would have dared to contemplate.

Second: The compilation was made within two years of Muhammad’s death.  We have seen that several of his followers had the entire revelation memorised by heart; that every Muslim treasured up more or less some portions in his memory; and that there were official reciters of it, for public worship and tuition, in all countries to which Islam extended.  These formed a living link between the Revelation fresh from Muhammad’s lips, and the edition of it by Zayd.  Thus the people were not only sincere and fervent in wishing for a faithful copy of the Qur’an : they were also in possession of ample means for realising their desire, and for testing the accuracy and completeness of the volume placed in their hands by Abu Bakr.

Third: A still greater security would be obtained from the fragmentary transcripts which existed in Muhammad’s life-time, and which must have greatly multiplied before the Qur’an was compiled.  These were in the possession, probably, of all who could read.  And as we know that the compilation of Abu Bakr came into immediate and unquestioned use, it is reasonable to conclude that it embraced and corresponded with every extant fragment; and therefore, by common consent, superseded them.  We hear of no fragments, sentences, or word intentionally omitted by the compilers, nor of any that differed from the received edition.  Had any such been discoverable, they would undoubtedly have been preserved and noticed in those traditional repositories which treasured up the minutest and most trivial acts and sayings of the Prophet.

Fourth: The contents and the arrangement of the Qur’an speak forcibly for its authenticity.  All the fragments that could be obtained have, with artless simplicity, been joined together.  The patchwork bears no marks of a designing genius or moulding hand.  It testifies to the faith and reverence of the compilers, and proves that they dared no more than simply collect the sacred fragments and place them in juxtaposition.

The conclusion, which we may now with confidence draw, is that the editions of Abu Bakr and of ‘Utsman were not only faithful, but, so far as the materials went, complete, we may upon the strongest presumption affirm that every verse in the Qur’an is the genuine and unaltered composition of Muhammad himself.”


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